After two trying but ultimately formative seasons, the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates delivered an excellent winning season to their fans. The Pirates’ destiny only could be stopped by the St. Louis Cardinals, who bested the Pirates in the NL Central standings and the Divisional Series Playoffs. Yet, it’s difficult to come to a negative conclusion about this chain of events (and, the 2014 season) for the Pirates. Pittsburgh can claim an identity with their winning club, as GM Neal Huntington almost stubbornly refused to deviate from his plan of building from within the organization. The face of that ideology is Andrew McCutchen, who emerged as MVP in 2013. Furthermore, the starved fanbase for the Pirates showed off their passion in a “for-the-ages” Wild Card game against the division rival Cincinnati Reds. Pirates fanatics packed PNC Park for that game, and presented an intimidating image that was broadcasted around the USA. It is difficult to imagine a more entertaining Wild Card game, and in many ways, both the Reds and the Pirates vindicated commissioner Bud Selig‘s playoff expansion plan.
When I previewed the Pirates over the last two years, I consistently noted the organization’s two tier front. Specifically, Huntington has continuously developed his organization’s farm, and his club will arguably receive the greatest benefits from that system within the next handful of seasons. In this way, “organizational victories” could be claimed regardless of the club’s 2013 success. After a handful of Pirates prospects advanced — and in some cases, broke out — in 2013, it is increasingly clear that questions about the Pirates’ ability to follow-up with a consecutive playoff berth are second to the impact of these youngsters on future Pirates squads. As a group of young Pirates are aggressively advancing through the system, 2014 somehow seems less important than the 2015-2019 half-decade; the 2013 Pirates just might indicate the culmination of the first wave of Huntington’s rebuild. The real question is whether Huntington can turn those young prospects into a dynasty over the coming half decade.
One of the benefits of Huntington’s organizational strategy is that he aggressively used one of the Pirates’ top prospects to fill a need in the middle of the 2013 season. One might argue that Gerrit Cole was hyped so much that there’s really no performance that could look impressive, but one still needs to be reminded that a 22-year old stepped into a pennant race and was seven runs above average in 19 games. Cole’s ratio of K / BB / HR and H / IP looked as strong as his runs allowed, and Cole turned in a solid 10-7 campaign. In the clutch department, Cole was nails in September, spurring three of his club’s one-run victories for that month (including 1-0 and 2-1 contests). The Pirates were 5-0 in Cole’s September, which included 32 IP and 6 runs while the Pittsburgh Nine fought for their home-field advantage in the wild card game.
It seems that over the last few years, power arms are the main attraction for MLB organizations and their prospects. While it’s true that MLB clubs have always loved a potential power arm, the game seems more geared to power-vs-power match-ups between batters and pitchers. Cole is a solid representative of a young power pitcher, as he throws both a sinker and fastball around 96 MPH according to Brooks Baseball. His slowest pitch is an 83 MPH curve, which he features sparingly. Overall, Cole throws his slider, change, and curve approximately one third of his offerings; those hard fastballs get the majority of Cole’s attention.
Even at 23, Cole will arguably be the top pitcher in the Pirates’ rotation. In fact, his solid command and power profile could be crucial for a club that otherwise features few power/strike out offerings.
Pitching Question Marks
One of the only free agency moves Huntington made to shape his 2014 Pirates was the addition of replacement-level extraordinaire Edinson Volquez. Volquez signed with the Pirates for a relatively low risk deal in terms of its length, and he currently sits sixth on the club’s MLB.com depth chart. That could change, given the pitching and injury profiles of Francisco Liriano, Wandy Rodriguez, and Charlie Morton.
|F. Liriano (‘08-’12)||3028||22.1%||10.5%||2.3%||0.75|
|F. Liriano (‘13)||666||24.5%||9.5%||1.4%||-0.12|
|W. Rodriguez (‘08-’12)||3941||20.5%||7.6%||2.5%||0.59|
|W. Rodriguez (‘13)||260||17.7%||4.6%||3.8%||1.18|
|C. Morton (‘08-’12)||2135||14.2%||9.1%||2.0%||1.11|
|C. Morton (‘13)||493||17.2%||7.3%||1.2%||0.14|
Of the 2014 Pirates question marks, Liriano might be the most important. After facing injury issues and performance troubles for a handful of seasons (marked by one bright spot)in Minnesota), Liriano improved his command profile with the Pirates. Suddenly, Liriano flashed that great strike out potential once again, and he did so while limiting the damage with walks and home runs. If Cole is to not stand alone at the top of the Pirates’ rotation, a repeat performance by Liriano is crucial. One wonders if health and a great pitcher’s park is simply the remedy that Liriano needed. While it is difficult to project his improvement going forward, Pittsburgh could be just the fresh start he needed for his career. 2014 marks Liriano’s chance to produce two consecutive quality seasons for the first time in his career.
On the other hand, the 2013 Pirates proved that one does not need a great — or even good — rotation to win. The vast majority of their pitching strengths came from their relievers, who were approximately 45 runs better than their league / PNC Park. Given that the Pirates return much of their same bullpen, one can ask whether these rotational questions overshadow the club’s chance at pitching success. Bullpen analysis is a coin-flip in most seasons, and it will be especially intriguing to see if the Pirates can strike gold yet again with their misfit bullpen.
Next Wave Pirates
Although a couple of the Pirates’ top prospects are several years away from the MLB, there are a few top prospects that could potentially make an impact in 2014 (or, fill holes for the 2015 roster). Given the fact that the front office proved to be aggressive with placing Cole into a pennant race in 2013 (and, to a lesser degree, Starling Marte into the 2012 race), one should not be surprised if Huntington looks to his farm to make midseason improvements.
Gregory Polanco played across three different levels in 2013. Although his best statistical performance may have occurred in the Florida State League, his most impressive was arguably at Altoona in AA. Then 21, Polanco, batted .263/.354/.407 by demonstrating exceptional discipline and solid power. Polanco provides the Pirates with yet another speedy outfielder option, and his power/discipline might make him an excellent counter to the aggressive Marte. If Polanco sticks in the upper majors throughout 2014, he could provide the Pirates with a trio of impact outfielders sooner rather than later.
Jameson Taillon has been a BaseballAmerica Top 20 prospect so long that his stock is “dropping” — from #11 in 2011 to #19 before the 2013 season, that is. Nevertheless, Taillon pitched effectively at AA Altoona before earning a promotion to AAA Indianapolis. His strike zone control was decent in Indianapolis, but rather solid in Altoona. FanGraphs has featured the 6’6” Taillon as a member of an elite and gigantic 1-2 pitching prospect punch with Gerrit Cole (and another feature compared his 11-to-5, mid-80s curve to the Ben Sheets hammer). If one questions the Pirates’ logic for failing to extend A.J. Burnett or land an extensive offer to a free agent, Taillon could be the reason. As the Pirates proved in 2013, they are not afraid to promote their young pitchers during a contending season.
Tyler Glasnow will turn 21 at the end of the 2014 season, and the 6’7” righty is another wild card / top prospect for the Pirates. While he might be two years behind Taillon in terms of a potential big league stint in 2014, the righty gives the Pirates another reason to question long-term, big money pitching deals. Thus far, Glasnow has dominated the minors, most recently storming the Sally League with a 164 K / 61 BB / 9 HR performance in 111.3 IP. Glasnow’s command and release point will need to improve as he advances, but thus far he has proved to be nearly unhittable. FanGraphs noted that Glasnow’s current position is one of a high-ceiling / low-floor prospect.
Alen Hanson is yet another Pirates prospect that could be a few relatively short steps away from the minors, given the organization’s current situation at shortstop. Hanson might be a raw defensive prospect, as he is working on stretches of error-prone defense. However, his speed and relative discipline will be tools that can help him stick at shortstop. It is worth noting that Hanson will be only 21-years old during his second year at the AA level, giving the Pirates yet another young player on track for their big league club.
Breakout: Andrew McCutchen
Given that the Pirates are returning a sizable percentage of their bats, there are a number of players I could feature in a breakout segment. However, I think McCutchen is the most intriguing Pirates bat, for many reasons. While the reigning NL MVP technically declined in 2013 (I am hesitant to write “declined” next to any .900+ OPS, 20 HR/20 SB season), his contact/discipline profile took another step toward an elite, contact-power level.
Prior to the 2012 season, I compared McCutchen to Ryan Braun, since McCutchen matched consistently solid batting production while shifting his control of the strike zone. As McCutchen improved in 2011 and 2012 (in terms of power), he also struck out more frequently (while walking in bunches). In 2013, McCutchen posted his second lowest strike out percentage in his career, inching much closer to his career low 13.6% (from 2010) than his 19.6% (from 2013). Simply stated, McCutchen’s best trends for K% and BB% place him on the track for Prince Fielder-levels of matching strike outs and walks, and that is precisely McCutchen’s next step to the next tier of greatness. Working with the trends above, it is worth noting that McCutchen’s batting profile sets him up for a strong season no matter how you look at it:
Super McCutchen: 678 PA, 92 K / 89 BB / 31 HR / 6 HBP; 460 BIP, 152 BIPH, 35 2B, 6 3B; 323 TB.
678 PA, 583 AB, 183 H, 35 2B, 6 3B, 31 HR, 30/40 SB, 6 HBP; .314/.410/.554
Trend McCutchen: 678 PA, 120 K / 79 BB / 25 HR / 6 HBP; 448 BIP, 148 BIPH, 34 2B, 6 3B; 294 TB.
678 PA, 593 AB, 173 H, 34 2B, 6 3B, 25 HR, 26/37 SB, 6 HBP; .292/.381/.496
If you’re skeptical of the type of elite pace McCutchen exemplifies, here’s something to chew on:
|First Five Years||G||PA||HR||SB||AVG/OBP/SLG||OPS+/WAR|
|McCutchen||734||3171||103||125||.296/.380/.489||139 / 26.9|
|Bonds||717||3009||117||169||.265/.358/.479||133 / 33.2|
Obviously, Bonds was a full year younger than McCutchen when he began his career in Pittsburgh, which is not necessarily insignificant. Yet, about the only thing one can say about McCutchen’s first five years is that he’s not as good a defensive outfielder as Bonds. McCutchen’s offensive ascension from ages 22-through-26 makes for fun speculation about what his “prime” could look like. McCutchen is already on pace to command his strike zone for his pitch, so it will be interesting to see when that translates into a top hitting / discipline / power / speed season.
Best Case Scenario
As a Brewers fan, the Pirates have become one of my favorite rivals over the last few seasons. A lot of that rivalry stems from personal jealousy, I think — when the Brewers had their young prospects contending and competing between 2008 and 2011, the Pirates were putting together their first steps to rebuilding. As the twilight for the Brewers’ first gang of great prospects began, the Pirates were entering their first competitive chances. Brewers and Pirates fans can empathize on market issues, as well as heartbreaking seasons — the Brewers needed 2006 and 2007 to get to their Wild Card, while the Pirates needed 2011 and 2012 collapses to reach their Wild Card. On some level, I know I am supposed to root for the Pirates as a small market MLB fan, but I just can’t do it — while Brewers GM Doug Melvin took one path to a strong streak of competitive seasons, the Pirates took the other path. Now, the Pirates’ next question marks are, “Will they graduate their top prospects to the MLB club or trade them?,” while the Brewers must ask, “How can we revamp our farm system?”
It is clear that the Pirates must match their playoff campaign with another winning season in 2014, although it’s difficult to say that anything short of a playoff season is a failure for Pittsburgh. Given the Pirates’ rotational questions, as well as their last remaining holes on offense, there is a sense that Pittsburgh only needs to sit tight until the next set of upper-system prospects graduate. The club should be able to compete throughout the season, knowing that at the deadline, Huntington can either stick to the script or turn a new chapter and acquire veteran help by trading a prospect. If the Pirates adhere to the former strategy, the best-case-scenario for 2014 is quite clear: compete throughout 2014 without any setbacks for the prospects in the upper minors. Such an outcome paces Pittsburgh for a successful 2015 as much as a playoff berth this coming season.
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