Yes - we will join every other Pirate blogger and MSM person at the keypad and add our two-cents outlook on this year's Bucco squad now that the season is about to spring.
Like last year's team, this edition will be built on pitching. The starters are strong again, even with AJ being swapped out for Edinson Volquez. Wandy's back and Gerrit Cole has 20 starts under his belt, including one in post-season. Charlie Morton is here for the opening bell, and Frankie is coming off a career season.
We're not that that worried about Volquez (someone has to go when Jameson Taillon is ready) even if he does appear to be the reincarnation of James McDonald. Our major concern is health and depth. We're in fingers-crossed mode that Wandy can return to his 30 start days and that Ground Chuck shows some durability. We'll see how Frankie goes - he has a long history of being unable to post good back-to-back campaigns, but he and Cole look like dependable inning eaters at the top-to-mid range of the rotation.
And the top four have to step up. The Pirates only had one guy go over 165 IP last year, and he's gone. Two returning starters made more than 20 starts in 2014. The Pirates will be in great shape if they can get four guys to toss 30 starts /180 IP. There's no guarantee than Taillon will be a horse like Cole come July.
The Bucs are thin behind that gang. Jeff Locke is just stretching out again - he worked three innings in camp on Thursday, but is on the DL - and Taillon has a sore elbow. Brandon Cumpton showed that he can hold up the back end of the staff pretty well in a small sample, and Phil Irwin is back after missing last season. Kyle McPherson may even be ready for a September run. Stolmy Pimentel and Jeanmar Gomez both are ready to step into the breach if needed.
But with the possible exception of Taillon, all the above have shown that they can keep their head above water in the show, but would be hard pressed to replace one of the top four pitches for a long stretch. And the bullpen is in much better balance with Pimentel and Gomez than without them.
Pittsburgh has the same bull pen crew returning, minus Vin Mazzaro and plus Pimentel, and are deeper at Indy than the starters on paper. So the pen should again be solid, especially if Pirate starters can get into the seventh and eighth innings a little more this season.
The Pirates had five relievers pitch 70 innings or more, although Clint Hurdle shuffled them enough than none surpassed 80 IP. Still, their 545-2/3 frames represented the second highest NL workload. None of the other NL playoff clubs worked more than 475 frames. A little less work would go a long way is preventing any regression from the relief corps.
We actually think the much maligned offense will improve in 2014, even without any hired guns coming in. It sputtered along at an average rate with a 98 wRC+, even with their low .245 BA and .230 BA with RISP. Their ball-in-play stats were all in line, except for an unlucky .294 BABIP, and RISP tends to match overall BA, so it looks like even with the same gang, they should pick it up this year in hidden vigorish.
Gaby will see the lions share of work at first, and if he can put up his .256 BA and .742 OPS against righties, as he did as a full-timer with the Fish, and with just a little help from Travis Ishikawa, the position will be improved. The Kid is due for a bounce-back year, though his back may be a chronic position. For Jordy Mercer, it will be is show-me year. Pedro needs to improve just incrementally - if he can get to .250 with 175 K, he'll be a monster. Josh Harrison and Clint Barmes are versatile in the field, but not threats in the box.
Russ Martin will continue as always - good power, low BA, high OPS and great D. Tony Sanchez should be ready with the bat, but the fact that John Buck played ahead of him in September says it all concerning just where he's at as a MLB catcher in the eyes of the Pirate brass.
The outfield will be led by Cutch, who has been consistent over the past couple of years (we'd expect his power numbers to be more like 2013 than 2012) and another .300+, 100 RS season should be in the cards. Straling Marte is a little tougher to predict; he doesn't walk and getting pinged by a couple of dozen pitches a year can't be a good thing. So he could regress this year, although his speed should keep him from a prolonged slump. We think Travis Snider and JT are not a bad duo in right; Greg Polanco should get all the time he needs to mature.
The biggest problem we see, and it happened often last year, is that the Pirates don't match up well because of a lefty-heavy lineup, both in the lineup and in the late innings, when the club is out of RH batters. Walker improving from the right side and Gaby producing would help ease that problem a bit. But wide splits and bench balance because of platooning are real problems for Clint Hurdle.
Defensively, the gloves are there. The middle infield is average, the corners good, the outfield spectacular and the catching top shelf. The Bucco shifts help to accentuate those abilities.
The call du jour is to pick this team to win 85 games, give or take a couple. We don't think that they're a 95 win club, but 90 wins and another playoff appearance is within reach with some luck on the injury front and a little more run production. The tale will be told early; April consists of nearly all NL Central games, and Pittsburgh will determine its place in the pecking order early on.