Series 47 Preview: Cubs at Pirates

Martin

Russell Martin’s excellent work with the pitching staff has the Pirates postseason-bound. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

The streak is over! On Sept. 9, the Pirates notched win No. 82 and clinched their first winning season in 21 years. All due credit to General Manager Neal Huntington, who engineered a turnaround that began in October 2007 but did not fully bear fruit until this year. The most impressive aspect of this season has been the total dominance of the Bucs’ pitching staff, even accounting for PNC Park being a pitcher’s environment. All of the team’s starters aside from 2011 first-overall pick Gerrit Cole have been acquired via free agency or trade. It’s a perfect counterbalance to the pre-Huntington era, in which the team tried and failed to assemble a homegrown rotation. In this four-game set, the Cubs will see all but ace A.J. Burnett—whom they have seen plenty this year. Now, the question is whether the Pirates will be able to take the NL Central crown. they presently sit one game back of the Cardinals (and two in front of the Reds) with 17 games to go. The Cubs will have the opportunity to say something about that.

HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (T-9th in NL)
The Pirates have built a solid-but-average offense around cornerstone center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The 26-year-old has backed up last year’s breakout season, virtually matching it with a .326 AVG/.405 OBP/.519 SLG slash line that has him well into the MVP conversation. Perhaps one of the best signs of the franchise’s current health is that McCutchen will be part of the team through at least 2017 (with a team option for ’18). Left fielder Starling Marte has also broken out quickly. He is an aggressive, toolsy player at the plate and on the basepaths, and he’s the team’s second-best hitter at age 24. First baseman Gaby Sanchez, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez all have their flaws at the plate, but they provide enough sock to make up for their low contact rates. Alvarez in particular has shown himself to be an all-or-nothing offensive option, with a 31.5 percent strikeout rate only bested (nominally) by his 32 home runs. Buying low on right fielder Travis Snider apparently wasn’t buying low enough. He hasn’t hit his weight—seriously, a .222 batting average at a listed 235 pounds—and his defense is considered somewhere between below average and average. He has been replaced by comeback-player-of-the-year candidate Marlon Byrd, acquired from the Mets in August. The other big offensive hole is at shortstop, where veteran Clint Barmes continues to provide some of the game’s best defense but has fallen into a split role with fringe guy Jordy Mercer. The fielding overall is quite solid, with a mix of good defenders and aggressive positioning that is the product of a partnership between the field staff and the front office.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in NL)
We haven’t yet mentioned catcher Russell Martin, the veteran backstop who has been credited everywhere he’s landed for his solid work with pitchers. Under his tutelage, the Pirates have been hardly recognizable on the mound. Saturday’s starter, Gerrit Cole, is the team’s most exciting pitcher, a 23-year-old out of UCLA whose four- and two-seam fastballs both sit in the 95-98 mph territory. He pairs those offerings with a couple of hard breaking balls and a good change-up. Many observers have been puzzled by Cole’s sudden erosion in strikeouts (from roughly 25 percent of batters faced to 19 percent), but it has come with a pound-the-zone approach that has him walking just 5.4 percent of batters and getting a lot of ground balls. Both acquired from the Braves in 2009 for Nate McLouth, left-hander Jeff Locke and righty Charlie Morton start tonight and tomorrow. Locke has a decent fastball-curve-change repertoire with reverse platoon splits, but his control issues mean he is probably the odd man out in the playoff rotation. Morton has a power sinker that has led to a career year across the board, though he has been the most hittable of the Pirates’ pitchers. Finally, lefty Francisco Liriano closes things out on Sunday. He has reclaimed his effectiveness, largely by resolving years of serious command issues. The bullpen deserves special attention for its quality and depth, an unbelievable turnaround from what was undoubtedly the team’s downfall in the second half of 2012. Mark Melancon stepped in beautifully for closer Jason Grilli after the latter suffered an injury midseason. The former will hold onto the role for now, but both are ninth-inning assets regardless. Justin Wilson, a power arm from the left side, is just one great option manager Clint Hurdle can use from the seventh inning on.

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