Pittsburgh Pirates Season Preview: Raise the Jolly Roger
Some of my favorite childhood memories took place at Three Rivers Stadium. And not just when I was able to catch a Steelers game on the pullout bleachers, either. It was the Pirates games that I enjoyed – the summer evenings with my pops, brother and neighborhood friends where we’d catch batting practice, hoping to snag a ball from one of the players before the game started.
I loved the Pirates. As a naïve youngster, I didn’t know what small market teams were, nor did I fully comprehend why the team’s turnover each season was so high compared to other big league squads. I just knew I loved the Pirates.
I owned Pirates jerseys, and I wore Pirates hats before it became a thing. I rooted for them in September despite the team always being out of playoff contention at the All-Star break. I listened to them on the radio when I couldn’t watch them on television, and pretended to be Jay Bell – I played middle infield throughout little league because that’s what Jay Bell did, and Jay Bell was awesome.
But little did I know, young fans in nearly every other MLB city had no idea who Jay Bell was. They weren’t talking about Al Martin and Kevin Polcovich at the lunch table, and when October hit, many of them weren’t focused on the next season like I was.
That was the life of a young Pittsburgh Pirate fan in the ‘90s. The natural ignorance made the game so special – you liked going to the North Shore of Pittsburgh to watch a game because you liked the game. You liked watching your favorite players live and in person.
Little did I realize, I was missing out on something incredibly special.
Finally, last season, I was able to know what it felt like. After 21 miserable years, winning playoff games became a reality. The Pirates put together their first winning season since the Bush administration – the first Bush – and it was more than special for a Yinzer who grew up in the Steel City in the ‘90s. It was one of the few experiences in sports where saying “we did it” really meant we, the fans, helped make it happen.
For the first time in my adult life, the Pirates are entering an MLB season as winners. No, they’re not World Series Champions, and Yankees and Braves fans probably laugh at the fact that the 2013 baseball season in Pittsburgh meant so much to its fans. But it did. And the Pirates are looking to do even more in 2014.
During one of the worst losing streaks imaginable, the Pirates seemed to always find a guy or two who could produce All-Star caliber numbers. They just could never put enough talent around those players to consistently win.
It looked like star center fielder Andrew McCutchen was going to be another star who fell victim to a lack of commitment by the team’s front office. Sure, Cutch was better and had more promise than any of the Pittsburgh stars that came before him, but the formula was looking just like us Pirate fans had seen in the past – we were prepared to continue to be a farm system for teams who could afford a high-in-demand superstar.
But then McCutchen signed a deal that would keep him in Pittsburgh until at least 2017, and the team began to see a shift. The pitching staff started to get stronger with the additions of Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, and young stars started to shine at the big league level within the organization.
Starling Marte was one of them. Though he had 182 plate appearances with the Pirates in 2012, Marte became a full-time starter in 2013, playing alongside Andrew McCutchen in the outfield. Known for his speed, he was the leadoff guy the Pirates desperately needed, and ended his first big campaign in Pittsburgh with a solid .280/.343/.441 slash, 41 stolen bases and the 28th-best WAR in Major League Baseball.
Marte failed to show up in the Pirates five-game playoff versus the Cardinals (he went 1 for 19 in five games), and though we’ll more than likely see a bit of regression from a hitting perspective, he has the chance to become the ideal leadoff guy in the lineup for years to come.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez also improved in 2013, hitting six more dingers and 15 more RBI than he did in 2012. Though Alvarez’s wOBA actually dipped five points, there’s optimism for 2014 given his low BABIP a season ago – El Toro’s average on hit balls dropped from .308 to .276 from 2012 to 2013, while his line drive rate actually increased from 18.7% to 20.5%. If he can control his high K rate – one that was the sixth-highest in baseball last year – he should be able to contribute more with his bat this year, progressing into a more reliable bat within the offense.
Lastly, we can’t forget about starting pitcher Gerrit Cole. The righty was called up in June last year, helping a Pirates rotation that lacked a true young stud. Cole became that, not only hitting the 10-win mark, but a sub-3.00 FIP as well. A ground ball pitcher, Cole fits in well with the number one ground ball rotation in baseball. Though Liriano is technically still the team's ace, there's a chance that even casual fans get to know Gerrit Cole this year.
The Rest of the Lineup
Aside from McCutchen, Alvarez and Marte, the Pirates lineup boasts some interesting characters.
One of my personal favorites to watch this year will be Jordy Mercer, who is set to take over Clint “what’s hitting?” Barmes at shortstop. Barmes was kept on the team to be a utility guy, but his hitting is about as valuable as the Klobb in a multiplayer game of Goldeneye. We shouldn't expect him to see the same kind of plate appearances, barring injury, that we did in 2013.
Mercer’s a superior hitter, though our sample size isn’t very significant. In 365 plate appearances last season, Mercer hit .285 with a .333 wOBA, finishing the year with 1.4 WAR. Some projection models think he’s bound to regress because of his .330 BABIP, so if that’s the case, he’ll need to make up for it with his glove. The hope is that Barmes will be able to help that cause, even as a mentor.
Neil Walker will return as the team’s second baseman, and he should be able to improve on his .251 average from last season, as his BABIP dropped to a career low .274 despite a similar batted ball profile as year’s past. Walker gets on base with a high walk rate (seventh-highest among MLB second baseman last year), and can, at times, show power. However, he’s typically been a below-average player in the field.
All of this being said, Walker should improve at the plate in 2014, which is good news for the Pirates and guys around him.
Russell Martin, forever a hero in the hearts of Pirates fans after his now-famous “Cueto” home run in last year’s wild card win, enters the season as the Pirates starting catcher. He's an above-average player at the position, and posted 4.1 WAR in 2013. He’ll have to work on his K rate though, as it’s increased nearly each season he’s played since becoming a big leaguer in 2006. It also ranked as the 12th-highest among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances in 2013.
Though those positions are fairly set in stone, there are some question marks, specifically at first base and right field. Gaby Sanchez looks to be the leader to start at first base this year, but will more than likely platoon with Andrew Lambo, who’s four years younger. Despite a ridiculously poor K rate, Lambo has more upside, as he hit 18 home runs with 254 plate appearances in AAA last year. Meanwhile, Sanchez has the experience, making the All-Star team in 2011 with the Marlins, but his numbers have dropped significantly since. If the Pirates are indeed looking within to fill this void, the first base position could struggle this year.
In right field, the Buccos have a few options, and the aforementioned Lambo could step in from time to time. However, I’m expecting Jose Tabata to start at the beginning of the season, though the role will be temporary – an up-and-comer (I’ll talk about him later) could quickly fill the void.
Tabata was once a hopeful Pirates prospect, but has mostly just annoyed fans at the big league level. We should all take note, however, that he played pretty well in 2013 when called upon. Despite the team playing Starling Marte and Marlon Byrd over him (rightfully so), Tabata hit 39 points better in AVG than he did in 2012, and saw his ISO reach a career high as well (.146). He’ll have to show he can do that again to see significant time this year though.
It's important to remember that the Pirates won with pitching last year. The team's hitting wOBA ranked 16th among all big league squads, their AVG finished 22nd and they were in the bottom six in terms of K rate. There's plenty of room for improvement, which will need to occur given some of the question marks within the rotation.
A Burnett-Less Pitching Staff
A.J. Burnett took a one-year deal with the Phillies, getting more money than the Pirates were willing to pay. As a result, an additional spot in the rotation opened, and now veteran Edinson Volquez could step in.
In what feels like Francisco Liriano Part Two, Volquez hasn’t really been relevant since 2008, where he posted 17 wins and 6 losses with the Reds. Since 2010, he’s posted FIPs only above 4.00, and most recently went 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA with the Padres and Dodgers.
Just like the Pirates staff, Volquez is a better than average ground ball thrower, which is more than likely the main reason the Pirates went out and got him this offseason. In a best-case scenario situation, he turns out to be another Liriano. In a worst-case one, the Pirates bring up their top pitching prospect and hope he's ready (I'll get into him later).
I’ve already spoke to Gerrit Cole, but the team’s technical ace is still Francisco Lirano. Franky came out of nowhere last year and posted his first double-digit win season since 2010, throwing to a FIP that was below 3.00. He was absolutely lights out at home, too, where he pitched to a .173 average against and an insane 1.47 ERA.
Liriano has always had a nice K/9 average, but can certainly give up the long ball. But more important than anything, the most consistent part of his game has been that he's inconsistent. If he falters like he has in the past, the rotation could be in trouble.
A big reason the Pirates were able to turn the corner last year was because the bullpen finished third in all of baseball in ERA. Led by reliever Jason Grilli, the team has solid depth, but could be in store for a little regression due to having the second-lowest BABIP in the league in 2013.
In general, the team has the pieces in place to have another solid year from the mound. But it's a risky group. Liriano’s reliability will be key, and Gerrit Cole’s progression will be vital, too. Even if things go south though, there are some answers waiting in the minors (that’s a segue).
Let’s pretend Edinson Volquez struggles through May, Jeff Locke is unable to perform in a few starts here in there, and Wandy Rodriguez breaks his arm while riding an exercise bike. I’d be sad as a fan, sure, but excited for the fact that it would force the team to bring up Jameson Taillon, Baseball America’s number 22 prospect.
Taillon could follow the Gerrit Cole model this year, being called up around June and slipping into the Pirates rotation. The 6’7’’ (some places list him an inch shorter) hurler can hit 99 MPH with his fastball, and has a curveball that’s been graded incredibly high by scouts. It’s very possible that he gets the call halfway through the 2014 season, especially because of those aforementioned pitchers who could be in the rotation.
Taillon isn't the only prospect who could make an impact this year for the Bucs, either. The Pirates actually have six other players in Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects, but the one I really need to talk about is Gregory Polanco.
Remember when I said the Pirates have a need for a right fielder to play alongside Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte? That could be Polanco. And it could be sooner rather than later.
Was Polanco’s first spring training at bat, a home run, a sign for what's to come? He hit .285 with 12 home runs, 71 RBI and 38 stolen bases in the minors last season, and continues to rise within different prospect rankings. Given the Pirates mediocre lineup from a season ago, if nothing changes, he could be the guy that helps get the team get over the hump.
These two players, Polanco and Taillon, give promise to some of the riskier positions on the team. And with this type of talent being so closed to big-league ready, there's a sense of optimism even if the first half of the 2014 season is an average one.
Raise the Jolly Roger
I haven’t talked much about Andrew McCutchen throughout this article because his game is obviously good enough to the point where everyone knows who he is. He’s going to be one of the best hitters in baseball, and he’s going to continue to win in every facet of the game.
But what Andrew McCutchen has helped do to this franchise can’t be shown only by statistics and sabermetrics. Cutch has been the star in Pittsburgh who not only committed himself to the franchise, but knew what the town was capable of doing.
And now, the Pirates have young Major League talent, a handful of prospects on the rise and a better than average pitching staff, all despite losing talent in the offseason. Though the Pirates “should have” won fewer games than they did last season based on run differential, one thing is very clear: this team is for real.
And I don’t say that simply as a Pirate fan who has gone through arguably the most depressing losing streak in sports history. I say that as an objective analyst, and one that actually did say the team would take a step backwards this season. A step backwards, however, doesn't mean irrelevance.
Back in 1990, even before the infamous 1992 NLCS, there was a song created to get Pirate fans excited about the future – one that included players like Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek. It was titled You Gotta Believe, and was actually made by my high school's choral director (humble brag).
We’re all now over 20 years older since that song was released, but those three words continue to summarize the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Except, rather than believing a 65-win team will all of a sudden be competitive as I did when I was growing up, the city is believing an already-competitive, 90-win team can take the next step and make a run at the World Series.
Luck will have to play a role. The team still has holes, and there's risk involved at the back-end of the rotation and even within the lineup itself. But in the spirit of regression, wouldn’t it be fitting to see the Pirates go from perennial losers to every-year winners?
There’s certainly a possibility for that to happen.