2013 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Big Question: Can the Buccos break .500 for the first time since the 1992 season?

It is absolutely possible. The Pirates finished only four games under the .500 mark (79-83) in 2012 and seem capable of significant improvement in 2013. Andrew McCutchen has been a star for years but truly had a breakout 2012 campaign, posting career highs in batting average (.327), homers (31), RBI (96) and runs scored (107). His .953 OPS was higher than his previous best by a whole 112 points. Maybe some regression is coming, but then again maybe it’s not.

McCutchen isn’t the only difference-maker in the Pirates’ lineup. Starling Marte hit .286/.347/.500 with 12 homers, 13 triples and 21 stolen bases in 100 games last season at Triple-A Indianapolis before getting called up to Pittsburgh and giving the National League a taste of his potential down the stretch. He’ll bat leadoff this year in front of Neil Walker, who proved his legitimacy in 2012 by producing a career-high 14 home runs in 129 games while lifting his average, OBP and slugging percentage all from where they were in 2011.

Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones also produced a career-best home run total last season, slugging 27 in 145 games. He had 16 homers in 148 games in 2011. And then there’s third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who is entering his physical prime at age 26 and tallied 30 big flies last year at age 25. The Bucs have a handful of legitimate power bats, and free agent acquisition Russell Martin should only help the run-production. He was handed a two-year, $17 million contract this winter to provide needed stability behind the plate.

This is not a bad National League offense, and the rotation looks better than it has in over a decade.

Wandy Rodriguez registered a 3.72 ERA in 75 innings with the Pirates last season after arriving in a July 25 trade with Houston. The veteran left-hander owns a 3.48 ERA in 934 2/3 innings since 2008. A.J. Burnett has found new life in the Steel City and was almost ace-like in 2012, spreading a 3.51 ERA over 200-plus frames. James McDonald has flashed potential, and Gerrit Cole — the No. 1 overall pick from 2011 — is expected to reach the major leagues in June. Jameson Taillon — the No. 2 overall pick in 2010 — is also getting close.

These aren’t your older cousin’s Pirates. Las Vegas gives them an over/under of 77.5 wins. I like the over, and I think they can approach something like 85 victories if their most important players stay healthy all year.

What Else Is Going On?

  • Left-hander Francisco Liriano could also be of help to the Pittsburgh rotation at some point in 2013. He originally agreed to a two-year, $14 million free agent contract with the Bucs in December, but he injured his right (non-throwing) arm before making that deal official and had to settle for an adjusted two-year, $12.75 million pact. Liriano has posted an ugly 5.23 ERA and 1.48 WHIP over his last 291 innings, but he was a force for the Twins in 2010 and he’s only 29 years old. Liriano will be recovered by May.
  • The Pirates held a share of first place in the National League Central on July 25, 2011, only to go 19-43 over their final 62 games. They had a share of first place on July 18, 2012, and then came another late-season fade. Fair or not, much of the blame for this inability to finish strong has fallen on the broad shoulders of manager Clint Hurdle. He is currently under contract through 2014, but failing to meet expectations this year could irk the club’s higher-ups to the point where they want to make a change.
  • The Pittsburgh bullpen isn’t great. Last year’s closer, Joel Hanrahan, was traded to Boston this winter in a six-player swap. Jason Grilli was very good last season and should do fine as the new ninth-inning man, but getting leads to him may be an issue. Mark Melancon, who came to Pittsburgh in that Hanrahan deal, posted a 6.20 ERA across 45 innings with the Red Sox in 2012. Tony Watson is solid but not dominant, and Jared Hughes fits that same profile. It’s not an especially exciting group.
  • Those back-to-back late-season tumbles have only been made possible by back-to-back early-season success, which has helped pumped life into one of the most well-designed sports stadiums in the world. PNC Park hosted 2,091,918 fans in 2012, up from 1,940,429 fans in 2011 and 1,613,399 million in 2010. Pittsburgh is among the best pro sports towns in the country, and Major League Baseball is always going to better off when its team there is worth watching. “Raise the Jolly Roger” and all that.

Prediction: Third place in the National League Central, behind the Reds and Cardinals.

Addison Russell delivered nachos to a Cardinals fan last night

Associated Press
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Last night, in the Cubs-Cardinals game in St. Louis, Cubs shortstop Addison Russell dove into the stands to catch a foul ball. As so often happens in such instances, a fan’s food got disrupted. Specifically, a plate of nachos. That’s sad, but as we learned last week, if you sit down close where there is no netting, you assume the risk of loss!

Russell, though, did the guy a solid. A couple of innings later when he came out for the bottom half, Russell delivered the fan a new plate of nachos. He even posed for a selfie with the guy. That’s beyond solid. Watch:

After the game Russell explained his actions, saying “You don’t want to get in front of a man and his nachos.” Especially that guy’s nachos. Good play Addison.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

Associated Press
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We’re getting closer to having no games that matter. As it stands after yesterday’s action:

  • The Cubs’ magic number to clinch the NL Central is 1;
  • The Twins’ magic number to clinch the Wild Card is 2;
  • The Red Sox’ magic number to clinch the AL East is 3;
  • The Rockies’ magic number to clinch the Wild Card is 5;
  • The Dodgers’ magic number to clinch the top seed in the NL is 2; and
  • The Indians magic number to clinch the top seed in the AL is 5.

What I’m saying is, feel free to make plans next Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Anyway: Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 11, Royals 3: All Rise. Aaron Judge hit his 49th and 50th homers of the season, tying and then breaking Mark McGwire’s single season rookie home run record. Which, now that I write that out I realize is redundant because anything a rookie does is, by definition, a single season event. Anyway: even if the games don’t matter a ton in the next few days, we can get a head start on what will likely be a very exhaustion “Judge vs. Altuve” MVP debate. And yes, let’s keep it to those parameters, because it really pisses off the Jose Ramirez and Mike Trout fans and they’re adorable.

Braves 9, Mets 2; Mets 3, Braves 2: A late September game between the Mets and the Braves is already an exercise in existential dread. A doubleheader between them seems like cruel and unusual punishment. The game story should be written by Franz Kafka with illustrations by Junji Ito. As it was, in the first game Braves starter Lucas Sims had a nice outing, pitching into the seventh and allowing only two runs. There’s some hope for 2018. In the nightcap, Seth Lugo pitched two-hit ball over six innings and Travis d'Arnaud hit the Mets’ 219th homer of the season, setting a club record. Sadly, the Big Apple in the outfield couldn’t get it up for the occasion. Look, no one was excited about this series, but you have a job to do Apple.

Nationals 3, Phillies 1Michael Taylor hit a two-run homer and Jayson Werth knocked in the other Nats run on a fielder’s choice. Starter A.J. Cole allowed one run while pitching into the sixth inning. The Nats only question for the next week is when Bryce Harper will be activated.

Blue Jays 6, Red Sox 4: Josh Donaldson homered and drove in three, snapping the Sox’ six-game winning streak. The loss is OK — Boston is gonna win the division — but some bad news came in the form of Eduardo Nunez and Mookie Betts each living with injuries. Nunez aggravated his right knee injury that has caused him to miss time and Betts had pain in his left wrist. Neither seem super serious but there will be updates today.

Astros 11, Rangers 2: This is that series that the Rangers didn’t want to move to Houston in exchange for playing last month’s series against the Astros in Arlington in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Paid attendance was over 30,000 but there were nowhere near as many butts in the seats. Oh well. Marwin Gonzalez had four hits and three RBI. Joey Gallo hit a homer. The next batter up was Carlos Gomez, who was brushed back by a Colin McHugh pitch which McHugh said wasn’t intentional but probably was. Benches cleared but nothing came of it. Later Jose Altuve was hit and came out of the game but he seems to have nothing more than a bruised forearm.

White Sox 4, Angels 2: James Shields allowed two runs over seven innings. Nicky Delmonico drove in two. Those were his first RBI in over a week, so you might say Delmonico was in . . . rare form.

Cubs 10, Cardinals 2: Addison Russell hit a three-run double in the first inning. He also dived into the stands at one point and spilled a Cardinals fan’s nachos. He came out a couple of innings later and delivered a fresh plate of nachos to the guy. That’s pretty dang cool. Jon Lester allowed five hits and one run over six innings. Yadi Molina came out of the game after taking a ball off the mask and he’s in concussion protocol. St. Louis was eliminated from the NL Central and made up no ground on the Rockies for the Wild Card. Things are just about over for the Cardinals.

Marlins 5, Rockies 4: The Rockies really don’t seem eager to win that second Wild Card. They probably will, but dudes, you gotta beat a bad Marlins team, especially on a night one of your rivals for the spot loses. Miguel Rojas had a career-high four RBI for Miami. The Marlins had a 4-0 and a 5-1 lead and the Rockies clawed back, threatening in the ninth as well, but couldn’t close the deal.

Giants 9, Diamondbacks 2: Nick Hundley hit a three-run homer and drove in four overall while Johnny Cueto allowed two runs over six innings. Arizona was probably hung over after Sunday’s clinching celebration, so whatever.

Mariners 7, Athletics 1Mitch Haniger homered twice and drove in three, Mike Zunino hit a three-run homer and Yonder Alonso went deep as well. Felix Hernandez won his first game in months, allowing one run over six innings. The A’s seven-game winning streak comes to an end.

Dodgers 9, Padres 3: The Dodgers win their 100th game of the year. It’s the first time they won 100 since 1974. They won the pennant that year with 102 wins but lost the World Series to a 90-win Oakland A’s team. Stuff happens. Here Yu Darvish happened, allowing one run on two hits over seven innings and striking out nine. Logan Forsythe hit a three-run double, homered and drove in four overall. Austin Barnes hit a three-run blast.