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After finishing under .500 for 20 straight years, the Pirates have now finished with 88 or more wins in back-to-back seasons but have struggled to get far in the playoffs.
Though they’ve acquired some key veterans over the last few years, the Bucs are largely a homegrown team with a lot of former top prospects now in starting jobs. With another year of development for guys like Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, their offense stands to improve despite very few offseason additions.
The real key to the Pirates’ success, though, is whatever voodoo they do to their pitchers. Over the last few seasons we’ve seen the Bucs perform miracles on the careers of struggling pitchers like A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Edinson Volquez.
Clint Hurdle’s staff has an innate ability to get the best from his players and a rotation that shouldn’t be nearly as good as it is, coupled with one of the best bullpens in the league, gives the Pirates as good a chance as anyone to make a run at the playoffs once again this season.
Batting Average: 5th
Alvarez will move to first this season after two strong seasons and one not-so-strong one at third. After leading the NL with 36 home runs in 2013, Alvarez was limited to 122 games last season and hit just 18 homers. He’s an all-or-nothing threat, blasting the ball out of the park but seldom hitting doubles and striking out an awful lot. If he can’t add 30 home runs in the lineup, Alvarez can be a liability. But there’s no reason a healthy Alvarez can’t knock at least 30 out of the park, especially now that he’s at first. He already has two homers and eight RBI this spring.
Hart has played just 68 games since 2012 and they all came last year for Seattle where he batted a paltry .203 with six homers in 255 plate appearances. Despite his long injury history and struggles, he’s not a bad addition if healthy. Prior to 2013, he hit 26 or more home runs in three straight seasons with very solid batting averages and a good deal of doubles. Even if he’s just a shell of himself at this point, he can give the Bucs some good pop off the bench and play multiple positions.
Walker had one of his best seasons last year, hitting a career-high 23 home runs while adding 76 RBI, 74 R, 25 2B, and 45 BB. He’s a solid on-base guy with a lot more pop than most second basemen. We’d like to see more extra-base hits from him but he’s one of the best hitting second basemen in the league and sports a solid glove.
Rodriguez isn’t a great bat, though he did hit a career-high 12 homers and 41 RBI last season in just 96 games. He batted just .211 though, and walked a mere 10 times while hitting 13 doubles. He’s not here for his bat, he’s here because he has a solid glove and can play all over the infield and outfield. He’s far from flashy but he’s a critical role player the Bucs will need to stay healthy in his first season in the NL.
3B: Josh Harrison, Jung Ho Kang
Harrison broke out in a major way last season, finishing second in the NL with a .315 BA while adding 13 HR, 52 RBI, 77 R, 18 SB, 38 2B, and seven 3B and playing stellar defense all over the infield and outfield. He’s earned the starting third base job and is a significant defensive upgrade over Pedro Alvarez. Though last season was a far cry from his middling part-time seasons prior, he did show this same knack for extra-base hits, a high batting average, and as many as 30 steals in the minors. He does a good deal of everything and, at 27, is still getting better.
Kang was signed from Korea this offseason, inking a four-year, $11 million deal. They’re not likely to rush him and, given his .130 BA in 23 spring at-bats thus far, he may start the season in the minors. While the Korean game is certainly different from the American version, Kang was a monster in the KBO where he hit as many as 40 home runs and 36 doubles in a single season, drove in as many as 117, and batted a career .298 through 902 games. If he can translate to the Bigs, the Pirates will have a steal in a power-hitting 27-year-old who can play anywhere in the infield.
SS: Jordy Mercer
Mercer has a very good glove at short and, while he’s not going to intimidate any opposing pitchers, does a bit of everything on offense. He batted just .255 last season but did a good job of getting on base and added 12 HR, 55 RBI, 56 R, and 27 2B. That’s nothing to write home about but that’s a better stat line than most shortstops in the league. With just two seasons under his belt, he’s still getting better.
The Yankees’ oft-injured catcher has played just 69 games since 2011 but the Bucs hope he can be a starting catcher in the NL. Cervelli has a good glove behind the plate and has an eye for the gaps but isn’t going to blow anyone away with his bat, though he certainly won’t hurt you in the lineup either. The real question is whether he can stay healthy.
Stewart is currently nursing a hammy injury, opening the door for Sanchez to make an early impression. Stewart is a solid defensive backstop but doesn’t produce anything at the plate.
Sanchez is a former top-50 prospect that deserves a chance to try his luck against Big League pitching. Although he’s never going to hit for a good average, he hits a good deal of doubles, draws walks, seldom strikes out, and has double-digit home run power. He’s good behind the plate and posted a career .779 OPS in the minors. Catchers that are good offensively and defensively are increasingly hard to find, Sanchez could prove to be one of them if given the chance. He’s earned his spot on the Opening Day roster, already hitting two homers, three doubles, and driving in eight runs in just 22 at-bats this spring.
Andrew McCutchen is as good as they come and proved that once again last year as he led the NL with a .410 OBP and .952 OPS while adding a career-high 25 HR and 38 2B. He walks a ton, hits for power, has stolen 18+ in every season he’s played, and plays a solid outfield. He won the MVP in 2013 and finished third in MVP voting last season and in 2012, that’s all you need to know.
Starling Marte quietly put up one of the better offensive seasons for an NL outfielder last year, batting .291 with a .808 OPS, 13 HR, 56 RBI, 73 R, 29 2B, and 30 SB. He doesn’t walk a lot and strikes out more than you’d like but he plays a very solid outfield, does a bit of everything, and is still improving.
Gregory Polanco gives the Pirates another very fast outfielder and, hopefully, another good bat. His first stint in the Bigs didn’t go as planned as he batted just .235 with a .650 OPS, seven homers, nine doubles, and 14 steals in 89 games. In the minors, the top-10 prospect showed an ability to hit for .280+ consistently and hit as many as 16 home runs and 30 doubles in a single season while stealing 38+ bases in back-to-back seasons. He doesn’t strike out a lot and walks plenty. If he can translate to the Bigs this season, the Bucs will have one of the best, and certainly fastest, outfields in the league.
Andrew Lambo is another former top prospect but has been stuck in the minors for years despite a very powerful bat. He’s only had 69 MLB at-bats but in the minors he showed an ability to consistently hit .280+ and hit as many as 32 home runs and 39 doubles in a single season. He’s also a good on-base guy and has a solid glove, able to play first and outfield. Hopefully this is the season Lambo gets a shot to prove himself.
Francisco Liriano couldn’t have made a better choice when he signed with the Pirates in 2013. After putting up ERAs over 5.00 in three of his four previous seasons, Lirano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 2013 and followed it up with a 3.38 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 175 K to 81 BB last year. We’d like to see him do a better job of limiting the walks, and stay healthier, but he’s been very solid for Pittsburgh and there’s no reason not to expect more of the same this season.
Gerrit Cole has quickly established himself as one of the best young arms in the league, going 21-12 with a 3.45 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 238 K to 68 BB in his first 41 games in the Bigs. We’d like to see him stay healthier but he does a great job of limiting walks and home runs and struck out nine batters per nine innings last year. The former top-10 prospect is well on his way.
A.J. Burnett decided to leave Pittsburgh in 2014, which proved to be a mistake as he led the NL with 18 losses, 109 earned runs, and 96 walks. Oof. As with Liriano, returning to Pittsburgh is a great move as he posted a 3.51 ERA and 1.24 WHIP with the Bucs in 2012 and a 3.30 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 2013. We’ve seen Pittsburgh do magical things with washed up pitchers and Pittsburgh isn’t just the best place for Burnett to bounce back, it may be the only place.
Jeff Locke was solid in 21 starts last year after an All-Star run in 2013. He posted a 3.91 ERA and 1.27 WHIP but was occasionally hurt by the longball. He puts a lot of baserunners on so he’ll need to limit the home runs if he’s going to stick.
Vance Worley had three up-and-down seasons with the Phillies and Twins but, as has been the pattern, turned the corner in his first stint with Pittsburgh. Though he was limited to just 110.2 innings, he posted a 2.85 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, doing a great job of limiting walks and home runs. If he can continue to limit the baserunners, he should see continued success. He’s still battling with Locke for a spot in the rotation.
Charlie Morton turned in a solid season in 2014 as he put up 3.72 ERA and 1.27 WHIP but he went 6-12. Over the past two seasons, Morton has done a much better job of limiting baserunners and is among the best at keeping the ball in the park. He’s not going to blow any opposing lineups away but he’s a very solid pitcher if he can stay healthy.
Mark Melancon has been unbelievably good since coming to Pittsburgh. He was an All-Star in 2013 as he saved 16 games while posting a 1.39 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 70 strikeouts to just eight walks. He was even better last year as he saved 33 of 37 games while posting a 1.90 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, and 71 K to 11 BB. He rarely walks anyone, almost never gives up a home run, and has quickly become one of the most fearsome closers in the league.
Antonio Bastardo was sent to Pittsburgh after five up-and-down seasons with the Phils. He posted a 4.34 ERA in 2010, a 2.64 ERA in 2011, a 4.33 ERA in 2012, a 2.32 ERA in 2013, and a 3.94 ERA last season. You can see how that kind of inconsistency can make a team grow weary. Bastardo has a cannon for an arm and strikes out a ton of batters but struggles with his control and has walked more than four batters per nine innings every full season in the league. If there is one team that can keep him as unhittable as he can be, though, it’s Pittsburgh.
Jared Hughes was stellar in 2014, going 7-5 with a 1.96 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. He doesn’t strike many batters out but he limits the walks and hits and doesn’t give up a lot of home runs. He’s not going to blow batters away and occasionally struggles with putting batters on but if he can keep the baserunners to a minimum he could remain a big part of the pen.
Tony Watson had a great year in 2013 but was flat out killer last year as he went 10-2 with a league-leading 78 appearances, en route to an All-Star game as a middle reliever. He put up a 1.63 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and struck out better than nine batters per nine innings for the first time in his career. He was already a very good reliever, now he’s on his way to solidifying himself as one of the best.
Defense: B+ to A
Starting Pitching: B- to B
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