Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Preview: 21 Questions to Answer
It’s Opening Day, those two sweet words marking an event beloved by fans of all 30 teams. No more frivolous exhibition games or exaggerated position battles. It’s a day indisputably tied to ideas of hope, but also to wondering and questions that will take 162 games to answer.
Tom and Tim gave you the facts about the 2013 edition of the Pittsburgh Pirates, from the rotation to the bullpen, from the infield to the outfield and the bench. Now I’ve got the questions, 21 of them, that this team will give responses to.
1. Will the Pirates produce an above-average offense?
The last time the Bucs finished in the top half of the National League in runs scored was 2003, powered by Brian Giles (.430 OBP, .951 OPS), Reggie Sanders (.913 OPS, 31 HR) and Matt Stairs (.950 OPS), all of whom were in their 30’s and out of Pittsburgh by the following season.
This offense skews younger. The Bucs finished 10th in the NL in runs last year, which was hardly world-beating, but it was still their best ranking since 2008. Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Michael McKenry are all entering their prime years after strong hitting seasons, while Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and Starling Marte lead a 25-and-under crowd that can always improve.
Featuring so many young starters with their peak years still to come, this might finally be the team with an above-average offense. These guys want to say, “Suck it, Reggie Sanders!” which is something we all have dreamed of saying.
2. Can Jose Tabata or Travis Snider finally break out?
There are two very different outfielders who will platoon in right field. Snider is a lefty entering his sixth Major-League season from Washington state who was drafted as a first-rounder and remained highly touted thanks to his power potential.
Tabata is a righty going into his fourth MLB season from Venezuela, who arrived in the Yankees’ system as a 16-year-old with expectations of developing into a complete player.
But similarities link them, most significant being ranked as two of baseball’s top outfield prospects around the same time. While Snider is 25 and Tabata is 24, their careers are entering the put-up-or-get-sent-down phase. Tabata frustrated by retreating to the more free-swinging ways of his rookie year, rather than the more disciplined hitter that drew a strong 10.5% walk rate in 2011.
Snider has greater potential as a hitter and, as the newer addition to the organization, will likely have a longer leash. But both face the pressure of being a corner outfielder that needs to start hitting like one, as well as a depleting number of people who will excuse below-average play as a byproduct of youth.
3. Can Francisco Liriano be more than a pretty slider?
It is a damn good slider. Last year, the pitch had the highest whiff rate of Liriano’s career, and the biggest reason he had the highest swinging strike rate in all of baseball last year (minimum 100 innings). He also hit the strike zone with it at a career-high rate last year. The slider is not the problem.
But he still stunk overall, largely because he had the worst control in baseball (43% of pitches hit the strike zone). He couldn’t throw his changeup for strikes. His fastball, despite some return in velocity, still was not effective. It all ended with a 5.34 ERA on the season.
We shouldn’t expect any of his pitches to improve much, but two changes will do Liriano’s overall results some good. First, Russell Martin will help raise his called-strike rate as one of the best pitch-framing catchers in baseball.
Second, Liriano’s last good season was 2010, when he gave up the lowest percentage of home runs in the AL. That was the first season at Target Field, when fly balls died a solemn, American death before they could become homers. PNC Park can be a similar fly-ball graveyard for right-handed hitters. If Liriano can trust his new home to hold homers (the chart below shows how six of his home runs allowed last year would have hit the warning track at PNC) and Marte to track down other batted balls, his ERA will come back down to Earth.
4. Will the bullpen hold up without Joel Hanrahan?
The Pirates’ bullpen was pretty average last year: 9th in park-adjusted FIP, 10th in SIERA, but 3rd in win probability added. You can check out Tim’s more expansive piece on the bullpen, but after some expected regression from Tony Watson and Jared Hughes, the pitcher that will have a huge impact on the 2013 Pirates is Mark Melancon.
Let’s play the “Blind Player Game,” even though you probably hate it by now.
Pitcher A: 21% strikeouts, 8% walks, 2.78 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 0.61 HR/9, .286 BABIP
Pitcher B: 26% strikeouts, 14% walks, 2.72 ERA, 4.45 FIP, 1.21 HR/9, .225 BABIP
That’s pretty close, even given the weird fluctuations of bad homer luck/good BABIP luck of Pitcher B.
Pitcher A is Melancon in 2011, his last season in the NL when he closed for the Astros. Pitcher B is Hanrahan in 2012. You can’t wave away Melancon’s 6.20 ERA with the Red Sox last year, even if he was better in the last two months. Point is, Hanrahan is on the decline and losing a lot of his control. If there is a drop-off in the change from Melancon to Hanrahan, it won’t be a steep one. But it is irritating that the Pirates’ bullpen will remain average to below-average.
5. What will Andrew McCutchen do for an encore?
As long as he stays healthy, we pretty much know what McCutchen’s floor is as a hitter: .260 average, .360 OBP thanks to a 10% walk rate, 20 homers, 25 doubles and 20 steals. And that floor would still make for an above-average center fielder in a game in which it seems all of the center fielders are above average, with apologies to Lake Wobegon.
His ceiling… Well, have you seen the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul? That’s a pun, and a truly mediocre one. You’ve certainly seen the retired numbers at PNC Park: Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell, Paul Waner, Roberto Clemente.
If I’m getting ahead of myself, maybe that’s the point. We’re still not certain what McCutchen is capable of, which is incredibly exciting. He took a leap from All-Star to offensive behemoth, especially terrorizing lefties who dared to challenge him. He won’t lead the league in hits again, since BABIP regression will take hold. But the power is real and spectacular.
Home Runs 400+ Feet (Source: ESPN Home Run Tracker)
If you’re doubting another 30-homer season, do it at your own risk.
6. Will Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon arrive and make an impact?
Don’t be a nincompoop about why Gerrit Cole is not on the roster. Of course he started the season in Triple-A. Do you want an extra month of 22-year-old Cole or an extra season of 28-year-old Cole?
That said, a further delay of his arbitration clock will keep Cole in Indianapolis until at least June. If he starts dominating Triple-A hitters (he only had two appearances above Double-A last year), I’ll start pounding my fists, demanding his upper-90s fastball with the Pirates. But it will most likely be June, and he will be more effective than Jeff Locke or Kyle McPherson will.
I still can’t envision Taillon at PNC Park until next year. He’s a year younger than Cole, still has command issues, and only threw 17 innings at Double-A last season. He is making his way, though.
7. Can they field well again?
Fielding was a strength of the Pirates last season, and it should be even better this time around. They were above average by most metrics, 5th in the NL in defensive efficiency (71.4 percent), 8th in Ultimate Zone Rating (0.4 UZR) and 4th in Revised Zone Rating (.838).
In the infield, Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez are still bad (other than a laser-guided arm), Clint Barmes would be Gold Glove-caliber if they gave those out for fielding instead of hitting and number of highlight reels made, and Neil Walker is about average and still getting better.
The biggest improvements will be at catcher and left field. Russell Martin will actually throw some runners out, with help from his pitchers, and frame more called strikes. And a full season of Starling Marte in left field sure beats the number of innings Alex Presley and Jose Tabata got at the position last year.
8. How will Clint Hurdle infuriate us this year?
When I asked SI’s Joe Sheehan about Hurdle, he used the words “conservative” and “not innovative” to describe the Pirates’ skipper. That’s being kind. When Sheehan is meaner, he writes words like: “If someone knew everything about baseball but the scoring rule that defines the save, they would have thought that Clint Hurdle was throwing last night’s game.”
I am willing to give Hurdle the benefit of the doubt that he is a terrific motivator and teacher for a young team. His in-game tactical managing, though, makes me want to punch holes in drywall. He used guys like Juan Cruz and Jose Veras in too many high-leverage situations. He adores saves and closer mentality to the point of almost never using Hanrahan in extra innings on the road.
I’ll get to the bunts in the future, I’m sure.
What worries me most this season is that Jason Grilli is now the team’s best reliever but now also the closer. I’m petrified Grilli will almost entirely be used for three-out save situations instead of the best spots to help the Pirates win. That tactic alone will cost the Pirates games.
9. What moves will Neal Huntington make?
One of the best MLB season previews came from FanGraphs, which presented an apples-to-apples comparison of all 30 teams at every position based on computer projections. The results are not perfect, but they allow us to see that the Pirates’ weaknesses are first base, shortstop, right field, and overall pitching.
If the Pirates are buyers at the deadline again, some of those holes will be relatively easy to fill. Well, except shortstop. Some pitchers on potential non-contenders who are on the final year of contracts: Roy Halladay, Matt Garza, Jon Rauch, Brandon Lyon and Rafael Betancourt. Among position players are Carlos Pena, Justin Morneau, David DeJesus and let’s say Curtis Granderson to anger the Yankees fans.
10. Will Jonathan Sanchez and Jeff Locke effectively hold down the back of the rotation?
My dad asked me this question, and the response I can give is, “I doubt it. I’ll be counting down the days until Charlie Morton and Francisco Liriano are back.”
I can try to apply my Liriano Theory™ will get more called strikes with Russell Martin and fewer home runs allowed at PNC Park, but there is no there there. The control may be gone for good, and his pitches are more hittable than ever.
There is a bit more to believe in with Locke. He is still 25, even though it seems like he’s been in the system since the Bush administration. Locke had a steady season in Triple-A (2.48 ERA, 131 strikeouts, 43 walks in 141.2 innings), and is a perfectly “fifth starter” kind of fifth starter. He might earn some staying power in the rotation, but an eventual seat in the bullpen is more likely for 2013.
11. Can PNC Park come alive again?
One of the most exciting games I attended last season was the Drew Sutton walk-off game. Fans cheered, celebrated, even stayed to soak it in, partly because the win put the Pirates at the top of the Central on July 3.
Moments like that were about as close as we got to, “man, imagine this place if the Bucs made the playoffs.” There are a couple opportunities for that in the regular season, including two series against St. Louis (July 29-August 1 and August 30-September 1) and the last home series against Cincinnati.
Fans and writers alike rave about the atmosphere at San Francisco’s AT&T Park in September and October. I’ve seen enough games on the North Shore, hung out with enough folks like me that see a winning Pirates dream in their dreams… PNC Park would be a very special place to watch a contending baseball team.
12. What will Starling Marte do for an After-Partay?
If there’s a hangover to the “Marte Partay,” it’s this: Marte needs to put up much better than a .300 on-base percentage to fit as a leadoff hitter. Last year’s results won’t fly.
We know he will continue to steal bases well, man a great left field and throw out as many foolish Goldschmidts as he can. But at the plate, he ended up with the 8th-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the game (minimum 150 plate appearances), swinging at an Alfonso Soriano-esque 35% of pitches outside the strike zone.
That’s not what you want to see from your leadoff guy. Keep in mind that Marte is the second-youngest guy on this list (after Freddy Galvis), and he improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio in each of his final two minor league seasons. But it will take a while until Marte can be considered an effective leadoff hitter, and that will mean fewer runs for the Pirates early in games.
13. Who will surprise as a hitter this season?
Last year’s team saw 38 different players step up to the plate, including getting some unexpected pop from players like Casey McGehee, Drew Sutton and Brock Holt.
This year, I submit Jerry Sands, who arrived in the Joel Hanrahan trade and has not finished writing his book yet. We will learn a lot about Sands’ true power ability at Indianapolis as opposed to the Albuquerque Launching Pad. He’s still 25 years old, a huge guy at 6-foot-4, earning praise for his power even before that 2011 season that saw 29 homers for Albuquerque in 94 games. If Sands shows something, that is a potential right-handed weapon as a pinch-hitter.
14. Is there another Brad Lincoln lurking in the bullpen?
Even though he didn’t make the Blue Jays roster this spring, Pittsburgh fans won’t soon forget Lincoln’s dominance out of the Pirates’ bullpen (40 K, 8 BB, 2 ER in 35.2 innings last year), even if came with a dose of luck with runners on.
If you’re looking for another Lincoln-type surprise, it might come from Bryan Morris. Morris has shown pretty much everything he has to show in the minors (and at least one other person agrees), but it seems the Pirates are going to give him at least a few weeks in Indianapolis because he had an option. The move annoyed me, but Morris’ fastball-cutter combo is ready for high-leverage big league innings, and he will be pitching those before too long.
15. Will they collapse in the late summer again?
This was another question from my dad. Frankly, I don’t know. I thought last year’s team had learned from 2011, with players telling me as much, and that crew still fell apart. If the Pirates head into the All-Star break above .500 again this year, I’ll answer the question then.
Hold me to that. Until then, I’m punting.
16. Can a rotation of old guys carry the load?
If the first starting pitching move is to replace Locke with Liriano, the Pirates’ will have a rotation that averages 31.4 years old. I’ve talked enough in this piece about young guys potentially improving on offense, so seeing the opposite in the rotation is worrisome.
This is a clear negative for the Pirates, as pitchers tend to peak around age 28, and only McDonald and Liriano are in that range. Rodriguez and Burnett are both in their mid-30s, with the risk of wheels falling off or a growing affinity for Murder, She Wrote. The good news is both are durable, each with four straight seasons of 30+ starts. The Pirates need them to hang on to their youth. Quick, get them some Silly Bandz and a One Direction CD.
17. Which James McDonald will take the mound?
When I examined McDonald last August, several signals marked the righty’s downturn after the All-Star Break: his command got shakier, his fastballs were slower and more hittable and his slider was less dominant. But his curveball got more whiffs, and he had some bad luck with balls in play and home runs.
The final results were (crazy enough) exactly the same between 2011 and 2012: a 4.21 ERA in 171 innings, not to mention his 2012 FIP and xFIP were also 4.21. Expect J-Mac to improve slightly this year. If you put ERA aside, McDonald improved his results on all the relevant indicators of strikeouts, homers, hits, walks. It’s movement in the right direction, even if the direction is that of a solid No. 3 instead of the guy we thought was an All-Star snub.
18. Does this season teeter on Pedro Alvarez?
More than any other player, the production from Pedro Alvarez determines the Pirates’ ability to score runs. And I fully expect another successful season at the plate for him in the cleanup role.
His power is legit, and legitimately awesome to watch. Alvarez tied Alfonso Soriano for the second-most “no doubt” home runs in the NL with 10 (behind Mr. Moon Shot, Giancarlo Stanton). Even if he regresses a bit, since a 25% homer-to-fly-ball rate is high, he could easily knock on the door of 30 homers again.
Yes, the high strikeout rate will continue to be tough to watch. But Alvarez’s change in swing, which limited ground balls and pop-ups, and more aggressive approach last year should deliver another year of moon shots.
19. What kind of competition will the rest of the Central bring?
You can make fun of the Pirates all you want, say they are going to suck, have no sense of fundamentals or pitch worse than Charlie Brown with a blindfold on. (The Peanuts comics once had a character named Royanne Hobbs, which shows how Charles Schulz phoning in the names in his Age-71 season.)
The Pirates can look ugly as hell, but all that matters is finishing with one of the five-best records in the National League, so you have to compare them to the other teams.
The Reds will be tough to tame this year after 97 wins without even getting a full season from bat-swinging cyborg Joey Votto. I like the path the Cubs are on, and their new-look rotation should sparkle, but I don’t think the team will challenge this year.
That leaves the Cardinals and Brewers. I say the Cards take second place again this year, with one of the more complete and solid overall rosters in the NL. Milwaukee will smack dingers, but who knows if MLB will punish Ryan Braun at some point? That decision will have a bigger impact on the Pirates’ result in the division than you might expect. I expect the Bucs to finish third again.
20. How many wins will it take to make the playoffs?
Shoot for 89 wins, which would have been enough to obtain the NL’s second Wild Card berth (or a one-game playoff for it) in seven of the last eight seasons. The Cardinals made the playoffs with 88 wins, and that may not be out of the ordinary in future years.
Remember when the Pirates were only two games back of one of the Wild Card spots? As late as Sept. 15 last year? Well, that leads us to…
21. Will this be Losing Season Number 21?
The projection systems offer a holistic look at every team, and this is what a few say about the Pirates: 78 wins (CAIRO), 80 wins (PECOTA), 81 wins (Clay Davenport). But all those systems do is provide a clue, a rough number to keep in mind as an unbiased perspective.
No one should want an end to the losing streak more than me. I was born in 1992, and the last two years are as close as I have ever gotten to relevant baseball, following the standings day after day, seeing the postseason through the fog. It bears repeating a thousand times more: a winning season is not the goal, because a playoff spot is the goal. Anything less than playing past Game 162 is, indeed, less.
I’ll take the cop-out route and predict 81 wins. Pushing for a Wild Card spot is not a ridiculous outcome; there are enough scenarios that can turn right for this team, enough young players with as-yet unrealized potential that could break out and lead the charge.
I simply don’t see “playoffs” yet. There are still many questions to be answered.