The Cardinals won the pennant last year and have taken a step forward this offseason with their revamped defense, while the Pirates have taken a step back. Therefore, it's hard to responsibly project that the Pirates will win the NL Central, even if they ought to win 85 games or so.
The difference between the Pirates' offseason and the Cardinals' is stark. The Cardinals didn't spend heavily, but they decisively addressed their hole at shortstop by signing Jhonny Peralta and improved their infield and outfield defenses by dealing David Freese for Peter Bourjos. The Pirates, meanwhile, waited months for A.J. Burnett to decide whether or not to retire, only to see him sign with Philadelphia in February. They also declined to extend Burnett a qualifying offer, repeating to the press that $14.1 million represented too large a percentage of their budget. This was a saddening assertion; if what would have amounted to a very reasonable one-year deal for a star-caliber pitcher who's ideally suited to the Pirates' defense is too great a percentage of the Pirates' budget, even in a year in which they figure to contend, perhaps the budget is the problem.
The Pirates tried to sign Josh Johnson to fill Burnett's rotation spot and James Loney to platoon with Gaby Sanchez at first base. When those players signed elsewhere, the Pirates were left with little to show for their offseason but Edinson Volquez and Chris Stewart. Volquez is buy-really-low candidate in the mold of Francisco Liriano last year, and he's a decent gamble, but if pitching coach Ray Searage can do with Volquez what he did with Liriano, we might as well induct him into the Hall of Fame right now.
The Pirates will still likely add a first baseman via trade, perhaps the Mets' Ike Davis or the Red Sox' Mike Carp, but it's been a frustrating offseason for Pirates fans. Skimping on the big-league payroll made sense when the Pirates were a 70-win team, but it doesn't now. If the problem is that the money simply isn't there, even after a big attendance spike, a playoff appearance and an influx of national TV revenue, it’s hard to see how the Pirates can remain competitive for more than short periods at a time.
Nonetheless, Neal Huntington has rightly pointed out that the teams who spend in the offseason aren't always the teams that win, and the 2014 Pirates should be a strong club. They'll still have Andrew McCutchen, of course, and if they're lucky, they may be able to make up for Burnett's departure with full seasons of Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton. The Pirates' offensive core is still fairly young, and so the Pirates should expect that, at the very least, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Starling Marte (who they signed to a team-friendly extension) won't take huge steps backward.
Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson and Tony Watson should again form the core of a tough bullpen, even if regression is due there. And the Pirates will again have a trio of defensive monsters in catcher Russell Martin, left fielder Marte, and shortstop Clint Barmes, although Barmes' woeful offense has forced him into a bench role. The Pirates' prospect depth and lack of offseason spending may make them unusually flexible at the trade deadline, and top prospects Gregory Polanco (who could replace Tabata in right field) and Jameson Taillon should provide them with in-season reinforcements.
The Pirates broke a 20-year streak of losing seasons with a fairytale season in 2013, and it looks like they'll end up on the right side of .500 yet again. The dirty little secret of these preseason previews, though, is that we just don't know. There are way too many variables involved. Maybe the Pirates will outperform their Pythagorean record by 11 games, like the 2012 Orioles, and win 100 games. Maybe Andrew McCutchen will tear his ACL while trying on socks, and they'll win only 75. We're all just guessing, and we're not guessing all that precisely.
Here's what we know, though. Many projection systems have the Pirates winning 83 to 85 games. Pirates fans are quick to come up with flaws in those systems, creating scenarios where the Pirates win more, but that's what fans do. A baseline of 83 to 85 wins isn't unreasonable given that the Pirates' pitching staff lost Burnett and has a number of obvious regression candidates. (It's not a slight to point that out -- winning 94 games and allowing 577 runs, as the Pirates did last year, are tough goals to achieve twice.)
Projections aren't perfect, and they're conservative by nature, regressing most teams toward .500. It will probably take more than 84 or 85 wins to make the playoffs. The point, though, is that the Pirates' talent level is such that an extra couple wins could have greatly increased their chances of making the playoffs, and so if the Pirates were ever going to splurge a bit, this was the offseason to do it. Instead, they lowballed Burnett (to whom they reportedly offered $12 million) and weren't really connected to any other impact free agent or trade target.
Bob Nutting and Huntington have carefully cultivated the Pirates' young talent, and that's much to their credit. But if this offseason is any indication, the Pirates are trying to be the Tampa Bay Rays, constantly building on a shoestring budget. The Rays are, in many ways, a model organization, and trying to emulate them is clearly better than trying to be, say, the Marlins or the Mariners. Yet the Pirates have access to resources that the Rays don't, like a hungry fanbase and a stadium that people like going to. From the outside, there is no reason the Pirates should have to be the Rays. As the Pirates prepare for what should be a long run of competitive seasons, let's hope every offseason doesn't unfold like this one did.