Series 21 Preview: Cubs vs. Pirates
Starling Marte’s play has benefited the Pirates this season. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
Will 20 be the charm? That’s how many seasons the Pirates have gone without reaching the .500 mark, but this could be the year they get there and beyond. Thanks to a number of additions, superstar Andrew McCutchen finally has enough talent surrounding him that he doesn’t have to shoulder the entire load. Though Pittsburgh enters the series on a three-game losing streak, they’re still 10 games over .500. They are also tied for first in the league in defensive efficiency, converting 73.4 percent of all balls in play into outs. Part of that is the result of adding Starling Marte to the outfield mix and moving Garrett Jones back to first base, but Pedro Alvarez’s improvement at third base has been another important development. Preseason concerns about a bullpen backed by journeyman Jason Grilli have also come to naught. The Bucs’ relief corps has been the league’s best at stranding base runners, allowing just 17 percent to score in the opening months.
HITTING: 3.7 RS/G, 12th in the NL
Improving McCutchen’s supporting cast has elevated the Pirates’ offense to league average—or maybe better when you consider they don’t play in a bandbox. The biggest surprises have been Marte’s development as an everyday left fielder with both power and speed, and veteran catcher Russell Martin’s rediscovery of the batting stroke that once made him a Dodger prodigy. Clint Hurdle has also used platoons effectively, pairing Jones with Gaby Sanchez at first base to get more power, and Travis Snider with Jose Tabata (currently on the DL) in right field for OBP. Homegrown talents Neil Walker and Alvarez are expected to return to form and provide the kind of power they have in the past. Plus, McCutchen is capable of slugging .600 for months at a time—put that in the middle of this order, and the Pirates’ offense won’t be mistaken for average much longer.
PITCHING: 3.5 RA/G, 3rd in the NL
The Pirates’ pitching staff has been a revelation in the early going, but will it hold up all season? So far, the boost has had more to do with the team’s slow accumulation of veteran talent than any real breakthroughs from young prospects (though left-hander Jeff Locke, who starts Sunday, is off to a strong start). A.J. Burnett’s late-career renaissance in the NL has stretched into a second season, giving the Pirates a top-shelf starter capable of outdueling contenders’ top guns and cranking out double-digit strikeout totals. With veteran lefty Francisco Liriano settling in behind him, the Pirates could have the starting pitching to sustain a postseason run. The problem so far has been injuries. Wandy Rodriguez recently left a start against Atlanta complaining of forearm pain, and James McDonald and Charlie Morton are both on the DL. One ugly wrinkle to Burnett’s performance: He’s not much for thwarting the running game, as the first 13 stolen-base attempts against him this year were all successful. But when Burnett isn’t on the bump, Pirates catchers are gunning down one-third of all base stealers.