Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug; opening image credit totalprosports. A few shoot-from-the-hip thoughts after watching the rain delayed, surprising 12-2 series-opening drubbing of the St. Louis Cardinals…
1. Once again, it looks like the strength of the Pittsburgh Pirates is going to be their starting pitching. Rotation ace Francisco Liriano looks like he picked right up where he left off from a 2013 season in which he was named NL Comeback Player of the Year. It’s premature to consider Charlie Morton a #2 starter, but the Pirates certainly look sage by extending the 30-year old righthander in the offseason. Morton showcased surprisingly consistent mid-90’s velocity from his fastball, and retired 6 through 6 frames in his Game 2 victory against the Chicago Cubs. Gerrit Cole– the team’s most likely candidate to eventually assume the #2 spot behind Liriano- shook off some minor control issues to post a quality line against a high-powered St. Louis Cardinals’ offense in Friday night’s victory. The re-debut of Wandy Rodriguez received mixed reviews from fans, but the former Houston Astro settled down after surrendering 3 runs early, and retired 11 of his final 12 batters in a Game 3 loss against the Cubs.
2. Still, the decision to not re-sign A.J. Burnett is looming even larger now, before what many fans assume will be season-ending surgery for top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon. The Pirates have done a solid job keeping significant season-ending injuries for their prospects and players to a minimum, although such elbow injuries are hardly uncommon. Tommy John surgery isn’t the death sentence it once was, but results are still conflicting as to whether or not pitchers get better or worse after the surgery. At the very least, it highlights the risk in essentially punting on an offseason of free agency as the Pirates did, largely banking on the mid-season contributions of prospects like Taillon and OF Gregory Polanco. That may be a fine strategy for a rebuilding club, but on a team fresh off its first postseason appearance in 21 years, both the players and fans deserve more.
3. The Pirates’ offense, however, is another story. Despite Friday night’s 12-run outburst, Pittsburgh’s current collection of hitters still looks thin at best, and significantly detrimental at worst. Even the most optimistic of fans would have trouble envisioning a scenario in which the team could truly beat out the Cardinals for the NL Central title, given the Red Birds’ similar if not better rotation, and far superior offense. So, here’s a positive/negative breakdown based on early season results…
A. OF Starling Marte’s approach at the plate looks significantly better than his rookie year of 2013, as the Pirates’ leadoff hitter worked multiple deep counts, and after his 3-4 outburst against the Cardinals’, has a great opening .353/.476/.529 slashline. Still, Marte also fanned 6 times in the first 3 games, and that’s one area of his game where the 25-year old clearly needs to improve. Fans are elated about the recent 6-year extension Marte signed with the Pirates, and Starling has responded with a great 2014 debut.
B. On the flip side, 3B Pedro Alvarez’s plate approach looks the same as it always had. In a recent article I wrote about his ceiling, 57% of respondents opted for “Less than a Cornerstone Player, but Better than Rob Deer” (check it out and vote if you haven’t already). Up to a .158/.200/.474 line after his 2-4 series opener against the Cardinals, there’s little reason to think Alvarez won’t heat up to a similar pace .233/.296/.473 season, but there’s equally little reason to hope he’ll improve upon that. Alvarez led the National League in strikeouts (186) in 2014, and he certainly looks destined to be among the league leaders in 2014 as well.
C. Like a lot of fans, I’m adamantly opposed to the Pirates’ “answer” at 1B with a platoon of Travis Ishikawa (L) and Gaby Sanchez. However, Ishikawa has certainly looked promising so far. The veteran has worked multiple counts deep after being down 0-2 or 1-2, has shown the ability to go to the opposite field, and has a .300/.417/.600 line through 4 games. It’s more than likely that the former Giant will regress to somewhere near his .721 OPS, 90 OPS+ career mark– and that the Pirates will need to address 1B via trade come July- but he’s certainly looked the part of a starter so far.
D. Surprisingly big props to Manager Clint Hurdle for starting SS Jordy Mercer every game to date. As soon as the Pirates chose to lug back INF Clint Barmes for yet another encore, I assumed the 35-year old would be back starting as soon as Mercer had one bad game. But so far Barmes has rarely seen the field, and it at least *appears* that the Pirates are willing to allow Mercer (118 OPS+ in 2013) the starting job, relegating the glove-first veteran to his more appropriate utility role.
Overall, there’s been a lot of good come out of the first 4 games, but Jameson Taillon’s injury really hampers some optimism, and the Pirates’ offense is still clearly searching for answers. Thanks for reading.