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)

MLB In Full Bloom - Reds Preview - 3/11/2014

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21– Number of days until Opening Day

65,191– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Cincinnati Reds Preview

Key Additions: Skip Schumaker, Brayan Pena

Key Departures: Shin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo, Ryan Hanigan, Xavier Paul, Derrek Robinson, Cesar Izturis  

When you look at the arrivals compared to the departures, it appears the Reds lost a lot more than they gained this winter. Bronson Arroyo averaged over 200 innings per season throughout his time with the Reds. Ryan Hanigan has did a great job handling the pitching staff and limiting runners on the bases in recent seasons. Of course, it will be nearly impossible to replace Shin-Soo Choo's ability to get on base. Derrick Robinson and Xavier Paul did well in their roles as outfielders with the Reds, but the team decided to part ways with them. Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena will have very little impact on the Reds if the starting lineup stays healthy. Reds fans were hoping for a big splash this offseason. They didn't get one, and the signings that the team did make will hopefully be on the bench most of the year.

OFFENSE: The Reds lost an on-base machine in Shin-Soo Choo, but there is still a lot of talent throughout the lineup. Billy Hamilton is going to be the lead-off hitter, and Joey Votto is going to bat third. The rest of the lineup will be easy to piece together once the top is set. If left fielder Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier can regain their 2012 form, this lineup will be one of the league's best. The two combined to knock in nearly 150 runs two years ago. An injury to Ludwick and Frazier's struggles saw that number nearly cut in half.

STARTING ROTATION: The Reds lost Bronson Arroyo to free agency this offseason and there is not true replacement on the staff. Johnny Cueto returns to the rotation after missing most of 2013 with a lat injury. Cueto has been dominant over the past three years, but it is a struggle to keep him healthy. In that same three year span, he has logged just 433 2/3 innings for the Reds. Mat Latos has been a 200 inning pitcher in each of his two years with the Reds, but his normal offseason regimen was slowed by minor knee surgery earlier this month. Early reports suggest that Latos is still on track for Opening Day. Homer Bailey has been solid the past two years and just signed a new long-term contract with the Reds. Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani, who might be the best fifth starter in baseball complete the Reds rotation.

BULLPEN: The effect Aroldis Chapman has on the entire Reds bullpen is impressive. Chapman has logged 185 1/3 innings in the past three seasons, allowing a 2.43 ERA. The Reds' bullpen has the third-lowest ERA in baseball. It is not all Chapman as the Reds have J.J. Hoover and Sam LeCure both turned in sub-3.00 ERA in 2013. Alfredo Simon resurrected his career in the past couple seasons and Sean Marshall only logged 10 1/3 innings thanks to a shoulder injury should be able to bounce back in 2014.

2014 PREDICTION: The Reds are one of the more intriguing teams in the National League. Their offense will suffer without Shin-Soo Choo on base every game like he was in 2013, but Billy Hamilton brings game-changing speed to the table and Joey Votto is still the best hitter in the National League. The Reds starting rotation is better than the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff provided the rotation stays reasonably healthy. The Reds are fully capable of winning the NL Central in 2014, but a more realistic expectation is second place and a wild card spot into the playoffs.

Final Record: 89-73 (2nd Place in NL Central)

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