Wait ‘Til Next Year: Pittsburgh Pirates
While this series is normally devoted to teams that have been mathematically eliminated before the end of the regular season, we felt a special edition of Wait ‘Til Next Year was in order to examine the futures of some of the teams that survived the regular season gauntlet to reach October. We will also have team-by-team Hot Stove previews in early November and, later in the offseason, the Winter Report Cards.
Final Record: 94-68 (.580, second in NL Central), won NL Wild Card game
Mathematically Eliminated: Oct. 9, Game 5 of NL Division Series
What went right in 2013:
The Pirates broke the longest losing streak in the history of major North American professional team sports, not only finishing with their first winning season in 21 years but earning one of two NL wild card spots and beating the division rival Reds in the Wild Card Game itself. Had it not been for an 11-17 stretch from Aug. 9 through Sept. 8, they might have won the NL Central and had homefield advantage in the Division Series.
Individually, Andrew McCutchen turned in a season that could earn him the NL MVP award, hitting .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers, 27 steals and 8.2 Wins Above Replacement. Starling Marte enjoyed a strong first full season in the majors, hitting .280/.343/.441 with 41 steals and 5.4 WAR. Pedro Alvarez tied for the league lead in home runs at 36. Neil Walker hit .251/339/.418 with 16 homers and improved defense en route to 3.9 WAR. Russell Martin, snatched away from the Yankees via free agency, contributed 4.3 WAR via solid offense and strong defense, not to mention a less quantifiable impact on a pitching staff that allowed just 3.56 runs per game, second in the league. Marlon Byrd hit .318/.357/.486 in 30 games after being acquired from the Mets in August.
The rotation finished fourth in the league with a 3.50 ERA and first with 7.9 strikeouts per nine. A.J. Burnett continued his Pittsburgh resurgence with a 3.30 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine in 191 innings. Gerrit Cole, the overall first pick of the 2011 draft, arrived in mid-June and improved so much as the season went on that he got the call over Burnett in the deciding game of the NLDS. Francisco Liriano turned out to be one of the winter’s best free agent bargains via a $1 million base salary and $3.75 million in earned incentives. In his best season since his 2006 rookie campaign, he delivered a 3.02 ERA, 9.1 strikeouts per nine and a record-low .321 OPS against lefty batters. He capped it all with a standout performance in the Wild Card Game, shutting down the Reds in front of a frenzied PNC crowd. Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke were solid as well.
The bullpen was even stronger, finishing with the league’s second-best ERA at 2.89. First-time closer Jason Grilli made his All-Star debut at age 36 and struck out 13.3 per nine while saving 33 games. When he missed time due to a forearm strain, setup man Mark Melancon stepped into the closer role seamlessly, rebounding from a nightmare season in Boston to post a 1.39 ERA overall. Lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson pitched well in higher-leverage roles.
What went wrong in 2013:
Even with the strong work of McCutchen, Alvarez, Martin and Marte, the Pirates finished a lowly ninth in the league in scoring at 3.91 runs per game. They had the third-highest strikeout rate (21.7 percent) and fourth-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.84). First base and rightfield were ongoing problems offensively, at least until Byrd arrived, with Garrett Jones (.233/.289/.419) and Travis Snider (.215/.281/333) both busts, and Justin Morneau (.260/.370/.312) failing to deliver power after being acquired from the Twins in August.
Elsewhere, Wandy Rodriguez was limited to 12 starts due to a forearm strain, and provided little to no return on his $13.5 million salary, the second-highest on the team (though the Astros paid $5 million). James McDonald was limited to six starts due to a shoulder strain.
At long last, the Pirates have turned the corner. While they didn’t win the division that they led outright as late as Sept. 6 and were tied atop the Central as late as Sept. 16, they shed the stigma of the second-half collapses for which they had become notorious. The fruits of their recent drafts helped to erase the embarrassing memory of their more pennywise ways (compare 2011 number one pick Cole with 2002 numero uno Bryan Bullington). Manager Clint Hurdle showed that even old dogs can learn new tricks, as the team drew on its relatively new analytics department to improve run prevention via a more groundball-centric pitching approach and frequent defensive shifts that helped them shave 97 runs off their 2012 total.
Now the question is whether they can maintain this level. Upgrading the offense at first base and rightfield is a must, with holdovers Jose Tabata and Gaby Sanchez, both of whom were marginalized by August deals, best viewed as spare parts. While there’s some chance they could retain the free agent Burnett via a lower salary than this year’s $16.5 million, his age (37 in January) and postseason collapse suggest the money might be better spent elsewhere. It could be worthwhile for the team to explore a trade for an ace such as David Price or Cliff Lee, though there’s something to be said for seeing if 2010 overall number two pick Jameson Taillon, who reached Triple-A late in the year, can flower as Cole has.
The team’s $66.8 million Opening Day payroll was a club record, but $13.5 million of that was paid by the Yankees (Burnett) and Astros (Rodriguez). With just $31.9 million committed for 2014, there’s plenty of room to take on salary via sensible investments. Fortunately, it appears as though general manager Neal Huntington and his smart staff finally have the hang of this thing, so it won’t be too big a surprise if the Pirates contend for a playoff spot yet again in 2014.