Pirates Spring Outlook: Continuity for the most part, but is it enough?

For a team that won 94 games in 2013, continuity usually is a good quality. The Pirates hope to benefit from the return of their main contributors for the 2014 season.

As of this week, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training, only A.J. Burnett, Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd have departed from the group of regulars. Burnett spent the previous two years in Pittsburgh, but Byrd and Morneau were with the team for a little more than a month. Everyday starters at six of the eight defensive positions return, including the important positions up the middle.

The three areas of contention -- first base, right field and the bullpen -- basically have the same cast of characters competing for playing time, with some minor offseason additions in the mix. The Pirates have not added any players representing a significant offensive improvement.

"We signed some guys to minor league contracts who will come in and compete for spots," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We made some small trades in the offseason, and we've got some guys internally that will be given every chance in the world to step up and take that job and hold that job."

Starter: Russell Martin (catcher)

Outlook: Among the best defensive catchers in baseball, Martin threw out 40 percent of attempted base-stealers in 2013, and was lauded for his pitch-framing. Martin can stand to improve at the plate. He hit 15 home runs in 2013, slightly lower than his career average, but struck out a career-high 108 times, and finished 2013 with a .226 batting average, dragged down in September/October by a .127 average in 63 at-bats.

Starter: Gaby Sanchez (first base)

Contenders: Andrew Lambo, Chris McGuiness

Garrett Jones' departure means Sanchez is the only first baseman with significant major league experience on the roster. Sanchez can mash left-handed pitching -- he hit .333 with a .448 on-base percentage and .539 slugging percentage against left-handers in 2013 -- but struggled against right-handers, posting a .619 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Lambo, a left-handed hitter who debuted in 2013 but has spent most of his time in the outfield, will work at first base in spring training, Huntington said.

"We haven't really talked about that externally because we've got a comfort level with him in right field," he said.

The Pirates also traded for McGuiness, a left-hander who had a .369 on-base percentage and hit 11 home runs in 436 plate appearances at Class AAA Round Rock in the Pacific Coast League in 2-13. McGuiness, however, has only played in 10 major league games in his career.

Starter: Neil Walker (second base)

Outlook: Walker's production dipped in 2013 at the plate from 2012 with a .251/.339/.418 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), yet his WAR (wins above replacement) managed to spike to a career high 3.9. His power improved with a career-high 16 home runs, as did his walk rate -- to 9.1 percent -- while reaching base 15 times after being hit by a pitch. Defensively he ranked top 10 in fielding percentage at .989. But Walker slumped in the postseason, going 0 for 19 in the National League Division Series with two walks.

Starter: Pedro Alvarez (third base)

Outlook: Alvarez, who hit 36 home runs in 2013, had a much better first half season than second half, but was worth his weight in gold in the team's first trip to the playoffs in 21 years with a .353 average, 7 RBIs and 3 home runs. The Pirates avoided arbitration with Alvarez, who will make $4.25 million this year, and the big question is whether his power can continue to increase to make up for the 186 strikeouts, and lowest walk total (48) among baseball's most strikeout-prone sluggers.

Starter: Jordy Mercer/Clint Barmes (shortstop)

Outlook: Mercer hit .285 in 103 games in 2013 but will need to show defensive improvement to claim the position full time, considering how much the franchise values ground-ball pitchers and strong defense in general. The club brought back Clint Barmes (think of him as a one-year, $2 million insurance plan) to add a reliable defensive option, and a veteran for Mercer from which to learn. This, despite the fact Barmes had a negligible impact for the team offensively.

Starter: Starling Marte (left field)

Contender: Jose Tabata

Outlook: The ability was there, foreshadowing big things to come for Marte whose breakout 2013 stalled in August because of a hand injury. He batted .280 with 12 home runs, and stole 41 bases from the leadoff position, but drew just 25 walks. He was hit by a pitch 24 times, leaving his hands exposed to injury and punctuating an area in need of fixing in spring training. Tabata, who likely will shift to the those-to-be-considered in right field column, was hot in August, hitting .310 in place of Marte.

Starter: Andrew McCutchen (center field)

Outlook: McCutchen's numbers dipped slightly in 2013 to a .317/.404/.508 slash line, but really there was no more memorable season for the face of the franchise. McCutchen was named the NL MVP and saw his WAR surge to 8.2. He walked more (78), struck out fewer times (101) and hit .384 in August leading the team from the depths of baseball obscurity and back to the postseason.

Starter: Travis Snider (right field)

Contenders: Jose Tabata, Jaff Decker, Andrew Lambo

Snider and Tabata likely will have the inside track to playing time in right field. Both showed flashes of solid play in 2013 -- Snider in April, Tabata in August and September -- but both also were injured. Snider hit .215 with a .281 on-base percentage after hitting .300 in the first month of the season, and Tabata hit .282, including .310 and .315 in the final two months of 2013.

"Normally the last challenge of any young players is to meet the level of consistency," manager Clint Hurdle said of Snider and Tabata. "There's guys all across the league talking about it."

The Pirates traded for Decker, 23, who made his major league debut in 2013 with the San Diego Padres, in November. Decker had a .381 on-base percentage in Class AAA in 2013. They are also comfortable with Lambo playing right field.

Starting pitchers: Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, Edinson Volquez

Outlook: With no imminent deal to bring back A.J. Burnett (who would fit in at No. 3 or 4), this is what the starting rotation likely will look like with depth from Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin, and, at some point this season, prospect Jameson Taillon. Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA) who was the reclamation project of baseball, along with Cole (10-7, 3.22 ERA) and Morton (7-4, 3.26 ERA) will lead the staff. Cole, who started 19 games and got better in September, will be interesting to watch develop. There are questions about the health of Rodriguez and the viability of Volquez, who has just once had an ERA below 4.00 (in 2008) dating to his August debut in 2005.

Relief pitchers: Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Jared Hughes, Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, Justin Wilson, setup men Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and closer Jason Grilli.

Outlook: The bullpen is stocked again for 2014 with just a few minor losses to free agency. From the back end to the long relievers, this group was quite competent in 2013, posting the third-best bullpen ERA in the major leagues, and a very strong .272 batting average on balls in play, and the highest ground-ball percentage in baseball at .520. The franchise got significant interest in left-handers Wilson and Watson in the offseason, but smartly retained both.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG; Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1959 and Twitter @JennMenendez.

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