The only big defection this winter was catcher Russell Martin, who signed in his native Canada with the Blue Jays. It was a foreseeable loss for Pittsburgh as they were not going to give a 32 year old catcher the money he got north of the border. The Pirates brought in another former Yankee to replace him in Francisco Cervelli. Most famous in my neck of the woods for the John Sterling flub "Cervelli will not be stealing here, there he goes!", the 29 year old is still a serviceable Major League catcher. He won't embarrass himself at the plate and has worked out his early career woes defensively. He isn't going to conjure up images of Johnny Bench any time soon, but he won't be an instant out at the bottom of the order. Pedro Alvarez will move across the diamond from third base to first base. He missed all but one day of September and was unable to get to the 30 home run mark for a third year in a row, hitting just 18 in 122 games. The move to first was going to happen anyway as he became too much of a defensive liability at the hot corner. He should see the bulk of the time at first this season but will lose at-bats to Corey Hart when a tough left hander takes the hill. Neil Walker is at second base. Walker is a model of consistency providing solid offense (.271 BA, 23 HR, 76 RBI last year) and good defense on an infield that can be tough to watch some times. Jordy Mercer will be the Opening Day shortstop but it will be fun to see how long he can hold off flashy Korean signing Jung Ho Kang. Kang has yet to show the defensive chops to be an everyday Major League shortstop but if any of the power he showed in the Korean League translates to America, he'll be quite the coup for Pittsburgh. He hit .365/.459/.739 with 40 home runs and 117 RBI in 117 games last season. Josh Harrison will settle in at third base for 2015. Harrison played five different positions last year. That didn't hinder him from breaking out with a .315/.347/.490 plus 13 home runs and 18 stolen bases. Harrison's move to third makes the infield defense better. It also gives him a chance to improve on his already blossoming offense by not having to worry about where on the field he is going to play.
The outfield is as talented as they come led by 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. Cutch has been a workhorse for the Pirates and that didn't change in 2014. He led the Majors in OBP at .410 and the National League with a .952 OPS. He is still one of the better defensive center fielders in the National League and still has speed to burn. He is a surefire MVP candidate every year. He will be flanked by Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, two young outfielders looking to be McCutchen 2.0. Marte is an exceptional left fielder who has 20/20 potential. He hit 13 homers last year to go with 30 stolen bases. Marte, he turns 27 in October, is on the upswing of his career so look for upticks to both those figures in 2015. Polanco will man right field. The 23 year old Dominican hit some roadblocks during a frustrating 2014, but showed glimpses of why he was the Pirates' top hitting prospect for several years running. He is too good of a player to not fix the mistakes he made last year and become a important player at the top of the Pittsburgh lineup. Harrison, Hart, and former Ray Sean Rodriguez provide depth from the bench that most National League teams cannot boast.
The starting rotation remains together for the most part with an old face returning to the fold. Francisco Liriano took a home town discount to stay in Pittsburgh, signing a 3 year, $39 million contract in December. Liriano didn't quite rekindle the magic he put together in his first year at PNC Park, but still pitched to a 3.38 ERA. He fragility is always a worry but the Pirates have new found depth in their staff. Gerrit Cole slots in as the #2 and like Liriano has never touched the vaunted 200 inning mark in his career. Hell, Cole still needs to hit the 150 inning mark. The former #1 overall pick has been solid in his two seasons (21-12, 3.45 ERA, 1.19 WHIP) in black and yellow but not the force of nature he was coming out of UCLA. To take that next step, he needs to both stay healthy and get more aggressive with his fastball that can top out in the high 90's. One person that has never had a problem unleashing the hounds is the returning AJ Burnett. After a dismal campaign across the state with the Phillies (MLB worst 18 losses, 4.59 ERA, 1.41 WHIP), he returns to the place that saved a career on life support. Burnett was nasty in his two seasons in Pittsburgh and should get back to that in the #3 spot in the rotation. The back of the rotation looks shaky in Jeff Locke and Vance Worley but rest assured that help is on the way. The All-Star break could mark the time to introduce top prospects Tyler Glasnow, Jason Taillon, and Nick Kingham to the world. Glasnow is still in the low minors but looks to be on the fast track to the big club. Taillon, the second overall pick in 2010, is recovering from Tommy John surgery that delayed his debut from happening prior to 2015. Kingham is probably the least impressive of the three, but the most likely to get to the Majors sooner rather than later.
Mark Melancon will return for his second full season as Pirates closer. After taking the role from the soon to be ousted Jason Grilli, Melancon has been one of the more polished relievers in the National League. He's appeared in 72 games in each of the past two seasons and recorded 49 saves total. He has a 1.65 ERA and 0.92 WHIP as a Pirate. He has one more year of arbitration left but being as consistently effective as he's been, GM Neal Huntington would be smart to buy that out with a multi-year deal. Like Melancon, his two set-up men, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes, had sub-2.00 ERAs in 2014. They combined to go 17-7 out of the pen with different strategies. Watson is a strikeout pitcher while Hughes likes to induce ground balls. Any work they don't get in the late innings will go to left hander Antonio Bastardo and righty Radhames Liz.
The Pirates are done being the bridesmaids of the National League Central. I have faith that manager Clint Hurdle will help his team clear the hurdle (couldn't help myself) of finishing second place in the division. Andrew McCutchen will finish in the Top 3 of the MVP voting (check our picks later today for my winner) and Josh Harrison will once again contend for the National League batting crown. It isn't quite the "We Are Family" days of the late 70's just yet, but it is a real good time to be a fan of the Pirates.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #13 (UP 7)
PREDICTED RECORD: 92-70
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Andrew McCutchen (outfielder), Josh Harrison (third baseman), Gregory Polanco (outfielder), Mark Melancon (relief pitcher)
Trevor Utley still needs to make it to PNC Park, which has been ranted and raved about by those I know who have gone.
Image Credit: Pirates logo (sportslogos.net)