Cubs, Pirates kick off 2013 campaign

Two teams with little or no expectations kick off their 2013 campaigns on Monday when the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs square off at PNC Park.

The Pirates teased the baseball world last season when they went into the All- Star break holding a one-game lead atop the National League Central.

Forget the fact that the Pirates actually looked like they were going to post their first winning season since 1992, this was a squad that resembled a playoff team at the midway point.

But, like it did in 2011 when Pittsburgh set a major league record for the worst finish (72-90) by a team in first place halfway through the season, the Pirates endured a nightmare second half and became the first MLB team to finish with a losing record after being at least 16 games over .500 at any point.

So, what was once a feel-good story turned into yet another typical baseball season in the Steel City, as the Pirates stumbled their way to a 79-83 finish, extending one of the worst streaks in baseball history with the franchise's 20th consecutive losing season..

"We're not going to answer any more last-year questions," said Monday's starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. "We have to get over the fact that it happened. This year is about to start."

This will be the first Opening Day start for Burnett, who enjoyed a nice bounce back 2012 season, going 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA. However, he lost six of his last seven decisions. Burnett's best start of the year, though, was a complete game one-hitter against the Cubs on July 23.

Of course, the one glimmer of hope continued to be outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who has blossomed into one of the game's brightest young stars. He may be there for a while too, as the Pirates locked him up long term last spring, signing him to a 6-year, $51.5 million extension.

Pittsburgh tried in earnest this offseason to add a starting pitcher, but was outbid in most cases, and settled for an injured Francisco Liriano. While they may not have landed a top-tier starter, the Bucs did help their rotation in a different way by agreeing to a 2-year, $17 million deal with catcher Russell Martin.

As bad as it was in Pittsburgh, it was a far worse season on the North Side of Chicago, as the Cubs suffered through their worst year since 1966 and stumbled to a 101-loss campaign.

After years of trying to rebuild through free agency, it appears that the team is now going with the approach of building through the draft with former wunderkind Theo Epstein at the helm.

Epstein did add some parts this offseason, as outfielders Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz were brought in, as were right-handers Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villanueva.

Cubs fans have come to accept the fact that outfielder Alfonso Soriano probably isn't going anywhere. But, nobody seems to be complaining that much, as Soriano had one of his best years in 2012 with 32 home runs and 108 RBI.

Soriano, who still has two years left on that massive 8-year, $136 million pact, does provide a veteran presence on a team that is slowly but surely being turned over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Like Rizzo, shortstop Starlin Castro is a burgeoning star, but his biggest problem may be between his ears.

Maybe lost in the shuffle of the miserable season from a year ago was a terrific year from the former Notre Dame football standout Jeff Samardzija, who will be on the hill Monday. Samardzija pitched to a 3.81 ERA and struck out 180 batters in about 174 innings.

Even more impressive was the fact that he was able to keep his walks down, as he issued just 56 free passes. That was quite a contrast to his previous season, which saw him walk 50 in 88 frames.

Chicago split 16 meetings with the Pirates a year ago.