Playing Pepper 2014: Pittsburgh Pirates

Since 2009, one of the traditions of the spring has been the Playing Pepper series.  I ask a number of questions of blogs–some in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, some not–that cover the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball.  This year, not only is my son involved–he and I came up with the last question together–but the series is also brought to you by Purpose, Perseverance and Power Arms, the United Cardinal Bloggers annual publication.  Only $2.99 at the Kindle store, so get yours today!  But first, get out the bats and gloves and let’s play some pepper.

Pittsburgh Pirates
94-68, second in the NL Central, lost in the NLDS

The streak, it is over.  No more will Pittsburgh be synonymous with losing baseball.  No long will they be the butt of every joke.  Not only did they pass .500 last season, they blew past it and wound up playing when most NL teams were sitting at home or out playing golf.

Unfortunately, that now means the bar is raised.  Fans won’t be content with 82 wins like they might have been before last year.  October appearances are on the agenda, with a series win requested.

To see if they can do that, we’ve got a couple of great bloggers to talk Pirates baseball.  David writes at 6-4-3 Putout and is part of the Pittsburgh chapter of the BBA.  He’s on Twitter @RDavidK.   Michael covers all of baseball at his blog Old Time Family Baseball.  (You may remember I had a small part in helping out during his blogathon back in January.)  He also contributes to The Platoon Advantage and MLB Daily Dish as well as writing about the Pirates in the most recent Baseball Prospectus annual.  Follow him on Twitter @clairbearattack.

So let’s see what’s in store for what could be the Cardinals’ closest competition this season!

C70: How would you grade the offseason?

643: It’s hard to rate this offseason anything as anything but an F, but I’m feeling generous and will give Neal Huntington and company an Incomplete. A.J. Burnett left for Philadelphia and the only external move to replace him was Edinson Volquez and his many, many walks. Nothing was done to address 1B, or at least the LH-hitting half. In an underrated move, Chris Stewart was brought in to be the backup catcher. This keeps Tony Sanchez in AAA where he can keep hitting everyday before he takes over as the starter next season. All together it doesn’t look like much, but when you step back, not much <i>needed</i> to happen because Huntington already had some pretty good depth in place.

OTFB: Grade: D+. And that disappointing grade is even a little high, buoyed by grade inflation and the trust that Neal Huntington earned after last season than any shrewd moves made this winter.

The Pirates, either acting out of respect for AJ Burnett’s wishes or completely misreading the market, did not offer him a qualifying offer of $14.1 million, even saying that they could not afford to pay the market rate for a pitcher who, according to Fangraphs, was worth nearly $20 million last season. After reportedly offering him something similar to Josh Johnson‘s $8 million deal, despite Burnett having pitched more effectively and with more innings than Johnson in recent history, the Pirates eventually lost out to the Phillies when they signed the pitcher for $16 million. To make up for that, though, the Pirates signed Edinson Volquez, a pitcher who hasn’t been league average since 2008. While they hope they can re-create Francisco Liriano the second, that’s a steep order.

The Pirates also let Garrett Jones walk for $5 million to the Marlins, hoping instead to lure James Loney to the team. They failed and now have the inspiring duo of Chris McGuinness and Andrew Lambo as the potential platoon partners for Gaby Sanchez.

The Pirates’ did make one strong offseason move when they acquired Chris Stewart from the Yankees, giving the Pirates a second excellent game caller and pitch framer behind the plate.

C70: Who will be the number one now that A.J. Burnett is gone, Gerrit Cole or Francisco Liriano? And is there anyway to make sure Liriano is sick every time the Cardinals meet up with the Pirates?

643: Liriano is the Opening Day starter and #1 right now, but I think Cole will be the better pitcher by the end of the year and going forward. As far as any convenient “sick” days go, I’d say that completely depends on whether the Cards are as lefty heavy as they were last year.

OTFB: Coming into the season, the ‘number one,’ is Francisco Liriano. I wouldn’t expect that to last long. For one thing, Liriano has never had back-to-back seasons with an ERA+ of 100 or above. For another, Gerrit Cole is developing faster than a futuristic robot that has just achieved sentience. Watching Cole mature over the course of his first season, commanding a wipeout slider along with an upper-90s fastball and a ‘stuff it’ attitude, it looks clear that by the the time the season is over, Cole will be the one the team taking the ball in any big game situation.

As for Liriano getting sick, well, just be sure to sneeze in his direction a bunch.

C70: Which roster battle will be the most intriguing during spring training?

643: Most spots on the team are already spoken for. The most interesting thing to watch is whether Andrew Lambo can handle first base, since he’s in line to play against RH pitchers.

OTFB: Most of the roster battles have been decided by now, the last being whether they can really start the year with Volquez in the rotation (11.00 ERA in 9 IP at the time of writing), though his $5 million salary should mean that he’ll have first right of refusal, and just what the Pirates are going to do in right field. Thanks to super two concerns, Gregory Polanco was sent back to AAA, leaving Jose Tabata‘s hot start at the end of last year and cold start in spring training to battle it out with Travis Snider‘s poor 2013, but strong spring for right field supremacy. Boy, that sounds exciting doesn’t it?

C70: What rookie, if any, will make the most impact on the team in 2014?

643: Lambo will be the first rookie to get a shot this season. Later this season, Jameson Tallion and Gregory Polanco are expected to get call ups, assuming they don’t hit any bumps in AAA. There are lots of scouts who like Tallion’s (pronounced TIE-yan) ceiling better than Cole’s. Polanco is a five-tool threat and is graded as the 3rd best OF prospect in all of baseball behind Byron Buxton (Min) and Oscar Tavares (StL).

OTFB: A lonely nation’s eyes turn to Gregory Polanco.

While Jameson Taillon could be a useful cog, especially if he can shore up some of his command issues, offering a possible replacement for Volquez in a few months time, he’s not expected to hit the ground running the same way Gerrit Cole was.

And the Pirates, who struggled to score runs last year, finishing 20th in the league and the lowest among all playoff qualifiers, could be even worse this year. Small steps backwards from Pedro Alvarez or Andrew McCutchen, or should Andrew Lambo fail to uphold his end of the first base platoon, and there could be a number of low scoring games. Enter Polanco and his wide array of tools. Though he’s yet to grow into his power, the Dominican Winter League’s Rookie of the Year and MVP offers contact ability, speed, and gap power. And once that home run power shows up, watch out.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

643: 88-76 seems like the talent level of this group. With Cincinnati not doing much this offseason either, that should be good enough to stay in second place.

OTFB: Unfortunately for the Pirates, there are just a few too many holes this year that they won’t be able to overcome the way they did last year. It will still be a fun and competitive summer for a team that’s not used to that happening very often, so I’m pegging the club with 86 wins and a second place finish, a few back of the second Wild Card.

C70: Which player from your team do you most enjoy watching?

643: NL MVP Andrew McCutchen is the easy answer to this one, though Cole is gaining ground fast.

OTFB: With Jeff Karstens and his majestic pitch face floating around the waiver wire, the answer is simple: Andrew McCutchen. With speed, smooth actions, and his long hair flowing as he races the bases, how could you not love watching McCutchen? And man, does he know how to make a proposal.

My thanks to David and Michael for their thoughts and insights.  It did seem from afar that the Pirates took a step back, but they still should be competitive in the Central for quite some time.

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