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.