It looked like things were finally going to turn around for the Pirates in 2012. After beating the Cubs on August 1, they were 16 games above .500. Of course, Pittsburgh finished 19-39 and plummeted to fourth in the NL Central ahead of just the rebuilding Cubs and Astros. And that was the end of that, for at least one year.
Depth Chart (as of 3/5)
C: Russell Martin
1B: Garrett Jones
2B: Neil Walker
SS: Clint Barmes
3B: Pedro Alvarez
LF: Starling Marte
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Travis Snider
SP: AJ Burnett
SP: Wandy Rodriguez
SP: James McDonald
SP: Jeff Karstens
SP: Kyle McPherson
CL: Jason Grilli
After largely struggling through a season with Rod Barajas primarily behind the dish, the Pirates made a huge ugprade by signing veteran Russell Martin, last of the Yankees. The Pirates also acquired former Tigers prospect Andy Oliver, former Indian Jeanmar Gomez, and former Royal Vin Mazzaro to compete for the fifth starter spot, along with signing Jonathan Sanchez and Francisco Liriano for the same potential role. Pittsburgh also signed veteran reliever Jose Contreras and bench bat Brandon Inge. Reliever Mark Melancon was the most significant piece acquired in the Joel Hanrahan trade, along with Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimental, and Ivan DeJesus Jr.
Hanrahan was dealt to the Red Sox after a disappointing 2012, and considering that Jason Grilli was re-signed at a much lower cost than him, the Pirates were wise to save some salary by dealing the veteran a year before he hit free agency. Free agent pitchers Kevin Correia, Hisanori Takahashi, and Chad Qualls all signed elsewhere this winter, and none of the three were big losses. Pittsburgh also declined the option on Barajas after a wretched 2012. In addition to trading Hanrahan, the Pirates traded bench bat Yamaico Navarro and reliever Chris Resop, neither of whom seemed like a part of the team's long-term future.
Kyle McPherson, who made ten appearances in the majors late in the season for the Pirates last season, is currently penciled in as the team's fifth starter, though that could quickly change if Liriano's arm is healthy. As for the rest of Pittsburgh's young talent…Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon *could* show up in the majors this year, but I'd personally bet against it. Catcher Tony Sanchez is seemingly blocked by Martin and fan favorite backup Michael McKenry, but he could make an appearance if there's an injury behind the plate this season.
The right field job is seemingly Travis Snider's to lose, but former building block Jose Tabata could push him for playing time. Gaby Sanchez, Garrett Jones, and Snider are in a three-man, two-position platoon right now, but things could quickly change based on who wins the right field job, and Sanchez could find himself riding the bench more often than not. There's also the chaotic fifth starter's battle, which Liriano was supposed to win before he broke his arm this winter, but now is a battle between him, McPherson, Gomez, Oliver, and Jeff Locke.
Liriano's broken right arm is something that threw Pittsburgh's offense into tumult, because of how the injury delayed the signing of his contract and took Pittsburgh out of the running for various other rotation options. Starter Charlie Morton had Tommy John surgery last June, and could be ready for action early on in the summer. Aside from those two injuries, the Pirates are a pretty healthy club, though Neil Walker was banged up a bit last year.
Can Andrew McCutchen carry the team on his back once again, or was 2012 an aberration?
The Pirates are, realistically, the third or fourth best team in the division, depending on how you feel about the Brewers. I imagine that if everything falls into place properly and the pitching staff holds their own, the Pirates could contend for a wild card spot. I think the fanbase would be happy with a winning season, even if a playoff berth isn't something that comes about for them.
100 losses, and falling behind the Cubs for last plce in the NL Central. The Pirates had their first pick outside of the top five in the draft in 2012, and will have their first back to back seasons outside the top five since 2004-05 once they pick ninth and 14th this year. In 2004 and 2005, the Pirates took Walker and McCutchen, each with the 11th overall pick. With their farm system strong and their major league club loaded with young talent, Pittsburgh reverting to a bottom five team in MLB in 2013 wouldn't be a good turn of events.
I think the Pirates are going to have a year in 2013 much like they did in 2012, finishing around 76 to 80 wins and trudging along in the NL Central while making some small strides forward. With nearly the entire roster returning for 2014, they don't *need* to have a breakthrough season, but it would help a lot.