Monday, March 18, 2013
The upside in Pittsburgh
By Jason A. Churchill
The Pittsburgh Pirates sat atop the National League Central at points that reached the third week of July last season, before they faded down the stretch and finished under .500 at 79-83. They've made a few changes this offseason, but only a few, and one could argue the Bucs did not make significant roster improvements since the 2012 season ended.
There's upside on the roster, however, and that's how they could compete in a tough division this coming season.
Andrew McCutchen is a star, and he could take another step forward, but the key upgrades could come from Travis Snider in right field, Pedro Alvarez at third base and either Starling Marte or Jose Tabata in left field. Snider has yet to put it all together in the majors but has power and patience at the plate, and mans right field at more than adequate levels.
Alvarez had a decent 2012, led by a career-best 30 home runs, but he started and finished cold and still hasn't figured out left-handed pitching. More consistency from the 26-year-old likely makes a big impact on the Pirates lineup, and anything respectable against lefties would go a long way.
Marte and Tabata figure to battle it out in spring training but both could make the roster and get ample playing time, particularly if Snider struggles or hits the disabled list.
Tabata and Marte are each right-handed hitters, however, so it's unlikely they share left field in a platoon scenario. Snider's projected performance versus left-handed pitching could determine whether or not both Marte and Tabata make the roster.
Jerry Sands and Alex Presley are also in the mix, but lack the long-term upside of Marte and Tabata.
Russell Martin, in tandem with Michael McK enry, should serve as some kind of upgrade at catcher, but the biggest addition may be the signing of left-handed starter Francisco Liriano.
His raw numbers look bad from a year ago, but advanced metrics suggest he was hurt by his defense. His strikeout rate was the highest in his career and while he continued to have problems throwing strikes, he did shave more than one base on balls per nine innings off his rate from 2011.
Another step in the right direction and Liriano is a very solid No. 3 starter, perhaps more.
The Pirates also boast one of the game's top pitching prospects in Gerrit Cole, who could make his debut in 2013, likely after the all-star break to allow Cole some more seasoning and the Pirates to make sure he doesn't qualify for Super Two arbitration status.
Pittsburgh doesn't enter the 2013 season as the favorites in the division by any stretch. But they may provide the most legitimate and realistic upside of any team in the circuit.
"This isn't the toughest rotation to crack, so Cole's arrival in the majors might depend as much on his own performance as anything else -- which means dealing better with adversity on the mound, and relying less on pure velocity and more on his three weapons beyond the four-seamer. The Pirates might want to keep him down until June for service-time reasons, but he could have a significant impact for them in the second half."