NL Central preview: Can McCutchen and the Pirates do it again?

NL Central preview: Can McCutchen and the Pirates do it again?
March 15, 2014, 12:15 pm
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Tony Andracki

The Pittsburgh Pirates finally did it in 2013, reawakening a baseball town and packing PNC Park, the beautiful stadium overlooking the Allegheny River.

After two decades of losing, the Pirates not only finished over .500. They won 94 games, made the playoffs and then beat the Cincinnati Reds in the wild card game. But they ran into the brick wall that is the St. Louis Cardinals in the next round. Game over.

[NL Central preview: Everyone’s chasing the St. Louis Cardinals]

Over the winter, the Pirates did almost nothing to build off last year’s success, letting several key players leave via free agency and bringing in just a pair of veterans in catcher Chris Stewart and starter Edinson Volquez. That doesn’t seem like enough for another playoff run, especially in a division that sent three teams to last year’s postseason tournament.

Still, the Cubs can’t kick around the Pirates anymore. With Opening Day fast approaching, CSNChicago.com will be previewing the National League Central.

Last season: 94-68, 2nd place NL Central (Lost in NLDS to Cardinals)
Manager: Clint Hurdle (Record with Pirates: 245-241)
New in 2014: C Stewart, RHP Volquez
Gone from 2013: C John Buck, RHP A.J. Burnett, OF Marlon Byrd, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, 1B/OF Garrett Jones, RHP Jeff Karstens, RHP James McDonald, C Michael McKenry, 1B Justin Morneau

X-Factor: Starling Marte

The Pirates needed someone to complement 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. Marte emerged as a vital piece to Pittsburgh's success. The 25-year-old outfielder is a very good defender in left field and possesses a wide range of skills at the plate, hitting for power (48 extra-base hits) and average (.280) and showing legitimate speed (41 stolen bases). He only drew 25 walks, but he got hit by a pitch 24 times and put up a .343 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot.

[NL Central preview: Billy Hamilton the key for Cincinnati Reds]

If Marte can build off a breakout campaign in which he put up a 5.4 WAR, the Pirates should be in good shape.

Magic number: 2.89

The Pirates had one of the best bullpens in the game last season, boasting a 2.89 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. Considering relievers accounted for 545.2 innings (second-most in the NL), it was a major reason for the team's success.

All the major players are back in the bullpen in 2014, but each comes with significant question marks. Jason Grilli had a breakout season (33 saves, 2.70 ERA) in his first year as closer. But at age 37, how much does he have left in the tank? (He missed time with a forearm injury last season.)

[RELATED: For the Cubs, it all comes back to the Cardinals]

Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh's primary setup option, put up an unreal 1.39 ERA in 72 games. Guys like Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro finally figured it out, but relievers are highly volatile.

Can they all do it again in 2014?

Farm system rankings: 3 (Baseball Prospectus), 14 (Baseball America), 3 (ESPN.com)

They said it: "It just showed me I was living out what I believed we could do. Staying positive, knowing we were going to win and that we're going to continue to win. It's starting to come to fruition." - McCutchen told MLB.com, summing up the end of Pittsburgh’s futility.

Outlook: Apart from the question of whether the bullpen can be dominant once again in 2014, uncertainty surrounds the Pirates in every facet.

Marte and McCutchen are great players, but will the rest of the lineup around them provide enough support? Pedro Alvarez led the NL in homers (36) and drove in 100 runs, but also paced the league in strikeouts (186) and posted just a .296 OBP. Pittsburgh has major holes at first base and right field and catcher Russell Martin faded down the stretch last season.

[RELATED: Cubs prospects adjusting to life in the limelight]

The starting rotation is filled with question marks, including ace Francisco Liriano, who was very good in 2013 (16-8, 3.02 ERA) but has been far from consistent in his career. Gerrit Cole, 23, is still young and may experience some growing pains. Wandy Rodriguez is 35, Charlie Morton is less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery and Volquez has had control issues his entire career and is coming off a season in which he posted a 5.71 ERA while in the pitching-friendly NL West.

The Pirates don't have much depth outside of the bullpen and will need big years from the entire roster again. But a very good farm system is starting to churn out players. And with McCutchen under club control through 2018, this shouldn’t be a one-hit wonder.