The Pittsburgh Pirates (6-6) drop anchor on the banks of the Ohio River today for a three-game series against the Reds (4-8).
Surely the hometown boys have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to begin repaying the Pirates for the way last year ended. The Choo Season offered Reds’ fans ample reason to hope for pennants and other nice things in 2013. But that heady optimism was deep-sixed in the extremely inhospitable October waters of PNC Park, as the Reds suffered a humiliating defeat in the National League wild card play-in game. Let’s not forget that the Pirates also won 11 of 19 regular season matches against the Reds, including a three-game sweep in Cincinnati on the season’s final weekend. Pittsburgh outscored the Reds 22-8 over the final four games.
Redleg Nation doesn’t need to be reminded that Pittsburgh enjoyed a breakthrough in 2013, snapping a 20-year streak of losing seasons and winning 94 regular season games. The Pirates then pushed the St. Louis Cardinals to the limit in the NLDS. Clint Hurdle was named NL Manager of the Year and Andrew McCutchen won the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Yet, even in comparison to the Reds, the Pirates had a dreadfully inactive off-season. Key pieces of their post-season drive, like Marlon Bryd and A.J. Burnett were allowed to leave. Pittsburgh’s only notable acquisition may turn out to be a self-inflicted wound, the signing of SP Edinson Volquez, which conjures the possibility of subtraction by addition. They instead are relying on a core of young players, headlined by McCutchen and a strong pitching staff.
Hurdle’s ship arrives to the Queen City taking on water and with the Jolly Roger in tatters. The Buccos are coming off a three-game sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers. Expect the Pirates to be highly motivated to get past that series and to prove that last year’s success wasn’t a fluke.
The Pirates finished ninth in the NL in runs scored in 2013. To boost their offense late in the year, they signed Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, both of whom have moved on to other teams. The Pirates were fifth in wRC+ and eighth in on base percentage.
Andrew McCutchen (.317/.404/.508) finished his 2013 season with 21 homers and 27 stolen bases. The fact that McCutchen produced only 84 RBI didn’t seem to bother Pirates fans or MVP voters. He finished fourth in wRC+ in the NL, behind only Jayson Werth, Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.
LF Starling Marte (.280/.343/.441) stole 41 bases and hit twelve home runs last season, despite missing three weeks with a sprained wrist. Marte also excelled at getting hit by pitches, recording 24 HBP, which helped compensate for a low walk-rate, to keep his OBP suitable for a lead-off hitters. Only Shin-Soo Choo (26) was hit more often.
Pedro Alvarez (.233/.296/.473) demonstrated ample power last year, slugging 36 home runs, but his low OBP limits his ceiling as a clean-up hitter. Alvarez channels Adam Dunn in strikeouts, too, with a K-rate above 30%. Only Atlanta Braves’ 2B Dan Uggla struck out at a higher rate in the NL.
The Pirates have real weak spots at 1B and RF. First baseman Gaby Sanchez has been a platoon hitter at best, but despite rumors that the Pirates have been looking around for another 1B bat, they seem ready to start the season with Sanchez playing both ways. Jose Tabata is little more than a placeholder until super prospect Gregory Polanco can be called up in June without risking Super Two arbitration status.
The Pirates starting rotation finished in the top four in the NL in ERA, FIP and xFIP in 2013. They gambled on signing A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano based on non-ERA statistics and were rewarded as both pitchers were outstanding. Burnett has moved on, signing a one-year contract with the Phillies, but Liriano will headline their starting staff.
The Pirates attribute much of their success at preventing runs in 2013 to their pro-active use of defensive shifting and instructing their pitchers to induce ground balls. They were extremely successful at the latter. Pirates’ starters led the NL with a 53% ground ball rate. That was farther ahead of the second place team (48%) than the second place team was ahead of the fourteenth place team. The Pirates bullpen also led the NL in inducing late-inning ground balls.
Probable Starting Pitchers
Monday (7:10 p.m.) – Wandy Rodriguez (LH, 35) vs. Homer Bailey
Rodriguez, with whom the Reds are familiar dating back to his days pitching for the Astros, missed the last four months of 2013 with forearm/elbow issues. He picked up the $13 million option on his 2014 contract. His health remains an issue as Rodriguez opted against surgery last fall. This will be Rodriguez’s third start of the season. His first two were both shaky and both against the Cubs.
Tuesday (7:10 p.m.) – Gerrit Cole (RH, 23) vs. Mike Leake
Cole is legitimate ace material and may reach that level as early as this year. He was dominant for the Pirates down the stretch last fall. He started two games of the NLDS, giving up 5 hits and two walks against ten strikeouts in eleven innings against the Cardinals. He has had two successful starts so this year, striking out 13 batters in 13 innings against the Cardinals and Cubs.
Wednesday (12:35 p.m.) – Francisco Liriano (LH, 30) vs. Johnny Cueto
Liriano experienced a rebirth of sorts in 2013, returning to his previous form with the Minnesota Twins. Liriano had an ERA of 3.02 an FIP of 2.92 and xFIP of 3.12. He was particularly brutal on Reds star lefties, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo. The Pirates will need for Liriano to repeat that performance in 2014. This will be his fourth start in 2014 and Liriano is still looking for a win. He’s pitched six innings in each of his three previous starts.
The Pirates bullpen ranked in the top four in ERA, FIP and xFIP in the National League last season. For most of the year, the Pirates enjoyed an unparalleled 1-2 bullpen punch, with Jason Grilli closing and Mark Melancon pitching the eighth inning. Melancon took over as closer in August when Grilli was sidelined with a right forearm strain. When Grilli returned in early September, Melancon kept the closer role.
But the 37-year old Grilli returns in 2014 as the Pirates’ ninth-inning specialist. He’s converted three out of four save opportunities so far. The Pirates also have two outstanding left-handed relievers, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, who had excellent seasons in 2013.
- Closer: Jason Grilli (37)
- Set-up: Mark Melancon (28)
- Lefty specialists: Tony Watson (28), Justin Wilson (26)