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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.

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 29: Yoenis Cespedes #52 of the New York Mets flips his bat after hitting a walk off home run in the tenth inning to defeat the Miami Marlins 2-1 in a game at Citi Field on August 29, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 1, Twins 0: Tied at zero for nine innings and then, in the tenth, the Indians use a bunt single, a single, a fielder’s choice and then a final, walkoff single by Jason Kipnis to send the Twins to their 11th straight loss. The win was fun and stuff, but Cleveland has scored one run or less in seven of its last eight games and that’s kinda concerning.

Blue Jays 5, Orioles 1: Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Josh Donaldson homered. So did Jose Bautista. Toronto keeps a two-game lead over the Red Sox, who also won, for the division lead, while Baltimore falls four games back. It’s getting a bit scary for the Orioles, who have lost four of five and are now only one game ahead of the Tigers and two games ahead of the Royals and Astros for the second wild card.

Nationals 4, Phillies 0: Seven shutout innings for Tanner Roark in which he allowed only four singles. If you’re a fan of the rebuilding Phillies take some solace that Jake Thompson pitched pretty well. Also ignore the fact that Jayson Werth, who was a member of your last World Series winning team, hit a homer against your guys.

Red Sox 9, Rays 4: Rick Porcello wins his 18th game. Brock Holt had three hits and drove in two, Chris Young hit a tie-breaking two-run double and Mookie Betts hit his 30th homer. If you’re handicapping the Cy Young race, know that while Porcello leads all of baseball in wins and tops the ERA in K/BB ratio, he is tenth in ERA in the AL, ninth in strikeouts and is first in run support. Really nice season and kudos to him to not giving up free passes, but I don’t think it’s safe to say he’s the best in the Junior Circuit.

Tigers 4, White Sox 3: Jarrod Saltalamacchia homered with a runner while the Tigers were down one in the eighth inning to put them ahead for good. Big day for Salty yesterday as he also got on record saying “it’s pretty disgusting” for someone to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Mets 2, Marlins 1: Yoenis Cespedes hit a walkoff homer in the tenth to bring the Mets into a tie with the Marlins, two and a half back of St. Louis for the second wild card. New York got five shutout innings from Rafael Montero to help balance out Jose Fernandez’s six scoreless frames for Miami. Jose Reyes scored on a wild pitch to tie things up at one in the eighth. It looked pretty ugly too, as Reyes slid in head first as the Marlins pitcher covering came in sliding on his knees, slamming into him:

Cardinals 6, Brewers 5: Down by two, the Cardinals scored two in the eighth and then one in the ninth when Jonathan Villar‘s throw to first to nail a bunting Yadier Molina was wild, allowing Stephen Piscotty to score from second. Mike Matheny after the game, commenting on that play:

“Put pressure on them. That’s it. Make them make plays.”

Because he knew that would happen and not result in a double play, which it almost did?

Rangers 6, Mariners 3: Yu Darvish allowed three runs – two of them were on base when he left and were allowed to come around by the reliever who inherited them —  but struck out nine in six and two thirds innings while Carlos Beltran had three hits including a homer.

Cubs 8, Pirates 7: Chicago rallied for two in the eighth and one in the ninth to force extras and then, down by one in the bottom of the 13th, rode four singles to score two and win the game in walkoff fashion. Miguel Montero‘s bases loaded pinch hit to left field off of Jeff Locke plated the game-winner in the form of Kris Bryant. This was a five hour game that went after midnight on the heels of the Cubs not getting back to Chicago until the wee hours Monday morning due to a delayed flight from Los Angeles.

Astros 6, Athletics 0: Joe Musgrove and four relievers combined for a four-hit shutout. “Joe Musgrove” would also be an excellent name for a backup quarterback. You know, that senior who, outside of garbage time in blowouts, has held the clipboard for all four years but who, when that golden boy recruit who was supposed to be so special stumbles in week three vs. Tulsa or whoever, you are convinced would be a better choice. Face it, dude: he’s not that good and will likely be a graduate coaching assistant next year. Maybe some CFL time at most on the power of him coming from this program and working in this system, but you’re spending too much of your time laying your wishes on his blank canvas of a college career. It’s a nice fall day for crying out loud, enjoy the game if you want to, but maybe spend some time outside before and after and gain some perspective.

Royals 8, Yankees 5: Close until the seventh inning when the home team struck for five. Alicides Escobar of all people hit a three-run homer that inning and Kansas City added two more to make it 8-1. They then held on as the Yankees rallied for four in the eighth. The Royals won for the 18th time in 22 games, closing to within two games of the second AL wild card.

Rockies 8, Dodgers 1: I repeat, close until the seventh inning when the home team struck for five. This time Alicides Escobar did not hit a three-run homer because he wasn’t there. DJ LeMahieu hit a two-run double, though. Earlier Nick Hundley hit for a two-run homer.

Angels 9, Reds 2: Mike Trout, Albert PujolsKole CalhounC.J. Cron and Jefry Marte all hit homers. Trout, Calhoun, Pujols and Marte all were a triple shy of the cycle. Which, as I noted the other day is not really a thing, but it’s a thing when four different dudes do it, I think.

Hisashi Iwakuma’s 2017 option vests, but salary still undetermined

OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 13: Hisashi Iwakuma #18 of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the bottom of the third inning at the Oakland Coliseum on August 13, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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With last Wednesday’s start against the Yankees, Mariners hurler Hisashi Iwakuma pushed his 2016 innings total up to 2016. That clears the 162-inning hurdle for his 2017 option to vest at $14 million. However, as Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors reports, the language in Iwakuma’s contract also stipulates that the right-hander finish the season without suffering a specific injury.

Iwakuma, 35, was in agreement with the Dodgers on a three-year contract back in December but failed the physical, which nullified the deal. He ended up signing with the Mariners on a one-year, $12 million deal with a full no-trade clause and club options for 2017 and ’18 that vest at specific inning thresholds (162 each or 324 for both seasons).

This season, Iwakuma has stayed healthy, making 26 starts to the tune of a 14-9 record, a 3.81 ERA and a 118/36 K/BB ratio in 163 innings.