Analysis: Five Questions for Manager Clint Hurdle and the rest of the club's hierarchy

The team must attempt to find the answers over the next seven weeks in Bradenton


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1. Will the Pirates win more than 81 games?

This year, perhaps more than any in the past 20 years, the Pirates seem poised to break that ugly slump of losing seasons. The Pirates won as many games in 2012 -- 79 -- as they have in any other season during that stretch.

There is reason for optimism. Young players -- Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez -- continue to show signs of growth. Pitching depth is an area of strength. Payroll is on the rise.

But there is reason for pessimism, too. A lot of the team's 2012 success came from players who are projected to regress in 2013. Veteran A.J. Burnett had an outstanding season, but can he maintain that level of success now that he's 36? Young pitcher James McDonald propelled the Pirates to a strong first half, but he collapsed in the second half and the team soon followed.

2. Can this team finish?

After early success in 2011 gave way to a late-season collapse, the Pirates were adamant they were not going to fade away in 2012. But the collapse was even worse after the team sat 16 games over .500 in August.

This will be a question that could haunt this team throughout the regular season, even if it outperforms its 2012 counterparts through the first half and beyond.


KEY DATES

11 FEBRUARY
Pitchers and catchers report.

14 FEBRUARY
The rest of the roster must be in camp.

23 FEBRUARY
Pirates open spring season vs. Tampa.

2 MARCH
World Baseball Classic begins at various sites.

17-19 MARCH
World Baseball Classic semifinals and final, San Francisco.

30 MARCH
Exhibition game vs. AA Curve in Altoona, 2 p.m.

31 MARCH
Rosters must be reduced to the 25-man opening day limit.

1 APRIL
Season and home opener vs. Cubs, 1:35 p.m. at PNC Park.


The team believed a lack of depth led to a late-season slide in 2011. In 2012, the Pirates struggled to find answers to why things fell apart. And at this point, it's unclear if they've been able to address the underlying problems that led them to back-to-back disappointing finishes.

3. How well will the Pirates replace Joel Hanrahan?

Trading away two-time All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan was merely a formality of the offseason. Hanrahan struck a one-year $7.04 million deal with the Boston Red Sox, and that kind of money is too much for the Pirates -- or any small-market team -- to pay a closer.

But his absence leaves a void in the Pirates' bullpen, which has been an area of strength for the past few years. Jason Grilli, who was an outstanding setup man for Hanrahan last season, will slide into the role of closer. But the track record is mixed for setup men who become closers, and Grilli is 36. The Pirates will rely more on their young relievers -- Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, who was acquired in the Hanrahan deal -- to finish tight games. That's considerable pressure for a handful of young players.

The Pirates could also find some help in the horde of non-roster invitees that will accompany the team to spring training in Bradenton. Juan Cruz was one player in 2012 who was effective early in the season in late-innings situations. The team might be able to find another arm like that for 2013.

4. Will Pedro Alvarez continue his development?

At times in early 2012, it looked as if Pedro Alvarez might be a bust. But the Pirates stuck with the third baseman, and that investment yielded big results for the team. Although there was progress, there was inconsistency. Alvarez went hot and cold, finishing the season with 30 home runs, 85 RBIs and a .244 batting average.

Strikeouts continue to be an issue for the young power hitter. He had 128 hits in 2012 and 180 strikeouts. If he is able to take a big step forward, the Pirates' chances for a winning season -- and possibly a playoff season -- are that much greater. If he stagnates or regresses, the organization is in trouble.

5. What will the rotation look like after the break?

For the first time in a long time, the Pirates have a healthy amount of pitching depth, especially in the starting rotation. The team managed to re-sign veteran starter Jeff Karstens over the offseason, even after non-tendering him in November. They enter spring training with two veteran pitchers -- Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez -- who were not on the team's roster one year ago today.

The Pirates have also added veteran left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano, who sustained a broken humerus bone in his right arm after agreeing to terms with the Pirates. Between those four pitchers and James McDonald, the Pirates' rotation is stronger than it has been in 20 years -- even when considering the age, injury and productivity risk factors associated with each pitcher.

But the rotation could look very different in the second half of the season. The Pirates could welcome back right-handed starter Charlie Morton as early as June. Morton, who was the Pirates' best pitcher in the first half of the 2011 season, underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2012. If he is able to return -- and, more importantly, find that 2011 form -- he could be a dangerous addition to the Pirates' rotation.

Additionally, the Pirates could look to call up former top overall pick Gerrit Cole in June. Cole has pitched exceedingly well in his ascension through the minor leagues, and his addition to the rotation could provide an even greater spark. He is one of many young arms -- Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin being the others -- who could make their way into the rotation by the end of the year.

pirates

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter: @msanserino. First Published February 10, 2013 5:00 AM


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