Camp starts tomorrow, and the question remains...is this the year that Bucs compete? The answer to that question is wrapped up in the answers to these questions:
Can Jason Grilli close? The 36 year old is getting his first crack at finishing games. His eighth inning work has been strong, but will it carry over? Grilled Cheese has 5 career saves, and worked 8-1/3 frames in the ninth last year, so he doesn't have a track record. His eighth and ninth innings metrics were pretty similar in 2012, but whether or not he thrives as the man is yet to be seen. If he falters, Mark Melancon has closing experience, and Buc youngsters Bryan Morris, Vic Black, and Duke Welker have served in the role.
Can anyone lead off? The Bucs are counting on Starling Marte and Travis Snider/Jose Tabata to fill the 1-2 holes in the lineup. In 2012, their OBPs were .324 (Snider), .315 (JT) and .300 (Marte) and they had just 22 stolen sacks among them. The Pirates would like to see better plate discipline and a more threatening presence on the bases (tho Marte is good at swiping sacks, taking 12-of-17 in 2012) to properly set the table this year. There aren't any natural top of the order guys on the roster outside of JT and Marte - Snider is misplaced at the top of the lineup - so there's not much help on the horizon outside of Alex Presley and maybe Felix Pie.
How will the rotation fare? Wandy Rodriguez is the only consistent starter on the staff. We suspect AJ will remain strong, too - the NL Central isn't the AL East, and he seems to thrive in his alpha dog role. After them, Ray Searage has James McDonald, Francisco Liriano and Jonathan Sanchez, all with swing-and-miss stuff but frustratingly up and down, steady but fragile soft tosser Jeff Karstens, the summer return of Charlie Morton and pups lining up on Federal Street as the minor league pipeline is finally reaching Pittsburgh. But it's a tough staff to get a feel for - it's as deep as it has ever been in the Neal Huntington tenure, but with a lot of arms that are higher in potential than in performance.
Will right field sort itself out? The Pirates already have Marte in left, and in his first full season he'll be a work in progress as he plays cat and mouse with MLB pitchers. So they'll need some production from right while he learns the ropes, and it looks now like the Clemente Wall will be defended by JT and Travis Snider. It's possible Tabata will have a bounce back season and Snider will perform like a top pick, but the Bucs are in trouble if they repeat their pedestrian 2012 numbers.
What will be the effects of losing the Astros? Yah, they were everyone's punching bag last year; no one in the division had a losing record against them. But Pittsburgh especially owned them; their 12 wins against Houston was the most by any team. The schedule will smooth things out somewhat, but their loss is likely to cost the Bucs at least a couple or three wins during the campaign.
Will the core regress? Neil Walker has been the poster child for consistency over his brief career; his only question is his balky back. But can Cutch have another MVP-type season, will Pedro improve, hold steady, or slip, and can Garrett Jones continue to be a hammer? Those guys are the heart of the lineup, and the Pirate ability to generate runs lies squarely on their ability to square up baseballs.
Will the bottom of the order remain an abyss? We'd bet on a bounce back by Clint Barmes; he hit .254, which is about his upper limit, over the last four months of the season after a dreadful start. Russell Martin doesn't have a very high bar to hurdle, but his average has dropped every season beginning in 2008, from .280 to .211. He's projected to have a .240 BA and .330 OBP with 15 HR in 2013, and if he does, he'll be an upgrade.
Can the Bucs play six months of baseball? In 2011, a not terribly deep team lost both players and confidence over the last two months, leading to a spectacular nosedive. Last year, the pitching, epitomized by J-Mac, tailed off; the starters couldn't go deep and the bullpen wore down. The Buc deadline moves were made with an eye to the future rather than the day, and Cutch played like a mortal for a spell. In 2013, the team looks deeper, at least in pitching, and should be more mature. They are better built for a longer run. The bigger question is will they be in a race come August?