Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Will the Pittsburgh Pirates bounce back?

The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off a season where they played postseason baseball for the first time since 1992. They went 94-68 and finished second in the National League Central. As a result, Pittsburgh attained the first Wild Card spot in the N.L. In the historic, inaugural Wild Card playoff game, the team defeated the Cincinnati Reds 6-2. Then, they went on to fall in the Divisional Series to the National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals. However, they stayed competitive the whole way taking the series to the deciding game five.

Since Clint Hurdle took over as the Pirates skipper in 2011, the Pirates have taken tremendous strides towards becoming a winning club. 2011 was not an enormous success, but at one point, they were 47-43 and within striking distance of first place. As the season persisted, the Pirates fell considerably and concluded the season with an abysmal 72-90 record. Though the season did not culminate like they aspired, it still instilled a sense of hope into the team. For the first time in a while, they were reminded what a winning atmosphere felt like.

It was another quiet winter for the Pirates despite the poise they displayed the season prior. Anticipating  an influx of young prospects Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Gerrit Cole, and Jameson Taillon in the near future, they were hesitant to hand out lavish deals to veterans until the young reinforcements arrived. The only “noteworthy” move in the offseason was the acquisition of the rapidly declining A.J. Burnett.

2012 arrived and expectations were all over the place. On one hand, they played stupendous baseball for half of the year, but they did not do anything significant to bolster a 72-win team.

The muddled conjectures about the team held true as Pittsburgh finished the year 79-83. Not too bad, but not too good. There were some positive takeaways.

For starters, they increased their win total by seven games and run differential by 79. Pitching was key for their mediocre success, finishing the season with the 14th best team ERA (3.91). A.J. Burnett bounced back in a big way with a 3.51 ERA and 3.52 FIP, establishing himself as the Pirates’ ace. Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, Kevin Correia, and the late-arrived Wandy Rodriguez all pitched adequately at some point in the season, too.

Their offense was not horrible, albeit only three position players had an fWAR over the deemed 2.0 average in Andrew McCutchen (6.7), Neil Walker (2.6), and Pedro Alvarez (2.2).

It was conspicuous Pittsburgh was on the heels of contention heading into the offseason. Starling Marte, the 24-year-old multi-tooled outfielder, would be creating havoc atop the Pirates’ lineup for a full season. Another prospect, Gerrit Cole was anticipated to join the club at some point. So the youngsters they had been waiting on were starting to arrive and the time to contend was now. Despite that fact, Neil Huntington did not stray from his conservative, patient approach.

The lone impactful move was the signing of catcher Russell Martin, who was coming off a pedestrian year in the Bronx. Nonetheless, believing Martin’s defensive poise and catching intangibles would overshadow his “lackluster” offense, the Pirates took a chance on him.

The Pirates were not picked by many as the favorites to win the N.L. Central. Nor were they picked by many to make the playoffs. They were competing in a tough division where the powerhouse St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds reside. Even though ameliorated, they were given a slim chance by experts to end their 20-year playoff drought.

Pittsburgh proved experts wrong and cruised into the postseason. Their pitching was phenomenal with the third lowest team ERA (3.27), and the offense held its own with the 17th best team OPS (.709) in baseball. All six starters, who pitched more than ten games, accumulated an ERA under 3.60. They were the only team to send two relief pitchers (Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon) to the All-Star game. Five position players compiled an fWAR over 2.0 and four of those five were north of 3.0.

Their run differential rose 80 points from 2012 at +57. It was the fifth best in the National League, although it was the lowest of any National League playoff teams. They were a reasonable 29-23 in one-run games and 9-9 in extra inning games. Based on their performance, they were expected to win five games less and post an 89-73 record, which still would have sufficed for a playoff berth.

Most of the above was positive for the Pirates’ future; however, there were a few disconcerting aspects of the team as Pittsburgh embarked on the 2013-2014 offseason. Pitching was the most evident.

Jeff Locke, who was a 2013 All-Star, posted an unsustainable FIP (fielding independent pitching) and BABIP (batting average on balls in play). He never lit it up in the minor-leagues and was renowned for walking a ton of batters. Odds were Locke was in for substantial regression and would be unreliable every fifth day.

Francisco Liriano was picked up off the “scrap heap” the previous winter. The southpaw collected an ERA north of 5.00 the past two seasons, but Pittsburgh took a gamble on him and it worked. Now, he has shown poise in the past. Most notably in 2010 when he composed a masterful 3.62 ERA and 2.66 FIP. Since then it’s been rough, but his 2010 self was resurrected last season, though his inconsistency has to strike some alarm bells.

Next, Charlie Morton has always had a proclivity to being erratic. He pitched well last season in 20 starts for the Buccos, but it’s not erroneous to think the old 7.57 ERA  Morton will be present. Wandy Rodriguez has injury concerns and is not getting any younger. Finally, their ace A.J. Burnett was a free-agent and not sure about his future in baseball.

The pitching propelled this team to prosperity last year. Without a strong rotation, the Pirates’ bright future may be in jeopardy. That’s why it was pivotal they made a move to improve this “lighting in a bottle” rotation. Whether it be retaining ace A.J. Burnett or another free agent or trade acquisition, they needed help.

Hindsight may be 20-20, but Pittsburgh’s pitching entered Friday with the 13th worst ERA and 6th worst FIP. Burnett’s days in Pittsburgh are finished as he went to join the state-rival Philadelphia Phillies. Francisco Liriano is pitching poorly, Charlie Morton’s FIP is unsustainable, Wandy Rodriguez is on the DL, and Jeff Locke has only made one start surrendering six earned runs.

Their offense has not been potent with the 8th worst team OPS. Starling Marte has not been playing well, Russell Martin is injured, and they are getting zero production from right field or shortstop.

They sit in 4th place with a 15-20 record already trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by 6 and 1/2 games. Everything went their way in 2013, but a team comprised with, for the most part, pedestrian players will not thrive every season. There were blatant instabilities that the Pirates chose to ignore and it will take a lot of luck to get back to October.

Tags: Pittsburgh Pirates

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