Friday, February 14, 2014

Pittsburgh Pirates offseason moves and outlook

The Pirates ended years of suffering for the fans with their first winning season and playoff berth since 1992. They were bounced from the playoffs by the Cardinals, but look to take the next step forward in 2014.

Key Losses

Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau, Garrett Jones, John Buck, A.J. Burnett

Key Acquisitions

Edinson Volquez, Chris McGuiness

Byrd, Morneau and Buck were all mid-season acquisitions by the Pirates as they pushed for a playoff spot.  The losses of Jones and Morneau create the biggest hole on offense as the Pirates do not have a bonafide replacement on their roster.  Gaby Sanchez can fill the short end of a platoon, but the Pirates will hold spring auditions for his counterpart, with recent acquisition Chris McGuiness and prospect Andrew Lambo vying for the spot.

In the outfield, the loss of Byrd means that the Pirates will once again play musical chairs in right field, with Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and possibly Lambo holding down the fort, at least until top prospect Gregory Polanco is deemed ready.  Expect to see Polanco get the call in mid-to-late June.

Beyond that, the Pirates lineup will look very similar to last year, with holdovers Russell Martin (C), Neil Walker (2B), Clint Barmes/Jordy Mercer (SS), Pedro Alvarez (3B), Andrew McCutchen (CF) and Starling Marte (LF) back.

On the pitching side, the Pirates lost A.J. Burnett to free agency.  The Pirates may use the $12 million they were willing to pay him to sign another starter (Ubaldo Jimenez is still available), but if they fail, they will head into the season with a dubious collection of starters.

Francisco Liriano will lead the staff and Pirates fans will enjoy seeing what young stud Gerrit Cole can do in a full season.  However, beyond that there are questions.

Jeff Locke pitched well last year--for half a season.  He posted a 2.15 ERA in the first half of the year, before bottoming out with a 6.12 ERA in the second half.  It remains to be seen if he can bounce back.

Locke may face a battle with newly acquired Edinson Volquez for a starting spot.  Volquez has always had excellent stuff, but has struggled with his control and consistency.  The Pirates are known for taking other teams pitching castoffs and helping them get back on track (Liriano is the latest example). Volquez could be in line for a similar bounce-back year (or he could just be a lost cause).

Charlie Morton pitched well in 2013 (7-4, 3.26 ERA), but spend most of the first half of the season on the D.L. before making his debut on June 13.  He logged only 116 innings on the year.  The Pirates had enough faith in him to sign him to a 3-year extension, but with a career 4.70 ERA, its a wonder if he deserves it.

Finally, after pitching just 62.2 innings in 2013, due to an elbow injury, Wandy Rodriguez wisely exercised his $13 million option for 2014.  He appears to be on track to start the 2014 season healthy, but the team will monitor his progress closely.

Should any of the above starters falter, the Pirates have another young gun in Jameson Taillon waiting in the wings.  Blessed with a mid-90's fastball and an excellent curve, Taillon could make the same kind of impact on the Pirates 2014 season as Cole did in 2013.

Overall, the Pirates could take a step back in 2014, due to the holes in the rotation and at first base, but with the uncanny ability to get the most out of their pitching retreads and the top rated minor league system, according to Baseball America, they will not fall far and should remain a contender for years to come.

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