2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Big Question: Is regression inevitable?

The Pirates’ long-term trajectory looks good. 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen is locked in through 2018. Starling Marte, who stole 41 bases last season, was signed this spring to a six-year, $31 million extension that includes options for 2020 and 2021. Gerrit Cole has ace-like potential and is under club control through at least 2019. Gregory Polanco, a young Dominican outfielder who’s built like an NFL tight end, projects to make his major league debut at some point this summer. And right-hander Jameson Taillon, the second overall pick in 2010, is rated among the top pitching prospects in the sport.

Pittsburgh baseball fans got a thrilling glimpse of the club’s treasure trove of talent last season when — along with key contributions from some veterans — the Pirates made the playoffs for the first time since 1992.

But a relatively dormant offseason will make it difficult for the Bucs to prevent a step back in 2014.

The Pirates didn’t make a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett, who averaged a 3.41 ERA, 8.9 K/9, and 197 innings per season in his two summers with Pittsburgh. He wound up agreeing with the cross-state Phillies on a one-year, $15 million free agent contract with a player option for 2015. The Bucs will attempt to replace Burnett — at least initially — with a broken-down Edinson Volquez, who has allowed 19 hits and 17 runs in 14 innings this spring. Francisco Liriano should again be lethal, but the rest of Pittsburgh’s rotation is rather suspect. Wandy Rodriguez was limited to 62 2/3 innings in 2013 due to forearm and elbow discomfort and Charlie Morton owns a 4.70 ERA in 589 1/3 career major league frames.

The Pirates should finish above .500 for a second straight season and the future looks incredibly bright, but the front office would have had to improve the 25-man roster this winter to make a push back to the playoffs an expectation for 2014. The Pirates’ run differential last year (+57) paled in comparison to the division-rival Cardinals (+187) and Reds (+109). The National League Central is no longer a push-over division.

What else is going on?

  • Another glaring hole that could have been addressed by the Pirates front office is first base. Gaby Sanchez, the owner of an underwhelming .754 career OPS, is the current projected starter at the National League’s most-premium offensive position. Travis Ishikawa isn’t a very enticing second option.
  • When the Pirates signed catcher Russell Martin to a two-year, $17 million free agent deal in November 2012 it was received as a low-impact move. But the Bucs needed some stability at what is arguably the most important position in baseball and Martin delivered in 2013, slugging 15 home runs and providing excellent defense behind the plate. Martin threw out 40 percent of would-be base-stealers and finished with a catcher’s ERA of 3.16, which ranked second in the major leagues. Yadier Molina’s catcher’s ERA in 2013 was 3.17. Martin will be looking to further boost his market value in 2014 — another contract year.
  • The Pirates are optimistic that third baseman Pedro Alvarez can build off his breakout 2013 campaign, during which he tallied 36 home runs and 100 RBI on the way to his first career National League All-Star nod and first-ever Silver Slugger Award. Alvarez owns a weak .306 on-base percentage in 1,665 plate appearances at the major league level and he’s not a very good defender at the hot corner, but the former second overall pick sure can mash. He is expected to bat cleanup this summer behind McCutchen.
  • Pittsburgh’s bullpen appears to be a real strength. Veteran closer Jason Grilli turned 37 years old this winter, but he boasts a 2.74 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 141 1/3 innings since the beginning of the 2011 season. He will be set up this year by Mark Melancon, who registered an other-worldly 1.39 ERA in 71 innings last year, and Tony Watson and Justin Wilson — two dominant, hard-throwing left-handers. Stolmy Pimentel, a 24-year-old right-hander, is an up-and-coming middle reliever.

Prediction: The Pirates win 84 games but fail to make it back to October. Third place, NL Central.

Adrian Beltre may not return to the Rangers until June

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Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre is nursing a calf injury, an issue that plagued him starting early in spring training. At first, the hope was that he’d be ready by the regular season, then at some point in April, then at some point in May. According to MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan, however, even a May return is looking “murky.”

Manager Jeff Banister said, “It’s at the point where we didn’t necessarily see the progress results we thought we would see. We decided to take a step back and get him back to where the soreness and [swelling] is out of there. We weren’t progressing forward at the rate we wanted to.”

Fortunately for the Rangers, Joey Gallo has performed admirably in place of Beltre at third base. The 23-year-old has played solid defense while hitting .232/.361/.623 with seven home runs and 16 RBI in 83 plate appearances. Gallo will continue to man the hot corner until Beltre is healthy enough to return.

Beltre is sitting on 2,942 career hits. His reaching the 3,000-hit milestone was expected to be one of the highlights of the 2017 season.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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I’m taking the day off to go down to Kentucky to watch horses do horsey things (watch for me photobombing equestrian types on NBC Sports Network). Bill will be along later today and Ashley will be here this evening, but I can’t leave you without the recaps because that’s what I do.

Don’t do anything dumb while your mother and I are out. We’ve marked all the bottles. We’ll know if you’re lying to us.

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 5, Giants 1: It was 1-1 until the 11th inning thanks to Julio Urias, making his 2017 big league debut, and the Dodgers’ bullpen and Matt Moore and the Giants’ bullpen takin’ care of business. The Dodgers got tired of it being close in the top of the 11th, however, beating up on Corey Gearrin, Steven Okert and Hunter Strickland for four runs. Andrew Toles knocked in the go-ahead run with a single. A sac fly, single and a bases-loaded walk finished the scoring. The Giants wouldn’t have even scored the one run if it wasn’t for the Dodgers throwing the ball around.

Nationals 16, Rockies 5: The Nats came into Colorado and scored 46 runs in four games. Which, damn. They put up 11 runs in the seventh inning here, with Bryce Harper hitting a three-run shot. Trea Turner hit for the cycle on Tuesday, finished a triple shy of another cycle Wednesday and hit a double and two singles and driving in two here. Harper is hitting .418/.535/.823 with eight homers and 25 RBI. That’s a 59 homer, 184 RBI pace. I know Harper has a habit of putting up big Aprils and that injuries have derailed him in the past, but this is shaping up to be a really special year for this guy.

Cardinals 8, Blue Jays 4; Cardinals 6, Blue Jays 4: The first game of the twin-bill ended in spectacular fashion with Matt Carpenter hitting a walkoff grand slam in the 11th inning. They wouldn’t have even gotten to extras, however, if it wasn’t for Randal Grichuk‘s two-run homer with two outs in the ninth which tied it up. So much drama in game 1 it’s a shame they had to suit up for fame 2 rather than just go out for drinks. But they did play game 2 and it went swell for St. Louis. Dexter Fowler, Greg Garcia and Matt Adams each had three hits. Fowler hit a dinger. The Blue Jays are a total mess. But they’re not the only mess in the bigs right now because . . .

Braves 7, Mets 5: M-E-S-S Mess! Mess! Mess! Six losses in a row and 10 of 11. They’re not scoring. Everyone is getting hurt. Just a disaster. The last time the Mets were this screwed up was just after the All-Star break in 2015 and you know what happened then. Oh, wait, they won the pennant. Eh, let’s let the New York press and Mets fans freak out. Maybe it’s actually warranted this time. Who knows. All I know is that Kurt Suzuki hit a big three-run homer here and when the Braves make you look bad, you’re not living your best life.

Mariners 2, Tigers 1: Justin Verlander and Hisashi Iwakuma battled. Verlander battled a tad better — allowing only an unearned run in seven innings while striking out eight while Iwakuma allowed only one unearned run in five and two-thirds — but the Mariners got the win anyway. The go-ahead run came thanks to a Ben Gamel RBI single off of Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth. Can’t trust the Tigers bullpen in a close game. Ever.

Phillies 3, Marlins 2Jeremy Hellickson allowed one run over six innings as the Phillies win their sixth straight. Hellickson is 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA on the year. Philly is doing OK right now, but if they aren’t in contention come July, he’s going to be a pretty attractive trade target.

Indians 4, Astros 3: Down 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Francisco Lindor hit a two-run bomb. And I mean bomb. The thing was estimated to be over 450 feet. Corey Kluber struck out ten over seven innings. In addition to being one of the best shortstops around, Lindor is hitting .301/.368/.614 on the year and he’s on a 40-homer pace. That $100 million deal he reportedly turned down is gonna look positively quaint.

Yankees 3, Red Sox 0: Masahiro Tanaka tosses a Maddux. You do know what a Maddux is, right? In case you forgot, it’s a complete game shutout in which the starter throws fewer than 100 pitches. Here it was a three-hitter in which he only allowed one runner to reach second base. Chris Sale was no slouch himself, striking out ten in eight innings. He’s pitched great this year but he’s not getting any help. They’ve only scored four runs in his five starts. Boston has scored  only 13 runs in their last seven games. They’ve been shut out three times in the past seven.

Diamondbacks 6, Padres 2: Taijuan Walker struck out 11 and Chris Ownings hit a pair of solo homers. Yasmany Tomas had a two-run homer.

Angels 2, Athletics 1: I had a dream last night that I owed the Oakland A’s $30,000 in medical bills. Something in the dream made it make sense — baseball teams ran hospitals or something — and for whatever reason, my family had used theirs and I was responsible for the bills. My family, by the way, included Ronald Reagan, who was treated at A’s hospital. Insurance wouldn’t cover a lot of his bills because a man had come out of the woodwork claiming to have been his lover, and the insurance company had a right to discriminate based on sexual orientation. What I’m sayin’ is that a lot was going on in this dream and I’m a little upset with the A’s over it right now.

Oh, by the way, Ricky Nolasco allowed one runs in five and two-thirds and four relievers combined to shut the A’s out the rest of the way. The Angels scored both of their runs in the first.

I probably do need that day off, eh? See you Monday.