Can the Pittsburgh Pirates Avoid the Second Half Gangplank?


Mar 1, 2013; Sarasota, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) grounds out against the Baltimore Orioles during the top of the fifth inning of a spring training game at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

On August 6, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 62-46, alive in both the NL Central and wild card races. A 17-37 walk off the gangplank sunk the Pirates to a fourth place finish and their 20th straight losing season. GM Neal Huntington made one significant trade and one middle tier free agent pick up in the offseason. He also re-signed a number of important contributing players. As Pittsburgh enters 2013, their best chance to contend may rely on two young arms that could anchor their staff for the next decade.

In December Huntington traded All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox for a package that included reliever Mark Melancon and prospect Stolmy Pimentel. Melancon put together solid 2010 and 2011 seasons, but seemed to slide in 2012 with a 6.20 ERA. However, Melancon’s ERA was 3.86 after April and his WHIP and batting average against were in line with his career averages. Melancon will serve as a setup man for new closer Jason Grilli.

Grilli’s ratios have been similar to Hanrahan’s the past two seasons. If he can transfer his success as a setup man to the closers role, the Pirates should not see an appreciable drop in performance. Grilli signed a two year $6.75 million contract in the offseason

Russell Martin wanted to play shortstop for team Gordie Howe in the World Baseball Classic, but will catch for the Pirates. Over the past two seasons with the Yankees, Martin has averaged 19 HR and 59 RBI in 405 AB. Signed to a two year $17 million deal, the dependable catcher has started on postseason teams.

Starting third baseman Pedro Alvarez hit 30 homers and drove in 85 RBI. His 2013 team option was exercised for an economical $700,000.

Neil Walker, the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft, has become one of the more productive second baseman in baseball. His 2012 batting line was .280 BA/.339 OBP/.426 slugging with 14 HR. He signed a one year $3.3 million contract, avoiding arbitration.

OF/1B Garrett Jones posted another productive season, hitting 27 HR with 86 RBI. He signed a one year $4.5 million deal to avoid arbitration.

1B Gaby Sanchez was acquired midseason from the Marlins. He suffered a disappointing 7 HR/30 RBI campaign in 2012. He was signed for $1.75 million and will compete for a starting job.

James McDonald has put together two straight solid years as a starter for the Bucs, posting identical 4.21 ERA’s in 171 IP both seasons. He signed a one year $3 million deal and will be the third starter.

Starting pitcher Francisco Liriano signed a one year $1 million free agent contract with a team option for 2014 following a 6-12 season. He will compete for a rotation spot in 2013.

After A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and McDonald, Pittsburgh’s rotation is very thin. The key to their success in the future, and possibly 2013, is the duo of Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Cole (1st overall 2011 MLB draft) and Taillon (2nd overall 2010 MLB draft) are both top 20 prospects according to Baseball America and could be ready to join the Pirate rotation in 2013.

The Pittsburgh Pirates should enter 2013 with a sense of optimism, they have the potential to be a sneaky contender for a wild card spot if things break their way. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is a top ten player and is surrounded by a solid, but not overwhelming supporting cast.

Despite the embarrassment of last year’s Navy SEAL/Hell’s Angel debacle, Huntington did a nice job of building the roster entering 2013. If Cole and Taillon make an impact at the major league level and the Pirates finish a season strong, they may surprise in 2013. At the very least, Pittsburgh has a reasonable shot at ending their 20 year string of futility.