The Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed their first winning season since 1992 last year, and made the postseason for the first time since the alignment of 1994 that introduced the current divisional format. Pittsburgh topped it off by treating the home wins to a wild-card win and stretching the eventual National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals to a deciding fifth game in the Division Series. Is there an encore ahead? Let’s take a look at the Notebook Nine, our key talking points about the Buccos for the coming year…
*Pittsburgh’s Over/Under on the win futures in Las Vegas is 84, a season that would likely mean missing the playoffs. Before you think that’s too pessimistic, only three teams (Dodgers, Cardinals, Tigers) have win props at 90-plus, so what this really tells us the market thinks the Pirates will be right in the mix. Their odds to win the franchise’s first World Series since 1979 are 30-1.
*Andrew McCutchen got his due last season, The centerfielder won the National League MVP award. He hits for power and gets on base consistently, as reflected by two straight years of being .400-plus in on-base percentage and .500-plus in slugging percentage. He would not have been my choice for NL MVP in 2013, but if we talk about a multi-year body of work and then projecting forward, McCutchen is one of the game’s top two or three position players, thanks in no small part to great defense in centerfield augmenting his bat.
*There are a lot of reasons the Pirates turned into a playoff team last year, even though McCutchen had been great prior to that. One of those reasons is that Pittsburgh turned out a steady lineup of hitters, none of whom were great, but all of whom were pretty good. Neil Walker is the prime example. For four straight years he’s had OBP’s ranging from .339 to .349 and hit double-digit home runs. Add to him young shortstop Jordy Mercer, corner outfielders Starling Marte and Jose Tabata and first baseman Gaby Sanchez, and suddenly you’re getting a lineup that has some depth to it.
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*We can’t talk about offensive support for McCutchen without looking at third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who has hit 66 home runs the past two years. I have an issue with Alvarez though, and it’s his on-base percentages are poor. He’s 27-years-old and has to take the next step for a power hitter and it’s start to piling up walks, something that ensures he can still help his team on the vast majority of at-bats where the ball doesn’t leave the yard.
*Improvement from Alvarez is one way the offense can continue its improvement. Another one is for Marte and Tabata to step up. The duo—both in their early twenties—had stat lines with the OBPs in the .340s and slugging percentages ranging from .429 (Tabata) to .441 (Marte). It’s very realistic for those numbers to hit .360/.480 in both cases. Watch that happen, watch Alvarez get more plate discipline and then add that to McCutchen and the rest of the supporting cast and suddenly this lineup is potent.
*Francisco Liriano turned his career around as the ace of a balanced starting rotation, with 16 wins, a 3.02 ERA and solid outings in two playoff starts. We have to see Liriano string together two good years in a row now, something that didn’t happen when he was in Minnesota. Perhaps the presence of catcher Russell Martin, a solid handler of pitchers will stabilize Liriano for the long haul.
*23-year-old Gerrit Cole is the key to the rest of the rotation. He won 10 games with a 3.22 ERA in 19 starts last season, and will get a full season’s worth of starts in 2014. The rest of the rotation is good enough, but there are question marks. Wandy Rodriguez is 35-years-old and coming off a season where he made just twelve starts. Charlie Morton also missed a lot of time with injuries and isn’t more than a #4 starter when healthy. Jeff Locke has had a hard time staying healthy. And bringing in Edinson Volquez? Please, he hasn’t had a good year since 2008.
*No reason was more important to Pittsburgh’s success a year ago than the depth of the bullpen. Jason Grilli got his first chance at being a regular closer, and in spite of missing a good chunk of the second half, saved 33 games with a 2.70 ERA. It would be easy to dismiss the 37-year-old Grilli’s season as a fluke, but his ERA has been below 3.00 for three straight years. Last season was just his first chance at ninth-inning work and he made the most of it.
*It’s always tough to rely on great bullpen work two years running, but Pittsburgh has a slew of arms who are young and were either in their first year in the majors or their first year in the Steel City under manager Clint Hurdle’s tutelage. I’m talking about Tony Watson, Justin Watson, Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez. Even if you expect veteran eighth-inning man Mark Melancon to come back to earth after his 1.39 ERA (and I do), at least a couple of these kids should keep the relief coming in Pittsburgh.
I’m going to predict the Pirates go Over 84 on their win prop. I think their improved offense and bullpen is enough to at least ensure a winning season and after that, it’s just grabbing a few more wins. And if Hurdle can keep the starting rotation steady, they could easily win 92-93 games and challenge St. Louis in the NL Central again.