Yesterday, newcomer relief pitcher Mark Melancon stated that this would be the year that the Pirates would finally break the curse and finish the season with a winning record. I know the players say that finishing over .500 is not the goal for the season, but it’s what’s on the mind of every fan. With 20 consecutive losing seasons – and two major collapses back to back, it’s no wonder fans might be pessimistic entering the season. The pessimism is magnified with so many question marks surrounding the lineup. Tom Smith highlights many of these questions in his Blind Spot post. However, who am I to question Melancon?
In the spirit of snapping the streak, here are 20 reasons why the Pirates will finish with a winning season in 2013.
- Cutch: Pretty obvious one to start with here: Andrew McCutchen is a legitimate superstar who can help carry this team to the Promised Land.
- A Marte Partay: Starling Marte is once again displaying the type of skills that had every fan clamoring for him to finally make his appearance last year in Pittsburgh. This season he’ll live up to the hype and be the leadoff hitter we’ve been waiting for.
- Starting Rotation: One reason that the Pirates crumbled last season was that the starting pitchers ran out of steam. That won’t happen this year, as there are a plethora of starters available for the season. By my count there are 9 possible starters that could take the mound this season
- The Real Deal: The team lacked a presence in the middle of the lineup and in the infield when Neil Walker went down. There haven’t been any injury relapses in spring training with his back, and his bat and glove will be a steady force throughout the season. When healthy, Walker can be a top-5 second baseman in the National League.
- El Toro Power: Coming off a horrid 2011 season, Alvarez started 2012 slowly, however he ended up having his best season to date. Showing up to camp in great shape and with a new-found confidence, hopefully he can build on his 30 homerun season. When El Toro is on a hot streak, there isn’t a better power hitter in baseball – just ask Cleveland or St. Louis.
- A Real American Hero: Garrett “GI” Jones is a fan-favorite, and I think we can all say we’re extremely happy to still have him on the team. Despite the many rumors, it looks like Jones will once again be sharing time at first base and batting in the middle of the order for your Buccos. Jones, like Alvarez, is coming off his best season and will look to build on that again this year. Last season Jones absolutely crushed righties, hitting .287 and belting 25 of his 27 homeruns off of RHPs. He will fit just fine in his new platoon (pun intended).
- Yo Gaby Gaby: Gaby Sanchez had an extremely disappointing 2012. After an All-Star season people were expecting big things from the first baseman. However, an injury sidelined all that, and his poor performance pushed the former Marlin All-Star back into the minors before finally being traded to the Pirates. Sanchez played much better in Pittsburgh and now, fully healthy again, is tearing up the Grapefruit League. He’s batting .320 and already has 3 HRs in only 25 at bats. If he keeps this up the Pirate’s 1B platoon will be great.
- Late Season Surge: I think we can all agree that Clint Barmes was extremely disappointing at the plate to begin the season. So bad, in fact, that no one noticed he turned it around in the last 3 months of the season. He hit .257 after the All-Star Break (above his career average) and .300 in the last 3 months of the season. If he can continue that trend, coming into the season, it’ll be a huge boost for the lineup, and his defense has always been rock solid.
- The Addition of Russell Martin At the Plate: I’m pretty sure a sack of potatoes could have been as effective as Rod Barajas last season. Any player would be an upgrade over him. Martin has good power, and last season was the first time in his career that he hit below .230. He can provide the pop from the catching position the Pirates have been looking for since the departure of Jason Kendall.
- The Addition of Russell Martin Behind the Plate:I was so exasperated with Barajas last season, and so thrilled we upgraded, that Martin is two reasons for Pirate’s improvement on the list. Last season, Barajas threw out 6 of 99 runners stealing… 6. I understand that’s not all on him but that is freaking miserable no matter how you cut it. Throughout his career, Martin has thrown out 30% of runners and will be a huge defensive upgrade.
- Right Field Competition: With center and left field taken up, there are a ton of outfielders vying for the last spot in right. Both Travis Snider and Jose Tabata will be the front-runners to man Clemente’s wall. Hopefully, this competition will push both players to even greater heights. Tabata has shown up in great shape and is playing some very good ball in spring training. It’s obvious he is trying to reclaim his old spot. Although Snider and Tabata have the inside edge, don’t expect Presley and Sands to take it lying down. The contest should prove to be interesting throughout the season, and the depth will be very helpful come August.
- Grilled Cheese: Jason Grilli was nails all of last season and should slide in nicely to the closer role.
- Respect the Pen: Last season, the bullpen was a source of fear for fans because of lack of experience and talent. However, the relievers turned out to be one of the Pirates’ biggest strengths. With the addition of Melancon, as well as guys like Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris , expect the pen to be just as effective this year.
- STFD: AJ Burnett lit up the Pirates’ players and fans just like he lights up the radar gun. Burnett was the stopper and ace the Pirates had been lacking for years, and his veteran experience rubbed off on the younger players, such as James McDonald (McDonald stunk last year). Nothing fired up the fan base more than when he was seen calling out the Reds’ players after McCutchen was beaned (intentionally, in my opinion), or telling Hanley Ramirez to sit the f*ck down after striking him out. Another year of that should be amazing.
15. Magic Wandy: Wandy Rodriguez was probably the unluckiest player in the MLB last year. He was forced to pitch for both the hapless Astros for the first half of the season and then the horrific second half Pirates. Despite all that, he posted a respectable 3.76 ERA and still somehow managed to have a 12-13 record. How anyone could manage to only finish one game below .500 playing for these two teams is pretty much magical. In fact, Wandy finished 5-4 with the Pirates. Wandy has been a solid pitcher throughout his career and the fact he’s left handed is perfect for this rotation. He’ll be a great number 2 for the year.
16. Gerrit Cole: Last season, right when the Pirates were on the verge of history, they collapsed – in a major way. There are a multitude of reasons for it but the one I pointed out earlier was a tired pitching staff. Well now you could ask, “Well why won’t that happen again?” Well, as stated above there are an abundance of pitchers available, but none as exciting as Gerrit Cole. The Pirates’ top prospect will be waiting in the wings as the Pirates are entering the latter half of the season. Cole’s triple digit fastball could be just the punch in the arm the Pirates will need for their surge towards a winning record.
17. Clint Hurdle: This will be the second year in a row that the Pirates’ Manager will preach finishing. Perhaps this is the year it will come to fruition. Despite the two collapses, Hurdle is still a favorite in the Pirates’ locker room and everyone would love to see him bring them back to contention.
18. New Strategy: The Pirates are finally invoking a new strategy for base runners: pay attention to them. Last season watching opponents on first basically have a free pass to second was infuriating! You cannot always have a base runner in scoring position and expect that not to affect the final score. Thankfully, the team has changed their strategy, and the amount of pickoffs in spring training shows it.
19. Management: Bob Nutting threw down the gauntlet this year saying, “The level of expectation has been and needs to be that we’re going to win a championship.” He continued on: “We’re going to be playing exciting games throughout the summer as we did last year. We’re going to play meaningful games in September. We’re going to compete for a championship and put ourselves in position for a sixth World Series in Pittsburgh.” Did anyone else just get goose bumps? He went on to say that they would be willing to make a big move if they are in a position to do so. Huntington is on the hot seat, so this season the fans can finally expect that major trade to put the team over the top.
20. The Overall Team: This is by far the best team that Pittsburgh has had since 1992. There are a lot of question marks entering the season, but the talent is definitely there. If this team can put it all together, expect more than 81 wins.
I personally cannot wait to see the best ballpark in baseball filled to the brim with fans cheering on the first place Buccos. I truly believe that this is the year the Pirates will bring a winning team back to the City of Champions. Please let me know if you agree and disagree or want to add reasons to the list.