2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview

IS THIS THE YEAR?

A breakdown of your 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

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PITCHERS

A.J. Burnett
Jeanmar Gomez
Jason Grilli
Jared Hughes
Chris Leroux
Jeff Locke
James McDonald
Mark Melancon
Wandy Rodriguez
Jonathan Sanchez
Tony Watson
Justin Wilson

Disabled List:
Francisco Liriano
Charlie Morton
Jeff Karstens

The pitching staff is where the most turnover between 2012 and 2013 is found.  To begin the year, we’ll see Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Sanchez, and Locke in the rotation.

Expecting A.J. to be as dominant as he was last season may be wishful thinking, but it’s reasonable to expect a solid season with a lot of strikeouts from the veteran.

Wandy flew under the radar last season because he arrived right when the team collapsed, but he quietly pitched very well for the last two months of the year.

J-Mac is the real question mark this season.  In 2012, he went from 9-3 with a sub-3 ERA and being a legitimate Cy Young candidate to completely falling part with the rest of the team.  He’ll need to be consistent at least in order to save this rotation because after him, there is a major drop-off.

Jonathan Sanchez was awarded with the fourth spot in the rotation after having an ERA of 5.50 this spring.  He’s gone 5-16 with ERAs of 4.26 and 8.07 in the last two years, so his spot on the team has obviously upset many fans.  The best we can hope for is an ERA somewhere around 4.50 from Sanchez with the offense putting up some big numbers on the days he pitches.

The fifth spot goes to Jeff Locke, who has some experience in parts of 2011 and 2012 with the Bucs.  Simply put, any strong pitching performance from the number five starter is something to be thankful for, so we can only hope for Locke to not be completely terrible.

On the DL will be Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens, and Charlie Morton.  Morton won’t be back until May, and even then he may not come straight to the big league club.  Liriano’s injury was much more serious than what was previously thought, so not much is really known about his status.  Karstens’ return will bolster the rotation, as he’s proven to be one of the most consistent starters in his time with the Bucs.  The problem is that his injury is also more serious than everyone thought before, so we’ll have to be patient and wait until he’s fully recovered for him to return.  But if Liriano and Karstens can return and smoothly transition into a rotation of A.J, Wandy, and J-Mac, the pitching could be very strong.  If not, the rotation very well could be a train wreck.

The key for the starters will be to get healthy and then remain in top shape for the duration of 162 games.  If one of the starters goes down in April, Kyle McPherson will probably get a call-up.  After that, we may be looking at Gerrit Cole making his debut sometime early in the year.

The bullpen will be made up of seven hurlers, with the only real guaranteed role being Jason Grilli as the closer.  He’s been one of the best setup men in the league for the past two years, but closing out games is a little different.  Some may be upset with Joel Hanrahan being traded and Grilli stepping into the closer role, but he has the mentality and repertoire to be just as good.  The only question will be how many save opportunities he’ll get this year, which will be based on two factors – how Clint Hurdle uses his bullpen and how many games the Pirates will be winning in the ninth.

Mark Melancon was the main piece in the Hanrahan trade and will most likely fit into the eight inning role.  He posted a 2.70 ERA and 20 saves with Houston in 2011, but had a rough season with the Red Sox in 2012.  A move back to a weaker division will probably result in Melancon bouncing back and fitting into the bullpen nicely.

Jared Hughes and Tony Watson have followed similar career paths and will both be entering their third season with the team.  Hughes was extremely dominant for a stretch last season and was a master at getting groundball outs with his sinker.  Watson isn’t a lefty specialist, but has been successful against both left-handed and right-handed hitters.  Both Hughes and Watson will get a ton of work and will need to be consistent out of the ‘pen for this relief unit to thrive.

Justin Wilson is the other left-hander in the bullpen and will most likely be the lefty specialist.  He got some work in late in 2012, but this will be his first full season.

Jeanmar Gomez and Chris Leroux round-out the ‘pen and will basically fill the role of mop-up/long relief/spot starters.

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CATCHERS

Russell Martin
Michael McKenry

Backstop is one of the areas that the Pirates spent significant money improving this offseason.  Michael McKenry, entering his third season with the Bucs, has proven to be a fine backup catcher that comes up with a clutch at-bat fairly often.  Russell Martin was given a two-year contract worth $17 million this November and is the main addition on the team.  Last year’s starter, Rod Barajas, hit .206 and had an OPS of just .625, so really any significant production by Martin this year will be an improvement.  Martin is also a much better defender, so hopefully they won’t allow as many stolen bases as last season.  The main question with Russell Martin will be whether or not the spacious left field at PNC Park will affect his power numbers.  The home runs may not be there but the doubles still might, so he could be a key part of the lineup.  Even though he’s entering his age 30 season and his numbers have steadily declined, Russell Martin still has a chance to produce.

The only other factor in the catching situation is Tony Sanchez.  We’ll likely see him make his debut when the rosters expand, and possibly even sooner if he hits well in Indianapolis or the Pirates are desperate for help.

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INFIELD

Pedro Alvarez
Clint Barmes
Josh Harrison
Garrett Jones
John McDonald
Gaby Sanchez
Neil Walker

The Pirates’ starting infield looks much like it did in 2012, with Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, Clint Barmes, and Pedro Alvarez. Gaby Sanchez will split time at first with Jones, while Josh Harrison and John McDonald will fill in at second, short, and third.

Jones, now 31, enjoyed a big season in 2012 and earned himself a nice paycheck. He posted career-highs in numerous categories, and was the subject of trade rumors this offseason. G.I. Jones still struggles against left-handed pitching; that’s where Gaby Sanchez comes in. The right-handed Sanchez was acquired at the trade deadline, and looks to bounce back. He had a nice spring and most importantly, he’s healthy. Gaby could return to his 2010-2011 form, when he hit 19 homers each season.

At second base, Neil Walker could be a breakout candidate for 2013. He was slowed by injuries down the stretch, but entered camp in “the best shape of his life.” The Pittsburgh Kid put up a respectable .280/.342/.426 line with 14 bombs in his second full season. A solid campaign from Walker, both offensively and defensively, is something the Pirates need to stay in the NL Central race.

Clint Barmes continues to be overpaid – he’ll make $5.5 million for putting up some terrible offensive numbers. A good year at the plate seems to be a lot to ask for from the 34 year old shortstop. He can still pick it with the glove though, and looks to anchor the Bucco infield.

If there’s one position player that could make or break this ballclub, it may be Pedro Alvarez. El Toro was downright awful in 2011, hitting just .191/.272/.289 with four home runs. He bounced back last season, however, boosting his batting average by 53 points and posting his first 30 home run season. Alvarez hopes to settle into the cleanup spot, and could put up nice stats hitting behind Andrew McCutchen. Another 30+ HR season for Pedro would be huge, whereas a weak campaign and little third base depth could hurt the lineup.

John McDonald and Josh Harrison get the bench jobs. McDonald, 38, was acquired for a PTBNL last week, and features 14 years of MLB experience. Like Barmes, he won’t do much at the dish, but possesses a legitimate glove. His strong defense earned him the nicknames “Magic Man” and “Prime Minister of Defense” during his playing days in Toronto. Harrison beat out Jordy Mercer and Ivan De Jesus for the final infield bench spot. J-Hay is a scrappy spark plug that Clint Hurdle likes to use, and he provides defensive versatility – he can even play some corner outfield. Brandon Inge will start the year on the disabled list, and whether or not he’ll actually play for the Pirates remains to be seen. If the Bucs need help when he’s eligible to come off the DL, they could use him. If not, they may end up cutting him.

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OUTFIELD

Starling Marte
Andrew McCutchen
Travis Snider
Jose Tabata

Andrew McCutchen looks to build on his monster 2012 campaign, and Starling Marte will get his chance in left field. The starting right field spot will be highly dependent on immediate performance; if either Travis Snider or Jose Tabata start slow, then the other may get the job.

McCutchen – Gold Glover, Silver Slugger, Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year, MLB 13: The Show Cover Athlete – is entering the prime of his career and evolving into one of the best players in baseball. It’ll be tough to top his performance last season, but the Bucs need a complete season from him in order to compete. Cutch is clearly the Pirates’ most valuable player, so any type of serious injury or regression could be devastating.

Starling Marte showed his combination of speed and power after being recalled, as well as steady defense and a strong arm. The 24 year old Dominican native possesses loads of potential, so it’ll be interesting if he can live up to the hype. Although it’s difficult to predict the stats of a young player, Bill James’ projections for Marte are awfully nice: .297 average, .815 OPS, 28 doubles, 11 triples, 15 home runs.

As of now, Jose Tabata and Travis Snider fit the same mold – young corner outfielders who have yet to live up to their potential in the major leagues. Snider, who was acquired for Brad Lincoln last July, was named a potential 2013 breakout candidate by Baseball Prospectus, and Dave Brown of Yahoo predicts he’ll be the National League’s breakout hitter. However, Snider didn’t look too great in the Grapefruit League, and Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects writes, “Jose Tabata’s hitting has been much better than Travis Snider’s hitting this Spring. That’s not from a statistical standpoint, but how they’ve each looked. I’ve seen Snider taking a lot of at-bats at Pirate City, and he hasn’t stood out. There hasn’t been a lot of power, and some days he’s playing against A-ball players.” Jose Tabata was praised for a hot start to spring, but eventually cooled off. Since he and Snider bat from opposite sides of the plate, the Bucs could start a platoon. However, the player who sees the most success should be given more at-bats. If they both struggle and Gaby Sanchez excels at first base, then Garrett Jones could slide to right field.

The Bucco outfield is extremely young – average age = 24.75, McCutchen is oldest at 26. If Cutch has another unreal season, Marte is a consistent producer, and Snider and/or Tabata pan out in right field, they could form one of the most exciting outfields in the National League. But if McCutchen regresses and the other three struggle, it could be a long summer.

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COACHING STAFF

Clint Hurdle

Manager

Jay Bell

Hitting Coach

Ray Searage

Pitching Coach

Rick Sofield

First Base Coach

Nick Leyva

Third Base Coach

Jeff Banister

Bench Coach

Euclides Rojas

Bullpen Coach

Heberto Andrade

Bullpen Catcher

Jeff Branson

Coach

Dave Jauss

Coach

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Looking at the 25-man roster as a whole, it appears that the pieces are there for a winning season.  Maybe not a playoff team, but a team that can get over the .500 mark.  The mix of veterans like Burnett and Grilli and young talent like Cutch, Pedro, and Neil is very promising, but health is always a crapshoot.  Injuries are inevitable over a 162-game season, but who gets injured and when they get injured determines whether or not they bring a team down.  Depth is an issue at the major league and AAA levels, so one key player like Cutch missing any significant amount of time will be detrimental to the team’s record. Staying healthy and competing for a full season rather than peaking after 100 games will be the two keys for the Pirates in 2013.

Opening Day Roster Comparison: 2012 vs. 2013

After a long spring of various injuries and positional battles, the Pirates are finally headed north to start the 2013 season. The 25-man roster is set with a bit of a different look than last year – just 12 of 25 players remain from the 2012 Opening Day roster. Here’s a look, position by position, how the roster looked in April last year vs. April this year…

2012 Rotation:

2013 Rotation:

Erik Bedard

A.J. Burnett

Jeff Karstens

Wandy Rodriguez

James McDonald

James McDonald

Kevin Correia

Jonathan Sanchez

Jeff Locke

The Bucs rolled with four starters to start the year, not needing a fifth until later in April. A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton were forced to begin 2012 on the DL; this year, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Karstens are in that position. Erik Bedard (Houston) and Kevin Correia (Minnesota) have moved on, while Wandy Rodriguez, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke take over. James McDonald is the one constant in the scenario.

The starting rotation is proof that the Opening Day roster doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, since it will surely change. Last year, the entire makeup was altered – Bedard was released in August, Karstens was hurt, and J-Mac and Correia were demoted to the bullpen on different occasions. We expect some fluctuation again this year, as Liriano, Karstens, Morton, Gerrit Cole, and other reinforcements are on the way.

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2012 Bullpen:

2013 Bullpen:

Joel Hanrahan

Jason Grilli

Jason Grilli

Mark Melancon

Chris Resop

Tony Watson

Evan Meek

Jared Hughes

Juan Cruz

Justin Wilson

Tony Watson

Chris Leroux

Jared Hughes

Jeanmar Gomez

The ‘pen underwent a big change, with its leader, Joel Hanrahan, traded to Boston. Jason Grilli assumes the closer role, while Mark Melancon takes over some of the late inning work. Last year’s Opening Day middle/set-up men, Chris Resop, Evan Meek, and Juan Cruz, are succeeded by 2012’s young guns, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes. Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux, and Jeanmar Gomez take the last three bullpen spots.

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2012 Catchers:

2013 Catchers:

Rod Barajas

Russell Martin

Michael McKenry

Michael McKenry

Rod Barajas was a huge disappointment in 2012, hitting just .206/.283/.343 in 104 games. He continued to see playing time since he was Burnett’s “personal catcher,” knowing each other from their days in Toronto. Now, Russell Martin, another one of A.J.’s former catchers, takes charge of the catching situation. Martin has already put himself in the middle of some controversy this offseason (here, here, and here), but hopefully the $17-million-man works out for the Pirates. Michael “The Fort” McKenry returns as the backup catcher.

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2012 Infielders:

2013 Infielders:

Pedro Alvarez

Pedro Alvarez

Clint Barmes

Clint Barmes

Matt Hague

Josh Harrison

Josh Harrison

Garrett Jones

Garrett Jones

John McDonald

Casey McGehee

Gaby Sanchez

Yamaico Navarro

Neil Walker

Neil Walker

Starting 2012 with a four-man pitching staff allowed the Bucs to keep an extra infielder. The starters remain intact – Garrett Jones 1B, Neil Walker 2B, Pedro Alvarez 3B, Clint Barmes SS. Gaby Sanchez looks to develop some sort of platoon at first with Garrett Jones, while Josh Harrison and John McDonald can back up the other three spots. Gaby could bounce back, J-Hay has another year of experience, and McDonald is the “prime minister of defense” – which leads us to believe that the infield depth is a bit stronger this year. “The Hit Collector” Matt Hague didn’t do much in 2012, Yamaico Navarro was even worse, and Casey McGehee was traded to the Yankees in July.

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2012 Outfielders:

2013 Outfielders:

Andrew McCutchen

Starling Marte

Nate McLouth

Andrew McCutchen

Alex Presley

Travis Snider

Jose Tabata

Jose Tabata

The starting outfield has a different look in 2013. Alex Presley and Jose Tabata flanked Andrew McCutchen in the opener last year, but Starling Marte and Travis Snider will get the honors on Monday. Tabata beat out Presley for the bench spot, likely due to his right-handed bat and zero options remaining. Tabata gets another chance to show what he’s capable of, although we aren’t really sure what to expect.

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There’s just a 48% retention rate of players from last Opening Day, which is a pretty big jump. However, the Pirates’ young core, consisting of Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez, has another year of experience under their belt, and a bunch of steady players have built a decent club around them. Will it be enough to finish over .500 in 2013?

The Legend of Carlton

If you read any of our game recaps from June 16th until the end of the 2012 season, you may have seen a picture of Carlton Banks at the end of the post.

We received quite a few questions about why Carlton was appearing in our recaps. Since the 2013 season is upon us, here’s a quick summary of the story behind our unofficial blog mascot, Mr. Carlton Banks…

The date was June 9th, and the Pirates met the Kansas City Royals for the second game of the weekend series. The city was riding high, as the Bucs had won 10 of their last 13 games and were creeping closer to first place. Needless to say, the bleachers were packed and rocking for the Saturday night showdown. There was one particular gentleman seated in row A of section 135 who we both associated as a look-a-like to Alfonso Ribeiro, the actor that portrays Carlton Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

The Ribeiro doppelgänger and his friends, who acted like typical “concert crowd” fanatics (Boyz II Men played after the game), were causing quite a ruckus in their front row seats. After three and a half innings of play, the Buccos trailed 3-0 and James McDonald, their most reliable pitcher to that point, had been knocked out of the game. Around the same time as J-Mac’s exit, the Carlton look-a-like was also sent on his way.

For reasons unknown, he and his friends were actually ejected from the game and escorted out of the stadium. Just as they left, the Pirates stormed back to take the lead with a five-run bottom of the fourth, and they held on for the win. The victory pushed them to 31-27, just one game behind the first place Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central.

Naturally, we thought their ejection and immediate Bucco comeback was hilarious.

The Pirates won again the next day to complete the sweep of KC, and took over the top of the Central as the Reds lost on Sunday Night Baseball. It was truly an exhilarating time to be a Bucco fan.

However, they lost their next four games in Baltimore and Cleveland, and Pirates fans began to have their doubts. “Here comes the collapse,” they said. “We’ve all seen this before.”

On the verge of a five-game losing streak, we attended the Saturday matinée against the Indians at Progressive Field, exactly one week after witnessing the epic ejecting of Carlton Banks’ doppelgänger. The Bucs bounced out of their slump in dramatic fashion, crushing four home runs in a 9-2 victory. Pedro Alvarez led the way with two clutch bombs. We laughed about the incident from a week prior the whole way home, and decided to add a picture of Carlton to that day’s recap. You can read Banks’ debut HERE.

From that point forward, we decided to post his picture after each Bucco win. A silly story evolved into a celebratory tradition, and we hope to post Carlton’s photo at least 82 times in 2013.

Andrew McCutchen actually replicated Carlton’s trademark dance back in 2011, which just adds to the legend:

Go Bucs

Bucs beat Yankees in Grapefruit League finale

Rotation-bound lefty Jeff Locke took the hill in the final Grapefruit League game of 2013. He held the Yankees to four hits in six innings, not allowing a single run. Mark Melancon and Justin Wilson pitched scoreless innings, and minor leaguer Ethan Hollingsworth tacked on the save. Hollingsworth surrendered an RBI double to former Pirate Lyle Overbay in the ninth, but that was all the Yanks could get across.

The Bucs struggled offensively, mustering just two runs on four hits this afternoon. Those hits – all singles – came off the bats of Garrett Jones, Jose Tabata, Jeff Larish. and Brett Carroll. The base knocks of Tabata and Larish were part of a two-run seventh inning.

A nice 2-1 duel to finish off the spring campaign. Both the Yankees and Pirates went 13-18, tied for last place in the Grapefruit League.

The Bucs will break camp tonight, play an exhibition against the Altoona Curve on Saturday, and work out at PNC Park on Sunday. The Easter Sunday practice is open to the public from 1:00 to 3:00 pm – admission and parking are free. Monday, of course, is Opening Day 2013.

Go Bucs