Sunday, March 31, 2013

2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview - Overall Thoughts and Predictions

So here is the final of the three part Pirates season preview for the 2013 season. I just wanted to round this all out with some general questions about the season and how I feel overall.

At the end I am going to give some predictions for how I think the NL Central will shake out. Here we go.

1) What is an underlying issue that needs to improve in 2013?

For me that is pretty easy, base running. This goes both ways also, not only were the Pirates awful at running the bases as a whole but they were equally as awful when you talk about holding runners on and throwing runners out. The Pirates ranked 28th in the league with 73 stolen bases, which isn't all that great in itself but when you couple that with the fact that they were thrown out 52 times it just makes it that much worse. The major league average on stolen bases is 73% and the Pirates came in dead last at 58% success rate. Nobody else was even close to being that bad as Arizona was just a spot better than the Pirates but they were successful 65% of their chances. Just horrible.

On the other side of the coin you have the inability of the Pirate to be able to hold any runners or throw any base runners out. The Pirates had 154 base stealers against them last year that were successful and they were only able to throw out 19 base stealers. All season. That is good for a league-worst 11% caught stealing rate that is 16 points lower than the major league average and six percentage points lower than the next closest team. This really is on the head of Clint Hurdle for me as in the beginning of the season when he said he wanted his pitchers to focus on the hitters and not the base runners but as the season wore on it turned singles into pretty much automatic doubles and it cost the team runs.

2) What is the biggest worry for 2013?

The biggest worry for me is that the Pirates are just going to completely have a problem getting on base. They ranked 27th in all of baseball with a team on base percentage of .304 and they had a walk rate of only 7.4% which was only good for 25th in the league. Last year only two Pirates players (Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker) finished with an OBP over .330 and that just isn't gong to cut it. The Pirates really struggle in a big way to get on base and that really needs to change. There are some big swing and miss guys in the lineup which will obviously lead to lower OBP but at some point a few guys need to take a walk and set the table for something to happen.

3) What is the biggest unknown for the season?

That has to be the pitching, namely the starting rotation. I know a lot of this team is sort of up in the air right now but with some injuries but when you break camp with Jonathan Sanchez as your number four you are going to be in a lot of trouble. I think up at the top there is some stability with A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez but after that there is a lot of consistency questions. Can James McDonald be somewhere between outstanding (first half of 2012) and awful (second half of 2012)? Can Francisco Liriano come in and walk a few less guys to go with his strikeout per inning career average? Can Jeff Karstens stay healthy at all? Will Burnett be able to come anywhere close to what he was in 2012? These are just some of the questions and while the whole team is kinda in this mold the success or failure this season is going to come down to the starting rotation.

4) Who is most likely to break out in 2013?

I couldn't really break it down to one guys so it will be two for me: Travis Snider and Starling Marte. Marte really has all the tools to be a successful player at the major league level. He still has some trouble with the strikeouts (27.5%) and a low walk rate (4.4%) which really makes his on base percentage mostly all batting average (which isn't a good way to rely on getting on base) but if he could get a little bit of plate deicipline then he could really be a dynamic player. He isn't going to give you a ton of power but he could be a 30 steal guy that can make things happen and if he is going to hit at the top of the lineup then that could be huge.

Snider is a former top prospect that really never got the chance. I think last year he was plagued with injuries that held him back but he has power and some pretty decent bat control. Hopefully with some health and some consistent at bats he can find a grove and give the Pirates what they thought they would get when they traded away Bran Lincoln. He struck out a little much last season but his walk rate was nearly 10% and you can't imagine he will have an ISO of .078 for a full season so I like Snider to break out a little bit this season.

5) When will we see Gerrit Cole and what will we see when we do?

The Pirates sent Cole back to AAA which made a lot of people upset, but it was the right thing to do. Is Cole better than a guy or two in the rotation now? Yes. Should he have been sent down? Yes. Listen, if this was a playoff team last year that didn't collapse and had a shot to do it again this year then I think bringing Cole up at the start of the season might be a good idea. The truth of the matter is that they aren't. Not really close. They could get lucky and have a chance but when that time comes around Cole will be with the big club. I would expect to see Cole sometime in mid June when it is certain that the Pirates will get a full extra year out of him. If you ask me I would rather have Cole for a full extra year than have him this year for a month and a half. Does he probably have to work on some things in AAA? Yea, actually he probably does. He only has six innings at the AAA level and only 132 innings in the minor leagues total. From everything I have heard he is still a little inconsistent so a few more months can't hurt. I would rather him be up a few months too late than a few months too early.

When he does join the team he should be a top of the rotation guy. He brings a wide array of pitches that can reach as high as 100 mph with his fastball and can throw his change up harder than some pitchers throw their fastball. It isn't all about speed as most major league hitters can time a fastball but it sure doesn't hurt to have that. This will be one of the most anticipated call ups in a long time and I really don't think he will disappoint. When he does come up I wouldn't be all that worried if he gets hit around some. He was the top pick in 2011 and really hasn't been around the block a ton. There is going to be a learning curve and he is going to take his lumps but he will also give us some glimpses of the top end guy that he hopefully will be for a long time.

6) What is going to frustrate you the most this year?

There are a number of things that are going to frustrate me this season and to pick out one thing it is tough to do so I will try. Last season the pure ignorance to even acknowledge that other teams stealing bases is a big deal or ignoring the fact that the Pirates are just awful at stealing bases. On top of that the Pirates will attempt to give teams free outs on far too many occasions with just dreadful bunts at the worst possible time. I just can't wait until Josh Harrison gets called in to pinch hit and then squares around to bunt only to pop it straight up into a double play. You know it has a better chance than not of happening. Or not using Jason Grilli in the eighth inning so he can be saved for the ninth inning when it won't matter because Jeanmar Gomez blows the lead in the eighth with the meat of the order up for the opposition. I mean Grilli is only allowed to pitch the ninth and not in a high leverage situation because, SAVES. (breathe Cory, breathe) Yea, I will be frustrated at that stuff.

7) So, how many wins for the Pirates in 2013?

This is the million dollar question isn't it? Four or so years ago when he Pirates were literally the worst team in baseball I thought that 2013 might be the first year that the Pirates could make that move and probably get to .500 and maybe challenge for a playoff spot. Things haven't gone that well during that stretch and while I don't think they have been horrible I just don't think they are ready to make a playoff push. If you are wondering if I care about the 20 straight years of losing, well, I don't. Would it make any difference if the Pirates won 83 games this year and then go back under .500 for the next three seasons after that? Sure people would stop talking about the streak but it would just be a different talking point. Being .500 and not making the playoffs is the same as not being .500 and missing the playoffs.

All that being said I think if some things break right the Pirates could break the streak. I think some things go well and others don't and the Pirates should be around 75-77 wins. I don't think it is going to be like last season where they are hot for half the year and horrible for half the year, rather I think they are pretty consistent throughout the season. We might see a their place finish in the division but I could see the Pirates finishing fourth, behind Milwaukee and ahead of Chicago.

8) How will the NL Central finish?

Here is how I have the NL Central going this season:

1) Cincinnati 92-70
2) St. Louis 86-76
3) Milwaukee 82-80
4) Pittsburgh 76-86
5) Chicago 67-95

There you go people. That is all I got for the season preview series. You can take a look at what I had to say about the position players [here] and then take a read about all the pitchers [here]. It might not be where you want to be if you are a Pirates fan but it is what it is. Baseball is my favorite sport and no matter what I am going to be pumped for the Pirates. Hopefully they surprise us all this year.

You can also take a look at my team-by-team NL Central preview by clicking the links below:

[Cincinnati Reds]
[Chicago Cubs]
[Milwaukee Brewers]
[St. Louis Cardinals]

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