Yah, yah, the streak. If the Bucs are going to put that into their rear view mirror, the pitching is going to have make the difference. The Pirates have a lot of options, not so much coming out of camp but certainly within the next few weeks, when Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and Jose Contreras will become available.
The key to the staff is that depth. There is no ace, so the Pirates will depend on workmanlike performances from one through five. They'll win their series because the bottom end of the rotation holds up their end of the deal and the bullpen is rock steady.
For their improved performance last season, according to Fangraphs, the Pirate starters still finished 22nd among MLB rotations in WAR in 2012, with a 61-64 record, 4.21 ERA (4.05 FIP) and a combined 8.1 WAR. The Cards were at 15.8, the Brewers at 14.1 and the Reds at 13.7, so the rotation is still considerably behind the Division's Big Three teams. Heck, even the Cubs came in with an 8.0 WAR, so the Buc staff has a way to go to catch up to the Central's standards.
The bullpen was, contrary to popular opinion, not a whole lot better, finishing 19th with an 18-19-45 slate, 3.36 ERA (3.73 FIP) and 2.3 WAR. But it was one of the better collections in the Central; the Reds were the NL's best relief corp with a 6.3 WAR, but the other Central clubs fell below the Bucs, and that helped the cause.
The final pitching WAR ratings were 20.1 for the Reds, 16.8 for the Cards, 15.3 for the Brewers, 10.4 for the Bucs and trailing the pack were the Cubs at 6.3. The Pirates have to close that gap to compete, and that will be the story of the season.
Starting Pitchers: AJ is the returning ace; he went 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA last year and provided the starters a little edginess on the bump. But he's 36, had a shaky spring and is expected to regress a little, with his ERA dropping into the 4.00 range. But he should still work a couple hundred solid innings for the staff.
Wandy Rodriguez could be the staff anchor this season. Like Neil Walker, he's Mr. Dependable; Wandy's worked 175-200 frames with a sub-4 ERA for years. But his K rate has dropped and he's never been a huge winner, usually racking up a dozen or so victories. He does keep you in games, though, had a good spring and should be comfortable with Pittsburgh now.
James McDonald is the Jekyll and Hyde of the staff. In the spring, he's had first inning problems before settling into a groove. We'll assume that this season, his 4.21 ERA will smooth out, and that should be worth 10-12 wins. A breakout year from him would help get the staff over the hump, but he hasn't shown that's in the cards yet this year.
Jonathan Sanchez won the fourth spot after a rocky start; we feel the lefty is a potential bounce back guy after a 2012 season from hell. He's healthy, and is another guy that projects to a 4+ ERA, never been a big inning eater and except for his 2010 breakout year, has never won 10+ games. But that year showed he has some potential, especially as a back-ender, so like J-Mac, we'll see which pitcher shows up on the hill.
Jeff Locke holds down the fort; he worked a steady spring. The lefty went 3-1 with a 2.63 ERA. But an above-average walk rate and a low K rate hold him back, limiting him to a back-ender unless he gets more agressive.
And this staff won't be intact; by June, there could be wholesale changes. We mentioned in the lede the guys that are coming back. But how much they can improve the staff is a question; Cole has the stuff but no experience; Liriano's control issues have held him back, and Morton/Karstens have an injury history. Still, we think the staff can claim more than the 61 W's they earned in 2012.
The Bullpen: The question here is whether the Jason Grilli/Mark Melancon duo can match the Joel Hanrahna/Jason Grilli combo of 2012. Grilli may not have closed last year, but he faced the heart of the order plenty of times, greasing the skid for Hanny. Melancon had a bumpy start for Boston, but finished strong and has a solid late-inning resume. We're comfortable that they may not be as dominating as in 2012 but should be able to close out games effectively.
We're a little more concerned with the bridge guys. Jared Hughes continued to look like money in the bank this spring, but both Tony Watson and Chris Leroux were inconsistent at camp. Justin Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez were added to the staff. With them, the Pirates have two pitchers that can come in early without killing the pen, and we think Wilson, even with his control issues, can be the multi-role Brad Lincoln of 2013.
They also have a little depth behind them. Contreras and youngsters Bryan Morris, Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin at Indy are capable and vets like Ryan Reid can step in when injuries and performance ring the bell.
The pitching last year seemed like up to the fans because it had been so poor in prior years, but it still has a lot of room to grow. This is a transitional period; Cole and Jameson Taillon, along with a group of mid-to-back level minor league arms, will take their place in Pittsburgh over the next couple of seasons or so.
If the Pirates, with their collection of decent but not elite pitching this year, can continue to rise toward the middle of the league pack statistically, they could well be a winning club this year. And it's been a long time since we've been able to say that.
But they also have enough questions that they could hang out in the bottom third of the MLB again, and that will lead to yet another "wait til next year" moment. As the pitching goes, so goes the season.