Editor's Note: This preview was written by the Beyond The Box Score staff.
The city of Pittsburgh has been home to some of the most successful sports franchises in recent years. The Steelers won a Super Bowl in 2005 and again in 2008. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Meanwhile, the Pirates have had a tough run and haven't won a World Series since 1979.
The good news for Pirates fans is that general manager Neil Huntington has finally righted the ship since taking over in 2007 and fans raised the Jolly Roger in their long-awaited celebration. With a more-than-capable crew captained by Clint Hurdle, and a bounty of blue-chip prospects, the Pirates hope to bring their own championship home to the Steel City.
2013 Season In Review
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The Pirates had their first winning season in 20 years. Yes, you read that right. 20 YEARS. They didn't stop there, as they finished the season with a record of 94-68, beat the Cincinnati Reds in the Wild-Card game, and ultimately lost to the NL Champion St. Louis Cardinals. The season marked monumental changes within the organization as well, as the team took advantage of more ground ball pitchers and defensive shifting. I highly recommend this article by Travis Sawchik that fully explains just how much the Pirates bought into the fundamental overhaul. The results were dramatic, as the entire pitching staff combined for a 3.27 ERA, good for third-best in the game. An MVP-season from Andrew McCutchen certainly helped, too.
Key Offseason Moves
Even after such a successful 2013 season, there were positions that could have used significant improvement. For example, the first base trio of incumbent Gaby Sanchez, since-exiled Justin Morneau, and Miami-bound Garrett Jones combined for 0.5 WAR this past season. Instead of finding notable upgrades, the Pirates instead chose to put their fate in the hands of in-house options. Here are two* key offseason decisions:
Signed Edinson Volquez for one year, $5 million.
If the Buccos can turn Francisco Liriano into a front-line pitcher, then who am I to say they can't do the same with Volquez? At 30 years old, Volquez, like Liriano, has seen his ups and downs. Back in 2008, Edinson produced 3.9 WAR with a 3.21 ERA. Since then, he has produced just 1.8 WAR over 105 starts for 3 different teams. Despite a 5.71 ERA last season, he held a 4.07 xFIP, though his career ERA is over half a run higher than his xFIP. He will be given every opportunity to prove himself in Pittsburgh and should be able to capitalize on their defensive arrangements given his ground ball tendencies. The Pirates hope that Volquez can help fill the hole left by the departed AJ Burnett, though expectations should be reserved until he proves that he can indeed throw strikes on a regular basis.
Extended Charlie Morton for three years, $21 million.
Morton would have been a free agent after the 2014 season, so the Pirates bought two free agent years from Morton, as well as an additional club option. According to Jeff Passan, Morton will receive $4 million in ‘14, $8 million in ‘15, and $8 million in ‘16. The team option for the 2017 season is worth $9.5 million with $500,000 in potential incentives and a $1 million buyout. Morton is one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in the game (62.9%), and pitched to a 3.26 ERA/3.69 xFIP in 20 starts last season. He is also nearly two years removed from his Tommy John surgery, and has seen his xFIP steadily improve throughout his career. If Morton can stay healthy, he should continue to produce at a roughly average level with potential for more.
*Update: Extended Starling Marte for six years, $31 million.
After an incredible 2013 season which saw Marte post a 4.6 WAR, the Pirates decided to lock him up for the long-term. His deal will cover one free agent year, and it also includes two team-options at the end of the deal.
One to Watch
Gerrit Cole is the guy you want on your side in a snowball fight. His fastball sits at 96 mph and has touched 101. In his 19 regular season starts last season, he threw 117.1 innings of 3.22 ERA/3.14 xFIP ball, and got the nod in the elimination game against the Cardinals. At 23 years old, it is safe to say that he is a star in the making. The scariest part is that he has already shown dramatic improvement over the course of last year. In his first seven starts, he had a 3.75 xFIP with a 14.5% strikeout rate. In his final 12 regular season starts, the xFIP dropped nearly a run to 2.80, while the strikeout rate jumped to 25.3%. This was largely due to diversifying his pitch mix. Cole offers a well-above average fastball, as well as a curveball, slider, and changeup that all were above average offerings, according to FanGraphs' pitch values. Here is evidence of his potential, proof that I classify as rather convincing. This curveball, courtesy of FanGraphs, is probably why Carlos Beltran left the NL Central.
Cole is literally one to watch, in the interests of your viewing pleasure. He is also one to watch with respect to the overall success of the Pirates. To say that the Pirate rotation contains anything close to a Locke would not only be a seemingly forced double entendre by this author, but would also be giving too much credit to Jeff Locke, Liriano, Morton, Volquez, and Wandy Rodriguez. Gerrit Cole figures to be a core component of this group, and the Pirates need him to step up and become a true ace as soon as 2014.
Keep an eye on top prospects Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco, too.
Pittsburgh Pirates By The Numbers
52.5%: The ground ball rate induced by the Pirates' pitching staff.
This rate easily led all teams in 2013, as the second highest percentage belonged to Cardinal pitchers at 48.5%. As discussed earlier, the team aligns their infield defense to take advantage of such a high GB%, resulting in the third lowest team ERA in baseball. No team in history has ever generated a higher GB% since the data has been collected (starting in 2002), and only the 2005 Cardinals surpassed 50%. The Cardinals also had the highest GB% in both 2011 and 2012 before being bested by the '13 Pirates. St. Louis has clearly emphasized ground balls in recent years, and the Pirates seem to be taking a page out of their book.
2014 Team Outlook
While a trip back to the postseason is the goal, the more likely situation for the Pirates is that they experience some regression from their pitching staff and fall just short of the playoffs. However, they are loaded with an exciting group of young talent and minor leaguers that are ready to make their splash. I can confidently say that they will not be succumbing to another 20 years without surpassing a .500 record. You should expect something close to 85 wins in 2014.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.