Pittsburgh Pirates Season Review
By Arthur Mueller
The Pirates season ended on October 1st with a disappointing home loss to the San Francisco Giants in the National League Wild Card Game. Despite the unfortunate ending, the season was still a great success.
Pittsburgh’s started off the season slowly, posting a winning percentage below .500 in the month of April. However, after the 9-16 April, the team turned it around and posted a .577 winning percentage over the rest of the season to place them into the NL Wild Card Game. The team was especially good after the All-Star Break, posting a .582 winning percentage and a 3.05 team ERA.
Going forward, the Pirates face some major question marks regarding the future of the team heading into the offseason. The starting pitching was adequate enough to get the Pirates into the postseason, but for the team to progress into a winning franchise in October; the starting pitching has to be better. While the pitching staff was 5th in the National League in ERA, they were 9th in runs allowed. They also finished 9th in the league in quality starts. No Pirates starters reached 200 innings pitched, and they lacked a true ace, something that held them back in the wild-card game. The only Pirates pitchers to qualify for the ERA title, Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano, are both free agents. The Pirates will either need to resign them or find some other way to replace the 350 innings they provided. Volquez and Liriano were approximately worth a combined four wins to the Pirates. The starting pitching market is quite strong, and while the Pirates will most certainly not sign an ace pitcher such as Max Scherzer or Jon Lester, they could pursue some lower level free agent starting pitchers. The Pirates will have to get their ace from within the organization. The hope is that first round draft picks Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon can develop into the pitchers that can propel Pittsburgh into World Series contenders.
The Pirates led the Major Leagues in hitting batters. They hit 19 more batters than the second team in that category. The bullpen had the second most blown saves in the National League, but looks to be good next year. The Pirates traded closer Jason Grilli to the Angels after he underperformed in the season. Mark Melancon stepped into the closer’s role and performed adequately. Lefty Tony Watson made the all-star team. The Pirates also managed to find a diamond in the rough in reliever John Holdzkom who posted 14 strikeouts in just 9 innings. If he can replicate his performance next season, over a larger sample size, the Pirates won’t surrender many leads after the 7th inning. The Pirates bullpen should be deep next season, but the starting pitchers need to go deeper into games to relieve some of the pressure on the bullpen.
Offensively, this year, the Pirates were quite good. They ranked 4th in the National League in runs, 3rd in home runs, 3rd in batting average, and 4th in stolen bases. However, where they were lacking was on defense, as they led the National League in errors committed.
The biggest offensive question mark for the Pirates, heading into the offseason, is at catcher. Russell Martin is a free agent, and he is clearly the best free agent catcher on the market meaning that it will be quite expensive to resign him. He is coming off of a career year where he posted a career high in WAR and his highest batting average since 2007. His OPS this year was 80 points above his career average. This, combined with the fact that his BABIP exceeded career levels by nearly .100 points, means that his phenomenal year was probably a fluke and, thus, his next team will probably be overpaying for his services. It is possible that the Pirates could pay him the money, but they also have former first round draft pick Tony Sanchez waiting in the wings. So far, Sanchez’s numbers have been unimpressive, but he has only had 135 major league at bats. The Pirates hope that when given consistent playing time, he can pick up the slack. Russell Martin was worth 5.5 wins to the Pirates this year, the difference between making the playoffs and finishing around .500. If he leaves, the Pirates will have to find ways to replace his production.
First base was a black hole this year for Pittsburgh. Their first basemen combined to hit .226 with only 17 home runs. Next year, with Pedro Alvarez potentially playing first base, this number should increase. The Pirates are counting on Alvarez to provide offense at first base as they move forward. The rest of the infield was solid, as Josh Harrison went from utility player to all-star at 3rd base, and finished second in the league in batting average. Neil Walker had another solid season at 2nd base and Jordy Mercer emerged as a capable everyday shortstop. In the outfield, Andrew McCutchen had another MVP caliber season and Starling Marte looked better than ever, increasing his batting average while cutting down on his strikeouts. Travis Snider had a career year, but he will become expendable with the development of Gregory Polanco. The Pirates could attempt to trade Snider or keep him as a backup, but Pittsburgh seems to be heavily invested in Polanco, thus making Snider expendable. Since they are both left-handed batters, a platoon makes little sense.
With relatively few holes to address in their lineup, look for the Pirates to concentrate their offseason resources on resigning Russell Martin, as well as acquiring more starting pitching. Pitching coach Ray Searage has been known for working miracles with castoffs from other teams, including this year with Edinson Volquez. If the Pirates’ core of young players continue to progress, they should be able to make another run at the wild card even if they lose Russell Martin. If Pittsburgh can resign Russell Martin and address their need for cheap starting pitching, a World Series title in 2015 becomes a realistic possibility.