MLB In Full Bloom - Pirates Preview - 3/12/2014

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20– Number of days until Opening Day

71, 621– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Pittsburgh Pirates Preview

Key Additions: Edison Volquez, Chris Stewart, Chris McGuiness

Key Departures: A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau, John Buck, James McDonald, Kyle Farnsworth, Garrett Jones

OFFENSEAndrew McCutchen highlights the Pirates’ lineup, but outside of the 2013 NL MVP, Pittsburgh lacks a punch. Pedro Alvarez displayed his power after hitting 36 home runs last season, but he needs to improve getting on base with more consistency as the Pirates cleanup hitter. Starling Marte showed off all five tools in a breakout sophomore season in 2013. He hit for average - .280 batting average and a .343 on base percentage. He hit for power, with 48 extra base hits including 10 triples. He showed off excellent speed, stealing 41 bases. If he continues to produce these numbers and get on base in front of McCutchen, the offense should improve from last season’s lineup that ranked ninth in the National League in runs scored.

STARTING PITCHING: A.J. Burnett is now with the Philadelphia Phillies, which leaves a gap in the Pirates rotation. Gerrit Cole is in position to be the ace of the starting staff after he dominated down the stretch last season, going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA and 39 strikeouts in September. The Pirates s are hoping to see a repeat performance from Francisco Liriano after taking a risk signing him last season, where he provided a solid arm in the rotation. Jeff Locke could find a way back to the rotation if he can recover from last season’s second-half struggles after being an All-Star. If Wandy Rodriguez and Edison Volquez can stay healthy, Pittsburgh’s rotation will be a strong point for the team.

BULLPEN: Last season, the Pirates’ bullpen was very good, and most of the same cast of characters is returning this year including Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, and Vin Mazzaro. These five relievers combined to produce a 2.25 ERA in 2013 and they will all be back this year. Melancon surprised everyone with his 1.39 ERA, 70 strikeouts and eight walks over 71 innings in the set-up role and Grilli was great as the closer with 33 saves in 35 chances. It's fair to assume that the bullpen overachieved last year, but it should remain solid even if stats don't mirror the 2013 results.

2014 PREDICTION: The Pirates ended the longest streak of losing seasons and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1992 last year. They pushed the NL champion Cardinals to the brink in a thrilling five-game series. So, what now? If the Pirates are going to improve upon a storybook 2013, they must rely on their farm system after a relatively quiet offseason. Gerrit Cole may need to become this year’s A.J. Burnett, while Jameson Taillon assumes Cole’s role as the star mid-season call-up .One of the keys to the Pirates success last year was the excellent production they got from the back end of their rotation. This year there are too many question marks with the Pirates rotation and they are going to miss the 200 innings that Burnett has provided them the past few seasons. Too much went right for the Bucs in 2013 and they probably will start a new playoff drought in 2014.

Final Record: 85-77 (3rd Place NL Central)