NL Central Spring Training Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

While it is rare to say this about small-market clubs, the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates were certainly America’s Team. After two full decades of futility, a time in which Pittsburgh never once posted a winning record, the Pirates finally managed to push into the exclusive club of October baseball. After dispensing with Cincinnati during the Wild Card game, the team came up just short in a five game NLDS. To put that into perspective, neither the Wild Card game nor the NLDS round even existed the last time the Pirates had made the playoffs. Although last year’s drama would seem to be difficult to top, this season figures to be equally compelling along the Alleghany.

Although it lacks a truly dominant ace, the Pittsburgh pitching staff is deep and solid. Francisco Liriano got his career back on track last season, as his 3.02 ERA followed two years where that number was over 5. Also, former number one overall draft pick Gerrit Cole played a key role in the playoff run during his rookie season. According to Fangraphs, Cole’s fastball averaged over 96 miles an hour last year. He supplements the heat with a devastating slider that opponents batted a microscopic .119 against. Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke each posted ERAs under 3.60, and a healthy Wandy Rodriguez is an additional boost to the rotation. The Pirates have multiple threats out of the bullpen as well. Jason Grilli did a tremendous job as the closer, saving 33 of 35 chances before getting injured late in the year. While Grilli was out, Mark Melancon filled in for the veteran journeyman. Although Melancon struggled as the 9th inning man, he was terrific while working out of the setup role. He finished with 26 holds, third most in the National League, while compiling a sterling 1.39 E.R.A.

Any discussion of Pittsburgh’s lineup has to start with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutcheon. The centerfielder has had over 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases for four consecutive seasons, providing the Pirates with a well rounded threat. While peripheral statistics indicate that the 31 home runs he hit in 2012 may have been aberrational, at 28 McCutcheon remains a bona fide beast in the heart of his prime. Joining McCutcheon in the outfield is 25 year old Starling Marte, the leadoff hitter. Marte swiped 41 bases last season. However, the Pirates do have some question marks in the infield. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez provides power for the middle of the order and hit 36 home runs last season. Yet the home runs are all Alvarez brings to the table. Although his fielding has improved somewhat, Alvarez’ glove is still mediocre at best, and his 30% strikeout rate is alarmingly high. The Pirates are desperately weak at first base and at shortstop; throughout the offseason the team was unable to find any upgrades over Gaby Sanchez or Jordy Mercer.

After such a long stretch of failure, it would be disappointing if last year’s magic was simply an ephemeral flash in the pan. Fortunately, the team’s pitching depth and a number of bright young stars figure to keep the Pirates competitive this year. While the glaring holes in the infield may stop this team from making a deep October run, its safe to say that Pittsburgh will not have to wait another twenty years before its next playoff berth.

By Ben Tannenbaum