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2014 Pirates Team Preview: Postseason Encore

John Toperzer

John Toperzer

John has written for since 2003 and serves as the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Pirates. He also contributes with a Daily Puck article every Monday. He’s worked for the Pirates for 15 years, written for the Penguins’ Web site as the first game-day editor, and rooted for the Steelers dating back to the Immaculate Reception.

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Team Preview

The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates won 94 games and with it washed away 20 straight seasons of losing – the longest such streak in the history of North American professional team sports – into the Allegheny River.

Manager Clint Hurdle won manager of the year honors, Andrew McCutchen was voted the National League MVP and Francisco Liriano was named the senior circuit’s comeback player of the year.

Pitching coach Ray Searage mentored the staff to an overall 3.26 ERA – third-best in baseball – and the bullpen crafted a 79 percent save rate, highest in either league. Analytics whiz, Dan Fox, helped design a defensive shift system which received the blessing of Hurdle and turned a league-leading 52.5 percent ground ball rate (Pittsburgh was the only team at or above 50 percent) into outs.

With all of the coach staff returning, aside from hitting coach Jay Bell (who became the Reds’ bench coach), the organization will look for similar results in 2014.

It won’t be easy.

A.J. Burnett agreed to a deal with the Phillies. Burnett led qualified National League pitchers in strikeout rate (9.85 K/9) and groundball percentage (56.5). At some point the 37-year-old’s number figures are expected to drop off. Wandy Rodriguez missed the final four months with a forearm injury. It’s impossible to predict his health until he tests his arm in spring training. Even then, there will be worries about reinjuring his left arm.

There are plenty of positives, such as Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, all of whom benefited from the tutelage of Searage. The Pirates pitching coach will try to work his magic with newcomer Edinson Volquez and take rookie Jameson Taillon under his wing later in the season.

On the other side of the ball, McCutchen leads an offense which patches together enough offense to support the pitching. Cutch is entrenched in the No. 3 spot of the lineup. His counting numbers were down a bit from 2013, but he improved his plate discipline (78:101 BB:K ratio) and avoided the late-season slides which hurt him in both 2011 and 2012.

Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez are part of a supporting staff capable of helping fantasy teams. Marte hit 12 homers and stole 41 bases despite missing nearly a month of action. Alvarez belted a league-leading 36 dingers.

The rest of the offensive includes a mix of hits and misses, depending upon matchups and expectations. Neil Walker, Russell Martin, and Jordy Mercer have strengths which could help fantasy owners.

Offseason Moves

Lost Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd, John Buck, Garrett Jones, and Mike McKenry via free agency.

Trade deadline acquisitions Morneau and Byrd took regular at-bats at first base and in right field, respectively, with varying amounts of success. Morneau, whose defense was impeccable, collected three RBI in 92 plate appearances. Byrd belted a big homer in the Wild Card game but moved on to Philadelphia for a big payday. Jones compiled a .708 OPS – well below his .774 mark – despite batting almost exclusively against right-handed pitchers. McKenry, who missed the final two months with a knee injury, and Buck both struggled defensively.

Re-signed Clint Barmes to a one-year, $2 million deal.

Barmes is a Hurdle favorite, dating back to their days in Colorado. Even at age 35 he’s defensively proficient (8.9 UZR). That’s the good side. His slash line .211/.249/.309 in 330 plate appearances speaks for itself.

Traded Kris Johnson to the Twins for Duke Welker.

Minnesota wanted a starter and the Pirates wanted Welker, a reliever, back. The Bucs had earlier sent Welker to the Twinkies for Justin Morneau at the trade deadline.

Traded player to be named (Kyle Haynes) to the Yankees for Chris Stewart.

Stewart threw out 17 of 54 baserunners and is known as a strong pitch framer, qualities Mike McKenry lacked. He’ll back up fellow former New York Yankee, Russell Martin.

Traded Miles Mikolas to the Rangers for Chris McGuiness.

The Pirates were rumored to be interested in a Texas first baseman and the rumors proved true – they just didn’t get the one they wanted (Mitch Moreland). McGuiness is expected to serve as organizational depth at a position Pittsburgh lacks in good players. Still, it’s a stretch to believe McGuiness – who slashed .246/.369/.423 at Triple-A as a 25-year-old in 2013 – offers much help.

Traded Alex Dickerson to the Padres for Jaff Decker.

No truth to the rumor he works at Bleck and Dacker in the offseason. Decker could crack the roster at some point as a backup in the outfield. He has strong on-base skills – in 2013 he reached base at a .381 clip in Triple-A. Dickerson was named the Eastern League’s rookie of the year last summer, making it even more likely that the Bucs are serious about Decker’s chances. The change of scenery might help both players.

Signed free agent Edinson Volquez to a one-year, $5 million deal.

The Pirates will try to strike lightning in a bottle with Volquez. Over the course of his career, Volquez has always put together his best season for a new organization in his first year. Pittsburgh is hoping for that trend to continue. Volquez registered the highest earned-run average of any qualified major league starter in 2013, finishing with a 5.71 mark. His September numbers for the Dodgers were better – 4.18 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 26:8 K:BB ratio – and the Pirates would likely be happy with a decent two or three-month stretch out of the righthander.

Signed Travis Ishikawa to a minor-league contract.

After coming up with San Francisco, Ishikawa has bounced around in four different organizations since 2010. He gives Pittsburgh more organizational depth at first base and will likely start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis.

Projected Lineup (vs. LHP/RHP)

1. Starling Marte, LF
2. Jordy Mercer, SS/Neil Walker, 2B
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Gaby Sanchez, 1B/Pedro Alvarez, 3B
5. Pedro Alvarez, 3B/Russell Martin, C
6. Russell Martin, C/Andrew Lambo, 1B
7. Jose Tabata, RF/Travis Snider, RF
8. Neil Walker, 2B/Clint Barmes, SS

Pittsburgh faced lefty starters a league-low 31 times last season, going 18-13. Marte (.402 BA), Mercer (.410), McCutchen (.388), Sanchez (.333) and Harrison (.350) feast on southpaws. Barmes often replaced Mercer at shortstop when the Bucs faced a righthander late in 2013.

Projected Rotation

1. Francisco Liriano
2. Gerrit Cole
3. Wandy Rodriguez
4. Charlie Morton
5. Jeff Locke, Edinson Volquez, Jeanmar Gomez, Jameson Taillon, Brandon Cumpton, Stolmy Pimentel, or Phil Irwin.

Liriano and Rodriguez are only signed through 2013.

Closer: Jason Grilli’s velocity was off when he returned from a forearm injury late in the season. He heads into 2013 as the undisputed closer, but Mark Melancon will be waiting in the wings if the 37-year-old should falter. Melancon walked only eight batters in 71 innings with a 1.39 ERA and 0.96 WHIP.

Key Bullpen Members: Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, Vin Mazzaro.

Watson, who didn’t allow a run in his final 22 outings, finished with 22 holds. Wilson could move back into a starters’ role or he could be used as trade bait – 95 mph lefties don’t grow on trees. Morris struggled with his fastball but his slider is first rate. Gomez and Pimentel can start in relief while Mazzaro will likely pitch in the underrated sixth and seven innings.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and otherwise:

Who’s on first?

Last year, the Bucs platooned Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez for the first four months. Jones continued a multi-year decline while Sanchez failed to go deep after June 25 and hit a total of seven homers. Pittsburgh wooed James Loney over the winter, but he re-signed with Tampa Bay. As it stands, Andrew Lambo will get first crack as the left-handed platoon partner for Sanchez. Lambo belted 32 minor league dingers in 2013, but few seem to have confidence in the 25-year-old. The Pirates could move some of their young pitching for a first baseman or move slugging – but slow-footed outfielder, Josh Bell – to first base.

Is the team set up for a fall?

Since 2010, the Bucs’ win total has gone from 57 to 72 to 79 to last year’s 94 victories. While it’s possible another increase is on the horizon, no one would be surprised if the Pirates fell back in 2014. Pirates GM Neal Huntington seemingly had the Midas touch a year ago. He found untapped value at every turn. Jeanmar Gomez, for example, never compiled an earned-run average under 4.47 or a WHIP of 1.423 in three big league years, but finished with a 3.35 ERA and 1.15 WHIP as a starter/reliever.

Can the farm system replicate its success from 2013?

Not only did highly touted prospects such as Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte contribute, but the team also received valuable contributions from the likes of Brandon Cumpton and Stolmy Pimentel. In 2014, Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon are being penciled in to help after the “Super 2” arbitration date passes in June. Will they live up to their hype? Will the Bucs benefit from unknown prospects as they did last year? The organization is leaning heavily on a repeat of 2013.


Signing Andrew McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million extension in the spring of 2012 looks almost criminal now with the huge sums of money flowing around baseball. Having a superstar who’s entering his age 27 season gives Pittsburgh an MVP in his prime. Cutch can help overcome plenty of offensive weaknesses. The pitching staff finally seems capable of taking advantage of PNC Park’s spacious dimensions, while the defense is solid behind it. Combine a willingness to employ defensive shifts and a front-office belief in analytics, and the Bucs have the makings of another strong showing.


Pedro Alvarez hit 22 percent of Pittsburgh’s 161 home runs and he’s very inconsistent. The team’s batting average (.245) ranked 11th in the National League and the Bucs struck out more (1330) than every team other than the Mets and Braves. The pitching staff is led by a second-year stud (Cole), a lefty who has never put together strong back-to-back seasons (Liriano), a sinkerballer who has never had a complete season (Morton) and an expensive veteran who missed the last four months of 2013 with an injury which might still affect him (Wandy Rodriguez).

Rising: Gerrit Cole - Cole won his first four starts in Pittsburgh, but struck out only 11 batters in the process. Theories were floated: Cole himself said that he was pitching to contact and hadn't unleashed his entire repertoire. After coming up second-best in an Aug. 8 showdown with fellow phenom Jose Fernandez, Cole elevated his game to a new level. In his final eight starts, the 2011 first-overall draft pick went 6-2 with a 2.28 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 53:13 K:BB ratio. Cole led all major league pitchers with a 96.1 mph average fastball (110 IP minimum). The Pirates then chose Cole over A.J. Burnett to start Game 5 of the NLDS, an indication of his top-of-the-rotation status. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-hander matured in the majors in a very short time period. It wouldn't be surprising to see him encounter some bumps along the way, but he'll be called upon as a frontline starter from the get-go in 2014.

Declining: Jeff Locke - Locke went from surprise All-Star pitcher to picked-over starter in 2013. The 26-year-old lefty held the staff together early on, when injuries to A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and others threatened to derail the Pirates' season. Expected to battle for the team's fifth rotation spot in spring training, Locke went 9-2 with a 2.11 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and .226 BABIP. After that, his numbers slipped to a 6.66 ERA, 1.98 WHIP and .393 BABIP. The lefty's inability to command the strike zone resulted in his decline. At 26, he still has room to grow, especially after his rookie season, but it would be unwise to value Locke as anything more than an end-game pick.

Sleeper: Jordy Mercer - Opinions are mixed as to whether Mercer can play defense well enough to take over the everyday reins at shortstop in 2014. He lacks range and was often replaced in the late innings last year. Mercer's overall line of .285/.336/.435 in 333 at-bats was boosted tremendously by his ability to crush left-handed pitching. The shortstop hit .410 with a 1.152 OPS against southpaws, albeit in 78 at-bats. Mercer, who has hit as many as 19 homers in the minors, belted eight in 2013 (including seven away from PNC Park's spacious left field). It's quite likely he slips under the fantasy radar heading into 2014, but has upside based upon how much action he sees.

Supersleeper: Andrew Lambo - Lambo did all he could to put himself back on the map in 2013. The 25-year-old hit .278/.345/.563 with 33 homers and 101 RBI, split fairly evenly between Double-A and Triple-A, and with a cup of coffee in Pittsburgh. The left-handed hitter even held his own against southpaws, hitting .252 with nine homers and an .810 OPS in 144 plate appearances. Lambo's stock fell so far that the Bucs left him unprotected for the 2012 Rule 5 draft and the rest of the league collectively passed. The Pirates need power and Lambo could be a fit in the outfield, first base or off the bench. His inconsistent history makes him a risky pick in drafts as anything other than a late-round dart. Still, few players possess the power potential Lambo offers. He'll need a few breaks to solidify his standing at the major league level, but the short right-field porch at PNC Park could pay dividends for Lambo and his fantasy owners.

Top Prospects

Gregory Polanco, OF - Polanco's estimated time of arrival is sometime in the summer of 2014, once the Super 2 arbitration deadline passes in June. Signed out of the Dominican Republic as a free agent, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound center fielder is blessed with a rare mix of speed and power. Polanco has averaged 25 steals in five minor-league seasons. He's also hit 28 homers in his last two years. The 22-year-old put together a .285/.356/.434 combined line between three levels -- High-A, Double-A and Triple-A -- in 2013. The left-handed hitting Polanco hit .366 against lefties last year and has always done well against southpaws, a rare commodity. Blessed with good plate discipline (52:73 K:BB ratio), the outfielder could impact fantasy teams as soon as June.

Jameson Taillon, RHP - The second overall pick in the 2010 draft, Taillon gave a glimpse of his potential in the WBC, striking out David Wright and Ryan Braun in four innings of one-run ball for Team Canada. He spent most of 2013 with Double-A Altoona and posted an uninspiring 4-7 record with a 3.67 ERA and 1.34 WHIP, but a 106:36 K:BB ratio in 110.1 innings highlighted his elite prospect status. Pittsburgh then promoted the 22-year-old to Triple-A in August, where he registered a 3.89 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 37:16 K:BB ratio while limiting batters to a .218 batting average. Pirates GM Neal Huntington expects Taillon to open with Triple-A Indianapolis in 2014, but once the organization is satisfied that Taillon's changeup is as effective as his plus fastball and curve, he will make his major-league debut.

Tyler Glasnow, RHP - Glasnow exploded onto the scene in 2013, striking out 164 batters in 111.1 innings for Low-A West Virginia. The 20-year-old righty throws a 95 mph plus fastball and sharp curveball from a 6-8, 215 frame. His numbers include a 2.18 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. A 4.9 BB/9 could hold Glasnow back against more advanced hitters, but he's athletic enough for his size and has time on his side to project improvement. He'll make the jump to High-A in 2014, and if he finds a way to harness his control, he could advance quickly through a typically-conservative Pittsburgh farm system.

Alen Hanson, SS - Hanson recovered from a horrendous start with High-A Bradenton to post decent numbers split between High-A and Double-A in 2013. For the year, he slashed a combined .274/.329/.427 with 27 doubles, 13 triples and eight homers. He also stole 30 bases in 46 attempts and posted a 41:96 BB:K ratio. A switch-hitter, the 21-year-old Hanson can play second base, shortstop or third, but has thus far stuck at short. It's encouraging he rebounded from his struggles and retained his prospect tag. Pittsburgh sent Hanson to the Arizona Fall League -- he hit .253 and stole six bases in 79 at-bats -- and added him to the 40-man roster in November. Most likely, he'll start the 2014 campaign at Double-A, where the organization will get a better look at him in his first full year at an advanced level.

Joshua Bell, OF - Bell may have taken a back seat to some of Pittsburgh's other prospects for the last year or so, but make no mistake - his power potential is for real. After being limited to 15 games due to a knee injury in 2012, the switch-hitting corner outfielder began to find his way last summer. Bell posted a .279/.353/.453 line in 459 at-bats for Low-A West Virginia, to which he added 37 doubles, 13 homers, and 76 RBI. Pittsburgh might not promote the second-round draft pick swiftly, if only because the 21-year-old missed nearly all of 2012, but his offensive potential has the organization excited about his future. Owners in dynasty leagues should consider Bell, while most should track his progress. He's likely Pittsburgh's second-best offensive prospect behind Gregory Polanco.