Philadelphia, PA – The Pittsburgh 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..
The 79 wins were a slight improvement upon the 72 they won in '11, so that's something to build on, right?
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.
Martin, who received the largest free agent contract ever handed out by the Pirates, smacked 21 home runs for the New York Yankees last season but only batted .211. However, the Bucs are likely more interested in the 20 runners he threw out from behind the plate.
Ordinarily expectations would be running high in Pittsburgh, but Pirates fans are playing a game of wait and see. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. They won't get suckered in again by this team until they start to see some actual results.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Pirates, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2012 FINISH (79-83) - Fourth Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Russell Martin (C), Francisco Liriano (LHP), Mark Melancon (RHP), Jonathan Sanchez (LHP), Vin Mazzaro (RHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Joel Hanrahan (RHP), Chris Resop (RHP), Rod Barajas (C), Kevin Correia (RHP), Chad Qualls (RHP), Yamaico Navarro (IF/OF)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Starling Marte (LF), Neil Walker (2B), Andrew McCutchen (CF), Pedro Alvarez (3B), Garrett Jones (1B), Russell Martin (C), Travis Snider (RF), Clint Barmes (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: A.J. Burnett (RHP), Wandy Rodriguez (LHP), James McDonald (RHP), Jeff Locke (LHP), Jonathan Sanchez (LHP), Francisco Liriano (LHP - Injured)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jason Grilli (RHP)
MANAGER: Clint Hurdle
IS JASON GRILLI UP TO CLOSING?
When the Pirates dealt All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox this offseason it seemingly left a very large void at the back end of the bullpen.
Or did it?
Jason Grilli returned to the team on a 2-year, $6.75 million deal after pitching to a 2.91 ERA in a career-high 64 appearances. Still, though, he is 36 and has never been a team's closer.
But, the Pirates did get one-time highly touted right-hander Mark Melancon back in the deal from Boston. Melancon has been a ninth-inning guy at times in his career and saved 20 games for the Houston Astros in 2011.
Grilli will get the first shot, but manager Clint Hurdle won't hesitate to throw Melancon in there.
JUST HOW GOOD IS ANDREW MCCUTCHEN?
For most of last season McCutchen was mentioned along with the other National League Most Valuable Player candidates, as he produced yet another terrific season.
McCutchen established career highs in homers (31) and RBIs (96); led the league in hits with 194; and finished second to eventual MVP Buster Posey in the batting race, with a .327 average.
The sky is the limit for the two-time All Star, who also nabbed his first-ever Gold Glove Award and was named the Players Choice as the NL's Outstanding Player.
Getting some support from secondary guys like Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones would go a long way towards taking some pressure off of McCutchen and making the Pirates offense more dangerous.
CAN JAMES MCDONALD BECOME AN ACE?
While many of the rotation headlines will focus on name veterans like A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and the wildly-erratic-and-injured Liriano, it is James McDonald who may emerge as the ace of the group.
McDonald was a NL Cy Young candidate through the first half of 2012, surprising with a dominant 9-3, 2.37 ERA. But, like most of the Pirates, his production tailed off in the second half, as his second half ERA ballooned to 7.52, and batters raised their OPS against by nearly 400 points.
Of course, though, Pittsburgh is just waiting for top pitching prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to make their presence felt, which could happen at some point this season, especially in the case of Cole.
X-FACTOR: PEDRO ALVAREZ: Fans in the Steel City are starting to the get tired of waiting for Alvarez to break through. Since being taken with the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez has for the most part been a bust for the Pirates, going back and forth between the big club and Triple-A.
However, he seemed to come alive at times last season and ended up hitting 30 home runs, despite a .244 average. Ideally, Hurdle would like to hit him in the cleanup spot, creating an ideal McCutchen-Alvarez-Jones right-left-right link, but Alvarez struggled mightily in that role a year ago, hitting just .140 with nine RBI in 24 games there.
What can you say about the Pirates? Last year they were a feel-good story in the first half and then it all fell apart. If those first few months did anything, it showed that there is some talent on this roster. General Manager Neal Huntington has preached baby steps and that is the right approach. Before they can even start thinking about contending for a division title they have to get back to .500, which would be a huge accomplishment. Is that a realistic goal this season? Who knows, but it absolutely should be.