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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.

Red Sox lose on Mark Teixeira’s walkoff grand slam, but still clinch AL East

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28:  Dustin Pedroia #15 and pinch runner Marco Hernandez #41 of the Boston Red Sox celebrate after both scored in the eighth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
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The Red Sox can thank the Orioles for not having to fight to clinch the division on Thursday or later. The Orioles came from behind to defeat the Blue Jays 3-2 on Wednesday evening, clinching the AL East for the Red Sox.

A few minutes after that game went final, the Red Sox squandered a 3-0 lead taken in the eighth inning, culminating in a walk-off grand slam by Mark Teixeira in the bottom of the ninth inning. Closer Craig Kimbrel started the ninth, but didn’t have control over any of his pitches. He allowed a leadoff single followed by three consecutive walks to force in a run. Joe Kelly relieved Kimbrel and seemed to be close to wriggling out of the jam, getting Starlin Castro to strike out looking and Didi Gregorius to pop up. But after starting Teixeira with a first-pitch curve ball for a strike, Teixera clobbered a 99 MPH fastball, sending it over the fence in right-center to end the game.

For the Yankees, the come-from-behind victory was crucial as it staved off Wild Card elimination for one more day.

This is the first time the Red Sox have clinched the AL East since 2013, also the last year they won the World Series.

John Jaso hits for the cycle

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 27:  John Jaso #28 of the Pittsburgh Pirates looks on during the game against the Seattle Mariners during inter-league play on July 27, 2016 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
Joe Sargent/Getty Images
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Pirates first baseman John Jaso hit for the cycle on Wednesday night against the Cubs, becoming the first Pirate to do so since Daryl Ward against the Cardinals on May 26, 2004. Jaso’s cycle is the first to be hit at PNC Park. It’s also the third cycle of the 2016 season, as Jaso joins Freddie Freeman and Rajai Davis.

Jaso singled in the second inning for his first hit. He smashed a three-run homer in the fourth inning to break a 1-1 tie. He hit an RBI double in the fifth to push the Cubs’ lead to 5-1. Then, in the seventh, Jaso hit an RBI triple to make it an 8-4 game.

Coming into Wednesday night, Jaso was hitting an adequate .259/.342/.384 with six home runs and 35 RBI in 416 plate appearances. He’s been limited mostly to right-handed pitching as the Pirates have used David Freese and Josh Bell at the position as well.