Pirates preview: Can the team avoid another collapse?

Home opener: Cubs vs. Pirates, 1:35 p.m.

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In light of the way the previous two years ended, the second half of the Pirates' 2013 season will attract attention. That includes their performance, the return of some injured pitchers and whom they might add, either from the minor leagues or at the trade deadline.

Before the Pirates can worry about the second half, though, they have to get out of April.

Yes, the Pirates open the season today at PNC Park against the Chicago Cubs, who finished 2012 with a 61-101 record. But for the rest of the month, every team the Pirates play finished at least .500 and either made the playoffs or had a chance at a wild-card spot in the fall of 2012.

"We're going to need to be sharp early," general manager Neal Huntington said.

Scouting report

  • Game:

    Chicago Cubs vs. Pirates, 1:35 p.m. today, PNC Park.

  • TV, radio:

    Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7)

  • Probables:

    RHP Jeff Samardzija (9-13, 3.81 ERA in 2012) vs. RHP A.J. Burnett (16-10, 3.51).

  • Key matchup:

    Samardzija vs. Andrew McCutchen, who is 3 for 10 against Samardzija in his career.

  • Hidden stat:

    Samardzija walked only two batters in his final 23 innings in 2012.

The Pirates finished 2012 with a 79-83 record, seven more wins than in 2011 but still not enough to prevent the streak of losing seasons to reach 20. They finished fourth in the National League Central Division.

After the Cubs, the Pirates travel to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers, who open 2013 after adding Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Zack Greinke. After a trip to Phoenix to face the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Pirates return home to face the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, all 2012 playoff teams.

The Philadelphia Phillies, Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers round out the month.

"One of my beliefs is that you can lose a season in April," said Jay Bell, the Pirates' first-year hitting coach. "You can't win one in April, but you can definitely lose one in April."

The Pirates dug themselves a hole offensively early a year ago, causing the coaching staff to address the thought process needed to start well. They had a .282 team on-base percentage April, .264 in May, a two-month stretch of historically bad offense.

"This camp is set up so that we can prepare for April 1," Bell said. "A lot of times, getting out of the gate early, well, is a mindset. More than anything else, it's the way you approach it mentally."

Part of that occurred because too often, the bottom third of the order presented a three-up, three-down opportunity to opponents. Clint Barmes hit .149 in April, .189 in May, and Rod Barajas was hitting below .200 until mid-May.

Barmes improved in the second half of the season, and Barajas is gone, replaced by Russell Martin. Martin hit .211 with the New York Yankees in 2012, but also hit 21 home runs and is a career .260 hitter.

"There's every reason in the world to believe that he's going to be a much more productive offensive player this year," Huntington said.

The entire offense, led by Andrew McCutchen, compensated in June and July and helped the Pirates to a 59-44 record at the trade deadline. They acquired pitcher Wandy Rodriguez, who was solid down the stretch. They also got Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez and Chad Qualls, but none of them performed well in the final two months.

When Pirates owner Bob Nutting visited spring camp in February, he cautioned against trading young assets to acquire major league players capable of immediate contribution. He also expressed the desire to commit most of his resources to the opening-day roster, rather than saving some money for the deadline.

"We need to get to the trading deadline in a strong position," Nutting said.

Huntington said the Pirates will evaluate additions when the time comes. They were not comfortable with the types of deals available for impact players before the previous two trading deadlines.

"We were prepared to do that last year, but the market didn't bear it out," he said. "We were prepared to do that two years ago, but the market didn't bear it out."

The minor league system, Huntington said, could provide the necessary currency to improve the major league team if the front office finds a deal it likes.

"We're working to try to have some bats and some position players so that you're not hamstrung because, oh, we can't trade that guy," he said. "There are certain guys you want to hold onto, and the return would have to be significant to be able to even engage in conversation."

The Pirates should receive some help internally as the summer progresses. Left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano will return in May or June from a broken right humerus, and right-hander Charlie Morton should return in June from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. The Pirates did not place Morton on the 60-day disabled list in case Morton is ready before June 1.

Jeff Karstens will start the season on the disabled list because of shoulder soreness but should contribute at some point, and top prospect Gerrit Cole could make his debut sometime in the first half of the season.

Before all that, the Pirates must take on the Cubs and right-hander Jeff Samardzija, 28, who will make his first opening-day start. Samardzija pitched eight scoreless innings July 23 against the Pirates, then allowed three runs in a complete-game win Sept. 8 against the Pirates.

That start, which took place at PNC Park, was his final game of the season due to his innings limit. He'll pick up where he left off.

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @BrinkPG. First Published April 1, 2013 4:00 AM


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