There is not more that can be said about the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates. I mean, they went 94-68 which was their first winning season since 1992. They deserve all the kudos as they went face to face with the Reds (who they took out in the Wild Card play in game) and the Cardinals (taking them to 5 games in the NLDS). It had been so long since the Pirates were in the playoffs that the playoffs consisted of two division winners playing for the right to go to the World Series in 1992. The Pirates build a solid young core through their minor league system and led by NL MVP Andrew McCutchen (.317, 21, 84) and 3B Pedro Alvarez (.233, 36, 100). The Pirates were also led by LHP Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02, 26) and the fact that it seemed everybody trusted to start for them pitched to a low 3.00 ERA. Another thing was the bullpen. Led by Jason Grilli (0-2, 33, 2.34, 54) and Mark Melancon (3-2, 16, 1.39, 72) the Pirates were untouchable in the late innings. What seemed to fall apart over the past couple seasons all went right in 2013. That being said, nobody wins 94 games because they are lucky.
The Pirates added veterans Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd for the stretch run and postseason. Neither were brought back leaving Gaby Sanchez (.254, 7, 36 in 136 games) and Jose Tabata (.282, 6, 33 in 106 games) as the team's starting 1B and RF, respectively. Similar to the Indians (previewed as team #22), the fact that they were negligent in addressing these needs is a little perplexing. Offensively, one saving grace could be top prospect Gregory Polanco, who many consider the next five tool MLB OF. If that is the case, the Pirates will have one hell of an OF with McCutchen in CF and Starling Marte (.280, 12, 35, 41 SB in 135 games) in LF. Neil Walker (.251, 16, 53 in 133 games) will be at 2B, with Jordy Mercer (.285, 8, 27 in 103 games) ready to take over for Clint Barmes at SS. (Barmes will be the backup middle infielder.) Russell Martin, who brought some much needed leadership both in the clubhouse and on the pitching staff, was the team's biggest acquisition last season. I would put Polanco on the opening day roster, making the lineup: Polanco RF, Marte LF, McCutchen CF, Alvarez 3B, Walker 2B, Sanchez 1B, Martin C, Mercer SS. Josh Harrison, Chris McGuiness and Travis Snider should contribute to a quality bench.
Liriano was phenomenal last season, but RHP AJ Burnett (10-11, 3.30) provided a strong veteran presence. Returning starters Gerrit Cole (10-7, 3.22, 19 starts), Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.29, 20 starts) and Jeff Locke (10-7, 3.52, 30 starts) are all hoping to take a step in their development. Morton is coming off a major arm injury and Cole will be pitching in his first full MLB season, though he does have some postseason experience. Veteran Wandy Rodriquez (6-4, 3.59, 12 starts) should be healthy enough to at least grab the 5th starter spot. Edinson Volquez will be trying to snag a spot in the rotation and should be decent insurance. Jeanmar Gomez (3-0, 3.35, 34 games, 8 starts) was a very good spot starter, in my opinion, the best at that role in baseball last season. RHP Jamison Tallion could be up this year, so their top pitching prospect could have a similar role to that of Cole in 2013.
In addition to Grilli and Melancon, the Pirates got solid pitching from RHPs Vin Mazzaro (8-2, 2.81, 57 games) and Bryan Morris (5-7, 3.46, 55 games) and LHPs Tony Watson (3-1, 2.39, 67 games) and Justin Wilson (6-1, 2.08, 58). This has the makings to be one of the top bullpens once again in all of baseball. But we all know the rule of relievers, it is a flip of the coin that any of the middle guys are dominant again. Assuming Grilli is fine, flipping the coin five times is unlikely to land heads every time.
I hate to be down on the Pirates as few should root against them. The team has struggled for so long and deserves some success. There are reasons the team can be good, especially if they have a lot of repeat performances in 2014. A lot of that is unlikely though, so I see the team taking a step back this season. Vegas has the Pirates at 83.5 for their O/U, quite a bit off from their 94 wins of a season ago. I have them at 78-84, 4th place in the NL Central. There is no reason this team cannot contend, I just see them falling short in a September pennant race.