Pittsburgh Pirates Predictions
The streak is finally over. The Pittsburgh Pirates put an end to their string of 20 consecutive losing seasons in 2013, going 94-68 to finish second in the NL Central. They would beat the Cincinnati Reds in the wild card game before falling to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. That streak of 20 straight losing seasons was the longest in major North American professional team sports history.
Now, the goal will be to prove that last year was no fluke. The Pirates have jumped from 57 wins to 72, 79 and 94 ever since Clint Hurdle was hired as manager. It’s going to be tough for general manager Neal Huntington to keep this trend going with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, but the Pirates do have a lot of key pieces coming back this season. Here are the players you can expect to see carrying Pittsburgh in 2014.
Starling Marte (LF) – Marte became a star for the Pirates last season. He hit .280/.343/.441 (average/on-base/.slugging) with 10 triples, 12 homers and 41 stolen bases. His range in left field essentially gave the Pirates two center fielders as he and Andrew McCutchen covered as much ground as any two outfielders in the league. There is room to improve as his walk rate was bolstered by 24 hit-by pitches, and he was caught stealing 15 times. However, the future now appears very bright for the 25-year-old heading into 2014.
Jordy Mercer (SS) – Mercer spent last year going back and forth between the majors and Triple-A. He would finish the season splitting time with Clint Barmes at shortstop down the stretch. With Barmes hitting the open market, the job is now Mercer’s to lose. He earned it by hitting .285/.336/.435 with eight homers, 27 RBIs and 33 runs scored in 365 plate appearances at the major league level. He’ll need to improve his defense and his approach against same-side pitchers if he wants to become an everyday player.
Andrew McCutchen (CF) – Despite having essentially the same season he had in 2012, McCutchen won the NL’s Most Valuable Player award in 2013 due to the Pirates making the playoffs. He hit .327/.400/.553 with 31 homers, 96 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in ’12. He followed that up with a .317/.404/.508 slash line with 21 homers, 84 RBIs and 27 stolen bases in ’13. No matter how you want to look at it, McCutchen is clearly one of the best players in the game. He was aided by a .375 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in ’12 and a .353 mark in ’13. That number is likely to keep coming down closer to his career BABIP of .332, which will cut down on his production slightly.
Pedro Alvarez (3B) – Alvarez hits for a ton of power, but strikes out a lot. He has hit a combined 66 home runs over the past two seasons, while also striking out 180 and 186 times. He has struck out 30.6% of the time in his career, but he has also posted a .207 isolated power (slugging minus average) in his four big league seasons. The 27-year-old is in his prime and should continue producing like he did last year, with 36 homers and 100 RBIs. He may eventually be moved from third base to first base, but for now, he’s a tremendous asset at the hot corner.
Neil Walker (2B) – Walker is an above-average second baseman who has had a hard time living up to the massive expectations. He is a local kid, so obviously fans in Pittsburgh pull for him more than anyone. Walker hit .251/.339/.418 last year with 16 homers and 53 RBIs. He had poor luck in the BABIP department with a .274 mark compared to .326 in ’12. With a little better luck and getting that number back closer to .300, Walker should put up even better numbers in 2014.
Russell Martin (C) – Martin may have been as big a reason as any that the Pirates were able to make the playoffs last year. He hit 15 homers, stole nine bases and had a solid .327 on-base percentage at the plate. Behind the plate, he was even more valuable. He handled the staff very well while also throwing out would-be base stealers at a solid rate. Martin made 500 plate appearances for the first time since he left Los Angeles, so it was nice to see him return to health. He was well worth the money in the first half of his two-year, $17 million deal.
Gaby Sanchez (1B) – It’s hard to believe that Sanchez once made an All-Star team. He can’t play full time because he can’t hit same-side pitching, but he’s certainly an asset against left-handed pitching. That could be a problem with Garrett Jones no longer in Pittsburgh as Sanchez may have to play more of a full-time role. Sanchez posted a .206 isolated power and got on base a whopping 45 percent of the time against southpaws in ’13. He’ll hold down the fort until 2013 Minor League Player of the Year Andrew Lambo (32 homers, 99 RBIs) is ready.
Jose Tabata (RF) – While he saw his playing time reduced due to the emergence of Marte and the trade for Marlon Byrd, Tabata had a nice bounce-back season in ’13. He hit .282/.342/.429 with six homers and 33 RBIs in just 341 plate appearances. He finished with a career-best isolated power (.147), but only stole three bases. He looked to be quite the bargain when the Pirates signed him to an extension in 2011, and he should continue to be if he can put up those numbers over a full season. With Byrd gone, the starting job in right field should be his to lose.
Francisco Liriano (LHP) – The move to the National League worked wonders for Liriano in 2013. He went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and 9.1 K/9 over 161 innings. The key was the addition of a windup to his delivery, which allowed him to improve rhythm and control. Hurdle showed a ton of trust in Lirano by giving him the start in the Wild Card Game, and he came through. It feels like he has been around forever, but Liriano is just 30 years old and should pick up where he left off last season.
Gerrit Cole (RHP) – Cole showed everyone why the Pirates selected him with the first overall pick a few years ago. The right-hander proved to be an ace, going 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP over 117 1/3 innings of work. The former UCLA product also showed tremendous poise in his two postseason starts despite not going deep in either. Cole averaged 95.5 mph on his fastball, and with that kind of velocity, he is a star in the making. Now, it’s just a matter of how long it takes him to realize it.
Wandy Rodriquez (LHP) – Rodriquez had his season cut short by forearm tightness, which forced him to spend the entire second half on the disabled list. He was effective prior to the injury, going 6-4 with a 3.59 ERA and 1.12 WHIP over 12 starts and 62 2/3 innings. After a late-season comeback attempt failed, the Pirates shut him down. It was a no-brainer for the 35-year-old Rodriquez to exercise his $13 million player option for 2014.
Charlie Morton (RHP) – The key piece in the Nate McClouth trade a few years ago, Morton has turned into a solid sinkerball pitcher. He went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 20 starts and 116 innings in 2013. He forced opposing hitters to put the ball on the ground a whopping 64% of the time, which makes him an elite ground ball pitcher. He also only walked 2.8 batters per nine innings, which was the best rate of his career. Morton has done enough to earn a three-year extension to be in the middle of the Pirates’ rotation.
Edinson Volquez (RHP) – It’s hard to expect much out of Volquez in 2014, but the Pirates believe he’ll be their fifth starter. His 16 wild pitches led the National League last year, and he gave up more earned runs than anyone in the circuit. Pittsburgh signed him on the cheap hoping that he can somehow pull a Liriano and bounce back. He has posted a 5.71 ERA, 4.14 ERA, 5.71 ERA, 4.31 ERA and a 4.35 ERA over the past five seasons, respectively. His last real solid season came back in 2008, and it’s clear that the PED use aided that campaign. This guy should be pitching in the minors.
Former journeyman Jason Grilli shined in his first season as closer last year, saving 33-of-35 opportunities. He did miss a month late last season with a strained forearm, but came back in time to dominate in the postseason. Mark Melancon teams with Grilli to give the Pirates as good a 1-2 punch at the back end of the bullpen as any team. They are a big reason why the Pirates finished third in baseball in bullpen ERA (2.89) last season.
Both Grilli and Melancon were All-Stars last year, and for good reason. Grilli posted a 2.70 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and 13.3 K/9 last season, while Melancon had a 1.39 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and 8.9 K/9 over 71 innings. He also saved 16 games while Grilli was on the disabled list. Left-hander Tom Watson came on strong last year with a 2.39 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP over 71 2/3 innings. This trio makes up easily one of the best bullpens in baseball heading into 2014.
- To Win World Series: 28/1
- To Win NL Pennant: 14/1
- To Win NL Central: 15/4
2014 Season Win Total: 85.5
Off their first winning season in 20 years, expectations have been raised in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are now actually expected to finish with a winning record according to oddsmakers as their win total has been set at 85.5. I think the value is now with the ‘under’ as the Pirates may be a one-hit wonder.
Prediction: 3rd Place NL Central (83-79)
There are several reasons why I believe the Pirates are going to regress in 2014. The loss of A.J. Burnett is pretty massive as he stabilized the rotation over the past two seasons and was a nice leader in the clubhouse. Counting on Edinson Volquez to be the fifth starter is alarming. Also, the loss of Marlon Byrd is pretty big too because he was a huge addition prior to the trade deadline last year.
I do like the promise of Cole, but the rest of the rotation has me concerned. There’s no way Liriano can match last year’s season, Rodriquez can’t stay healthy and is overpaid, and Morton is just an average starter at best. McCutchen and Marte are stars, and the bullpen is dynamite, but I just don’t believe there is enough talent here for the Pirates to sustain the success they had a year ago. They’ll finish third in the NL Central in 2014.
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