June looks to be the key month for the 2013 Bucs, and by the time we flip the calendar to July we should have a better idea of where this team is going. The Pirates have a tough stretch of games that started Monday when they headed to Atlanta to face the N.L. East-leading Braves in a three-game set, followed by a trip to Wrigley Field to play the resurgent Chicago Cubs next weekend. They follow this road swing with a home stand that includes defending World Series champion San Francisco for three games and the lowly Dodgers for a weekend set June 14-16. From there, it is back to war with the Reds – four games at Great American Ballpark – followed by a West Coast trip to play the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners. The club finishes the month with three against the Milwaukee Brewers.
That is a tough schedule for the Pirates, who have thus far been able to overcome all adversity en route to once again looking like a legitimate N.L. playoff contender. If this all seems familiar to you, it’s probably because we have been here before. Last season, the Pirates held first place in their division all alone at the All Star Break with a 48-37 record. They would spend three more days in first place all season, and would hit their peak winning percentage on July 28 by defeating the Houston Astros to go 16 games over .500. The Pirates were 10 games over .500 on August 29 (70-60) before going 9-23 over their final 32 games to finish 79-83. This recent history lesson is tough to read for Pirates faithful, but necessary to comprehend in order to establish the basis of this column.
Can the 2013 Pirates avoid the late-season tanking that doomed the 2011 and 2012 versions? Can Manager Clint Hurdle wield enough magic to hold this team together through the inevitable struggles that every club goes through over a 162-game marathon schedule? Has G.M. Neil Huntington done enough tinkering with the roster to ensure the needed firepower will be there during the second half to not only win that 83rd game, but to also be in a pennant race come September? All of those questions will be answered as the season progresses, but from an outside perspective, it seems the Pirates are in a much better position this summer than they were in the past two seasons. Here are five keys to why the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are the real deal and will be the team to finally break the longest losing-season streak in the history of North American professional sports.
Russell Martin – When the Pirates signed the veteran catcher to a two-year $17 million deal in November, many undersold the value of the signing. Martin was coming off a .211/21/53 campaign with the New York Yankees, his power numbers undoubtedly enhanced by the bandbox that is new Yankee Stadium. Martin has been a solid hitter throughout his eight-year major league career, but prior to signing with the Yankees in 2011, he had not hit more than 13 home runs in a season since 2007. So far in 2013, Martin has put himself on pace to have a much better offensive season. His .262 batting average is right in line with his career mark, and his six home runs put him on track to hit between 14-16. These aren’t All Star level numbers, but considering what little offensive value the Pirates have gotten from their catchers over the past decade, Martin is a major improvement. The biggest difference for the Pirates is on defense. In 2012, the Rod Barajas/Michael McKenry platoon combined to only throw out 19 of 154 potential basestealers, by far the worst rate in baseball. Out of those 19 runners caught attempting to steal, it was McKenry that nailed 13 of them. Martin is decidedly better at keeping the running game in check, throwing out runners at a 41 percent clip. His presence alone behind the plate has kept teams from employing their running game at the absurd level of 2012. The upgrade from Barajas to Martin is the biggest change for the Pirates this season, and is one of the key factors that should allow this team to stay in the race.
The Evolution of the Young Bucs – Last July, the Pirates were in the unfamiliar spot of being buyers at the trade deadline. It seemed that every deal rumored to be on the table included outfielder Starling Marte being shipped out of town. G.M. Neil Huntington made it clear early on that the Pirates would need to be blown away by a return to even consider including the then 23-year-old phenom in a trade. After just 239 plate appearances in 2013, it seems that Huntington made the correct choice in not trading Marte. In his first season as a starter in the major leagues, Marte has posted a .288/5/18 line with 14 stolen bases and played an exceptional left field. Having Andrew McCutchen in center and Marte in left virtually cuts off 2/3 of the outfield for hitters looking to utilize the gaps. We can expect Marte to run into some adversity as he makes his second trip through the National League, starting with more strikeouts to add to his current high number of K’s (52 to only 10 walks). However, based on his sheer athletic ability and speed, Marte should be able to maintain solid numbers throughout the long season and finish with better numbers than the 2012 Jose Tabata/Alex Presley combination provided. The writing is on the wall for Marte to eventually be considered on par with McCutchen in terms of talent and national visibility. The addition of shortstop Jordy Mercer to a semi-regular lineup spot is another sign of the talent development that is taking place inside this organization. Mercer has not claimed the starting spot at shortstop full-time yet, but unless veteran Clint Barmes begins to start hitting, it’s just a matter of time until the talented Mercer takes over on a daily basis. Mercer is hitting .271 with a homer and three RBI in only 62 plate appearances. One of last years big trade arrivals, right fielder Travis Snider, seems to have found his swing in the National League. After being considered the top prospect in the Toronto system for close to five years, Snider had lost favor with the Blue Jays enough to be shipped out of town last July. The Pirates – always looking for bargains on players who need a change of scenery – sent very effective relief pitcher Brad Lincoln north in exchange for Snider. The still 25-year-old Snider hit 31 home runs in limited play for the Blue Jays from 2009-2012, and looks to be on his way back to that level of play in 2013. Snider has shown his potential power bat at every level of the minor leagues, including hitting .335/13/56 in just 209 at-bats at AAA-Las Vegas in 2012 while still with Toronto. On the mound, the Pirates have a group of young pitchers who have found their stride in Pittsburgh. Starter Jeff Locke has locked-down a rotation spot with his 5-1 record and 2.25 ERA (good for 7th in the NL). Relievers Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson have both established themselves as key parts of the bullpen. All of these youngsters are developing on a team that contains a number of veteran players who have helped them learn the ins and outs of major league baseball. The Pirates are getting good production from their young players, a trend that should only continue as we more forward this summer.
The Starting Rotation – Many fans my age will remember the early 1990’s Pirates; a team that won three straight division titles. One of the main factors that allowed those teams to make the postseason three times was the presence of starters Doug Drabek and John Smiley (through 1991). With both of these workhorses at the top of the rotation, the Pirates were able to count on two quality starts each week. It has been a long time since the Bucs have had a similar situation, but A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have given the Pirates that luxury. Burnett and Rodriguez have combined for five 200+ IP seasons since 2007, the same number that the entire Pirates team has recorded in the same time span. The two veteran hurlers give credibility to the rotation, and both have pitched effectively in 2013. As mentioned earlier, Locke has been a revelation for the Bucs. Locke has guaranteed his spot as the No. 3 starter for the remainder of 2013. Starter Francisco Liriano is finally 100 percent healthy and the lefty has wasted no time showing fans why the Pirates were so excited to add him as a free agent this past off-season. Liriano has started five games, only given up more than one earned run once, and is rolling with a 2.17 ERA. Burnett/Rodriguez/Locke/Liriano stand as a concrete No. 1-4, leaving the fifth slot as the only intrigue left in terms of the rotation. The Pirates have many possible solutions for the back end, including starter Charlie Morton, who made his final minor league rehab start Sunday and should be ready to return to the Pirates within the next week. Morton spent last season attempting to become more of a sinker-type pitcher, moving away from his upper-90’s fastball and power array. In this rehab assignment, “Ground Chuck” has begun to mix both styles together, similar to the pitch selection that made Roy Halladay so successful for so many years. Pitcher James McDonald started out 2013 slowly and was placed on the 15-day DL in mid-May. McDonald was being counted on to reclaim his form he showed in the first half of 2012, when he was 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA before the All Star Break. McDonald is expected back within the next few weeks, but may require a minor league rehab prior to returning. Jeanmar Gomez has filled in admirably since being thrust into a starting spot, going 2-0 with a 2.30 ERA in six starts. The Pirates have an enviable problem developing with Morton/McDonald/Gomez. Unlike past years when the Pirates were scrambling just to fill out their five-man rotation, the 2013 Bucs have too many arms. This will allow Clint Hurdle to stage a competition for the roster spot, and that competition should breed the best out of all three potential starters. Whomever does not get the slot will be sent either to the bullpen, or to AAA-Indianapolis, where they will be ready and waiting if they are needed. Of course, there is always the possibility that the Pirates see enough of top prospect Gerrit Cole this summer. Regardless, these Pirates have the kind of starting pitching depth that no Pirates team has had in many years.
Andrew McCutchen, Second-Half Superstar? – Last season, McCutchen had a phenomenal first-half. He made his second All Star team by hitting .362 with 18 home runs and 60 RBI before July 9. In the second half, McCutchen fell off a bit with the rest of his Pirates teammates. Although he finished with a .327/31/96 line, he only hit .289/16/40 after the break, a significant downgrade from his first half. In 2013, it seems that “Cutch” is doing the exact opposite. He is hitting just .282/7/27 so far, putting him on pace to end this seasons first half with statistics eerily similar to his 2012 second half. A player of McCutchens talent level isn’t going to have a down season at age 26, so it is just a matter of time until he turns it up a notch. If McCutchen does indeed “flip” his season and plays the 2013 second half like he did the 2012 first half, he alone could carry this team to the postseason. McCutchen finished third in the N.L. MVP balloting in 2012 despite his average finish. He will have a legitimate shot at the hardware if he blows up post-July. There are few players in the majors who can carry their entire team on their back when they are rolling, and “Cutch” is one of those few.
Potential Trade Bait – The Pirates farm system is brimming with possible trade chips that would make opposing G.M. salivate. The Bucs could make a big trade without having to include any of their top five prospects (P Cole/P Taillon/P Luis Heredia/SS Alen Hanson/OF Josh Bell). Possible trade bait includes outfielder Gregory Polanco, pitcher Kyle McPherson, outfielder Barrett Barnes and pitcher Clay Holmes. The Pirates could move any of those prospects without damaging their immediate future. Names that could be available at the 2013 Trade Deadline include Paul Konerko, Justin Morneau, Carlos Pena, Chase Utley, Brendan Ryan, Yuniesky Betancourt, Michael Young, Jason Bay (that would be interesting), David Dejesus, Jon Garland, Matt Garza, Shaun Marcum, James Shields and a slew of bullpen options. The Pirates could be in the market for a starting pitcher if their internal options all fail, more bullpen help to offset the heavy use of the current relievers, and an upgrade to a power bat somewhere in the lineup. Few teams that are set to be buyers have the high quantity and quality of trade bait that the Pirates have, so sellers will be very interested in receiving phone calls from Huntington. After the failed experiments that were the 2012 trades, many fans are content to just let this current team play out as is, but if the Pirates are able to obtain a pitcher like Garza for minimal cost, would you argue? The right trade at the deadline can light a fire under a team that is starting to get burnt out by the long season, making the right trade without disturbing the major league core can do even more. It shows fans that the team is committed to winning. It shows the players that management is willing to give them the help they need. Lastly, it shows the league that the Pittsburgh Pirates are a franchise to contend with – on and off the field.
These are the factors that should make 2013 different for the Pirates and their fans. This team of scrappy veterans and excited youngsters seems to be on the verge of something special. It should be a fun summer at the best ballpark in America!
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