It was fabulous season for the Pirates, almost anyway you look at it. The Playoff berth didn't come as easy as the one last year, it seemed, due to a bad start (10-18) in April, a bad seven game losing streak in August, injuries to key players, underachievement by key players (Jason Grilli, who got traded, Pedro Alvarez, who got benched), and a first base platoon that was, to be kind, very ordinary, it still took until the 162nd game of the season to be eliminated from the Central Division Championship.
I always like to look back on what I predicted each year to see just how smart or stupid I am. So, here are some excerpts, in red, from The Grandstander of March 30, 2014.
Concerning the ultimate bottom line, I wrote the following:
OK, so how will they do? Last year they won 94 games, which is a lot of wins for even really good teams. To think that they will do this again is asking a lot. Winning less than that in 2014 is not necessarily a step backwards. So, I am going to predict that we will raise this guy....
....89 times in 2014. Eighty-nine wins will not be enough to overtake the Cardinals in the NL Central, but it will be enough to be in the race for a Wild Card spot, so what the the hell, I'll predict that Pirates will once again nail down one of the two wild card spots in the National League.
The Record shows that the Pirates won 88 games, finished two games behind the Cardinals, and nailed down the first Wild Card spot.
I structured that pre-season post by focusing on some "People to Watch" for the upcoming season:
Andrew McCutchen. After a torrid spring training, and, yes, we know that spring training stats are meaningless, it is almost frightening to think that he might actually be better than he has been in the last two seasons. Not since the days of Barry Bonds, and perhaps even the days of Dave Parker, have the Pirates had a player who is in the legitimate discussion as to who is the best player in the game.
Despite a two week stint on the DL, McCutchen led the team in HR, RBI, was third in the NL in batting and led the league in OBP. But for an other-worldly season being enjoyed by the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, McCutchen would no doubt be the odds on choice for a second consecutive MVP award.
Travis Snider. Yes, he has been the definition of mediocre since his arrival here, but if management is to be believed, injuries played a role in that underachieving performance, and he is now said to be healthy, and he did rip it up in Florida. If that can continue, perhaps the Pirates don't have as big a problem in RF as is believed.
Snider continued to be overlooked and many thought he would be sent to the minors at one point. He wasn't, Jose Tabata was, and when rookie Gregory Polanco came to earth after a hot start when he was first called up, Snider pretty much took over the job in right field, and it will be Snider, not Polanco, who will have to be beaten out for the starting right field job come 2015.
Russell Martin. Other than McCutchen, this is the position player the Pirates can least afford to lose to injury.
Do I really need to add anything to that? Martin performed so well this year, that he will no doubt be the one free agent most in demand on the open market this season. How the Pirates respond in attempting to retain him will be one of the big stories of the hot stove season.
Gerrit Cole. I just think that this guy to be the best pitcher to come up through the Pirates farm system since Bob Friend. He's big, he's mean, and in the last month of 2013 he was easily the team's best pitcher. I just can't wait to watch him pitch every fifth day.
A couple of stints on the DL limited Cole's season long performance, but down the September stretch drive, Cole was dominant and everything that everyone hoped he would be.
Neal Huntington. I am certain that no one is more aware of the Pirates most glaring weakness, the hole at first base, than is the GM. How NH goes about addressing that as the season wears on will be interesting to watch. I've long been critical of Huntington, and his ability to spread the b.s. in some of his statements to the public continue to drive me nuts, but he bought himself, and his "Plan", a lot of credibility last year, and his maneuverings at the trade deadlines were textbook. How he does around July 31 and August 31 this year if the team is in the same position will be, again, critical to the success of the team.
As always, Huntington was the center of much discussion throughout the season. As we all know by now, NH did NOTHING at either the July 31 or August 31 trade deadlines. No trades, and his "in the end, the best deal was no deal" was a quote that was used to torch him, but in the end, it looks like he was right. The Pirates are in the post-season, while other teams that made splashy deals are not.
Okay, not bad as far as crystal ball gazing goes, but what about the other side of the ledger? Here was another on my names to watch:
A.J. Burnett, or rather the absence of A.J. Burnett. He was at worst the number two starter on the staff, and he is being replaced by a combination of Edinson Volquez, the coming-off-of-injury Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke, and Jameson Taillon, who is now nursing a tender elbow of his own. How this plays out could be the key to the Pirates season.
Burnett was discussed so often by so many people that you would have thought he was still on the team, and there were people, including possibly Burnett himself, who thought that the Bucs should trade to Philadelphia to bring him back at the deadline. Burnett ended up losing 18 games in Philly. As for those other guys, Rodriguez failed utterly and was released. Taillon underwent Tommy John surgery and maybe we'll see him in Pittsburgh in 2016. Locke went back to the minors, was recalled midway in the season and had some good and bad moments. The jury is still out on him, but there are more reasons to be optimistic about him than not. Volquez stunk with a capital "S" in spring training, had an ERA over 11.00, and Huntington was being excoriated for wasting $5 million on this bum. He ended up leading the team in wins and will be getting the ball in the Wild Card game tomorrow night, and no one is complaining about it.
No mention was made of Tony Watson or Mark Melancon, and who even saw Vance Worley, let alone John Holdzcom, when gazing into the future back in March?
Oh, and there was one name I never mentioned at all. Josh Harrison, and he turned out to be the story of the year for the Pirates. When he was thought of at all, it was as the "25th guy on the roster", and okay utility guy, but if he was starting for you, well, you were in a lot of trouble. When the right field position wasn't producing, Harrison played there and hit, when Starling Marte was slumping or injured, Harrison played in left and hit, and when Pedro Alvarez' season completely unravelled, Harrison took over and became the everyday third baseman. He made the All-Star team, challenged for the NL batting title up until the last game of the season, and he will get votes, deservedly so, for the MVP award.
So I never saw the J-Hay Express coming, but do you want to tell me that YOU did?
Now it's on to the Post-Season. A one game playoff is a pure crap shoot, and anything can happen. If the Pirates get past the Giants, I think they have a shot against the Nationals. After that, well, we'll just see what happens.
However, any way you look at it, it was another terrific season.