With some of these "four horsemen" lists, maybe we've tried to be a bit tricky and clever. A team's four best players aren't necessarily the same as the four who could have the biggest influence on whether or not the season is successful. But that's really not the case with the Pirates. The Bucs need their best players to meet — if not exceed — expectations to compete in the NL Central and wild-card races. Here is Pittsburgh's fantastic foursome, beginning with the league's best player last season.
We begin with the obvious, no-brainer pick. McCutchen won the NL MVP award last season, finishing tops among the league's hitters with an 8.2 WAR. His .317 average was the fifth-best in the NL, while his .404 on-base percentage placed fourth and his .508 slugging mark and .911 OPS ranked sixth. The Pirates center fielder also notched 38 doubles, 21 home runs, 84 RBI and 27 stolen bases.
Yet as mentioned in a previous post, McCutchen's numbers were better nearly across the board in 2012. His higher WAR is due to a significant improvement defensively, in the view of FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating. McCutchen was below average defensively two seasons ago, costing his team almost nine runs more than an average center fielder. But McCutchen played much better in the field last year, saving seven more runs than a replacement level player at his position. There can be wild variances in UZR from season to season, and McCutchen has bounced between bad and good. Could he be better in all aspects of his game this year?
More importantly for a Pirates team that needs to hold on to the attention of Pittsburgh fans and is growing in popularity among MLB supporters, McCutchen is the face of the franchise. He's a cornerstone player that the Pirates can build their marketing around. The team knows he won't do anything stupid or embarrassing off the field, and that's also made him someone MLB can promote on a national basis. Maybe he really is baseball's ambassador.
A key difference between the Pirates' fourth-place finish in 2012 and their postseason breakthrough last year was the addition of Liriano to their starting rotation. Signed to a one-year, $1 million with a vesting option, the veteran left-hander looked like back-of-the-rotation filler for a team that needed a relatively reliable presence to provide some innings. He turned out to be so much more than that with a resurgent season that reminded us of the pitcher who was one of the AL's best starters from 2006 to 2010.
Liriano led Pittsburgh's starting pitchers with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts. He struck out 163 batters in 161 innings (his largest workload since 2010) and significantly reduced his rate of walks per nine frames. Though A.J. Burnett had a higher WAR and pitched 30 more innings (making four more starts), Liriano became the Pirates' No. 1 starter during the season. He looked every bit the ace in Pittsburgh's wild-card playoff victory over the Reds, allowing one run, four hits and one walk over seven innings.
But can Liriano follow up that success with another strong season? He's never been able to string together two consecutive good years during his career, though injuries were certainly a factor in that. The left-hander's performance trigged an $8 million option, giving him a salary more in line with his performance. It would certainly be in Liriano's best interests to pitch well again and help the Pirates make another playoff run. He'll be a free agent after the season and could be one of the top pitchers available.
McCutchen is certainly the Pirates' best hitter and top run producer. But that makes Alvarez's spot in the lineup extremely important. The Pirates' third baseman hits fourth, right behind McCutchen in the batting order. Lineup protection may be a myth, but having someone who slugged 36 home runs creates an imposing presence should opposing pitchers try to pitch around McCutchen and put him on base. Other teams surely prefer to face Alvarez, given his penchant for striking out. Yet he's always a risk to launch one into the seats.
Alvarez probably won't ever be a batter that doesn't strike out at least 150 times. That would actually be a significant decrease, as he's struck out 180 times or more in each of the past two seasons. But making more contact would make a huge difference in his batting average and on-base percentage, as his numbers in college and the minors demonstrate. Major league pitching is obviously much more formidable, but improving his approach at the plate, especially in two-strike counts, could yield positive results.
Something that could also help Alvarez get some better pitches to hit is having a good bat behind him in the fifth spot. Neil Walker and Russell Martin are solid batters, but aren't likely to persuade the opposition from giving Alvarez little to hit and compel him to chase pitches out of the strike zone. Adding a power-hitting first baseman or the emergence of top prospect Gregory Polanco would be a benefit.
If Liriano isn't capable of pitching like an ace again this season, perhaps it won't matter if Cole is ready to take his place as the Pirates' best starting pitcher. The 23-year-old lived up to the promise of being the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011, joining the Pirates in June and quickly establishing himself as one of the rotation's top starters. Overall, he finished with a 10-7 record and 3.22 ERA, which was second-best among Pirates starting pitchers. Advanced metrics show that Cole pitched even better than his ERA indicates, compiling a 2.91 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). That's outstanding for a pitcher facing major league competition for the first time.
It's natural to expect that Cole will be even better in his second season (his first full year as a major league starter). With Burnett's departure, Cole becomes even more important, slotted as the No. 2 starter in the rotation. For him to continue to succeed and improve, he'll have to boost his pitching arsenal. More specifically, Cole will have to refine his slider and curveball and throw them for strikes.
Last season, he relied heavily on his fastball. That's not a bad idea since he averaged 96 mph with the heater. But major league hitters will eventually catch up to that and wait for their pitch if Cole can't keep them off balance with his secondary stuff. He also throws a changeup and will have to work that in as he progresses. That could give Cole five pitches (including his two-seam and four-seam fastballs) to work with.