by Jason Martinez
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PITTSBURGH PIRATES OFFSEASON PREVIEW
This was going to be the year. With 52 games left in the regular season, the Bucs only needed to go 18-34 to avoid their 20th consecutive losing season. They went 16-26. And so the streak lives on. No winning seasons since Tim Wakefield's rookie season in 1992, which is also the last year that Barry Bonds was a Pirate.
In back-to-back seasons, the Bucs appeared to be overachieving on the field despite being low on overall talent, at least on paper. GM Neal Huntington resisted the big trade that could bring in a #1 starter or middle-of-the-lineup bat to help the Bucs out during the stretch run. Instead, he held onto his top prospects and acquired complementary pieces (Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee in 2011; Wandy Rodriguez and Travis Snider in 2012). It wasn't nearly enough. A few of those prospects Huntington wouldn't deal, pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, are getting closer to the majors but the Bucs will probably need to do more this offseason if they want to avoid a 21st consecutive losing season.
STARTING LINEUP ANALYSIS
The Pirates have five-tool superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen in the three spot of the lineup for the next several years. That's a great start. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez (30 HR, 85 RBI) is starting to show why he was the #2 overall pick in the 2008 draft and 31 year-old Garrett Jones (.833 OPS) continues to get better after breaking into the big leagues just a few years ago. Switch-hitter Neil Walker (.768 OPS) also gives the team above-average production from the second base position.
It's expected that Mike McKenry, who had 12 HR and 30 RBI in just 88 games, will take over as the starting catcher. Rod Barajas has a $3.5M club option but that will likely be declined after the 37 year-old struggled at the plate in 2012. Clint Barmes, the veteran shortstop signed last winter, also struggled at the plate but he's due $5.5M in 2013 so he'll be back. Chase d'Arnaud, Brock Holt, and Jordy Mercer could push Barmes for playing time but none have hit much in the majors during limited action.
The outfield corners are far from settled. Snider didn't hit much after coming over in the deal with Toronto. Jose Tabata was so bad that he was sent to the minors in early July. Alex Presley looks more like a fourth outfielder. Starling Marte showed off his tools (5 HR, 12 SB in 47 games) but the .300 OBP, 8 BB, and 50 K were expected considering he hadn't shown much plate discipline in the minors. They'll all compete for starting jobs in 2013. Tabata was signed to a long-term contract back in August 2011, which likely makes him the the favorite. It wouldn't surprise me, though, if there was just one corner outfield job open by the time Spring Training begins. The Pirates could sign or trade for an outfielder, or acquire a first baseman and move Jones to right field.
STARTING PITCHING ANALYSIS
The acquisition of A.J. Burnett (16-10, 3.51 ERA, 202.1 IP) may have been one of the best trades of last offseason. Acquired for two fringe low-level prospects, Burnett gave the Bucs the top-of-the-rotation innings-eater they needed after the rotation wore down in the second half of 2011. The Yankees are also paying $20M of the $33M he's due through 2013. Rodriguez, signed through 2013 with a club option for 2014, pitched well in 12 starts after being acquired from Houston. He should slot in behind Burnett as the #2 starter.
James McDonald should've been an All-Star after going 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA in the 1st half but he was one of the worst starting pitchers in the 2nd half (7.52 ERA in 61 innings). A more consistent performance from McDonald would give the team three very good starters at the top of the rotation. Jeff Karstens and youngsters Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke will compete for back-of-the-rotation spots and Charlie Morton could return late in the season after Tommy John surgery in June.
Don't count Cole out for an Opening Day spot. He wasn't as dominant as he should be based on his stuff, but he still posted 2.80 ERA with 136 K in 132 IP between three levels (1 Triple-A start, 12 Double-A starts, and 13 Hi-A starts). In my estimation, he'll be in the Pittsburgh rotation no later than June 1st and Taillon could be making a push around the same time. The 20 year-old made it to Double-A late in the season and allowed just 3 ER in 17 IP. He walked one and struck out 18 batters. If the Pirates' front office believes this duo can help in 2013, don't expect much tinkering with the rotation this offseason, aside from maybe a veteran to eat innings at the back of the rotation.
RELIEF PITCHING ANALYSIS
Veteran journeyman Jason Grilli may have been the best pitcher out of the bullpen in 2012. Now he could be one of the most sought-after free agent relievers on the market and quite possibly an under the radar closing candidate. The 35 year-old had 32 holds to go along with a 2.91 ERA with 22 BB and 90 K in 58.2 IP. Jared Hughes and Tony Watson will go into the offseason as the projected setup men for closer Joel Hanrahan but finding a replacement for Grilli, if they can't re-sign him, to be the 8th inning guy could be a priority.
Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson are hard-throwing rookies who could help in 2013. Both had success in late-season auditions with the club. McPherson could also help out of the 'pen if he's not in the rotation. Duke Welker (2.29 ERA between AAA/AA) is another rookie who could be in the mix.
TOP OFFSEASON PRIORITIES
1 Corner OF or 1B
2 Setup Man
3 Starting Pitcher
2012 HITTING STATS
2012 PITCHING STATS