2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview
Another promising start in 2012 gave way to a season of disappointment in Pittsburgh. After some tweaking this offseason, will 2013 finally be the year the Pirates’ break their twenty-year streak of losing seasons?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been fun to watch for the past two seasons as they are truly a ball club on the rise. They have a group of talented young prospects who with another year or two under their belt will be capable of leading the team to the promise land for the first time since 1992, which was the last year the ball club made the playoffs, and the last year they had a winning season. The problem with dealing with that young talent is that you can never gauge just how long it will take an individual to mature to the level where they can play on a consistent basis. Many thought that last season would be the year that the Pirates would break their streak of losing seasons, but while they started strong, they faltered as the season wore on and their young players struggled to adjust to adversity. This season the ball club should look better, they made a few moves to infuse their club with veteran players to try to bring a little more experience to their line-up, but they are still a year or two away from making any real impact on the NL Central and will likely have another yo-yo type season in 2013.
The biggest surprise for Pittsburgh last season was the performance of ace A.J. Burnett, whom the team acquired last winter from the Yankees for a steal, having to pony up just $13 million of the $33 million the right hander was due. Burnett responded by going 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA in 31 starts, striking out 180 batters and logging 202.1 innings. The Pirates will once again put Burnett at the top of the rotation this season and hope that he can turn in a repeat performance as well as help to guide some of the youngsters who will be at the back end of the rotation when they have issues and struggle on the mound.
Wandy Rodriguez had similar success last season when he came over at the trade deadline from Houston and assumed the number two spot in the rotation. Rodriguez went 12-13 overall last season, but with the Pirates he went 5-4 with a 3.42 ERA in 13 appearances. He is another veteran who will bring with him much needed experience for the guys pitching behind him, and if he can give the ball club 13 to 15 wins they may have a fighting chance to stay in the hunt against St. Louis and Cincinnati in the NL Central.
James McDonald will pitch third and if he can be the pitcher who posted a 9-3 record with a 2.37 ERA over his first 17 starts last season, the team could be a lot more successful than most people are expecting this season. Unfortunately, McDonald has had his ups and downs throughout his eight year career with the Dodgers and the Pirates, and last season saw him struggle in the second half going 3-5 with a 7.52 ERA in his final 12 appearances.
Jeff Karstens is expected to open the season as the club’s fourth starter, though there was some question as to whether or not he would even be on the Pirates’ roster in 2013 after being non-tendered at the end of the 2012 campaign. Karstens is entering his eighth big league season and last season posted his first winning record, going 5-4 with 3.97 ERA for the Pirates in 19 games. Karstens is battling through injuries right now in spring training and his availability for Opening Day is questionable at this point, and there is no guarantee that he will be in the rotation all season with some of the Pirates’ younger prospects expected to get called up as the club moves into the summer months.
Kyle McPherson will likely round out the starting five provided that he beats out Jeff Locke this spring to earn the job. McPherson looked great after getting called up to the majors last season. In his 10 starts for the Pirates, the 25-year old righty went 0-2 but posted a 2.73 ERA, allowing 8 hits and 8 earned runs over 26.1 innings of work while striking out 21 batters and walking 7. Locke is another youngster who has not had as much success in the majors, going 1-6 over the past two seasons in 12 appearances. Locke is a lefty, and given that Rodriguez is the only southpaw in the rotation, that could give him a slight upper hand in the race for the fifth spot. It could come down to the last week of spring training before the Pirates make their decision on which player to put on the rubber every five days.
The wild card for the Pirates will be lefty Francisco Liriano, who agreed to a one-year, $1 million deal this offseason to stay with the club. Liriano went 6-12 with a 5.34 ERA in 34 games last season and may never be able to return to his glory days of 2006. He is currently recovering from a broken right arm which while not his throwing arm is still a major setback for the ball club. The earliest he is expected to be back is late-April or early-May, and by then the Pirates may have to struggle to find him a spot in the rotation if McPherson or Locke come out of the gates strong.
Come July the real fun will begin as the Pirates will likely call up both Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, who are expected to make huge impacts on the rotation once they have a chance to show their stuff at the big league level. Cole has the bigger upside of the two, and at the tender age of 21 went 9-7 with a 2.80 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 132 innings of minor league work last season. He was the Pirates’ first overall pick in the 2011 draft and rocketed his way from single-A to triple-A in his first year. They certainly don’t want to rush him to the big leagues too fast, but if he is ready by July, he will be in the rotation and could emerge as their ace by the end of the campaign if he pitches as well as he is capable of once he gets his call up.
The Pirates upgraded their closer this offseason, trading for Jason Grilli who went 1-6 with 2 saves and a 2.91 ERA for the Red Sox last season. Grilli signed a two-year, $6.75 million contract this offseason after turning in the best performance of his career for the BoSox last season, but at 36-years old there is a question as to how much he has left in the tank. Setting him up will be right-hander Mark Melancon, who also came over from the Red Sox this offseason, and lefty Tony Watson, who enjoyed a very successful second big league season last year.
Another second year pitcher who enjoyed success last year was middle-reliever Jared Hughes. He will be their go-to guy in tight situations and if he can turn in another season like 2012 (2-2, 2.85 ERA) the ball club will have little problem shutting down opposing hitters in the 7 th inning. Justin Wilson (0-0, 1.93) and Bryan Morris (0-0, 1.80) will fill out the middle-relief corps while Chris Leroux (0-0, 5.56) is expected to be their long-reliever.
The key to the Pirates’ offense will be 26-year old centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, who turned in a fantastic season for the club in 2012, batting .327 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs and finishing in third place in the NL MVP voting. For McCutchen to really shine this season, he will need support from those who are batting around him, in particular second baseman Neil Walker who is expected to hit in front of him in the two spot. Walker hit .280 last season, but he struck out 104 times in 472 at bats, the Pirates would love to see that number go down so that he can give McCutchen a chance to drive him in along with lead-off man Starling Marte.
First baseman Garret Jones, who will hit behind McCutchen, began to show some signs of improvement last season, hitting a career high 27 homers and earning the rights to hit in the clean-up spot. If he can focus in on the zone and cut down his strike outs, he will be a great complement to McCutchen in the heart of the order this season. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, catcher Russell Martin, right fielder Travis Snider and shortstop Cliff Barnes will round out the line-up for the Pirates. Martin stands out as another good acquisition for the ball club this offseason as he was signed away from the Yankees to take over for the departed Rod Barajas. Expect good things out of Martin as he calls a solid game, and while he only hit .211 last season, he did hit 21 homers and drive in 53 runs which are pretty solid numbers for a backstop.
Things are moving in the right direction in Pittsburgh. Their pitching staff looks solid coming out of the gates and will only get stronger once Cole and Taillon are brought into the mix. They look to have a pretty solid bullpen, though how Grilli does as a full-time closer could make or break the season for them. Offensively though, they have a lot of guys who need to step it up this season to help take the pressure off McCutchen if they plan to keep pace with the likes of the Reds and the Cardinals. The team should get off to another strong start in April and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them flirt with first place for the first half of the season. The real story will be if they can keep the momentum going after the All-Star break when some of their prospects are ready to come up to the show, because if they can, and if the youngsters come out firing, then Pittsburgh does have a legitimate shot to break their twenty-year streak of losing seasons in 2013. They probably don’t have quite the stuff to make a run at the playoffs yet, but things are certainly looking good for the 2014 campaign which will likely see that drought end as well. For now, an 83-79 record is certainly not out of the question this season, which should be good enough for third place in the NL Central behind St. Louis and Cincinnati.
By Robert Gonzlez