Mar 23, 2014; Sarasota, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) in the dugout at the start of the second inning of the spring training exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
As opening day draws near, its time for my Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 preview as Pirate fans everywhere are hoping the team can take the next step from last years playoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. A World Series title for the city of Pittsburgh is the lofty goal.
Baseball “experts” have the Pirates regressing this season due to the teams lack of activity on the free agent market over the Winter. Overall, the team seemed comfortable with the players they had on their current roster. Besides the Edinson Volquez signing, (Don’t get me started on that again) they brought in several players to compete for the first base and right field platoon jobs.
While it looks like Travis Snider seems to have locked up the right field spot, at least until Gregory Polanco arrives on the scene, first base beyond Gaby Sanchez is still undecided. With final cuts coming this week we will find out if they plan on sticking with the Andrew Lambo project or is Travis Ishikawa has done enough to send Lambo back to the minors.
I’ve put together a breakdown of the things Pirate fans hope to see throughout this season. If some of the things on this list actually happen, the Pirates should look at the standings sometime in September and find themselves in a pretty good place. If not, the regression that baseball pundits have been talking about may be right on the mark. The order of players and staff is random and I’m only touching on several key players.
Russell Martin- The Pirates starting Catcher was a key ingredient in last years success. While he was one of the best defensive catchers in the game last year, here’s to hoping that his offense can improve not only in power and average, but that his pitch selection improves as well.
Tony Sanchez- Tony “Two Bags” gained a lot of valuable experience last year. While he will break camp with the club due to Chris Stewart’s knee injury, Sanchez needs to continue to work on keeping the “Yips” to a minimum and swing a solid bat. Sanchez will be the catcher of the immediate future as the Pirates have almost zero chance of resigning Martin after he becomes a free agent after this year as Pirates GM Neal Huntington alluded to yesterday on his weekly radio show.
Gaby Sanchez- The Pirates first baseman came in to camp in great shape due to a rigorous off-season workout plan. He has said he can handle the first base job without a platoon partner. In order to do that, Sanchez has to be able to hit right handed pitching on a consistent basis, something he has yet to do in his time in the show. If Sanchez could achieve that, he would alleviate a area of great concern for the Bucs. A late spring training trade to upgrade the position is still very possible.
Mar 19, 2014; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez (24) hits a ground rule double against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Pedro Alvarez- El Toro needs to keep doing his thing and depositing baseballs into the seats. I think with another year of experience under his belt, the Pirates slugger will be able to cut down on his strikeouts. If he can work pitchers deeper into the count, he is going to force them to throw pitches when he can mash them. He took some heat for the amount of errors he had at third last year, but his defense should only continue to improve.
Jordy Mercer- The Pirates gave Mercer the starting shortstop position last year after he showed that he could hit consistently last year. He is not a defensive standout, but his range and arm are good enough and should improve. If they do and he can remain steady at the plate, he is a definite upgrade over…
Clint Barmes- The now back up shortstop is a vacuum cleaner on defense. He makes difficult plays look routine most of the time. He re-signed with the Pirates knowing it would be as a back up to Mercer. He has been a consummate pro tutoring Mercer and he could fill a leadership role on this years team. While his bat may be a liability, he brings much more to the table.
Mar 23, 2014; Sarasota, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte (6) leads off the game with a solo home run in the spring training exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Starling Marte- The Pirates lead-off hitter has shown that once he gets on base, he is a threat to be reckoned with. While he got caught stealing a league high 15 times, he still swiped 41 bases last year. He should be better on the base paths with more experience. The thing he really needs to improve on is patience at the plate. He strikes out way too much for a lead-off hitter. He needs to draw more walks so his speed can be put to use. He does have nice power and that should continue to improve. In the outfield, he has a cannon for an arm. Those foolish enough to try and stretch a single into a double find that out the hard way.
Travis Snider- The Pirates are hoping that Snider can stay healthy at least until Polanco arrives on the scene. Snider has the tools to be an above average player yet he has never been able to put them all together. He has had a solid spring and if he can carry it into the regular season he could provide a boost to the offense that the Pirates sorely need. He could also be used in a trade situation.
Andrew McCutchen- The reigning NL MVP will look to improve on last year. For those of you shaking your head, he will be the first one to say that it’s possible. When he is on, he’s one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. When he’s off, he swings at a lot of pitches out of the zone. He has been phenomenal this spring and if he continues with the plate awareness he has shown so far, he is a lock for another MVP.
Jose Tabata- When the Pirates locked him up with a long term deal a few years ago, it looked like a steal for them. He has not however, lived up to expectations. The speed he once had has been diminished by hamstring issues. He sometimes seems lost in the outfield and does not take good route to the ball in the outfield. He has also never developed the power that some had expected him to. If the Pirates make a late trade this spring, he is a prime candidate to be moved.
Mar 23, 2014; Sarasota, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates second basemen Neil Walker (18) makes a throw to first in the third inning of the spring training exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Neil Walker- The “Pittsburgh Kid” spent 2013 dealing with injuries which contributed to his batting average dropping to .251. While he did hit a career high 16 home runs. If the Pirates hope to generate more offense and don’t want to go to a platoon situation at 2nd base, Walker needs to drastically improve against left handed pitchers. A healthy Walker should improve his overall numbers at the plate.
Gerrit Cole- Cole burst onto the scene last year to much anticipation. When he first started out, it was heat, heat and more heat. It didn’t take him long to realize that in order to stay in the Major’s, he had to develop secondary stuff. When he did, he looked like the Ace that everyone thought he would become. Having Cole for a full year should help the Bucs eat up innings and help keep the bullpen fresh. If he continues to develop, he will become the true number one starter the Pirates have sorely lacked over the last two decades.
Francisco Liriano- When Liriano was first signed last off-season, it left most people shaking their heads. A Christmas prank he played on his kids had him starting the season on the injured list. When he joined the rotation, the only people left shaking there heads were the batters he fanned on the way back to the dugout. ” Frank the Tank” was the 2013 comeback player of the year. The next step for him is to put back to back great seasons together, something he has never done. If he can do that, it will help the Pirates a long way in getting back to the playoffs.
Feb 13, 2014; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Justin Wilson (37) throws during Pittsburgh
The Bullpen- Last years “Shark Tank” is back in full force. They are one of the top reasons for the Pirates success last year. If they can duplicate that, there is no reason the Pirates can’t reach the playoffs in 2014. Jason Grilli dealt with injuries last year and the coaching staff will be very careful with him early in the year. Mark Melancon had a bounce back year although he did start to show signs of wear and tear in the month of September. If those two should falter, the Pirates have depth and talent to replace one or both at the closer spot. They also have two left- handers in Justin Wilson and Tony Watson that teams were drooling about over the winter.
Coaching Staff- Clint Hurdle seemed to make the right moves a majority of the time last year. The team was on board with his “ALL In” philosophy. He is the perfect fit for this young team. Ray Searage has been masterful with the work he has done with the pitching staff. While the Pirates lost hitting coach Jay Bell to the Reds, Mr. Branson is more then capable of helping to improve the offense having worked with most of the players in the minor league.
Oct 7, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates majority owner Bob Nutting (left) talks with Pirates president Frank Coonelly (right) before hosting the St. Louis Cardinals in game four of the National League divisional series at PNC Park. The St. Louis Cardinals won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Front Office- While Neil Huntington was nominated for executive of the year (an award he should have won) he is constantly behind the eight ball due to the ownership group. Bob Nutting has said he would increase payroll when he thought it was necessary to help the club, he has yet to put his money where his mouth is. Yes, they brought in Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd after the trade deadline last year to help the team with their playoff push, but the lack of commitment on his end to put his wallet where his mouth is forces Huntington to be almost perfect with every move he makes. Pirate fans showed that if they are given a team that is capable of winning, they will come out in full force. Last years playoff atmosphere at PNC park was magical. The fans not only showed up in full force, they made a difference.(Just ask Johnny Cueto) The fans did their part, time for Nutting to step up to the plate.
The season starts for real on March 31st. Pirates fans are hoping that it ends with the Buccos raising a World series trophy.