The Pirates headed into last season's trade deadline as legitimate playoff contenders, and after fortifying their roster with a few deals, they seemed poised to end their 19-year streak of losing seasons, if not their playoff drought. Instead, a 20-39 record from August 1 forward ensured that the Pirates would go two full decades without a winning record or a postseason berth.
The acquisitions of Wandy Rodriguez and Travis Snider didn't pay off down the stretch, and neither did the promotion of outfield prospect Starling Marte, but all three will be counted on to play a key role in 2013. Snider and Marte will start the season in the outfield corners and be asked to bolster a lineup that relied heavily on Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker for production. Rodriguez will return to the rotation, as will A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and Jeff Karstens.
One member of the rotation who won't be back is Kevin Correia, who bolted for the Twins as a free agent, but offseason signee Francisco Liriano will fill the vacancy. The Pirates also swapped out free agents for the other part of their battery, as the departing Rod Barajas will be replaced by ex-Yankee Russell Martin. The biggest move of their offseason, however, was the trade that sent closer Joel Hanrahan, along with infielder Brock Holt, to the Red Sox for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan DeJesus and Stolmy Pimentel. None of the acquired players is likely to have a serious Fantasy impact this season, but Hanrahan's departure opens the door for Jason Grilli to assume the closer's role.
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Unlike in blackjack, the Pirates will do their best to avoid hitting "21," as they try to break their skein of losing seasons. It's not unthinkable that the 2013 Bucs could be a winning team, but several factors would have to work in their favor. McCutchen will need to sustain the mammoth gains he achieved last season, and Burnett -- who went 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA -- will have to keep his comeback going. It will also help if Martin hits for power away from Yankee Stadium, Snider and Marte live up to their potential and Liriano stays healthy enough to deliver at least 160 innings. Just as the Pirates present their fans with a great deal of uncertainty, many of their players will cause some angst in the draft room, as few of the Pirates' Fantasy fortunes are clear for the coming year.
Buyer beware ... Andrew McCutchen, outfielder
McCutchen had a major breakout in 2012, batting .327, scoring 100-plus runs for the first time and posting his first 90-plus RBI season. There is no denying that McCutchen took his power game to another level, but were his gains enough to ensure that he will be an elite producer in Fantasy again this year? To match last season's level of production, McCutchen would not only have to maintain his power, but he will also have to come near the .348 batting average on grounders he put up a year ago. While McCutchen gets his fair share of infield hits, that is still an outrageously high average. Owners should expect fewer hits and runs as McCutchen's overall batting average should fall to around .290. That's still good enough to make him a first-rounder in Head-to-Head, but in Rotisserie leagues, the projected dip in average should drop McCutchen into the second round. You may be tempted to take him with your first pick for fear that he won't be available in Round 2, but resist the urge and let someone else take him that early.
Breakout ... Pedro Alvarez, third baseman
Alvarez got off to a tepid start last season, and as late as June 15, he owned a .189/.254/.373 slash line. Even during the early weeks, Alvarez hit with power, but later in the season, he hit for extra bases even more frequently. and he started to strike out less and walk more. In other words, he began to resemble the version of himself that got Fantasy owners excited back when he was a prospect. Alvarez's poor start, coming on the heels of a frustrating 2011 campaign, may have confirmed for many owners that he was a dud, but for the better part of the 2012 season -- from June 16 on -- he compiled a .274/.352/.518 slash line. He won't need to approach that level to be viable in standard mixed leagues, and even with a conservative assessment, Alvarez projects to be a top 10 third baseman in Rotisserie formats.
Enigma ... James McDonald, starting pitcher
Just as Alvarez was starting to put things together last season, McDonald was falling apart. With a 2.37 ERA in the first half, McDonald finally seemed to be living up to expectations, as he appeared to have put his command issues behind him. The second half started poorly for McDonald, as he failed to notch a quality start his first four times out, and he registered a 7.52 ERA after the All-Star break. To be sure, he turned in several clunkers, and he did have a harder time locating in the strike zone, but McDonald's slump was amplified by rough stretches in July and September. In five August starts, McDonald threw strikes at a higher rate than he did during the first half, and he held batters to a .223 average. According to FanGraphs, he stranded only 61 percent of his baserunners that month, which helped to exaggerate the extent of his slump. While McDonald's inconsistency does makes his value hard to assess, the fact that his downturn was neither as long nor as severe as it appeared on the surface should give owners more confidence in him. He showed enough of his good side last season to be worth drafting as a late-round pick in standard mixed leagues.
Gerrit Cole has lived up to his billing as a first overall pick, as he cruised through Advanced Class A and Double-A last season. He even got a brief taste of Triple-A, which is where he is likely to begin the 2013 season. Barring a change in fortunes, he should arrive in Pittsburgh's rotation later this year. ... Jameson Taillon is less likely to join the Pirates' rotation this season, but he looked good in the Florida State League after overcoming a midseason slump. ... 18-year-old Luis Heredia is at least two years away from the majors, but like fellow hurlers Cole and Taillon, he should be targeted in long-term keeper leagues. ... Kyle McPherson lacks the upside of the Pirates' top three pitching prospects, but he is the one who is most likely to make an impact this year. He's worth a late-round pick in deeper NL-only leagues. ... The Pirates lack position player prospects who are close to making a Fantasy impact, but outfielders Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell and shortstop Alen Hanson are all worth having in long-term keeper leagues.
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