Pirates Team Preview: Anything Is Possible

Pirates Team Preview: Anything Is Possible

This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.

The last time Pittsburgh entered a season with so few question marks they made the playoffs three straight times. From 1990 to 1992, the Pirates advanced to the postseason, only to face unceremonious exits every time. If the team makes it past the regular season again in 2015, that will make it three consecutive playoff trips once again.

Thanks to an epic collapse in Milwaukee, the Bucs hosted the Wild Card for the second straight time in 2014. Despite playing 17 of 26 September games on the road, the Bucs went 17-9 and its pitching staff posted an MLB-best 2.49 ERA down the stretch. A potent offense compiled a top-five OPS from July through season's end.

Last offseason, the Pirates were ridiculed for adding only Edinson Volquez and Clint Barmes to the payroll via free agency for a whopping $7 million. This offseason, management inked Francisco Liriano to a three-year, $39 million contract and signed international free agent, Jung-Ho Kang to a four-year, $11 million deal. Making up for the departure of catcher Russell Martin via free agency to Toronto may prove to be difficult, but emerging regulars like Jordy Mercer and Starling Marte will help offset the loss.

GM Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle have their sights set on an NL Central Division crown, but it won't be easy with St. Louis standing in the way. So long as the team trots out an Andrew McCutchen in his prime, however, it seems like anything is possible.

Offseason Moves  

Lost Russell Martin (Blue Jays), Edinson Volquez (Royals) and Clint Barmes (Padres) via free agency.

The Pirates made an effort to keep Martin in the fold - offering a reported four-year, $62 million deal, but Toronto ponied up $82 million for five years. A compelling argument can be made that Martin served as Pittsburgh's most important player over the last two seasons, not only with his offense, but also with his pitch-framing and handling of the rotation. Volquez (13-7) led the staff with 31 starts, crafting a team-best 3.04 ERA (in 192.2 IP) among qualified starters. Barmes mentored Jordy Mercer at shortstop.

Re-signed free agent pitcher Francisco Liriano.

In 2014, Liriano strung together back-to-back sub-4.00 ERA calendar seasons for the first time in his 10-year career. After losing Martin to Toronto, the Bucs had "leftover" money to spend and awarded Liriano with the franchise's richest free- agent pitching contract ever (three-years, $39 million). Following a miserable start and a trip to the DL, the lefty came up big in August and September. A bad back has always haunted the former Minnesota starter -- he has a 6.00 career ERA in the month of April - but the 31-year-old Liriano remains in the prime of his career and offers the Bucs one-half of a solid lefty-righty pairing with Gerrit Cole.

Signed free agents A.J. Burnett (Phillies) and Corey Hart (Mariners).

Burnett got lit up in Philadelphia last season, allowing a major-league high 109 earned runs to go with a 4.59 ERA, 1.41 WHIP in 213.2 IP. He pitched through a season-long sports hernia and still whiffed 190 batters, so there is reason to believe he can rebound and fill the Bucs' No. 3 rotation spot. Burnett turned down more guaranteed money from the Phillies in order to play for Pittsburgh. Don't be surprised if he puts up decent numbers with a bigger park, a better defense and Mark Melancon behind him to close out games. The Pirates took a flier on Hart. They'd like to platoon him at first base with Pedro Alvarez, starting him against southpaws. The team might also occasionally play him in PNC Park's tiny right field, depending on how his cranky feet feel.    

Signed international free agent Jung-Ho Kang.

The Pirates uncharacteristically bid on an international player, winning the rights to Kang by posting $5,002,015 to the Korean Baseball Organization. Kang will attempt to become the first Korean position player to make the jump from Korea to the major leagues. The infielder hit .356 with 40 homers last season while playing at a level comparable to Double or Triple-A (depending on the source). Although he's a wild card on a team, his price isn't so high that it would bankrupt the Bucs if he fails.

Signed free agent Radhames Liz (Blue Jays) to a minor-league deal.

Pittsburgh signed Liz after he went 4-0, registered a 1.90 ERA and struck out 29 in 24 IP of Winter Ball action. In 2014, He made only 12 starts in Toronto's farm system due to knee problems. Prior to that, he spent three years in Korea. Liz has mid-90s stuff and is a one-time top prospect. He's expected to compete for a bullpen spot.

Traded Justin Wilson to the Yankees for catcher Francisco Cervelli and also Joely Rodriguez to Philadelphia for relief pitcher Antonio Bastardo.

The hard-throwing Wilson struggled in 2014 after a solid 2013, opening the door for a change-of-scenery deal involving both players. Cervelli simply hasn't been able to stay healthy -- totaling 250 games in parts of seven seasons with New York - something Pittsburgh's training staff will work overtime to improve upon. The starting catcher's job is Cervelli's to lose, with only backup Chris Stewart, erratic Tony Sanchez and still-too-green Elias Diaz providing his competition. Former first-round pick, Reese McGuire, figures to take over behind the plate, but probably not until 2017.

Pittsburgh went for a proven bullpen arm over possible upside when it dealt Rodriguez for Bastardo. Bastardo projects as the team's second-best lefty out of the pen behind Tony Watson. He's struggled with command throughout his career (4.3 BB/9) but gets by with strong strikeout numbers (11.3 K/9). Bastardo figures to give the Bucs reliable relief from the left side.

Designated Gaby Sanchez for assignment and traded Ike Davis to Oakland.

Pittsburgh's first base platoon of Sanchez and Davis was a screaming failure, to the point of third baseman Pedro Alvarez sliding over from across the diamond. Sanchez forgot how to hit against lefties (.746 OPS) while Davis couldn't hit anyone (.721). Alvarez managed just five games at first base before injuring a foot. He could see a majority of starts there, with Corey Hart and possibly Sean Rodriguez stealing some starts away.     

Signed free agent Clayton Richard (Padres) to a minor league deal.

Richard offered some fantasy relevancy up until 2012, mostly because he started in pitching-friendly Petco Park. He's battled injuries the last couple years, totaling only 86 innings in two seasons but Pittsburgh pitching guru, Ray Searage, will look to work his magic with the left-handed project.

Signed free agents Sean Rodriguez (Rays) and acquired Steve Lombardozzi (Orioles) for cash.

Rodriguez offers the versatility to play around the horn and in the outfield. The one-time power prospect has settled in as a utility infielder, something Pittsburgh lacked last year when Josh Harrison took over third base on a full-time basis. Lombardozzi gives the Bucs a bat off the bench. The switch hitter batted .288 in 73 at-bats for Baltimore in 2014. The Pirates are hoping Rodriguez and Lombardozzi can give the team depth as it struggled with ineffective role players like Michael Martinez and Brent Morel a season ago.

Projected Lineup (vs. RHP/LHP)
1. Josh Harrison, 3B
2. Gregory Polanco, RF / Jordy Mercer, SS
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Pedro Alvarez, 1B / Corey Hart, 1B
5. Neil Walker, 2B / Starling Marte, LF
6. Starling Marte, LF / Neil Walker, 2B
7. Francisco Cervelli, C
8. Jordy Mercer, SS / Gregory Polanco, RF

We'll likely know early on if Corey Hart has anything left in the tank. If he does, then it wouldn't be surprising to see him hit in the middle of the lineup. How quickly Jung-Ho Kang transitions from Korea to the big leagues will likely determine his playing time. GM Neal Huntington has stated that Kang will begin the year on the Pirates' roster, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him start out in the minors. Sean Rodriguez is another possibility to move in and out of the lineup on a regular basis, otherwise the team is pretty well set.

Projected Rotation

1. Francisco Liriano
2. Gerrit Cole
3. A.J. Burnett
4. Vance Worley
5. Jeff Locke

Charlie Morton would like to start the season in the rotation, but offseason hip surgery may force him to the sidelines for the first few weeks of the year. Locke will likely move to the bullpen whenever Morton returns from injury.

Closer:Mark Melancon is secure in his closer's spot, but his $5.4 million arbitration award probably signals an end to his time in Pittsburgh after 2015. Tony Watson could collect saves in the event something happens to Melancon, but he seems more comfortable as a set-up man. Rookie John Holdzkom burst onto the scene in September and has the stuff to close, if necessary. If he continues to throw strikes, don't discount him as closer material.

Key Bullpen Members: As mentioned above, Watson represents Pittsburgh's best option from the left side. That said, he and Melancon were over-taxed last season when Jason Grilli flamed out and the team traded Bryan Morris to Florida. Watson's season numbers were special - 10-2 record, 1.63 ERA, 1.02 WHIP - but in his final 35 games he compiled a 2.60 ERA and batters hit .270/.301/.405 against him. The Pirates are hopeful the addition of fellow lefty, Antonio Bastardo, will help keep Watson's stuff sharp. Bastardo is in line for his fair share of holds in 2015. John Holdzkom probably has the biggest potential range of outcomes, with an outside shot of closing or losing his bullpen spot with bad control.

Notes of Import, Fantasy or Otherwise:

How will the loss of catcher Russell Martin impact the Pirates in 2015?

The Bucs went 65-45 with the Canadian starting behind the plate and just 23-29 without him. Martin led the majors throwing out baserunners in 2014, erasing would-be base thieves at a 38.5 percent clip (37 of 96). He also posted a .402 OBP in 460 plate appearances, forty-eight points higher than his career OBP of .354. The Bucs' current catching crew of Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez will neither scare anyone nor come close to collectively matching Martin's number. It's unlikely that Martin himself could even touch his .402 OBP again. On the flip side, Martin is 32 and catchers typically begin to break down physically at that age. The Pirates nursed him along carefully in 2014 -- his 111 games played total was the second-lowest mark of his nine seasons. He'll be sorely missed, but 2014 was a perfect-storm, career year for Martin.

Will right fielder Gregory Polanco take the next step and produce at the big-league level?

In 2014, fantasy owners disseminated every throw, every swing, every day of Polanco's minor-league adventure with Triple-A Indianapolis. His anticipated arrival in Pittsburgh didn't pan out the way some expected, however. After a quick start, pitchers preyed upon his weaknesses, throwing more junk his way. Polanco was unable to properly adjust and found himself back in the minors by August. Somewhat oddly, GM Neal Huntington cleared a path for Polanco's everyday play in 2015 by trading Travis Snider to Baltimore in January. The job will apparently be Polanco's to sink or swim. The organization seems confident that he'll take the next step forward, but there are no guarantees. Polanco didn't all-out hustle on some infield grounders and appeared frustrated at times. The outfielder will need to get off to a quick start to maintain his confidence - an important factor for the 23-year-old.

What can we expect from Pedro Alvarez this summer?

Alvarez hit a combined 66 homers in 2012 and 2013 and has the potential to crack 30 in an average season. It's not a stretch, however, to call the first-baseman-in-training one of the most frustrating players in fantasy baseball. Moved off of third base because of a major league-leading 25 errors (24 of the throwing variety) - in only 95 starts, Alvarez toiled at first base just five games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Over the offseason, the Vanderbilt product skipped the team's minicamp when a first-base primer with newly-hired coach, Kevin Young (who also moved from third base to first), was in order. Early on in 2014, Alvarez attempted to change his approach at the plate, taking more balls the opposite way while working on plate discipline - his 13:25 BB:K ratio in April was better than his overall 45:113 mark. Still, the power numbers weren't there and he scrapped his approach. The errors in the field then compounded things and he looked lost whenever he stepped on the field.

Can he rebound in 2015? It wouldn't be shocking but at the same time the Pirates appear to have moved on. They found out last summer that they can win with minimal contributions from "El Toro." A change of scenery would likely do Alvarez a world of good, but that probably won't happen until he proves his disappointing 2014 is behind him.

Where's the preseason love for Josh Harrison?

It's as if many folks believe 2014 was a total fluke for Harrison and on the surface it's easy to see why. Pundits point out the third baseman's unsustainable .353 BABIP right off the bat. From 2011 to 2013, he averaged a .275 BABIP. But what some observers don't realize is that his sample size includes only 1,125 career plate appearances and nearly half of them (550) took place in 2014.Is Harrison going to hit .315/.347/.490 with 13 dingers and 18 steals again in 2015? Probably not, he did put up a .360 BABIP for Triple-A Indy in 2013, so there is a precedent for a continually high BABIP (if he's indeed figured things out). Given his fantasy baseball versatility - 72 games at third base, 50 in the outfield - he could represent good value if he slips in drafts.

Will Neil Walker's impending free agency after the 2016 season prove to be a distraction?

The Pirates are facing a potential public relations nightmare with the Pittsburgh Kid. After the Western Pennsylvanian native belted a career-high 23 dingers in 2014, Walker lost to the Pirates in arbitration (he'll make $8 million instead of $9 million). The second baseman, who turns 30 in November, posted a subpar UZR/150 rating (-8.4) and continues to deal with chronic back issues. If he hits 25 home runs in 2015, does that make him worth, say, $13 million per year? It's conceivable that the Bucs move him off second base with Jung-Ho Kang in the mix. That probably won't happen until 2016, but it's a possibility. Another scenario has Walker shifting from second base to first. Pittsburgh has proven to be thrifty with its pennies and the hometown hero may well prove to be the ultimate test for the Bucs. Given GM Huntington's track record, it would be surprising to see Pittsburgh offer a long-term extension to a player on the wrong side of 30 with an injury history.


The outfielder of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco may be the best in baseball. Cutch won the NL MVP Award in 2013 and has been recognized three straight years as a finalist for the honor. Marte has averaged 13 homers and 36 stolen bases in his first two seasons despite playing in only 135 games each year. Some believe Polanco has the greatest upside of any of the three outfielders. Pittsburgh offered him a $70 million-plus contract before he played an inning in the big leagues. Since then, the hype has died down around him, but he's set for his first full major league season after Pittsburgh jettisoned Travis Snider to Baltimore in January.


It's easy to seeing the starting rotation struggle in 2015. Francisco Liriano has a history of back problems, 38-year-old A.J. Burnett allowed 109 earned runs for the Phillies in 2014 - the most of any pitcher, Charlie Morton is coming back from yet another injury - this time it's the hip, Jeff Locke seems best equipped for an 81-game season as he typically pitches really well for one half and really poorly in the other. Who would be surprised if Vance Worley regressed after a nice bounce back season? The only pitcher approaching "sure thing" status is Gerrit Cole and he went on the disabled list twice in the span of a month with shoulder and rib ailments.

Rising:Jordy Mercer - Manager Clint Hurdle stuck with Mercer during a horrendous two-month stretch to open last season, when the shortstop batted below the Mendoza Line (.190/.227/.261) in his first 152 plate appearances. That confidence was rewarded, as the 28-year-old slashed .280/.335/.437 with 11 homers and 49 RBI the rest of the way. Hurdle moved Mercer into the No. 2 spot in the lineup on occasion against tough lefties, but for the most part batted him eighth. Mercer likely won't cost much in drafts and has no competition at shortstop, two selling points in fantasy. The former Oklahoma State closer makes for a cheap endgame pickup that will start more games than a majority of NL shortstops.

Declining:Corey Hart - Hart, who missed all of 2013 after two knee surgeries, played only 68 games last season for the Mariners, battling hamstring and knee injuries much of the year. He signed with the Pirates as a free agent and figures to platoon with Pedro Alvarez at first base and could see some spot action in the outfield. There's still a bit of hope if the 33-year-old stays healthy. While he totaled just 15 extra-base hits in 232 at-bats last season, eight of those, including four home runs, came in April before injuries struck.

Sleeper:Nick Kingham - Kingham might not have the ceiling of Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon, but he put himself on the map with an impressive 2014. In fact, there was a groundswell of support among the Pirates' fan base to promote Kingham to the majors after he posted a 2.30 ERA in his first 16 starts (97.2 innings) split between Double-A and Triple-A. He cooled off after that, finishing with a combined 3.34 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 119:52 K:BB ratio in 159 innings. Kingham is more of a control pitcher with decent stuff but he probably won't strike out too many batters (6.7 K/9). At the least, the 23-year-old looks like a possible No. 3 starter with a big frame (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) who can eat innings. He could make his major league debut in 2015 with a good start and a few injuries to Pittsburgh's rotation.

Super Sleeper:Elias Diaz - Experience is the only thing stopping Diaz from cracking the Pirates' Opening Day roster. With brittle Francisco Cervelli, lackluster Chris Stewart and erratic Tony Sanchez ahead of him, Diaz could make his big league debut at some point in 2015. He flew under the radar somewhat over the course of his first five minor league seasons, but broke out by slashing .328/.378/.445 in 91 games with Double-A Altoona in 2014. The 24-year-old then followed that performance up with a .763 OPS in Arizona Fall League action.

Top Prospects:

Tyler Glasnow, RHP - Along with the injured Jameson Taillon, Glasnow ranks atop Pittsburgh's impressive list of pitching prospects. The 6-foot-7 righty built upon an impressive 2013 at Low-A with a standout season for High-A Bradenton last year. Working primarily off a high-90s fastball and sharp-breaking curve, Glasnow recorded 157 strikeouts in just 124.1 innings. He gave up only 74 hits but walked 57. Fortunately, the control improved year over year, from 4.9 BB/9 to 4.1 BB/9. Although the 21-year-old struggled in his lone playoff appearance and wasn't particularly dominant in the Arizona Fall League, he'll get a bump up to Double-A in 2015. While it's unlikely the organization promotes him to the big leagues before 2016, he could see time with Triple-A Indy this summer.

Austin Meadows, OF - The ninth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Meadows got off to a late start in 2014. After suffering a hamstring injury early in spring training, the outfielder didn't make his season debut until June 30th. He did little to jeopardize his elite prospect status, though, hitting .322/.388/.486 in 165 plate appearances with Low-A West Virginia. Meadows put up a 1.065 OPS against right-handers but struggled against lefties (.466). While he has plenty of work to do with same-sided pitching, he's still just 20 years of age and posted a .784 OPS vs. southpaws in rookie ball in 2013. Meadows will continue to learn the pro game for the next couple years. At that point, he could push the trio of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco.

Jung-Ho Kang, SS - Kang, 28, had an outstanding season in South Korea last year, hitting .356 with 40 home runs for the Nexxen Heroes. He became the first position player from the KBO to come to MLB via the posting system. It's thought that Korea ball equates somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A. Prior to 2014, Kang averaged .289 and never hit more than 25 homers in parts of eight Korean campaigns. The lure of untapped power potential is great, however, and Pittsburgh will better know what it has in Kang after spring training. GM Neal Huntington has stated that Kang will start the season on Pittsburgh's 25-man roster, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him spend time in Triple-A as he adjusts to life in North America. The time in the minors also will better enable the Bucs to see what position Kang might be best suited.

Jamison Tailon, RHP - Taillon, the second overall pick in the 2010 first-year player draft, underwent Tommy John surgery in April of 2013. He was expected to serve as a midseason Super 2 callup in the order of Gerrit Cole but instead faced the long 12-to-18 month rehab process. Pittsburgh will take a conservative approach with its top pitching prospect in 2015. It's possible the team could hold him back in April so that he can finish the season in Pittsburgh without hitting an innings limit. Taillon has thrown just 382 innings in parts of three minor league seasons, including only 37 at Triple-A. The righty has yet to dominate at any level for an extended period of time and the Pirates will almost certainly give him substantial Triple-A time before a possible big-league promotion. Taillon remains a prized keeper league property, one which fantasy owners need to keep a close eye on throughout his rehab process.

Joshua Bell, 1B - Bell compiled an overall line of .325/.375/.459 and was named Pittsburgh's top minor league hitter of the year in 2014. The organization moved Bell to first base from the outfield for the Arizona Fall League, with fairly disappointing results. The Pirates have sought help at first and the 22-year-old switch-hitter projects as a possible long-term solution. Unfortunately, after a rough AFL both in the field (five errors) and at the plate (zero homers), the organization must wonder whether the 6-foot-2, 235 pounder will ever hit for power. Bell went deep just nine times in 465 plate appearances split between High-A (nine homers in 363 PA) and Double-A (zero homers in 102 PA). He's already dealt with knee injuries on multiple occasions, but if he finds a power stroke, the Bucs will most likely fast track him to the majors.

JaCoby Jones, 2B - Jones, a 2013 third-round draft pick, has one of the highest offensive upsides in the Pittsburgh organization. He hit .288/.347/.503 with 23 homers and 17 stolen bases for Low-A West Virginia in 2014, though at 22, the LSU product was a bit old for his level. He also committed 24 errors in 99 games at shortstop, bringing into question whether he ultimately might move to another position. Jones has experience in center field, but the Pirates' stacked outfield might mean a move to second or third base in the future. For now, he'll continue moving up the organizational ladder -- most likely playing for High-A Bradenton in 2015 -- in a farm system lacking players with his potential offensive ceiling.

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John Toperzer
John has written for Rotowire.com since 2003 and serves as the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Pirates. He’s worked for the Pirates for 17 years, written for the Penguins’ Web site as the first game-day editor, and rooted for the Steelers dating back to the Immaculate Reception.
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