Five questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

Will the rotation hold up?

Part of what killed the Pirates last year was the faltering down the stretch of what had been a strong rotation.

A.J. Burnett had a season that was at least a little unexpected, though his history kept it from being a total surprise. However, he’s getting up there in years, and given his performance over the past few seasons, any Pirates fan should be concerned about whether he’ll repeat his excellent 2013.

There is help, however. The Pirates went for it last year, and as a result they have Wandy Rodriguez this year. Rodriguez has been a consistently good pitcher and having him in the rotation all year can only help them.

Then there’s addition Francisco Liriano. A broken arm means he probably won’t be ready to start the season. Once he does join the team, maybe he can be for the Pirates what he was supposed to be for the Twins. At this point in his career, I think we have to be skeptical. Still, at a cost of only $1 million, it’s hard not to take a flyer on someone like him.

The rest of the rotation is returning from last season and perhaps most interesting will be to see if the James McDonald who shows up is the great pitcher from the first half of 2012, the ineffectual scrub from the second half, or something in between.

Any way you slice it, much of the Pirates’ success (or lack thereof) will be driven by how well the starting pitching holds up.

Can Andrew McCutchen carry the team?

For the first two-thirds of the 2012 season, McCutchen was out-of-this-world good. For the last third, he was still good, but not great. Offensively, his supporting cast is not great and so, to an extent, as goes McCutchen, so goes the Pirates offense.

There is a ton to like about the young center fielder. He made a huge leap last year, and, as he is just entering his age-26 season, there is still room for improvement. I can certainly imagine a world where McCutchen puts up an nine or 10-win season. I can also imagine him backsliding a little bit and settling in as an All-Star caliber five to six-win player. If he does the former, they Pirates instantly become more threatening to their opponents in the Central. If it’s the latter, well, then Pirates fans have much less reason to hope.

How much can Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker help?

Last year, in his third go-round with the Pirates, Alvarez showed a huge improvement coming off a miserable 2011. Walker kept moving down the same path he has been. These two players represent the best chance McCutchen has for some help (yes, I am discounting Garrett Jones).

There is absolutely no reason to think Walker can’t keep doing what he’s been doing, something the Pirates desperately need; he is the only non-McCutchen player on the roster who has shown the ability to get on base at an acceptable level. This is a vital skill on a team that finished near the very bottom of the league in OBP in 2012.

Alvarez has a career strikeout rate of 30.7 percent. That is not good and it explains why his very sold walk rate doesn’t translate to a better OBP. Given that he doesn’t seem to be a wizard with the glove, the Pirates have to be hoping he can cut his strikeouts by a few percent and provide more of an offensive contribution. If he does that that, it will really help the Pirates fortunes.

Can the farm help?

The Pirates have a very strong farm system, but among their top prospects only Gerrit Cole and Kyle McPherson are likely to be ready to contribute in 2013 (though Cole may be a real force if he comes up). Fortunately, those two are available to provide help in the rotation where the Pirates may need it most.

Given another year, the Pirates could have a lot more players ready to step in and contribute and by the 2015 season, there may be enough pieces to make the Pirates into a truly scary team. In 2013, however, the Pirates will likely have to make do with what they have.

Can they win?

This is the only question any Pirates fan really cares about. Last year, they were achingly close to their first winning season since Barry Bonds patrolled left field for them. They even competed for a playoff spot for a while, but ultimately, they fell short on both counts. In researching for this article, I’ve found that Pirates fans are an optimistic lot this year. Most of them seem to believe the Pirates will be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

I’m less certain.

In the Central Division, on paper, each team clearly slots into a position in the standings. The Reds are better than the Cardinals, who are better than the Brewers, who are better than the Pirates, who are better than the Cubs. However, things are close enough that there’s a possibility of movement up and down the standings. An awful lot would have to go wrong for Cincinnati and right for Pittsburgh for the Pirates to pass the Reds, but it’s certainly possible to imagine things breaking right enough for them to slide past the Brewers and even the Cardinals to compete for the Wild Card.

The odds aren’t in their favor, though. The entire Central is going to suffer from the loss of the Astros, but this is exacerbated for the weaker teams like the Pirates, who then pick up extra games against the Reds and Cardinals. In the end, I don’t think the Pirates will quite get there (I think they’ll finish right around where they did last year), but it’s a young team with a great farm system and sometime soon, they’re going to surprise us. It might be this year, but probably not.

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  1. AJ said...

    Marte will need to vastly improve his plate discipline to be anything more than average. I think he can do it eventually, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised if it takes him till 2014 or later.

  2. Don Goldvarg said...

    If you are discounting Garrett Jones in the process of evaluating the Pirates chances of improving on last years record, YOU are willingly deaf, dumb or blind as to the offensive and defensive assets Jones brings to this team.  He is a proven power hitter who drives in runs on a consistent basis, has extra base hits riveling anything McCutchen contributes and hits for a respectible average as well. Morever, he is one of the most versatile players in the league, excelling defensively at BOTH first base and right field. And I don’t want to hear this crap about not being able to hit lefthanders. Jones has clearly shown he has improved considerably in this area enough to start EVERY GAME. The Pirates will only succeed this year, IF Garrett Jones leads the way. Discounting a player of this caliber is pure stupidity.

  3. Jason Linden said...

    Dan – Garrett Jones might look nice, but the defensive statistics have never seen him as anything other below average in the field.

    The power is nice, but he doesn’t get on base enough for a corner player.

    This is his age-32 season. 32-year-olds rarely get better. Given that he’s generated a below-average 5.5 WAR in 3 1/2 years of playing time, counting on him to be a significant contributor seems a bit overly-optimistic.

    Thanks for calling me stupid. I stand by my points.

  4. RichW said...

    Not more of this ‘Garrett Jones should play everyday bunk’. First off, he was not even as good defensively as Casey McGehee, let alone Gaby Sanchez. After three years of playing 1b he still can’t make a throw to 2b to start a 3-6-3.

    Yes, he did hit more lefties in 2012 for a slight improvement. And they were mostly middle relievers (and a number were recent callups, not vets). He wasn’t hitting LH starters or closers.

    Please, stop this nonsense. Let Gaby do his job vs. LHP. He’ll be fine there. Besides, Bucs might need Jones in RF if Snider/Tabata both tank (which would not be surprising).

  5. Aaron said...

    I think this is the first fair criticism I’ve read about my lowly Pirates. One that doesn’t harp on the past so much that it blinds itself of some truly positive trends in the organization. I can understand fans and critics alike having a pessimistic view of the team that hasn’t hit mediocre in 20 years, but I’m incredibly sick of reading that it’s the “same old Buccos.”  In my mind, that couldn’t be farther from the truth and I’m truly excited about it. I don’t think we’d need to win the wildcard to consider this year a success, but I also don’t want to set our top goal as low as simply reaching 82 wins.

    And while you believe that pitching will be key, I tend to think that it’ll be the offense that makes or breaks this year. Last year we rode our incredible pitching to a point where we were 20+games over .500, but we did it while scoring the fewest runs in the league for most of the year. If the offense can be better – which means Marte, Snider & others stepping up – than our pitching doesn’t have to be so good. Just an observation. Thanks again!

  6. Jim said...

    They don’t pick up extra games against the Red and Cardinals, those games are picked up vs. other teams like the Tigers and Rangers, etc.  True, still tougher opponents than the Astros were.

  7. AJ said...

    Yeah, but again they don’t need to pick up extra games if they can simply avoid such a terrible collapse. And honestly, I don’t think we’ll struggle against STL as much as people think, but they’ve certainly earned the benefit of the doubt over the Buccos.

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