We all remember Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series, when Atlanta's slow-footed Sid Bream beat a throw from some Pittsburgh left fielder named Barry Bonds to complete the Braves' three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Pirates. Bonds left the Steel City as a free agent for San Francisco and the Pirates became the laughingstock franchise of the National League. They entered 2013 not having had a winning season since '92, the longest drought in the majors. However, thanks to an NL MVP season from Andrew McCutchen and a surprising ace emerging in Francisco Liriano, the Bucs beat Cincinnati in the 2003 NL wild-card game and pushed St. Louis to five in the NLDS. Baseball fever was back in Pittsburgh. Yet this offseason has been strangely quiet and the Pirates could find themselves falling back into mediocrity.
1B Justin Morneau, RF Marlon Byrd, 1B/OF Garrett Jones, C John Buck, C Michael McKenry, RHP A.J. Burnett
RHP Edinson Volquez, C Chris Stewart
The smartest thing the Pirates have done in years was to sign McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million extension before the 2012 season. What an incredible steal for Pittsburgh. McCutchen made only $4.5 million last season and led the Pirates in hits, runs, doubles, batting average (.317), on-base percentage and slugging. He was second on the team in home runs (21), RBIs (84) and stolen bases (27). He led the National League in offensive wins above replacement and was second overall in WAR among NL players (when including defense). McCutchen was a landslide winner of the NL MVP, Pittsburgh's first winner since Bonds in '92. Had McCutchen been a free agent this offseason age 27, his deal would have dwarfed the seven-year, $153 million contract Jacoby Ellsbury got. Small-market teams like the Pirates have to take the risk to lock up rising stars early, and this deal will pay dividends through its entirety barring injury. The problem is that McCutchen got little offensive help. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez (36 HRs, 100 RBIs) is a fine slugger but hit only .233 with 186 strikeouts. No full-season regular other than McCutchen hit better than .285. If there was one spot the Pirates should have tried to improve in free agency this offseason it was at first base. Right now the Opening Day starter there is likely to be Gaby Sanchez (.245, 7 HRs, 36 RBIs).
Pitching carried Pittsburgh in 2013 as the Pirates had the No. 3 ERA in the National League at 3.26. Gone is Burnett, who had 10 wins and a 3.30 ERA before fading late in the season and being passed over for the Game 5 start against the Cardinals after Burnett was shelled in Game 1. Pittsburgh signed lefty Francisco Liriano off the scrap heap last offseason after he was 6-12 with a 5.34 ERA in 2012. Liriano was the 2013 NL Comeback Player of the Year, setting a career high with 16 wins and posting a 3.02 ERA, Liriano's lowest since he was one of the majors' top prospects as a rookie in 2006 with the Twins. The Pirates also got a boost from midseason call-up Gerrit Cole, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA. He won 10 games with a 3.22 ERA. He beat the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS and pitched well in the Game 5 loss. Closer Jason Grilli also was a surprise last year in saving 33 games with a 2.70 ERA. He was an All-Star but missed a chunk of the second half due to injury.
The Pirates are +350 to win the NL Central on baseball odds, +1200 to win the NL pennant and +2500 to win the World Series. They are given a wins total of 84 at sportsbooks (both -115). Alvarez is +2000 to lead the majors in home runs, while McCutchen is +10000.
McCutchen carries the offense in another MVP-type season. Starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez comes back strong after his 2013 season was cut short in June due to injury. Fellow starter Jeff Locke pitches like he did in the first half of last year instead of the guy who was 1-4 with a 7.25 ERA in his final 10 starts. Current top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon is called up midseason and makes an impact like Cole did.
The team was so desperate to fill a spot in the rotation with Burnett's departure that it signed Volquez, who has the highest ERA (5.09) and WHIP (1.53) in baseball the past three seasons. He looks like the No. 4 starter. That's scary. It's highly unlikely Liriano comes close to matching his 2013 results. First base looks like a black hole offensively as does shortstop. The team is too cheap to add help and the Bucs finish only ahead of the Cubs in the NL Central.
MLB Free Pick: The Pirates won't win the division but are capable of topping that 84 wins. Alvarez has a total of 29.5 homers at sportsbooks for this season; lean over there. He's all-or-nothing and should hit at least 35 but could strike out 200 times.