“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — Tolkien
How do you follow up the season the Pittsburgh Pirates had in 2013? It’s a cliche, but almost everything about last summer was perfect. The Pirates piled up wins, they broke their historic losing streak with a playoff run, and PNC Park was packed to the gills for most of the late summer and early fall as Pittsburgh rediscovered baseball. Somehow, 2013 managed to exceed even my wildest dreams about what the return of meaningful baseball to Pittsburgh would be like. Opening Day 2014 is going to be a celebration of all of that and the first Opening Day in the history of PNC Park that carries all of the hope and excitement that Opening Day is supposed to carry.
Before the game starts, we’re going to celebrate everything that was great about 2013; Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Francisco Liriano, and Clint Hurdle will get their awards and I’m sure the scoreboard will play an amazing highlight reel and everyone at the park is going to go crazy. Then, the game is going to start and we’re all going to ask ourselves, “OK, so what happens now?”
Pre-season expectations are a tricky thing. I’m not sure that anyone involved would say that the Pirates had a good off-season, but the thought that they’ve had a bad one is overblown. There shouldn’t be any question that this is a talented Pittsburgh Pirate team. There’s plenty of talent in the rotation with Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton in a sleeper role. The bullpen should be awesome again. Even with a hole at first base, the lineup will have Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte and Neil Walker, which should be able to score some runs.
It all feels precarious to me, though. There are at least two questions for each of the starters in the Pirates’ rotation on Opening Day, and Jameson Taillon’s spring elbow problems mean that they may not be able to answer as the rotation depth problems were last year. As interesting as the offense seems, Neil Walker is injury-prone and Pedro Alvarez is strikeout prone and Starling Marte gets hit by a pretty large number of pitches. There’s a lot of hope resting on Gregory Polanco to solve the right-field problem, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be ready to hit big league pitching this year.
I think that’s the question that faces the Pirates on Day 1 of 2014; this year it’s obvious that the talent exists for the Pirates to contend and it’s easy to imagine what a 96-win 2014 NL Central Champion Pirate team would look like, but it’s also really easy to see where things could go wrong. It’s not immediately apparent to me if the Pirates can compensate if they do.
I wrote earlier this winter that I thought that this year was kind of a bridge year for the Pirates. The 2013 team was driven in part by veterans not drafted by the team like AJ Burnett and Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano, while the Pirate teams of 2015 and beyond will be driven much more heavily by homegrown talent while Martin and Liriano join Burnett in the ranks of the ex-Pirates. For that reason, I feel like it’s possible that 2014 season plays out differently than the last few years. In both 2012 and 2013 the Pirates rode an early-season hot streak to playoff contention in mid-season. The 2012 season fell off the face of the planet in September. The 2013 team didn’t, but they almost certainly played their best baseball in June and July. They were able to cruise into the playoffs by just treading water later in the year. This Pirate team, for all of its talent, feels partially incomplete on Opening Day. Part of that is knowing that Polanco and (hopefully) Taillon are coming. Part of that is knowing that the first base situation is likely temporary. Because of that, I could see this team starting slow and finding its peak in the season’s second half.
Of course, all of these Opening Day anxieties are theoretical. Last year’s Pirate team looked like a 75-win team and it came together and blossomed into a playoff team was completely unanticipated. Just because it’s not clear to me how this 2014 Pirate team will handle the inevitable adversity of a baseball season doesn’t mean that they. For now, they have one of baseball’s best players, they have one of baseball’s most exciting young pitchers, and there’s plenty of supporting talent on the field, in the rotation, and in the bullpen.
It’s Opening Day and anything is possible for the Pittsburgh Pirates. That’s a good place to start from.
Image credit — keebosr, Flickr