NL contenders: Pirates poised to regress

NL contenders: Pirates poised to regress
February 17, 2014, 9:00 am
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Andrew McCutchen is one Pirate who isn't due for some regression in 2014. The five-tool centerfielder hit .317 with a .912 OPS last season to win NL MVP. (USA Today Images)

NL WILD-CARD CONTENDERS

We spent the last five days previewing the NL East, but the strength of the Nationals and Braves means that the Phillies likely have a better shot at the playoffs by winning a wild-card, something they’ve never done. In the coming days, we’ll break down the Phils’ top competition for the two NL wild-card spots.

Up next: Pittsburgh Pirates

2013 record: 94-68

Additions: SP Edinson Volquez, OF Chris Dickerson, INF Robert Andino, INF/OF Michael Martinez, 1B Travis Ishikawa, RP Daniel Schlereth

Subtractions: SP A.J. Burnett, OF Marlon Byrd, 1B Justin Morneau, 1B/OF Garrett Jones, C John Buck, SP James McDonald, RP Kyle Farnsworth

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With great success comes great expectations. From 1993-2012, the Pirates finished below .500 for 20 consecutive seasons. But that’s now a trend of the past. After teasing their fans in 2011 and 2012 before fading in the second half, the Pirates finally made the playoffs in 2013 by going 94-68 and winning the wild-card playoff. Pittsburgh eventually lost to NL Champion St. Louis in five games in the NLDS.

The Pirates should knock on the door of the playoffs again in 2014, but baseball fans shouldn’t expect another 94-win season. A 90-win season might be pushing it.

The replacements
The small-market Bucs lost a lot this offseason. Their best starting pitcher, A.J. Burnett, is now a Phillie. So is Marlon Byrd, who hit .318 with an .843 OPS in 30 games as a Pirate after being traded by the Mets and homered to propel them to a win over the Reds in the do-or-die wild-card game.

Replacing Burnett in the rotation is Edinson Volquez, who is nothing more than a No. 5 starter. Replacing Byrd will be Jose Tabata, a .274/.339/.385 hitter with little power.

Regression candidates
It’s not just the offseason losses that will hurt the Pirates in 2014. Pittsburgh had a lot of players outperform their career averages last season.

Francisco Liriano rebuilt his value on a one-year deal, going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and having his option exercised. Can he do it again? In his four prior seasons, albeit all in the AL, he had a 4.85 ERA in 120 appearances. Maybe he made real, sustainable adjustments just before his 30th birthday. This season will provide us the answer.

In the bullpen, closer Jason Grilli (2.70 ERA), setup man Mark Melancon (1.39), Tony Watson (2.39), Justin Wilson (2.08) and Vin Mazzaro (2.81) were all lights out.

Melancon had a 6.20 ERA the year before. Even if that’s not indicative of his true talent level, neither is the 1.39 ERA, or the eight walks in 71 innings, or the 80 percent strand rate, or the one home run allowed. Not saying Melancon can’t command the ball, hit spots or induce grounders, but those are all unsustainable marks for such a volatile role.

Same goes for the rest of the group. This Pirates bullpen has talent, but a 2.25 ERA again from the five most-used relievers would be extremely surprising.

McCutchen needs help
Andrew McCutchen’s 2013 NL MVP award was well-deserved, as he not only hit .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers, 84 RBIs and 38 doubles, but also provided stellar baserunning and centerfield defense, and did his best work when it counted most. McCutchen hit .339 with a 1.001 OPS after the All-Star break and .315 in the final three innings of games.

But he doesn’t have much protection in this lineup. Starling Marte looks like a stud at the top of the order, but sandwiching McCutchen in the projected lineup are either Tabata/Jordy Mercer in the two-hole and Pedro Alvarez at cleanup. Alvarez led the NL with 36 homers last season but also led with 186 strikeouts. That’s a lot of wasted first-and-third opportunities.

Neil Walker, Russell Martin and Gaby Sanchez look like the 6-7-8 hitters, and all three are average offensive players.

The Bucs will struggle to score runs. To make the playoffs, they’ll need 2011 first-overall pick Gerrit Cole, who was excellent in his rookie year in 2013, to prevent runs in the rotation and veteran Wandy Rodriguez to help offset the loss of Burnett.

The prediction
The Pirates finish 86-76, tied with the Phillies but three games behind the second wild-card, which goes to the Reds.

Tomorrow: Arizona Diamondbacks