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2013 Team Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

Is this the year the Buccos finally reach .500?

Troy Taormina-US PRESSWIRE

Notable Numbers

22.5%: The Pittsburgh Pirates struck out at a higher clip than any non-Astros team in baseball last year. You might suggest it was a trade-off for more power, but you’d be wrong since their isolated slugging was roughly league average, as was their slugging percentage. Instead, the Pirates combined this strikeout rate with a lower-tier walk rate, giving them the fourth worst OBP in the league. If the strikeouts aren’t being made up for with power and/or additional walks, your offense is going to struggle.

65.4%: The Pirates pitching staff also saw opponents swing freely – that’s their opponent Zone Swing %, good for third highest in the majors. The Pirates fared admirably on the mound overall given their talent, but they’re not exactly fooling hitters. Their staff was predicated on begging for balls in play, as the opponent Zone Contact % was also second overall at 88.6% and they threw the second largest proportion of pitches in the zone at 46.6%.

2012 Season in Review

The Buccos are inching closer to that .500 mark, it seems. 79-83 was the team’s high water mark going all the way back to 1997, and they were actually in the NL Central playoff race right until the end of July when their 60-44 record started to slip. Regression to the mean, for sure, but it was a positive indicator that the franchise is finally moving in the right direction on the field.

Key Offseason Moves

Dealt Joel Hanrahan: The Sox sent the Pirates Jerry Sands, Mark Melancon and others for Joel Hanrahan, looking to solidify a shaky bullpen in Boston. It was a solid move by the Pirates, selling high on Hanrahan, who may be due for a fall from grace having posted a 4.45 FIP behind his 2.72 ERA last year. Melancon had a terrible 2012 but prior to that was a capable bullpen arm and the Pirates also added three minor leaguers for organizational depth. Not ground breaking, but not a bad sell-high either.

Signed Russell Martin: $7.5M isn’t a bad price tag for a catcher who can hit, even if he does fancy himself more of a shortstop and took his ball and went home for Canada at the WBC (bitter, sorry). Martin can’t hit for average but walks a fair amount and brings 15-homer power with some speed, making him, at worst, an average catcher.

Signed Francisco Liriano: The bane of all fantasy owners, Liriano was paid handsomely for his up-and-down career with a two-year $12.75M deal...originally. Then the deal changed to $1M in 2013 with a bunch of bonuses and options for 2014 (see full details in the comments below). Anyway, Liriano is never as bad as his ERA suggests or as good as his peripherals suggest, making him a difficult player to evaluate. That’s especially true, too, because he’s so inconsistent game-to-game. The annual dollar amount here isn’t an extremely high bar to reach in terms of value, but it was odd to see the Pirates pay for a production level (and volatility) they probably could have found elsewhere.
Note from Blake: The contract details were edited at 3:30 on 3/28, half hour after posting incorrectly.

Depth Chart

The Pirates have a few interesting players who are out of options that are making for a playing time crunch – Travis Snider and Jose Tabata both need playing time but have to share right field, while Garrett Jones is out of options and likely to platoon with Gaby Sanchez. Jonathan Sanchez grabbed the fifth rotation spot while Liriano heals, which is hilarious. It also means there aren’t really many competitions left in camp, except for the aforementioned four trying to carve out a bigger role than just a platoon.

Check out the Pirates 2013 Depth Chart at MLB Depth Charts.

2013 Outlook

Pittsburgh doesn’t have the rotation or the line-up to be considered a threat, but there is a scenario where everything could break right and lead to a successful year. The division is top-heavy and third place is there for the taking, but would it make more sense for the Pirates to deal semi-expensive pieces for help in 2014? This is always the question with the Buccos, it seems, and it will be interesting to see if the Wandy Rodriguez and Liriano and Martin spending indicates they’re going for it if they’re anywhere close.

Check out the Pirates 2013 ZiPS projections at FanGraphs.

Bold Prediction

Starling Marte trims the strikeout rate to become a fantasy stud, hitting 15 home runs and stealing 30 bases with a .270 average. This performance, along with the intelligent leveraging of those two platoons, makes the Pirates a league-average offense in the NL, helping them to stay within spitting distance of a playoff spot until late August. Yet another small step in the right direction. Oh yeah, and .500 for the first time since 1992.