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Playing Pepper 2013: Pittsburgh Pirates

Posted on March 19, 2013 at 2:30 PM
Filed Under: Pittsburgh Pirates | Playing Pepper
For the fifth straight year, Playing Pepper returns to C70 At The Bat.  If you aren't aware, this series helps get a feel for the other 29 teams in baseball by asking those that follow them the closest--their bloggers.  We've got spring training action going, so it's time to play a little pepper.  

Pittsburgh Pirates 
79-83, fourth in the NL Central 

For the longest time last year, I looked really smart.

On the annual pre-season NL Central show that I host on Blog Talk Radio (the 2013 version should be coming next weekend), I said that I thought the Pirates not only would snap their sub-.500 streak that was going on two decades long but also finish ahead of the Brewers for third in the Central.  The Pirates made me look good by not only being around third, but actually challenging yet again for the divisional title.  Sadly, their second straight post-All Star slump knocked them out of the upper division, continuing that sad streak.

Even so, there has to be more optimism in Pittsburgh now than since I graduated from high school.  (Class of '93, baby!  Reunion this fall!)  The Pirates seem closer and closer to being a contending team.  Will this be that fateful year that they finally get over the hump?

Pittsburgh may have a bit of a tortured history, but in spite of (or maybe because of) that, the fanbase can turn out some talented bloggers.  I've got two of them for today's entry.  Brian McElhinny writes Raise The Jolly Roger! and can be found on Twitter @rtjr.  Pat Lackey is the author of Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?, celebrating that fine Cardinal centerfielder (that, yeah, spent some time in the Steel City also).  You'll find him @whygavs.

So stick around to find out if they can buck the recent second-half trends and what rookies might help out if so.

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C70: How would you grade the offseason?

RTJR: B-minus. Russell Martin will be an improvement at catcher, although the Bucs are probably overpaying him. Trading Joel Hanrahan was a bummer, but Mark Melancon should be a good bullpen addition and Jason Grilli is as good a choice as any to be the new closer. I would've liked to see the rotation addressed more--right now it has a lot of upside but also potential for disaster with guys like James McDonald, Francisco Liriano, and probably a rookie 5th starter.

WHYG: The Pirates are a team that won't ever really be made or broken in the off-season, I don't think, so much of their off-season isn't really all that consequential. The Russell Martin signing is a good example of this kind of thing: they're probably overpaying Martin a bit at $8 million per year, but Martin does represent a real upgrade over the Rod Barajas disaster of 2012 and with Tony Sanchez losing his prospect status, catcher is a position the Pirates do need help at for the forseeable future. As a result, Martin wasn't a great signing but he wasn't a waste of money, either. If anything, I would ding them a bit for not doing more with the starting rotation. The rotation came apart at the seams down the stretch in 2012, and the only move the Pirates made related to starting pitching this winter (besides non-tendering then re-signing Jeff Karstens) was to sign Francisco Liriano, who then promptly broke his non-pitching arm and will open the season on the disabled list. The pitching staff seems OK at first glance with AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and James McDonald at the top of the rotation, but the depth is questionable with Liriano's goofy injury and Karstens' balky shoulder. Top propsect Gerrit Cole won't be ready until mid-season and the rotation could be an adventure until then. If I had to give the off-season a grade, I guess I'd probably go with a C-, though I'd allow some room for revision if Liriano gets healthy quickly and pitches well.

C70: Why should we not expect another second-half fade?

RTJR: I don't have a good reason you shouldn't expect one except for the fact that it seems mathematically unlikely to happen 3 times in a row. Last year the team motto was "finish" and all the talk in the offseason was about how the experience of a collapse would help the team avoid letting it happen again...and then it ended up being even worse. The Bucs will simply have to prove that they cay play well for a whole season before people believe they can do it.

WHYG: Because maybe there won't even be a first half surge this year? More seriously, the Pirates' second half collapse had a lot to do with a patchwork bullpen and a flagging rotation. I think the bullpen could be a strong point this year with young arms like Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson in it. The rotation, as mentioned above, is a big question mark, but it could also get a big boost from Gerrit Cole at mid-season. Beyond that, Neil Walker's back injury was a big problem in the second half, Starling Marte had some pronounced slumps in his rookie year, and Andrew McCutchen faded a bit in August. All of those things can be avoided and so if the Pirates find themselves in contending position down the stretch in 2013, I think they should be better equipped to handle a stretch run than they have been in the past.

C70: Can A.J. Burnett repeat his solid performance from last year?

RTJR: I think he will be good, but not ace-level like he was for a good part of last season. Burnett tailed off a little at the end of the year but showed he still has the stuff to be a top-of-the rotation pitcher. His leadership of the rotation and entire team was also very significant, and I expect him to at least be one of the better pitchers on the staff.

WHYG: I don't see any reason he wouldn't, to be honest. He got a ton of groundballs by leaning on his fastball a little bit more than he did as a Yankee, and PNC Park is a much better fit for him than new Yankee Stadium was. So long as he's healthy (and I only mention his health because he's 36 now) I think 2013 will look a lot like 2012 did for Burnett.

C70: What rookie will make the biggest impact in 2013?

RTJR: I'm going to count Starling Marte as a rookie for this question (he played 47 games last year) and choose him. He will start in LF and play every day there, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what he can do over a full season. Marte was one of the Bucs' top prospects and held his own in his MLB stint. He will hit leadoff because of his great speed, and while his OBP won't be as high as I'd like, he can hit for average with decent power and excellent defense.

WHYG: I mentioned Gerrit Cole above and since Starling Marte's not technically a rookie anymore, I think it has to be Cole. He only made one Triple-A start last year and so he'll start 2013 back at that level, but he's got all the makings of an ace right now. His fastball sits 97-99 mph and it's complimented with a hard, biting slider. Part of the reason he's in Triple-A is to improve his command and refine his changeup, but once he does that he should be in Pittsburgh and he's capable of being the sort of pitcher the Pirates haven't had in forever. Even if he's only with the club for part of the season, I think he could make a real impact in 2013.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

RTJR: I'm going to predict the streak finally ends, if only for my own sanity. 82-80 and 3rd place. That's optimistic but I think this team is roughly on par with last year's, and I'm going to write off PART of the enormous collapse simply as a mathematical aberration and bad luck. 

WHYG: I think they'll be pretty similar to last year; somewhere in the 75-80 win ballpark, probably in third or fourth (depending on the Brewers) in the division. There's more upside here than in the past, but I think the Pirates are still probably at least a year away from really contending.

C70: What one thing from your team are you most looking forward to watching?

RTJR: I'm looking forward to a winning season, obviously, but I am truly excited that the team finally has a legitimate group to build around now. McCutchen, Walker, and Alvarez have all proved themselves in the majors and will be around for a while. Marte should be part of that group soon as well as at least one of many somewhat promising RF options. Gerrit Cole should be joining the rotation at some point this year, and if the rest of the young pitching can step up behind Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, this will be a fun team to watch.

WHYG: Well, fingers crossed on this one, but I'm hoping for a big year from Starling Marte. He's got a ton of raw talent and it's hard to know how it will translate to the big leagues, but he's amazing to watch in the outfield and when he's locked in at the plate he can spray extra base hits all over the park. At one point last year, in his rookie year, he tripled in three consecutive games. If Marte really blossoms at the plate in 2013, he'll add another solid, middle-of-the-lineup bat to Andrew McCutchen (and Pedro Alvarez, at least against the Cardinals), which could really be the foundation of something good. 

My thanks to Brian and Pat for their responses, though I didn't quite need that last remark about Alvarez, who is the Bud Norris of National League Central hitters.  Still, I'm rooting for the Pirates to snap that streak and look forward to some good matchups with them during the season!

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