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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.

Bronson Arroyo is throwing side-arm now

Washington Nationals pitcher Bronson Arroyo catches a pop fly during a drill at a spring training baseball workout, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Viera, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
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Nationals pitcher Bronson Arroyo has partial tears of tendons in his rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Considering he’s 39 years old, no one would fault him if he decided to call it quits. But he has one more idea, MASN’s Mark Zuckerman reports: Arroyo is going to throw side-arm, or at least three-quarters.

“It hurts when he gets on top [of the baseball],” manager Dusty Baker said. He continued, “So we’re taking our time. And if not, if nothing else, he’s a good guy to have in your organization.”

Arroyo missed the latter half of the 2014 season and the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Prior to that, he was known as a workhorse, racking up at least 199 innings in each of nine seasons between 2005-13.

Robbie Erlin needs Tommy John surgery

San Diego Padres' Robbie Erlin pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Tuesday, April 12, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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Padres pitcher Robbie Erlin has a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament and he’ll need Tommy John surgery as a result, Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Times reports. Erlin landed on the disabled list on April 21. Now he’ll miss the rest of the season and likely the beginning of the 2017 season as well.

Erlin, 25, posted a 4.02 ERA with a 13/3 K/BB ratio in 15 2/3 innings spanning two starts and one relief appearance to begin the 2016 season.

Cesar Vargas moved into the rotation in Erlin’s absence and has pitched well thus far in two starts, yielding only one earned run with a 9/6 K/BB ratio over 10 1/3 innings.

The Reds’ bullpen set an ignominious record

CINCINNATI, OHIO - APRIL 08: Caleb Cotham #54 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches in the sixth inning of the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park on April 8, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
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Reds reliever Caleb Cotham allowed a pair of runs in the top of the eighth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Giants, setting a rather ignominious club record. It marks the 21st consecutive game in which the Reds’ bullpen has allowed a run, setting a new major league record, as C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer points out.

Entering Tuesday’s action, the Reds’ bullpen had been by far the worst in the majors with a 6.54 ERA. The Padres’ bullpen, second-worst, is comparatively much better at 5.27.

The last time the Reds’ bullpen had a clean night was April 10 against the Pirates. That afternoon, Dan Straily, Jumbo Diaz, and Ross Ohlendorf combined for five scoreless innings in a 2-1 victory.

Aroldis Chapman will rejoin the Yankees on Monday

New York Yankees relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman goes into his windup against the Toronto Blue Jays during the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
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Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman was suspended 30 games by Major League Baseball under its domestic violence policy for an offseason incident in which he allegedly pushed and choked his girlfriend, then discharged a firearm at least eight times in his garage. Monday marks game number 30, and Chapman is set to rejoin the club then, MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch reports. Manager Joe Girardi plans to insert Chapman directly into the closer’s role if a save situation arises against the Royals on Monday.

Chapman will make two appearances in the Gulf Coast League this week to continue warming up. He had been throwing in extended spring training games at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa.

The Yankees acquired Chapman from the Reds at the end of December, sending Caleb Cotham, Rookie Davis, Eric Jagielo, and Tony Renda to Cincinnati in return. While the back end of the bullpen hasn’t been an issue for the Yankees, seemingly everything else has for the 8-15, last place club.