Prior to last October, the Pittsburgh Pirates had not played a single playoff game since 1992. The 20-year stint made losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS an occasion well worth celebrating. Now, the organization is doing everything it can to build off its success and delete the word “fluke” from its critics’ vocabulary.
On the surface, the Pirates appear to have had a quiet offseason. They lost more players than they acquired, including particularly notable departures in first baseman Justin Morneau, right fielder Marlon Byrd, first baseman and outfielder Garrett Jones, catcher John Buck, catcher Michael McKenry, and most recently, starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. Still, there is nothing but optimism in the “Steel City,” and the Bucs look forward to 2014 as a year of proving their resilient determination to remain a serious playoff contender.
It would be nothing short of naive to look at the lengthy list of departing players and conclude that the team’s success will be out the door with them. Instead, one should look at what Pittsburgh is left with to make a better judgment of where it’s headed.
The team’s pride and joy, center fielder and 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, enters only the third year of his six-year contract. He led the team in nearly every statistical category last season and his leadership was a big reason for its success. Another strength early on is the depth of Pittsburgh’s pitching staff– particularly its starters. The team acquired right-hander Edinson Volquez during the offseason, who has yet to post superb numbers since his breakout season in 2008. Still, he has put in some quality starts over the past few years, and he’ll grow being around the cumulative experience of Gerrit Cole, Jason Grilli and Francisco Liriano—who has already been named the Pirates’ starter on Opening Day in April.
As for Pittsburgh’s starting lineup, with the exceptions of Morneau and a 36-year-old Byrd, it won’t look much different than it did last year. Starling Marte will begin the season in left field and continue leading off as the Pirates 1-hitter. Following him will be Clint Barmes, sharing time at shortstop with teammate Jordy Mercer—who’s only played in 145 games as a big leaguer. Superstar McCutchen will hit third and set up the clean-up hitter and third-baseman, Pedro Alvarez, who looks to build off the 36 homers and 100 RBI’s he posted last season. Second baseman Neil Walker will bat fifth, preceding Pittsburgh’s incredible value of a catcher in Russell Martin. Gaby Sanchez will bat seventh and try to fill in the Pirates’ inexperienced gap at first base. Hitting eighth will be right fielder Jose Tabata, and whoever happens to be pitching will wrap up the order—as is National League tradition. Obviously a 162-game season will bring about some variety, but the core foundation will be there barring any injuries.
Though the lineup lacks any obvious punch, other than McCutchen, it still has the remains of last year’s success to drive it towards more this year. The Bucs finished last season 14th in home runs, 20th in runs scored and 22nd in batting average. Yet, the team still managed to forge themselves into the playoffs, where they took a very good team to five games before having to ship back to Pittsburgh. Even if nothing changes statistically, the Pirates have shown that they have heart. They’re mostly a young team, with an average age of 27 and a couple baby-faces coming up. This translates to the Pirate’s resiliency, which will be crucial in late games this season if they plan on playing ball in October.