Once again, the Pirates flirted with contention for the much of the season only to fade in the second half. Incremental progress continues to be made, however, and the man pictured above -- Andrew McCutchen -- has emerged as a genuine superstar. The reality, though, is the Buccos and their rooters have endured 20 straight losing seasons. Will that grimmest of streaks finally end in 2013? Let's break it down ...
1. Starling Marte, LF
2. Neil Walker, 2B
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Garrett Jones , 1B
5. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
6. Russell Martin, C
7. Travis Snider, RF
8. Clint Barmes, SS
1. A.J. Burnett
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. Francisco Liriano
4. James McDonald
5. Jeff Karstens
Closer: Jason Grilli
Setup: Mark Melancon, Tony Watson
Notable bench players
1B Gaby Sanchez, C Michael McKenry, IF Brandon Inge, OF Jose Tabata
Under-the-radar offseason transaction
Mark Melancon's overall numbers from 2012 look quite unpalatable, but he was a different pitcher after he returned from his Triple-A exile. Acquired this winter as part of the Joel Hanrahan trade with Boston, Melancon has command of fastball, 93 mph cutter and hard curve and boasts strong ground-ball tendencies. He was undone by early-season mechanical hiccups, but now that those are ironed out you can expect him to settle in as a force in the late innings.
Also worth noting: Melancon is 3 1/2 years younger and at least $6 million cheaper than Hanrahan.
Fantasy Breakout: Pedro Alvarez
"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." -- Al Melchior [Full Pirates Fantasy Preview]
The bench. Sanchez is a defense-first first baseman who makes for a natural platoon partner with Jones. Inge's modest pop from the right side pairs nicely with Alvarez's left-handed power (24 of Alvarez's 30 homers last season came against the opposite side), and he can also be a late-inning defensive caddy. As well, Inge can man second in a pinch.
Elsewhere, McKenry's solid secondary hitting skills make him one of the best backup catchers in the NL. Tabata, who's still just 24, has the kind of upside you don't normally see in a reserve, and Josh Harrison is capable of playing five different positions and stealing a base on occasion. When some of these right-handed bats are in the lineup, their lefty-hitting partners will make for a many a late-inning threat.
Underwhelmed by the decision to name the bench as the team strength? Fair enough. Consider this an addendum: Andrew McCutchen is awesome in every sense of the word.
The Pirates aren't awful in any single area, so this category poses a challenge. Their biggest weakness, then, is that they figure to be so thoroughly average at everything.
In 2012, the Pirates ranked seventh in the 16-team NL in OPS+, sixth in rotation ERA, 10th in bullpen ERA and fifth in defensive efficiency. You could point to the bullpen as the weak underbelly, but the more prevailing problem is that the Pirates, in the collective sense, aren't particularly outstanding at any phase of the game. Whether you'd characterize their essence as "average" or "mediocre" or "middling" or whatever, the point is that one of those terms applies -- to all of it. Unless ...
The rotation improves. And that's quite possible. Part of it has to do with the (wise) decision to sign Russell Martin this past offseason. Martin boasts plus power at the plate, but he'll also pay dividends when it comes to helping his pitchers earned called strikes. According to research by Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus, Martin from 2007-11 ranked second to only Jose Molina when it comes to runs saved via framed pitches.
Martin followed up that five-year span with another top-shelf framing season in 2012. In contrast, the outgoing Rod Barajas rated as solidly below-average in this regard. In a related matter, the Pittsburgh pitching staff last season ranked 14th in the NL when it came to called strikes as a percentage of total strikes. So not only is Martin an improvement, he also addresses a manifest weakness.
As well, phenom right-handers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon (ranked seventh and 19th, respectively, on Baseball America's list of top-100 prospects) figure to reach Pittsburgh at some point during the 2013 season. In Cole's case, he could be ready in time to pitch the majority of 2013 in the bigs, and his presence would give the Pirates some badly needed upside in the rotation. Taillon won't be far behind him.
There's also some depth this season, what with the signing of Francisco Liriano and the decision to bring back Jeff Karstens. There's no genuine ace, but there's strength in numbers. A full season of Wandy Rodriguez will also be a boon.
This is a long way of saying that if the rotation defies expectations -- which is a strong possibility -- then an offense helmed by McCutchen and, to a lesser extent, Alvarez and a healthy Walker and mixed-and-matched by manager Clint Hurdle could be enough to net the Pirates one of the two NL wild-card berths.
The rotation has too many fifth starters in it, Cole and Taillon prove to be not yet ready for the highest level, no one in the lineup not named "Andrew McCutchen" distinguishes himself, and they have trouble protecting ninth-inning leads. If all that comes to pass, then yet another losing season (and a fourth-place finish) is in the offing.
Modest improvement and the franchise's first winning season since 1992. No, the Pirates aren't going to make the postseason, but Martin's influence on the pitching staff in tandem with further skills growth on the part of some core young hitters and another MVP-caliber performance from McCutchen yield a win total in the mid 80s.
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