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First Pitch: Are the Pirates Better Than Last Year? It Depends.

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A few days ago, Frank Coonelly said to KDKA that he feels the current Pittsburgh Pirates team is better than the team that ended the 2013 season. I’m higher on the 2014 team than most, but I don’t think I agree with the idea that they’re better at the start of 2014 than the end of 2013. If given the choice, I’d take A.J. Burnett over Edinson Volquez, and I’d take Marlon Byrd over the combination of Jose Tabata/Travis Snider. Of course, the latter means that Gregory Polanco would be blocked, but we’re just doing a simple roster comparison here.

I don’t think you can successfully argue that the team now is better than the team at the end of last year. I do think you can argue that the team at the start of this year is better than the team at the start of last year. I also think you could argue that the team at the end of this year could be the same or better than the team at the end of last year. And here are my arguments for each case.

Start of the Year vs Start of the Year

If you want to compare the Pirates at the start of 2014 to the Pirates at the start of 2013, then I think you could make the argument that the 2014 team is better.

The 2013 rotation had A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke, and Jonathan Sanchez. Gerrit Cole was expected to make his mid-season debut, and Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Karstens were guys who could return from injuries by mid-season. However, no one was looking forward to the returns of Liriano and Morton. I spent a lot of time last summer writing about how Morton should be in the rotation, and people weren’t exactly high on Liriano last year, just like they’re not really high on Edinson Volquez this year. Looking back, Karstens might have been the guy people were most looking forward to from that group.

As for the five starters, Burnett and Rodriguez were seen as good options. McDonald was coming off a year similar to the one Jeff Locke had in 2013, with people hoping he’d be more like the first half of 2012 than the second half of 2012. Locke was a rookie, and not many people were looking forward to him making the jump to the rotation after he struggled in brief appearances at the end of the previous two seasons. Sanchez was a filler due to injuries and a good Spring, and the hope was that he discovered something to revert to his former success.

The 2014 team has Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole who are seen as good options. I think that this duo looks better than Burnett/Wandy did in 2013, simply because this group looks like two top of the rotation guys, while Wandy never had that look. I’d label Morton as a good option too, and he’s much better than their number three starter last year. The only concern people have with Morton right now is his injury history, and not so much his production. Volquez might not be the next Francisco Liriano, but I think he can at least put up league average numbers over 180 innings, which is a strong number four option. Wandy Rodriguez is a great number five option if he’s healthy, and so far he has said he feels better than last year.

The Pirates don’t have Liriano, Morton, or Karstens possibly returning mid-season, but they also don’t have as big of question marks in their rotation on Opening Day. They do have top prospect Jameson Taillon set to make his mid-season debut, which covers the Gerrit Cole aspect. And this year’s James McDonald is Jeff Locke, who projects to be the number six starter in 2014, rather than the number three starter in 2013.

As for the offense, it’s pretty much the same, except for a few places. Andrew Lambo replaces Garrett Jones in the first base platoon. Going into each season, Jones was viewed higher. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that it wouldn’t be hard for Lambo to at least match what Jones did. Jordy Mercer takes over at shortstop, with Clint Barmes backing up and probably getting a decent amount of playing time. That’s a better situation than Barmes as the primary starter. The Pirates also have a lot of young players who are all a year older and a little more adjusted to the majors in 2014 than they were in 2013, which should provide a boost.

End of the Year vs End of the Year

The end of the year in 2013 saw the Pirates with three top of the rotation arms in Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole, the latter of which looked like a top of the rotation guy in September and in the playoffs. Charlie Morton was looking like a solid number three starter, and was the number four guy in the rotation. The number five spot was questionable, with Wandy Rodriguez injured and Jeff Locke struggling.

The end of the 2014 season could see three top of the rotation guys with Liriano, Cole, and Taillon. Morton would still be the number four, and the number five would be whoever is still producing or healthy from the Wandy/Volquez/Triple-A depth group. It’s possible that this group could be equal to the 2013 version.

The offense saw the additions of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd. I was never high on Morneau, and he didn’t do much with the Pirates, which means Lambo won’t have a hard time replicating his performance. Byrd was good in the month he was here, but the Pirates project to have Gregory Polanco arriving mid-season. His overall game should provide more value than Byrd, especially if the bat comes along quickly.

The rest of the offense would be the same, and that includes Mercer now, since he came up mid-season in 2013 and was there by the end of the year. There’s also the part about the young guys being more established this year, which gives them a boost.

Of course the downside to this comparison is that we know what happened last year. We can only assume health, production, and so on for the results this year. That’s the case for every player, whether it’s the guys on the team, guys who didn’t sign like A.J. Burnett, or guys who could still be added like Ike Davis/Mitch Moreland/Justin Smoak. People tend to look past this fact when talking about guys who aren’t on the team.

Overall it’s best to say that the 2014 team has the potential to be the same or better than the 2013 team, rather than arguing that they will be better.

Are the Pirates Better?

It’s expected for Coonelly to give a vote of confidence to the current team, and to say the current team is better than the team last year. Whether he actually believes that or not, you’ll never find an executive of any team who isn’t going to publicly support their team in these types of situations. I disagree that the team right now is better than the team at the end of last season. I also don’t think that’s a relevant comparison.

The team at the end of last season didn’t win 94 games. The team that won 94 games was the team at the beginning of the season, the team at the middle of the season, and the team at the end of the season. You have to look at the entire year to get the overall impact of that team. I think if you look at the potential for the 2014 season, whether it’s the beginning, middle, or end, you’ll see that this team is the same or stronger than last year’s team at their respective end points. The 2014 team is starting with basically the same offense, and a better pitching staff. They’ll have more high-end prospects ready to join the team in the second half. There’s still the ability for trades like last year, if those are needed.

I don’t know if the 2014 Pirates will win 94 games. That’s a tough expectation to put on anyone. But I do think the 2014 Pirates will be a contender. Right now they’re worse than the team at the end of the 2013 season, but by the end of the season they have all of the potential pieces to be equal or better to that 2013 team, and contending once again.

Links and Notes

**If you haven’t ordered your copy of the 2014 Prospect Guide, you had better act fast. I just opened up the last case of books today. I say that’s the last case because I don’t think I’ll be ordering more this year. Each year I order the books in bulk through the publisher, which allows me to save several dollars per book, and I pass that savings on to you to keep the price of the book low. You’ll still be able to buy the book from the publisher after I sell my supply, but the bulk discount price won’t be included, which means you’ll be paying $25, plus $3.99 for shipping. Right now you can buy the book for $25 shipped on the products page of the site.

**Are the Pirates the Top Team in Latin America? Bob Nutting and Clint Hurdle both talked about the Dominican academy and the results from Latin America. Then I asked Ben Badler of Baseball America for his opinion on the subject, to get an objective take.

**Wandy Rodriguez Throwing Live Batting Practice (Video)

**You Don’t Have to Wait Until Opening Day to Watch Francisco Liriano (Video)

**Draft Prospect Watch: Top Tools and Two Prep Stars Square Off

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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