The Pirates go into the 2014 season with major questions at the right field and first base positions. The fifth starter is also a concern, but Pittsburgh should have enough arms to cover that. Though the Pirates return largely the same club that won an NL wild-card bid last season, the team carries a few other questions that need to be answered. These issues will have to be addressed positively if the Bucs are to keep up with the Cardinals and Reds in the NL Central, while also holding off increased competition throughout the league.
What can be expected from Wandy Rodriguez this season?
The 35-year-old left-hander was limited to 12 starts in 2013 due to arthritis in his left elbow. Arthritis isn't something that will go away with time and rest. This is a condition Rodriguez will have to deal with for the rest of his career — or through 2014, as far as the Pirates are concerned. Is a return to his 200-inning workload possible? Perhaps not, unless Rodriguez can somehow sustain heavy usage relatively pain-free. But if the Pirates can manage Rodriguez's innings totals properly (making sure he doesn't have to throw more than five or six innings per outing, for example), maybe the team can get the most out of him.
It will likely help that Rodriguez isn't expected to be the staff's No. 1 starter and carry an ace's workload through the season. That responsibility will probably fall to Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole at the top of the rotation. Though it's certainly possible that none of the Pirates' starters will be asked to throw 200 innings this season, if Jeff Locke and Jameson Taillon can contribute to the rotation with Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel chipping in with spot starts as well. Those innings could end up spread among seven or eight starters throughout the year.
Rodriguez won't replace A.J. Burnett in the Pirates' rotation — not by himself, anyway. But he probably wasn't going to be tasked with such a responsibility either. He'll be the third or fourth starter and if he can provide 160 — perhaps even 180 innings — that could be enough. Rodriguez did pitch well when he was able to, compiling a 3.59 ERA in his 12 starts. His 4.42 FIP indicates, however, that he benefited from strong defense behind him. But that shouldn't change this year, as the Pirates have plenty of good gloves in the field.
Can Andrew McCutchen be even better in 2014?
This probably seems like a ludicrous question. McCutchen won the NL MVP award, batting .317 with a .911 OPS, 21 home runs, 84 RBI and 27 stolen bases. He finished first among all NL position players with an 8.2 WAR. How can he be expected to improve upon that?
Well, maybe he can't. But the Pirates center fielder actually had better numbers in 2012, with a .327 average, .953 OPS, 31 homers and 96 RBI. His 194 hits led the NL. Yet McCutchen actually finished with a lower WAR because of his defensive performance. FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating can be tough to gauge from season to season and provides a better judgment on a player's defensive skills over multiple years. But in 2012, McCutchen was a below average defender, according to UZR. He allowed nearly nine runs more than a replacement level player at his position, earning -5 Defensive Runs Saved. It almost doesn't seem possible, yet the numbers are there.
Is it possible for McCutchen to have that one great season where his entire game comes together? Can he hit for average and power, assert his speed on the basepaths and play stellar defense in center field all in the same year — maybe in multiple seasons? Pirates manager Clint Hurdle thinks a higher average and more power can result from hitting more to the opposite field, something he got away from last year. For example, McCutchen put nearly twice as many balls in play to left field than he did to right, according to Hurdle.
McCutchen went into 2012 wanting to refine his swing and hit for more power. Last season, he wanted to feature more speed in his game. In that regard, he seems like a basketball player adding a new weapon during the offseason, like Magic Johnson incorporating the jump hook or a three-point shot. Will hitting more to right field be his new move this season?
Will the front office be able to add payroll at the trade deadline?
The real question might actually be "Will the Pirates be able to acquire a first baseman?" But that could be tied to how expensive such a player might be and whether general manager Neal Huntington and team ownership are willing to add to a budget that seemed relatively tight during the offseason. (If it wasn't tight, wouldn't A.J. Burnett still be in a Pirates uniform?)
If the Pirates had a bigger payroll, perhaps the team would already have signed Kendrys Morales to be their left-handed bat at first base. Morales is still available on the free agent market because his qualifying offer status would cost a team its first-round draft pick by signing him. Even if he's a one-dimensional player better suited to be a designated hitter, a team in need of power would likely have picked him up if not for the draft-pick consideration.
That's probably a deal-breaker for the Pirates, even this late in the process. Early on, Morales may have wanted more than the Pirates were willing to pay. But his contract demands are surely lowered with just three weeks remaining until opening day. Is Morales looking for something similar to the one-year, $8 million deal Nelson Cruz received from the Orioles? Could he be signed for even less than that? Maybe, but it won't matter because Pittsburgh can't afford to give up that draft pick.
So a trade is more likely. But financial considerations come into play there, as well. One player that's been frequently attached to the Pirates is the Rangers' Mitch Moreland. He agreed to a $2.65 million contract with Texas, avoiding arbitration. That certainly seems to fit within Pittsburgh's budget and he's under club control through 2016, which should also keep costs down.
Other first basemen that might appeal to the Pirates are Ike Davis and Lucas Duda of the Mets. Davis is a bit more expensive, earning $3.5 million this season. But he has a 30-homer season on his résumé. Duda could be the more budget-friendly target. Not only is he cheaper at $1.6 million this year, but he also won't become a free agent until after the 2017 season. Four years of club control would be even better for the Pirates.
And we're just talking about first base. What if Pittsburgh needs a starting pitcher later in the season if Rodriguez breaks down or Edinson Volquez implodes? That would almost certainly be more expensive, not just in terms of money but potentially also in prospects. But it could be the difference between a return to the postseason and a disappointing finish.