2013 NL Central preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

2013 NL Central preview: Pittsburgh Pirates
March 26, 2013, 7:00 pm
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Tony Andracki

The Pirates are coming off back-to-back "almost" seasons. In 2011, they set the baseball world on fire in the first half before fading and winding up with another 90-loss season. Last year produced a slightly better record, but the end result was the same -- no postseason.

2012 retrospective

The Pirates finished with their best record since 1997 at 79-83, but still finished 18 games behind the Reds in the NL Central race. They were just two wins away from their first non-losing season in two decades, so at least there's improvement.

Andrew McCutchen finally took the major step in his development and became the elite player everybody has been projecting for years, finishing third in NL MVP voting while winning Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards. He hit .327/.400/.553 with 31 homers, 96 RBI, 107 runs and 20 steals. At just 26 years old, he's still in the prime of his career and has become entrenched as a franchise cornerstone.

A.J. Burnett was almost as pleasant a surprise for Pittsburgh last year, producing a 16-10 record with a 3.51 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 202.1 innings. The Yankees ate most of the remaining money on his deal just to get rid of him and he emerged as the Pirates' top starter.

McCutchen provided most of the offense, but Pedro Alvarez finally won the third base job and showed some pop with 30 homers and 85 RBI. He only hit .244 and struck out 180 times, but after a miserable MLB career prior to 2012, the fact he has become a building block is nothing short of encouraging for the Pirates.

Who’s leaving

C Rod Barajas, 1B/3B Casey McGehee, CL Joel Hanrahan, RHP Juan Cruz, RHP Chris Resop, RHP Kevin Correia

Hanrahan is the big loss here, as he took his talents to New England to test his hand with the Red Sox. He was one of the top closers in the game last season, with 36 saves, a 2.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 10.1 K/9.

The other guys played minor roles for the Pirates in 2012 and while they will be missed, their losses won't sink the Bucs. Resop proved to be a capable option out of the bullpen, making 61 appearances with a 3.91 ERA. Correia ate up 171 innings with a solid 4.21 ERA, but faded down the stretch and is replaceable.

Who’s arriving

C Russell Martin, LHP Jonathan Sanchez, LHP Francisco Liriano, 3B/UTIL Brandon Inge, RHP Mark Melancon

They also brought back Jason Grilli, who will take over as closer for Joel Hanrahan. Sanchez and Liriano are decent buy-low signings, as both have shown their supreme talent -- each guy has a no-hitter to his name -- but are coming off poor seasons. Liriano won't be ready for the start of the season as he broke his non-throwing arm while slamming himself in a door just days after signing a deal with Pittsburgh.

Sanchez was fantastic in 2010, sporting a 3.07 ERA and 1.23 WHIP to go along with 205 strikeouts in 193.1 innings. But he also led the NL in walks, and his control issues only worsened from there. He handed out 5.9 free passes per nine innings in 2011 with the Giants and had a whopping 7.4 BB/9 last year while pitching for the Royals and Rockies.

Martin enjoyed a career resurgence with the Yankees the last two seasons and is a two-way catcher, showing power and patience at the plate (and even some speed on the basepaths) while proving reliable calling a game behind the plate.

Melancon provides a veteran arm in a setup role and has closer experience should Grilli struggle. Inge is also banged up to start the year, but he turned his career around with the A's last year and his ability to play multiple positions with some pop could make him a valuable commodity for this year's team.

Season outlook

Like just about every team in Major League Baseball, the Pirates' season will hinge on their pitching staff. If Liriano and Sanchez have bounce-back years, Burnett builds off his shocking 2012 and James McDonald takes another step forward, the starting staff could surprise. But that's a lot of "ifs" behind the always-reliable Wandy Rodriguez, whom the Bucs picked up at the trade deadline last year. The bullpen should shape up to be pretty decent, but leaves a little to be desired at the back end.

The lineup as constructed will simply struggle to score runs and the team defense is middle-of-the-road at best. McCutchen can't do it all himself and every other player has at least one glaring weakness. That being said, 2B Neil Walker and 1Bs Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez have had their moments and the team is banking on Alvarez to take another step forward. The development of young guns like Starling Marte could be a huge boost as well.

Right fielder Travis Snider, acquired late in the season last year, is the X-factor for the season. He just turned 25 last month and has been rated as high as the No. 6 prospect in the game (by Baseball America) prior to the 2009 season. But his career .910 minor-league OPS has yet to translate to the major-league level and he collected just seven extra-base hits in 128 at-bats with the Pirates last season. If he can harness his potential, the Pirates may finally have the threat they desire hitting behind McCutchen.