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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.

Report: Mariners have interest in Reds’ Jay Bruce

ATLANTA, GA - JUNE 14:  Jay Bruce #32 of the Cincinnati Reds waits to bat prior to hitting a three-run homer in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on June 14, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports that the Mariners are among the teams that have contacted the Reds about outfielder Jay Bruce. The Mariners enter play Wednesday 51-48, six games out of first place in the AL West and 4.5 games out of the second AL Wild Card slot. Adding an impact bat like Bruce could help in their effort to reach the postseason.

Norichika Aoki and Seth Smith have handled the bulk of the playing time in left field. While Smith has hit well, Aoki has not. Bruce came into Wednesday’s game against the Giants batting .271/.324/.567 with 24 home runs and a league-best 78 RBI.

Bruce can become a free agent after the season if his controlling team declines his $13 million club option for the 2017 season by paying him a $1 million buyout. If he’s traded mid-season, his new team won’t be able to make him a qualifying offer, so the club option may be more enticing than it looks at first glance.

The Padres have homered in 25 consecutive games, tying an NL record

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - JULY 16:  Adam Rosales #9 of the San Diego Padres hits an RBI single during the tenth inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants at PETCO Park on July 16, 2016 in San Diego, California.   (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Denis Poroy/Getty Images
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A third-inning two-run home run by Adam Rosales off of R.A. Dickey put the Padres up 2-0, but it also helped the Padres tie a National League record. The Padres have homered in 25 consecutive games, matching the 1998 Braves, the 1994 Tigers, and the 1941 Yankees. The major league record is 27, set by the 2002 Rangers.

The Padres hit three in total on Wednesday in an 8-4 victory against the Blue Jays. One of those dingers was an eighth-inning solo shot by rookie Alex Dickerson, who has now homered in four consecutive games himself. The one he hit on Monday is worth watching, as it got into the upper deck at the Rogers Centre.

As the Padres recently traded Melvin Upton, Jr. to the Jays, Dickerson is likely going to see regular playing time. That’s especially true if he keeps hitting like this.