In 2013, for the first time in over two decades, the Pittsburgh Pirates climbed above the .500 mark, reaching the postseason and sending the Steel City into a frenzy of excitement into the fall months.
Although the club’s postseason run was cut short by its NL Central rival, the St. Louis Cardinals, there’s no doubt that last year was a major step forward for the organization, changing the climate in the clubhouse from where winning was a long-shot end goal to where winning was expected.
Led by 2013 National League manager of the year Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh is looking to prove that last season was no fluke and build on its success in 2014.
The two major acquisitions of the offseason for Pittsburgh include right-hander Edinson Volquez and catcher Chris Stewart. Volquez pitched last season with the Dodgers and the Padres, combining to go 9-12 in 32 starts. He offers the club a low-risk, high-upside signing, given the club undoubtedly has low expectations for a pitcher who led the entire National League in earned runs allowed last year.
Stewart gives the club added depth behind the dish, joining former Yankees teammate Russell Martin. Martin has showed the ability to hit for power in recent years, but has seen his average wane during the same stretch. Last season, Stewart hit just .211 in 109 games with New York, while throwing out 33 percent of attempted base-stealers.
This club lost several major pieces during the offseason including workhorse A.J. Burnett, outfielder Marlon Byrd, infielder/outfielder Garrett Jones, first baseman Justin Morneau and a pair of catchers in John Buck and Michael McKenry.
Some of these pieces are more valuable than others, especially Burnett, who initially seemed poised to retire following last season, before signing a deal with the Phillies late in the winter. Pittsburgh didn’t make a qualifying offer, and thus, received no draft pick compensation from Philadelphia. The right-hander tossed 191 innings last year, going 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA in 30 starts.
Byrd put together a type of renaissance season with the Pirates and Mets, batting .291/.336/.511 in 147 games. He posted an OPS+ of 138, while racking up 24 home runs and 35 doubles – his most since 2010. However, he will join Burnett in Philadelphia next season as a member of the Phillies.
Garrett Jones left via free agency, signing a deal with the Miami Marlins. Between the departure of Jones and Morneau, the Pirates have often been linked to potential options at first base during the offseason, including the Mets’ Ike Davis, but for now, Gaby Sanchez, a career .258 hitter, will man the position for the Bucs.
The loss of Buck and McKenry will be some of the less noticeable, given the team’s aquisition of Chris Stewart during the offseason. That being said, Buck is still one of the top defensive backstops in the game.
Heading into 2014, the Pirates have a payroll of $65.92 million. The organization has managed to keep the payroll in a manageable range due largely to the fact that it’s developed its own talent and has no payroll obligations this year to former players.
Headlining the payroll is catcher Russell Martin, who – believe it or not – makes more than any other player on the club, including the face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen. Martin is slated to make $9.5 million this year – including his $1 million signing bonus – while McCutchen will make $7.45 million this year, the third-highest on the club, behind Martin and left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who will make $7.5 million.
Player to Watch
Gerrit Cole was masterful down the stretch for the Pirates last season, going 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA in 19 starts. If he can keep his earned run average down and continue to miss bats, the stuff he showcased late in the season could become an annual asset for this team.
At just 23-years-old, Cole has the makings of a legitimate big league ace. Given he threw 196 1/3 innings last year, he likely won’t face an innings limit, meaning from April to October, his right arm could carry this team to the top of the National League Central.
Francisco Liriano was, to say the very least, a surprise in the Pirates’ rotation last year, when he took on the role of staff ace, going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 161 innings of work. He averaged over nine punchouts per nine innings of work and even tossed two complete games – reverting back to the form he had in his Minnesota Twins days.
If Liriano can maintain his form from 2013 this season, the Pirates rotation will be solid. Cole stands to follow him with the trio of Rodriguez, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke rounding things out. There’s a good chance that top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon will see PNC Park this season, just adding to the depth this organization has amassed in terms of pitching. Watch out, Cardinals.
Player Likely to Regress
It’s a good thing that Taillon is waiting in the wings because it’s hard to imagine Wandy Rodriguez putting together another season like he had in 2013. Last year the southpaw went 6-4 with a 3.59 ERA – almost half a run below his career mark of 4.01. At 35-years-old, it’s not a far-fetched claim to think that he could be the weak link in this Pirates rotation.
Major Point/Question in 2014
The Pirates have a target on their backs this season. Last year, they were overlooked by many and managed to avoid the second-half pitfalls that had plagued them in recent years. Now, it’s all about proving that the team’s first winning season in 20 years wasn’t a fluke and that the young pitching talent is ready to shoulder the load and lead this organization back to winning ways in 2014.
If Andrew McCutchen produces like he seems to every year and the young arms step up – especially after the All-Star Break, don’t Pittsburgh will find itself in the thick of a playoff race for the second straight year. They’ve had a taste of the postseason and now they want more.