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Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Preview

<p>Now, the pressure is on the Pirates to continue their winning ways and not fall back into obscurity. If the two seasons prior to their first winning campaign since the Clinton Administration are any indication, Pittsburgh is definitely on the upswing. In 2011, Pittsburgh finished with 72 wins, which was 15 better than the previous year, and the team pushed the .500 mark in 2012, ending with 79 wins.</p>

Now, the pressure is on the Pirates to continue their winning ways and not fall back into obscurity. If the two seasons prior to their first winning campaign since the Clinton Administration are any indication, Pittsburgh is definitely on the upswing. In 2011, Pittsburgh finished with 72 wins, which was 15 better than the previous year, and the team pushed the .500 mark in 2012, ending with 79 wins.

With the organization trending in the right direction, now the pressure of a repeat is on.

If manager Clint Hurdle's Pirates can pull off consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 1992-'93, it will be due in large part to reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen.

Last season, McCutchen's numbers were down from 2012, but the voters realized what he meant to the club and gave him the nod after batting .317 with 21 homers, 84 RBI, 97 runs scored and an OPS of .911. Those were all down from his 31HR/96RBI/107RS/.327BA/.953OPS numbers of 2012, proving that he doesn't need monster numbers to take this club far, he just needs a supporting cast.

That cast gets a little stronger this year with the emergence of Starling Marte as a legit leadoff hitter and a more consistent clean-up hitter in Pedro Alvarez. Marte stole 41 bases and had a .343 on-base percentage, while Alvarez led the NL with 36 homers and drove in 100 runs. Both players will have to continue to provide solid offense if Pittsburgh is going anywhere.

The organization's willingness to also tweak the roster was just as much a positive as the play on the field. Going out and signing catcher Russell Martin prior to the start of last season and then acquiring players like outfielder Marlon Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau at the trade deadline showed the players and fan base that ownership was serious about contending.

Now that the team let players like Byrd and Morneau walk in free agency, the ability to find other players to step up and produce is key to the 2014 success of the Pirates.

2013 FINISH (94-68) - 2nd (NL Central)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Edinson Volquez (RHP)

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Marlon Byrd (OF), Justin Morneau (1B), A.J. Burnett (RHP), Garrett Jones (1B), James McDonald (RHP)

PROJECTED LINEUP: Starling Marte (LF). Jordy Mercer (SS), Andrew McCutchen (CF), Pedro Alvarez (3B), Neil Walker (2B), Russell Martin (C), Gaby Sanchez (1B), Jose Tabata (RF)

PROJECTED ROTATION: Francisco Liriano (LHP), Gerrit Cole (RHP), Wandy Rodriguez (LHP), Charlie Morton (RHP), Edinson Volquez (RHP)

PROJECTED CLOSER: Jason Grilli (RHP)

MANAGER: Clint Hurdle

CAN THE PITCHING STAFF DO ENOUGH TO KEEP THE PIRATES IN GAMES?

If the Pirates plan to make the playoffs again this season, the team's starting pitching will have to be better than what it looks like on paper. Four of the five starters are at least 30 years old, including projected Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano, who has had an up and down career.

Liriano will team with RHP Gerrit Cole, LHP Wandy Rodriguez, RHP Charlie Morton and RHP Edinson Volquez. All but Cole, 23, are in their 30s with Rodriguez the elder statesman of the staff at 35 years old.

Without veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett to eat up innings and take the stress of winning off the rest of the staff, the Pirates rotation needs to outperform past performances to continue to threaten in the NL Central. Burnett averaged 13 wins and 194 innings pitches in two seasons with the Pirates, a pair of numbers that will be hard to replace.

The left-handed Liriano posted just the third double-digit win season of his career last season, winning a career-high 16 games. He posted a 3.02 ERA striking out 163 in 161 innings with a WHIP of 1.22. While the eight-year veteran did have a resurgence, whether he will be able to keep up his new found glory is something else.

The Pirates would love to see the youngster Cole step up as a staff ace. The right-hander tossed 117 1/3 innings last year in 19 starts, going 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA. He struck out 100 batters and pitched to a 1.17 WHIP. He pitched 185 1/3 innings over 31 starts combined between Triple-A and the majors last season, so he might be ready.

The club is also waiting for prospect Jameson Taillon to make his debut. The 22-year-old right-hander struck out 143 batters in 147 1/3 innings combined with Double-A and Triple-A a season ago and a mid-season call-up is expected this year.

IS JORDY MERCER THE ANSWER AT SHORTSTOP?

Remember when it seemed like every team in the majors had a power-hitting shortstop? Well, those days are over and many clubs are scrambling to find a shortstop who can hit their weight.

The Pirates have had a revolving door at shortstop for what seems like forever. However, Jordy Mercer emerged last season and played in 103 games, 78 at short and 26 at second, last season and hit .285 with eight homers and 27 RBI. He is expected to hit second this season, between Marte and McCutchen, so the magnifying glass will be on his production.

Defensively he seems okay with 13 errors in 315 chances a season ago. However, with just a small sample size, many Pirates fans want the club to look elsewhere.

WHAT DOES THE BULLPEN LOOK LIKE LEADING UP TO CLOSER JASON GRILLI?

Jason Grilli established himself as a solid big league closer last season, posting 33 saves and a 2.70 ERA in 54 games. He is again expected to serve in that role this season.

With that role solidified, the rest of the Pirates bullpen needs to do its job in bridging the starters to Grilli.

Mark Melancon should serve as the primary set-up man. The right-hander had 16 saves last season when Grilli went down with injury and had 20 in 2011 with the Houston Astros. So, his mental make-up should be enough to keep the a hold on that job and bail out Grilli if he gets in trouble or injured.

The rest of the bullpen has a crop of untested arms. Justin Wilson and Tony Watson will likely serve as the left-handed specialists, while Stoly Pimentel, Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez will round out the group.

With the lack of starting pitchers who will go deep into games, this group becomes very important for the Pirates. If the starters can just go six innings, getting through those two innings before Grilli is vital.

X-FACTOR: PEDRO ALVAREZ

Pedro Alvarez needs to continue what he started last year in protecting McCutchen in the lineup. While he did hit a career-high homers last season, he also struck out a league-leading 186 times and worked only 48 walks as his on- base percentage was also an embarrassing .296.

A legit power source, Alvarez needs to do more without sacrificing his power to be real protection for McCutchen this season

OUTLOOK

The Pirates have the pieces to make a run at the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central. As long as McCutchen is on the field, the Pirates will be in the race, that's how important he is to this team. However, without a staff ace, it's hard to see the team duplicating what it did last year. Things need to go right for this team for them to be at the top of the division all season as the depth in the lineup and rotation just isn't there.

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