About this time last year, perplexed by all the negative posts from people who thought the Pirates had done too little in the offseason and would consequently regress in 2013, I wrote fan post analyzing the team position by position that concluded it would be noticeably better than the 2012 version. And while I didn’t nail every point, I got a few things right, including the final outcome.
I won’t try to duplicate that post here, but if I may, I’d like to offer a couple of educated guesses about what to expect this season and some reasons to believe we’ll actually take another step forward.
• With respect to AJ Burnett, my early nomination for the pitcher most likely to make us forget him is Stolmy Pimentel. This is a guy who doesn’t show up on a lot of radar screens, but he’s a former top prospect with the Red Sox who struggled for a couple of seasons before finding his groove again last year at Indy. I’m not saying he’ll be great, but no one’s asking him to be. With Cole, Liriano and Morton at the top of the rotation, the Pirates are looking to fill two spots, and they also have Wandy and Volquez in the mix. If Pimentel has a strong spring, I could easily see him coming north with the team and doing at least a serviceable job for several months until Taillon and possibly Kingham graduate to the majors at some point this season. It isn’t unrealistic to hope Pimentel will hold the fort — if not more.
• Speaking of Burnett, while I’d still like to have had him back, I don’t think enough has been made of the fact that his record last year was only 11-10. Yes, his peripherals were better, but he did some of his worst work late in the season — a bad omen for a 37-year-old pitcher. He may not totally tank this year, but I have a hard time imagining he’ll justify $14 million, let alone $16. A year from now, we may very well be talking about how the Pirates dodged a bullet.
• One option I’ve heard discussed if the Pirates do find themselves in need of another starter is taking Justin Wilson out of the bullpen and using Locke as a LOOGY. And I think that could work, but my best guess is the Pirates see Wilson as a potential closer. And with Grilli’s age and injury problems along with Melancon’s struggles down the stretch last year, I think that’s something they might have to confront sooner rather than later. On the bright side, when you have at least three viable options, you’re not exactly in crisis mode.
• I’m also perplexed by all the angst about our first base platoon. Sanchez is what he is — a decent fielder who hits lefties pretty well. And as for Lambo, if this were any other season in the past 20, we’d all be clamoring for the chance to add a 25-year-old who hit 32 homers in the minors last year to the lineup. Is he Keith Hernandez with the glove? Probably not, but 90 percent of what you ask of a first baseman in the field is just catching the ball, and he can do that. If he doesn’t hit, that’s another story and we might have to make a move in mid-season. But what if he does? If we’re able to fill that position for several years with a cheap, productive, home-grown player, it’s going to be huge for this team moving forward. He’s earned the chance to show what he can do at this level and, given what a blessing it would be if he actually succeeds, I’m more than willing to take a closer look for a few months to see what we have there.
• I’m also not worrying too much about right field. Tabata will never be a star, but in a platoon role he’s fine. Likewise, Snider may or may not ever fulfill his promise, but if he can stay healthy he can be a useful player. Not that it matters much in either case, since Polanco will almost certainly arrive by mid-season and he looks like the best Pirate outfield prospect I’ve seen since Barry Bonds. (Not saying he’ll be that good, but the skills are certainly there.) With Marte and Cutch already in the fold, all we need from Tabata and Snider is competence, but if we get lucky and one or the other starts out hot, we’ll have the added bonus of being able to trade them for even more minor league depth when Polanco is ready. The glass in right field isn’t half empty; it’s half full.
• Lastly, speaking of Marte, I actually think he gets lost in the shuffle when people talk about McCutchen’s present and Polanco’s future. But to my eye, Marte is primed for a breakout season and might be on the verge of superstardom. His defense is already stellar — probably better than Cutch’s, although he doesn’t get as much acclaim for it — and I can easily see him blossoming into a 25-homer or better guy. The only thing holding him back is his penchant for swinging at bad pitches, and that’s often correctible. Maybe he doesn’t correct it, but if he makes some slight modifications, he’s a .300 hitter with power and a Gold Glove. I think any predictions for the Pirates in 2014 that assume Marte will be roughly the same player this year he was last year may be wildly conservative.
Overall, when I sat down before last season and compared that team with the one that had limped to the finish line in 2012, I saw significant improvement virtually across the board. I don’t see that kind of improvement this year, but you wouldn’t expect as many upgrades given that we’re coming off a playoff season and had fewer holes to fill. My impression is that right now we’re better than we were at the beginning of last season but maybe not quite as good as we were at the end of the year because of Byrd’s departure. But it’s a long season, and with the eventual additions of Taillon, Kingham and Polanco — along with a late-season trade or two — this team has a chance to finish a lot stronger. Have faith; your patience will be rewarded.