2014 Pirates preview: Bucs aim to show last year wasn’t a fluke

Pedro Alvarez can hit for power, but he needs to improve his batting average from last year.

 

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Offense: Andrew McCutchen once again highlights the Pirates’ lineup, but outside of the 2013 NL MVP, Pittsburgh lacks a punch. Pedro Alvarez showed he has power after mashing 36 home runs last season, but will need to improve his .296 OBP as the team’s cleanup hitter. If the guys ahead of McCutchen can get on base more, the offense should improve from last season’s lineup that ranked ninth in the National League in runs scored. 

Rotation: Burnett heads off to the Phillies, leaving the ace position open for Gerrit Cole after the right-hander dominated down the stretch last season, going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA and 39 strikeouts in September. The Bucs are hoping to see a repeat performance from Francisco Liriano after taking a risk signing the veteran last season, where he only pitched 161 innings but provided a solid arm in the rotation. Jeff Locke could find a way back to the rotation if he can recover from last season’s second-half struggles after being an All-Star. If Wandy Rodriguez and newcomer Volquez can stay healthy, pitching to the level they are capable of, Pittsburgh’s rotation will be a strong point for the team.

2014 MLB PREVIEWS

Bullpen: Last season, the Pirates’ bullpen was lights out, and most of the players are returning in 2014. Mark Melancon surprised everyone with his 1.39 ERA, 70 strikeouts and eight walks over 71 innings in the set-up role for a bargain price, and Jason Grilli was great at closer (33 saves in 35 chances). While the bullpen might have overachieved last season, it should remain solid even if stats are down from 2013. 

Player to watch: Alvarez. He hit 36 home runs with 100 RBI last season to lead the team in both categories, but his .233 batting average could improve, especially with reigning NL MVP McCutchen hitting in front of him. The Pirates will need Alvarez to hit well in order to make a return trip to the playoffs.

Why they will in: If the rotation stays healthy, keeping runs down, the strong bullpen should be able to win a lot of games for Pittsburgh, and that means the defense will need to continue to play as well as it did last season. 

AROUND THE HORN

Why they will lose: If the top of the lineup struggles to get on base for McCutchen in the No. 3 spot, the Pirates will have problems scoring runs again. One man can’t do it all, even if he is the MVP. 

Jon Paul Morosi’s outlook: The Pirates ended the longest streak of losing seasons in major North American professional sports, returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1992, pushed the eventual NL champion Cardinals to the brink in a thrilling five-game series, and helped a great baseball town fall in love with the sport again. So, what now? If the Pirates are going to improve upon a storybook 2013, they must rely on their farm system after a relatively quiet offseason. Cole may need to become this year’s Burnett, after the veteran signed with Philadelphia, while Jameson Taillon assumes Cole’s role as the star midseason call-up. Keep an eye on Gregory Polanco; the stud right fielder could be in the everyday lineup by June.