The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates were better than we expected, finishing with 79 wins despite having just four players top the two win mark on the season. We can safely exclude any of those four players (Andrew McCutchen, AJ Burnett, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez) from being x-factors in 2013 for the Pirates, so where exactly does that leave us?
My x-factor for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013 is Francisco Liriano.
Liriano has been a mystifying pitcher over his career. Sandwiched around a six win 2010 season were four seasons of less than two wins, with last year being the best of those four at 1.8 fWAR in 156 2/3 innings. Liriano has also never thrown 200 innings in his career, and has even only topped 150 innings twice.
But the potential for Liriano to be dominant is still there, especially with him shifting to the NL Central. Liriano's fastball averaged 93 mph last season, just the second time in the last five (along with that awesome 2010) that his velocity has been higher than 92. However, his control is still a mess, and he continued to get hit hard.
I'm not saying that a miracle is going to happen with Liriano, especially after he broke his arm this winter. But AJ Burnett was coming off of two awful seasons with the Yankees, with ERAs over 5.00, awful control, and balls flying out of the park. In 2012 with the Pirates, Burnett was back to his old self at age 35. Maybe the same thing will happen with Liriano, and a fresh start to his season will have a positive effect on him and he'll be reborn as a pitcher. Or maybe nothing will change, and the Pirates will have been better off by re-signing Kevin Correia. There's a lot more reward than there is risk with Liriano, and the Pirates are probably looking at Liriano's 2006 and 2010 seasons and salivating at having that guy in their rotation in 2013.