Series 15 Preview: Cubs at Pirates

Martin

Russell Martin has played a big role in the Pirates’ early-season success. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Cubs head to Pittsburgh, where the Pirates have established themselves as one of the NL Central’s top three teams. Winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Bucs sit at 26-18—just two games back of the division-leading Cardinals. PNC Park generally plays as a pitcher-friendly stadium. With the Pirates’ deep pitching staff, runs could be at a premium in the next few days.

4.0 RS/G 11th in NL
At the plate, the Pirates have been somewhat of a stars-and-scrubs affair thus far. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen and left fielder Starling Marte form an outstanding one-two punch that will be in Pittsburgh for years to come. Both can hit, hit for power, steal bases and play the field. Marte does have nine walks to 45 strikeouts in 197 plate appearances, however, so he’ll be challenged to harness his free-swinging ways as pitchers adjust to him. Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are a very good left-right tandem at first base—expect Jones to start against the Cubs’ three right-handers scheduled to pitch, while Sanchez will offer protection against lefty James Russell. Catcher Russell Martin is looking like a steal at two years and $17 million. The 30-year-old has a great reputation for calling a game, and he’s the team’s most productive hitter through 44 games. But the rest of the infield has struggled offensively. Second baseman Neil Walker, shortstop Clint Barmes and third baseman Pedro Alvarez are each hitting in the low .200s. Barmes offers great defense, but Walker and Alvarez don’t.

3.6 RA/G, 4th in NL

The Cubs will miss resurgent 36-year-old A.J. Burnett, as well as breakout left-hander Jeff Locke. But there has been little drop off between them and veteran lefty Wandy Rodriguez, who toes the rubber Tuesday. Cubs fans have seen him for years in a Houston uniform. He brings a big, sweeping curve that will get lefties flailing and tie up righties. His control is much improved from his earlier days, though the increased use of his two-seam fastball has cost him some strikeouts. Francisco Liriano and Jeanmar Gomez follow, having stepped into the rotation due to injuries and attrition. Liriano is back to sitting in the 93-mph range and has been effective through two starts, despite his usual free passes. Lefties will have to watch for his four-seam fastball and slider combo, while righties will also see a two-seamer and change-up. Gomez was a minor offseason acquisition from the Indians, and he’s made great use of his heavy sinker in starts and relief so far. After getting a great deal of attention from GM Neal Huntington, the back end of the bullpen has been a revelation for the Pirates. Jason Grilli was bumped from setup duty to the ninth inning, and he boasts a 0.92 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 19.2 innings. Justin Wilson, who has a big fastball from the left side and mixes in a nasty cutter that plays against both hands, pairs with new addition Mark Melancon as the squad’s late-inning setup men.

—Sean Ahmed

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