For the second straight year, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first half was much better than expected. On August 8 of last year, they beat the Diamondbacks and moved to 63-47 and sat just two-and-a-half games behind the eventual NL Central champion Reds. But their success, just as it was the year before, was unsustainable. Pittsburgh finished the year going 16-36 to finish with their 20th consecutive losing season, but still had their best record since 1997.
It finally appears, however, that the Pirates are on the right track. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen emerged as one of the game’s best players and there’s a decent core of young position players that seem to be coming into their own such as third baseman Pedro Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker. With two of the best pitching prospects in baseball set to make their big league debuts sometime this season, things are looking brighter for Pittsburgh than they have in some time.
The organization took some flack last year after reports came out that Navy SEAL training drills were being run in the extended spring training, which led to some players getting hurt — including some top prospects. The ordeal ended in an investigation by owner Bob Nutting and a promise to stop the drills. The team also whiffed on signing first-round draft pick Mark Appel who was expected to go first-overall but slipped to the Pirates at number-eight. Appel decided to re-enter the draft next year when the team couldn’t offer him close to his asking price.
If you were asked to name the five parks in baseball that suppressed offense the most, names like PETCO Park, the Coliseum, Safeco Field, and AT&T Park would come up most often. It’s doubtful many people would rank PNC Park in Pittsburgh among them, but it routinely ranks near the bottom of the league in Park Factors. The Pirates have built a decent pitching staff, but they are certainly buoyed by their pitching-generous park.
To start the year, A.J. Burnett and left-hander Wandy Rodriguez sit atop the rotation. Burnett was a positive regression candidate heading in to last year after being traded over from the Yankees, and he came through in that regard. He posted his lowest walk-rate since 2006 and has become quite durable after a ton of injuries early in his career. He’s no ace, but the Pirates could definitely do worse. Rodriguez, meanwhile, will receive more in salary from the Houston Astros than any player currently on their roster as they will pay $5-million of the $13-million owed to him. In 2012, he threw over 190 innings for the fourth straight year, equalling his career-best mark of 205 2/3 and was his usual consistent (if mediocre) self.
James McDonald will slot in behind those two and is coming off two straight seasons that look eerily similar. His peripherals improved slightly last year, but he shouldn’t be counted on to get much better since he’s already 28. He’s an okay fifth starter at best, but he’ll have to masquerade as better than that at least to start the year.
The final two rotation spots will probably go to Jeff Karstens and Kyle McPherson, but don’t expect them to hold on to those spots for the whole year. Top-flight prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are expected join the team at some point. Cole, who was the first overall pick in 2011, could be up before the All-Star break, but Taillon, who was the second pick the year before won’t up quite that quickly. If they join the team and are even half as effective as they one day should be, the Pirates could get a big boost in the second-half.
Pittsburgh dealt closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, although it was probably a year too late considering the haul they got. Veteran Jason Grilli, who resurrected his career in 2011 and has been dominant over the last two years and will get his first chance to close at the age of 36. Setting him up will be righty Mark Melancon—who was part of haul for Hanrahan—and lefty Tony Watson. Jared Hughes is also in the mix after posting a 2.85 ERA in 75 2/3 innings a year ago, but his low strikeout-rate suggests regression could be on the way.
The rest of the bullpen will be made up of replacement-level arms—some with more upside than others. Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris, Kyle Waldrop, and lefties Justin Wilson and Mike Zagurski could all head north with the big club.
Despite boasting a lineup with only four above-average hitters in 2012, the Pirates managed the fourth-most home runs in the National League. Both McCutchen and Alvarez hit 30 and first baseman Garrett Jones hit 27. It marked the first time since 1966 that the Pirates had three 25-home run hitters in their lineup. Jones will play first base again, but will also play some rightfield in order to get first baseman Gaby Sanchez in the lineup against left-handers.
McCutchen finished with a 158 wRC+ and a 7.4 fWAR and contended with Ryan Braun and Buster Posey for the NL MVP all year long. Alvarez and Jones, however, need to get on base more than they did last year, but the power is legit. Alvarez was much better after the first two months.
In left field will be 24-year-old Starling Marte whom the team wants to leadoff. He acquitted himself decently in 182 plate appearances last season but will need to get on base more than 30% of the time in order to stay at the top of the order. Joining him up there will be Walker who hit .280/.342/.426 in 530 plate appearances last year and accumulated a 3.3 WAR according to FanGraphs.
The Pirates made their most significant free agent pickup in several years, signing catcher Russell Martin to a two-year deal, outbidding the Yankees. Martin is at best an average hitter at this point in his career—probably slightly worse than that—but he’s a solid defender, works well with the pitching staff and frames pitches excellently.
The other half of the right field/first base platoon will be former Blue Jay Travis Snider. He’s now 25 and it’s a long shot that he ever lives up to his once lofty potential, but the Pirates will give him that chance—he won’t see much time against lefties though. If Snider’s awful, Jose Tabata is still around. The shortstop will again be Clint Barmes who barely hit his weight last season, but is an excellent defender. Pittsburgh also acquired veteran infielder John McDonald to help out on the bench.
The Pirates were the fifth-best team in the NL at turning batted balls into outs last year and the fourth-best when accounting for their spacious park. McCutchen and Marte are both excellent defenders I the outfield and Snider and Tabata can hold their own in right. The up-the-middle defense on the infield is also well-regarded with Barmes and Walker. Alvarez and Jones are not great, however. Martin is an upgrade over Michael McHenry at catcher who’s back this season to back up.
With the addition of Russell Martin and the impending arrival of Cole and Taillon, the Pirates could finally be poised to last the entire season. They aren’t as good as their first-half record, but they certainly aren’t as bad as they were in the last two months either. With improvements from their still-young core of position players, the Pirates could be a sleeper in the National League and only stand to get better in the years to come with a number of high-impact prospects on the way.
2013 Prediction: 84-78, 3rd NL Central