Pittsburgh Pirates series preview

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Coming off of a seventy nine win season the 2013 Pirates have aspirations of being a post season contender for the first time since Barry Bonds played for them. It isn't going to happen this year but maybe they can finally win at least 81 games. It has been a dark time for the Pirates since Barry left.

Not many new faces were added this winter, most of the changes came during the previous summer. Like the Dodgers many of these players have had better summers. At one time Liriano, Martin, Sanchez & Sanchez, Snider were coveted players. In 2013, maybe not so much.

Additions: Russell Martin, Brandon Inge, Francisco Liriano, and Jonathan Sanchez

Subtractions: Rod Barajas, Joel Hanrahan

Catcher: If the Pirates have A.J. Ellis catching next year we can call it a trend. In 2012 they signed ex starting Dodger catcher Rod Barajas, and found him wanting. He was let go t his past winter so they turned to ex starting Dodger catcher Russell Martin. The Yankee's have a catching tandem of Francisco Cevell,i and Chris Stewart, and still made little effort to retain Martin,so the Pirates gobbled the one time Dodger MVP up for two years and 15 Million. You can't like this trend if you are a Pirate fan. OBP over the last five years - .385 --> .352 --> .347 -->.324 -->.311 . At one time Russell Martin was my favorite Dodger. It was during the All-Star break of 2008. Been all downhill since then.

First base: Subject to change. At the end of spring this was supposed to be a platoon between Dodger killer Garrett Jones, and one time Miami Marlin 2011 All-Star Gaby Sanchez. Hudler crossed everyone up on opening day, and benched right fielder Travis Snider, moved Jones to RF, and installed Sanchez as his everyday first baseman. So what looked like a strong platoon position has been turned into a meh position if this holds. Sanchez can do some damage against LHP (.869 OPS) , against RHP (.708 OPS) not so much. I can't see this lasting.

Second Base: Neil Walker is a solid second baseman, back injuries curtailed what had been a solid 2012 season. He does not do anything that stands out but does do everything well. A bit of power, a bit of OB, a decent glove. He's a top five NL second baseman and no one seems to know it. He's still only 27, he could get better.

Shortstop: Is Clint Barmes the NL version of the AL Brendan Ryan? He can pick it as good as anyone but he can't hit unless he's facing a LHP.

Third Base: When you get the gift of the second pick in the draft you want more than a 3rd baseman who can hit a few prodigious home runs and not much else. Sadly that is what the Pirates have with Pedro Alvarez. He is still only 25 and he did finally show some home run consistency last year. 180 K's say this is about as good as it is going to get. Which is okay, just not what you want from the second pick in the draft.

Right field: This was supposed to be Travis Snider's job but he just keeps disappointing. At one time Snider was the best hitting 19-year-old in the minor leagues. At one time Travis was the best hitting 20 year old in the Major Leagues. That was four years ago and after being benched for a poor spring he's much closer to the Jeremy Hermida major league path, than the one envisioned by the Blue Jays back in 2008. So right now he's on the bench. Garrett Jones got the first two starts in RF, and the forgotten Jose Tabata got the other. Dodger fans should be familiar with Garrett Jones. He's hit six home runs in 97 PA's, good for a 1.038 OPS. Against everyone else he's James Loney. Jose Tabata was a one time highly heralded Yankee prospect but has had his career waylay ed by some injuries and "temperament" . Still only 24 he simply looks like a fine fourth outfielder, and nothing more.

Center field: Has Andrew McCutchen passed Matt Kemp as the best center fielder in the game? Defensively it is not close. The sky seems to be the limit here, and this is probably why this team has playoff aspirations. Watching a player like Andrew can make you giddy. The Pirates fans deserved this, any fan base that has had to endure 20 years of sub .500 baseball deserves an Andrew McCutchen.

Left field: 24-year-old Starling Marte has been given the full time gig and while he has some promise, he needs to work on his contact rate to fulfill that promise. The dude struck out 50 times in only 167 PA while hitting only five home runs. Skills wise he has the package of speed and power.

Bench: Depending on who is starting at first base or right field you could have Jones/Snider on the bench or Sanchez/Tabata on the bench. That is nice. Sweet fielding John McDonald is around to backup the infield. Josh Harrison can play anywhere and be a terrible hitter no matter where it is. Michael McKenry backs up Russell Martin.

Rotation for Series: The Dodgers miss Wandy Rodriquez this series, and instead get a reclamation project, an opening day starter, and a Locke for disaster.

Game 1: How about that. Old Giant nemeses Jonathan Sanchez somehow latched on with the Pirates. In case you forgot about ole Jon, his story is a sad one. Traded just a year ago for Melky Cabrerra he was supposed to give the Royals a steadying veteran influence. Instead the control that he could barely control attacked him and left him for dead. He was allowed to make fifteen starts in 2012, and in all but three he was god awful. His agent convinced the Pirates to give him a chance and here he is. When his control doesn't spiral out of control he's very tough. He has shown the ability before to come back after being given up on. In 2009 the Giants had given up on him and banished Sanchez to the bullpen. Injuries gave him a chance and on July 10th, 2009 he may have pitched the second greatest game in regular season Giant history. Game score of 98. That is what he's capable of, but the likely outcome is four innings, four walks, four k's, four runs.

Game 2: AJ Burnett loved coming back to the NL. He's not great, but he's good. After a fifteen year career he's 19 strike outs away from 2000. That is something.

Game 3: 25 year old left hander Jeff Locke gets the final game. He made six starts in 2012, and is keeping the seat warm for Francisco Liriano who is in rehab. Or for Gerritt Cole who is percolating.

Bullpen

Closer - Jason Grilli takes over for the departed Joel Hanrahan. At 35 last year Grilli had his greatest season. Striking out 90 in only 58 innings while walking 22. That was what one may call dominant. The Pirates were so stoked they shipped off Hanrahan for some ex-Dodgers. Because they have had such great luck with ex - Dodgers (LaRoche, D Young, Paul) they decided to roll the dice again and see what Sands/DeJesus can do to ruin their team.

Setup: You would think taking Grilli out of the setup role might hurt the bullpen but the shrewd Pirates may have pulled a fast one on the Red Sox. They also got Mark Melancon in the deal, and going forward I'd rather have him then Joel. Others in the bullpen are right hander Jared Hughes, left handed ground baller Tony Watson, right hander Chris Leroux, and left hander Josh Wilson.

If the offensively challenged Dodgers are still struggling to score runs by the end of this series then the sky is indeed falling.

For the first time in a long time the Pirates have a solid team. If McCutchen can pull up Marte/Alveraz to meet their promise, if Sanchez can harken back to 2011, and Walker stay healthy, they could even be called good. The rotation at the start of the year is shaky but they do have Gerritt Cole who is probably the best NL pitching prospect ready to help a major league team. They need an ace and he has ace material. Jameson Tallion is targeted for AA. By this time next year they both could be in the rotation, and that is when Pirate fans will have something to really cheer about. Until then I think they have to hope they can fight the Brewers for third place because I can't see a scenario where they actually compete with the Reds/Cards for the Division or the Dodgers/Reds/Giants/Diamondbacks/Cards/Braves for the two wildcard spots. Anything is possible but I do think Pirate fans will be seeing the best baseball they have seen in 20 years if not quite post season type baseball.

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