The Pittsburgh Pirates have revamped expectations. Gone are the days of trying to get to .500, trying to make the playoffs, trying to keep up with their division rival St. Louis Cardinals. Now the goal is simple. Get to the World Series and win. Nothing less. Manager Clint Hurdle made that clear to his team upon their arrival at spring training.
The 2013 season is in the rear view mirror and the focus is on 2014 but the goals have been moved forward because of their recent success. The Pirates are in this for the long haul as General Manager Neil Huntington has secured most of the talent he has accrued during his seven seasons on the job. 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen is signed through 2018 and Starling Marte, signed a six-year, $31 million extension this spring that also gives the Pirates options for 2020 and 2021. 2011 number one overall pick Gerrit Cole has ace-like potential and like outfielder Gregory Polanco and right-hander Jameson Taillon, the second overall pick in 2010 are also some of the best prospects in all of baseball. All three are under control of the Pirates for the rest of the decade.
So the future looks bright, but what do the Pirates do for an encore without the services of ace AJ Burnett, who left the Pirates without even getting an offer and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for one year at $15 million. Burnett did a good job the last two seasons for Hurdle both on the field and in the club house serving as a mentor for a young Pirate staff while eating up a lot of innings. The Bucs are obviously hoping Cole makes the leap this season as a top of the rotation kind of pitcher but even with he and Francisco Liriano they are a little thin in the starting rotation. Wandy Rodriguez is coming off of a forearm injury that limited him last season and Charlie Morton strikes fear in the heart of no one.
Liriano will have to repeat the season he had last year and Cole has to grow up now if the Pirates’ revamped expectations are to be met this year. The National League Central is one of the toughest divisions in baseball and the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds right now have superior starting pitching to the Bucs. Closer Jason Grilli and set up man Mark Melancon are the anchors of a Pirate bullpen that looks to be the best in the division at the moment but again, they have to get enough innings out of their starters for the relief pitching to excel.
The offense will once again be led by McCutchen, Russell Martin and Pedro Alvarez who picked up his first silver slugger award last season after hitting 36 home runs and driving in 100 RBI. Some had speculated Huntington might try to upgrade the first base position but instead will stick Gaby Sanchez and some sort of platoon with a yet to be determined player. The fact that Huntington is still looking shows exactly how uncomfortable they are with the current situation.
Pittsburgh rarely makes a splash via trade or free agency, preferring to keep developing their own players. So maybe they view 2014 season as a transition in to the future when some of their prospects will fill the apparent holes on the pitching mound and at first base. However, they have talked openly about new expectations and if the Pirates are to meet those revamped expectations in 2014 they may have to change course slightly.
Commentary by Mick Varner
Guardian Liberty Voice Sports Writer covering the Pittsburgh Pirates