2014 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

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After second-half collapses led to fourth-place finishes in 2012 and 2013, the Pirates finally compiled a winning record and returned to the postseason for the first time since 1992. It was a long time coming. Pittsburgh deeply enjoyed the Bucs following through on early-season promise, overtaking the Reds for the NL's first wild-card spot and beating Cincinnati in the wild-card playoff. Meanwhile, baseball fans around the country adopted the Pirates as a team to root for, delighted by a new face in the playoff picture. 

Yet general manager Neal Huntington didn't build on the team's success by making splashy offseason additions, sticking to their tight budget and pursuing free agents that could be signed below market rates (and wouldn't require giving up a first-round draft pick to sign). The Pirates are banking on their deep farm system (ranked No. 3 in MLB by ESPN's Keith Law) to boost the talent level of the major league roster. But will that be enough to make the playoffs again? 

Depth Chart (as of 3/13)
C: Russell Martin
1B: Gaby Sanchez
2B: Neil Walker
3B: Pedro Alvarez
SS: Jordy Mercer
LF: Starling Marte
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Jose Tabata
SP: Francisco Liriano
SP: Gerrit Cole
SP: Wandy Rodriguez
SP: Charlie Morton
SP: Edinson Volquez
CL: Jason Grilli

New Faces
Well, here's the thing. The Pirates didn't add much in terms of trades or free agents. Pittsburgh took Chris Stewart off the Yankees' hands, acquiring him for a player to be named later. He was expendable after the Yanks signed Brian McCann, but should be a suitable backup catcher behind Russell Martin. 

The more notable offseason addition was pitcher Edinson Volquez. But bringing in a pitcher who compiled a 5.71 ERA last season (including a 6.01 ERA in 27 starts for the Padres, who play in the pitcher-friendly Petco Park) doesn't inspire much excitement. Volquez led the NL with 108 runs allowed last season and his strikeout rate was the lowest it's been since he became a full-time starting pitcher. Among the 43 starters who qualified for consideration, he finished last with an 0.4 WAR. Pittsburgh is apparently hoping that his 4.24 FIP indicates that poor defense may have been a factor in his pitching woes. 

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Adding Volquez to the starting rotation looks even more dubious when you consider that he's replacing A.J. Burnett. Among MLB starting pitchers, Burnett ranked ninth with a 4.0 WAR. For most of the offseason, the Pirates had no idea if the 37-year-old would return to the team or retire. He stated that his preference was to re-sign with Pittsburgh or call it a career. While Burnett mulled over his decision for three months, Huntington really had no choice but to move on and consider other options. 

Yet when Burnett did decide to pitch in 2014, the Pirates suddenly didn't seem like an option for him. The free agent market had just yielded a four-year, $50 million contract for Matt Garza, and Burnett wouldn't require a team to give up its first-round draft pick to sign him because Pittsburgh didn't extend him a qualifying offer. Additionally, Burnett was only looking for a one-year deal, lessening the financial risk for any club interested in pursuing him. He suddenly became an extremely appealing target.

Not making a qualifying offer to Burnett was another questionable decision by Huntington, though it indicated that the team had no interest in paying him $14.1 million. Burnett may have seemed willing to give the Pirates a "hometown discount" while he was caught up in the fun of a playoff race. But the $12 million that Pittsburgh reportedly offered him was less than the $16 million contract he received from the Phillies. Making matters worse, the Pirates didn't get a compensatory first-round draft pick in return. 

While not as much of a blow as losing a top-of-the-rotation starter, Pittsburgh could also miss Garrett Jones' left-handed bat at first base this season. Jones wasn't spectacular against right-handed pitching, batting .241 with a .730 OPS in such matchups. (Overall, Jones was a below-average player, contributing an -0.2 WAR.) But 15 home runs and a .450 slugging percentage did provide some pop, something that the Pirates' lineup is lacking since a suitable replacement wasn't brought in. 

The Pirates also showed little interest in bringing the entire band that won an NL wild-card bid back together. Each of the team's trade deadline acquistions was let go. Marlon Byrd signed with the Phillies, Justin Morneau went to the Rockies and John Buck ended up with the Marlins. It's understandable that Pittsburgh didn't bring back Byrd and Morneau, considering they found two-year deals elsewhere. But their absence has left two holes in the lineup that have yet to be replaced. 

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Impact Rookies
Here's the good stuff, the reason for optimism, even if you're a Pirates fan upset about the team's offseason inactivity. Reinforcements will likely be on the way from the minor leagues and a couple of them could make a significant impact on this season. 

The concern over who plays right field could be addressed by top prospect Gregory Polanco. As of this writing, the 22-year-old outfielder could make the big league roster out of spring training. But it seems far more likely that he'll begin the season with Triple-A Indianapolis. Polanco's game could develop further in the minors, but more importantly, bringing him up later in the season delays his major league service time. That pushes his free agency back one year and also prevents him from earning four years of arbitration eligibility, rather than three. 

But unless Jose Tabata and Travis Snider can fill the position capably, calling up Polanco to take over right field seems like an inevitability. Last year, he went from high Single-A to Triple-A, compiling a slash average of .285/.356/.434 with 30 doubles, 12 home runs, 71 RBI and 38 stolen bases. Both Law and MLB.com rate him as the overall No. 13 prospect in baseball. 

We already know top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon won't begin the season in Pittsburgh, as the Pirates assigned him to minor league camp during the first wave of spring training cuts. Huntington said Taillon needed to work on his changeup and curveball, while also learning to control opponents' running game better. Additionally, he just needs to throw more innings to get ready for the season. But the likelihood is that Taillon will follow the same timeline as Gerrit Cole did last season. Cole was in the majors by June, becoming a significant part of the Pirates' rotation. The hope is that Taillon's development unfolds in similar fashion this year. 

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Position Battles
Who will be the Pirates' right fielder? That's really the one competition to follow this spring. As mentioned above, the position likely belongs to Polanco once he's ready for the majors (and passes the service time limit necessary to give Pittsburgh another year of club control). Until then, Tabata and Snider should battle for the starting right field job. (Chris Dickerson and Jaff Decker could also be in the mix.) Tabata appears to be the favorite, especially after hitting so well during the final two months of the season. In September, he batted .315 with an .844 OPS, two homers and 12 RBI. 

Snider, by comparison, was awful. In the second half, he hit .171/.196/.371 while struggling with a foot injury. Overall, he batted .215 with a .614 OPS. This wouldn't be a platoon situation, as Tabata hit .292 with a .778 against right-handed pitching. He's actually better against righties than lefties. Yet Tabata is giving Snider an opportunity to win the job with a poor spring. As of March 13, he's batting .158 with a .316 OPS in 19 plate appearances, while Snider is hitting .313 with a .944 OPS. 

Another competition will be at first base for the left-handed side of a platoon with Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez hit .204 versus right-handed pitching, meaning he won't be a full-time player at the position.

So who will start against righties? Andrew Lambo could be the favorite. He showed big power in the minors, slugging 32 home runs with 99 RBI between Double-A and Triple-A. Against righties, he batted .288 with a .944 OPS. But Lambo didn't show much in his brief major league stint last season, compiling a .233 average and .733 OPS in 33 plate appearances. All but one of those PAs was against right-handed pitching, during which he batted .204. Travis Ishikawa and Chris McGuiness are also competing for the job, but aren't making much of an impression this spring. 

Injury Concerns
Francisco Liriano signed a one-year, $1 million contract with incentives last season because of his injury history. (Well, he also broke his right arm while playing with his kids over the Christmas holiday.) But he stayed healthy and earned more than $2 million in performance bonuses, while also triggering an $8 million option for 2014. The left-hander has made 24 starts or more in each of the past five seasons, so maybe it's not entirely fair to label him as an injury concern. (And that broken arm was a freak, off-the-field accident.) 

Wandy Rodriguez should be considered a far bigger concern, having made only 12 starts last season due to arthritis in his left elbow. This isn't a condition that will go away with time and rest. Rodriguez will have to deal with it for the rest of his career, though he's only under contract with the Pirates through this season. Can he still be a 200-inning pitcher near the top of the rotation for Pittsburgh. Asking for something close to 200 strikeouts might be a bit much. 

Jason Grilli's health is also an issue, having sustained a strained forearm that put him on the disabled list last season. Is it a coincidence that his arm wore out from the workload of being the Pirates' full-time closer last season, the first time he's ever held such a role? Grilli threw 50.1 innings, but relied heavily on an excellent slider that surely taxed his elbow. The 37-year-old wasn't as dominant a reliever when he returned, though he's slated to be the closer again this year.

The Pirates have been working Grilli slowly this spring, but could conceivably shuffle save opportunities among Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson this year, if needed. Stolmy Pimental has also pitched impressively this spring and could help reduce Grilli's workload. 

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Best Case
Andrew McCutchen puts up MVP-caliber numbers again, while Liriano maintains his No. 1 starter level of performance. Pedro Alvarez cuts down on his strikeouts to hit for a higher average, which could help his already impressive power numbers. Starling Marte builds on a strong 2013 and continues to develop as one of the best young outfielders in MLB. The same goes for Cole in the starting rotation, asserting himself as the No. 2 starter in the rotation. But most importantly, Polanco and Taillon follow through on their early promise and provide the Pirates with the extra bat and starting pitcher that the team needs to stay competitive in the NL Central.

If Pittsburgh hangs with the Cardinals and Reds in the division, while also competing with the other NL wild-card contenders, Huntington makes savvy deals at the non-waiver and waiver trade deadlines to fill holes and add reinforcements for another playoff drive. Maybe ownership will approve adding to the payroll in order to keep the postseason excitement alive. 

Worst Case
Volquez is awful at the back of the Pirates' rotation, making it miserable for his team every fifth day. If Taillon isn't eventually ready to replace him, Pittsburgh could go with Jeff Locke and look for spot starts from Pimental or Jeanmar Gomez. And what if Liriano regresses, pitching more like he did in 2011 and 2012, a back-of-the-rotation starter who has to scrape for a new contract in free agency? That puts a greater burden on Cole and Wandy Rodriguez at the top of the rotation, while Charlie Morton attempts to increase his workload in his second full season following Tommy John surgery. 

Polanco struggles in the minors and shows he isn't quite ready for the majors yet, leaving Tabata and Snider to man right field and Huntington to look for help at the trade deadline. What if a suitable left-handed platoon doesn't develop at first base, Huntington doesn't find outside help and Sanchez has to play the majority of the time out of necessity? That could create two black holes in the lineup, leaving McCutchen and Alvarez as the Pirates' only viable run producers. 

Realistic Scenario
The Pirates should be able to stay ahead of the Reds in the NL Central, though will likely finish behind the Cardinals. The question is whether or not the rest of the NL has improved enough to make winning another wild-card bid more difficult. Whomever finishes second in the NL East will likely get one spot and the Phillies could be in that mix as well. The D-Backs, Padres and Rockies could each be better than they were last season. And the Brewers should present added competition in the division. 

Winning 94 games again looks like a difficult task for Pittsburgh under those circumstances, especially since the front office did nothing to improve the roster during the offseason. The Pirates could be this year's version of the 2013 Orioles, a surprise playoff team that failed to build upon its success by adding key pieces and increasing the roster's talent level. Baltimore fell to fourth place last season. Could Pittsburgh experience a similar slide? Unless their prospects develop into the meaningful contributors that the team envisions, that seems entirely possible. 

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has covered baseball for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.