They've broken camp and headed north. Now the question is: what does 2013 hold in store for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
Most pre-season predictions have them in the middle of the NL Central pack, looking at 80 victories or so. And we think 80-85 wins is achievable, if the pitching holds up. Our quick take on the position guys:
The lineup: The strength will be the middle of the order - Cutch, Pedro, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez. It's not the Angels, but provides a workable core. Cutch's average should regress and he'll never threaten to lead the league in stolen bases, but his power held up during the spring, his OBP stayed strong and he still runs the paths like a demon. He's the Pirates one indispensable guy.
Walker has been a model of consistency throughout his career, and .275/15/80 is a given.We're looking for Pedro to keep on cranking out bombs, and that should smooth over his projected .250 BA/180 K. Jones had a breakout year, and still should be good for another 20 long balls as a platoon guy. His alter ego, Sanchez, was the surprise of camp. He came to camp healthy and squared up on balls, so first base should be in good hands.
Pittsburgh is stronger in a couple of positions this season. Starling Marte was impressive in winter ball and camp. His strikeout rate is still sky-high for a leadoff guy, but he is establishing his eye (his spring OBP was .373) and base presence (4-of-6 stolen bases). He's a work in progress but could evolve with time into the top-of-the-order hitter the Pirates need.
Russell Martin and Travis Snider, even if they both hit .250, will fortify the back third of the order, a black hole last year. The only glaring gap is in the two hole, and filling that could have a domino effect on the whole lineup. JT is the natural fit, but he'll be watching a lot of innings from the pine while the Bucs find out what they have with Snider.
But the batting order should be more consistent throughout this season instead of being so middle-heavy, and that in turn will help even out the peaks and valleys the offense went through in 2012. It should be an average-to-slightly-above-average attack.
The bench: JT, Mike McKenry and Jones/Sanchez were locks coming into camp. Josh Harrison hung on to his spot and John McDonald was acquired to handle the infield glove position.
We're still not sure what kind of season to expect from Tabata. His spring was eminently so-so, and his lack of options was his ticket to Pittsburgh. McKenry provides the potential for an occasional bomb, as does whoever is sitting out 1B. Jones and Sanchez provide a touch of versatility as GI can play the pasture and Gaby got some innings at the hot corner. Josh is a dirt dog that can play multiple positions passably and hit .250 or so, even if he has the plate patience of an expectant father.
We don't have a problem with McDonald. Our problem is that there were young guys equally deserving of the spot in Jordy Mercer and Ivan DeJesus, so we think the Pirates fixed something that wasn't broke. But he is a better glove guy than either of them, and if that pair were sent down to get everyday work and evaluated as internal options for 2014's SS role, we can live with it. Hey, if we put up with Ramon Vazquez and Bobby Crosby...
The biggest hole on the bench is a lack of lefty bats. In the late innings, everyone will be facing RH relievers, and a portsider with some punch would be useful.
This year, they should have some real minor league depth when injuries or poor performance rear their ugly heads, as they will. Alex Presley and Felix Pie can certainly present cases that they outperformed JT as both hit .300 with .400 OBP's and are lefties. Mercer and DeJesus also had strong springs. All four have MLB resumes, so they won't be approaching showtime with stars in their eyes.
The gloves: The team should field fairly well. Pedro can catch balls just fine; his problem is launching lasers into the third row. Jones is adequate at first as long as he doesn't have to start a DP, and Sanchez is pretty accomplished at the bag. Barmes and McDonald are two of the premier leathermen at short, and Walker has improved by leaps and bounds every year at second; he's at least league-average now. But his size and a cranky back may not allow him to finish his career there.
The outfield is really strong; Cutch and Marte can run down balls that mere mortals would concede as doubles. Tabata looked like his 2010 self in the OF during camp, Snider is a bit above average and Jones can hold his own in front of the Clemente Wall. With Presley and Pie a call away, theses guys can go get it.
The catching should be an upgrade. Martin may not receive balls quite as well as Rod Barajas, but his rep as a framer (which we didn't notice too much in the spring, but then again, we only saw the TV games) should make up for that. His arm was all that; he tossed out 5-of-17 would-be stealers in the spring, a 29% rate, even if he did show show inconsistency by firing three balls into center field during the spring. McKenry is a step behind. He's an adequate or better guy at receiving pitches, but was 3-of-17 in stolen base tries, 18%, the same average he had for the Bucs in 2012.
On the path: The team is just average in speed. Cutch and Marte can fly, most of the guys are average, and Jones, Sanchez, & Pedro are the turtles. There are no real speed guys on the bench, though JT is above average and Harrison can run a little. But the team did a good job of getting the bases they deserved last season, and one of Clint Hurdle's strengths is pushing the running game.
But he won't have a lot of luck stealing bases; Marte showed improvement and should eventually become a threat, while Cutch has never quite shown the instinct for larceny. The rest of the roster consists of pick-your-spot guys.