The very second that the Pirates were eliminated from the NLDS by the Cardinals this was a true statement about the Pirates' outlook for 2014:
If the Pirates are going to be better in 2014 than they were in 2013, it'll be because they get a full season of Gerrit Cole, because of Starling Marte's evolution as a hitter and Gregory Polanco's development into a big league player, because Jameson Taillon has a similar year next year to the one Cole had this year, and because guys like Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez avoid taking steps backwards when it seems like it'd be relatively easy for both of them to do so.
That's all still true on January 8th, even though the Pirates have failed to replace Garrett Jones at first base, elected to retry last year's ugly Jose Tabata/Travis Snider experiment in right field, and still don't really have any good indication as to what's going on in AJ Burnett's head. Last year's Pirates relied quite a bit on contributions from older players like Burnett, Russell Martin, and even guys like Clint Barmes and Marlon Byrd, and the obvious goal of the Pirates' front office is to get to a point where the players from the farm system start to pull more of their weight. Not having Burnett back would thin the rotation, but last year the Pirates' got 57 starts from Liriano, Cole, and Charlie Morton and this year you could realistically hope that they tack 20-30 more onto that number without even considering a contribution from Taillon. Not having a platoon partner for Sanchez seems like a lousy idea, but Garrett Jones's numbers were pretty terrible last year and it doesn't seem crazy to think Andrew Lambo could replicate them if he's only allowed to face right-handed pitching. And Jose Tabata was legitimately a pretty good hitter over the season's second half last year, with a .286/.344/.436 line after returning from injury in early July.
All of this is to say that it's not necessarily wrong to say that the Pirates are in better shape on January 8, 2014 than they were on Opening Day of 2013, and it's not even all that hard to argue that the Pirates could be better in 2014 than they were in 2013 even without a first baseman or with AJ Burnett retiring or becoming an Oriole or circus clown or whatever it is that his heart desires. There are problems with this approach, though, and I think that they're pretty obvious ones.
The first problem is this: the margin for error on the 2014 team would be razor-thin. Improvement would require big seasons from Cole and Liriano and a solid one from Morton. Cole is a mind-bogglingly talented young pitcher, but he's also a young pitcher that throws hard and throws hard sliders. I think the Pirates have handled him pretty much as perfectly as possible to this point, and I think that he's still a huge risk for an arm injury in the near-to-immediate future. Liriano was dominant last year and it seems like the Pirates' coaching staff helped him make some real strides, but the next time he follows up a good season with a second good season will be the first time he's done it in his career. Charlie Morton has never thrown more than 171 2/3 innings in his career. I think he's capable of slotting in as a solid 3-4 starter and eating up 200+ innings in a season, but I also can admit that's never happened before. Beyond those three without Burnett, you're relying on Wandy Rodriguez (the good news about his elbow problem is that it was arthritis, which is a statement that should be read and taken at face value), Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke, Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton, and eventually Taillon. The best case scenario is that that group would have to make something like 70 starts (that's assuming 30 apeice for Cole, Liriano, and Morton, which is generous). I'm not saying that it's impossible that they can make a majority of those starts good starts, I'm saying that actually relying on it makes me nervous.
That's just the pitching staff. Without a real partner for Sanchez at first, suddenly you're relying relatively heavily on Tabata, Walker, Alvarez, and Martin. I say this all the time, but relying much on Pedro Alvarez at the plate still terrifies me. His power is prodigious, but if he can't get his OBP over .300 and his strikeout rate down below 30%, his peak is going to be an alarmingly short one. Walker is a solid enough player, but he's already 28 and he's awfully injury prone (he only played 129 and 133 games the last two seasons, and his back issues are obviously troubling). His injury-proneness is nothing compared to Tabata, of course, who's a trip down the steps away from two months on the shelf. Martin is, at this point, relatively well-established as a hot starter who fades as the season goes on.
In any case, none of this is meant to be overwhelmingly critical of the non-Andrew McCutchen players that the Pirates have. I don't know exactly what 2014 holds in store for this club, but I feel pretty confident in saying that the worthless Pirate teams of years past are well behind us. I've never been particularly interested in 80 or 85 win Pirate teams in the past, and that's especially true now after the playoff run of 2013. As I see it, the Pirates have Andrew McCutchen through 2018 and Gerrit Cole through 2019, and every year between now and then is a year that they should be trying to win the World Series. I see a lot of problem points in 2014 right now, and while obviously signing James Loney (or someone like him) or having more certainty about Burnett wouldn't be anything resembling a cure-all, it would increase the club's margin of error in other places that they might need it next year.
The second problem with the team as constructed and saying that they could be better than last year's team is a more abstract and potentially larger problem. "Better" is a wildly difficult concept to define; last year the Pirates won 94 games, but their Pythagorean record put them at 88 wins, Baseball Propsectus's third-order win percentage put them at 92 wins, if you just go to Fangraphs and add their WAR up, you get a total somewhere in the mid-to-low 80s. What this means in regular English is that the Pirates won somewhere between two and ten games more than you might have expected them to win just based on the stats recorded by their players. It's hard to know exactly why they did this. We know, for example, that teams with good bullpens often outperform projected records. Or it could be because their defensive shifts helped optimize the pitching for their defense, giving the pitchers an advantage beyond what their stats indicated. It's possible that the Pirates understand park factors a little bit better than we in the general public do (most often, park factors are reduced to one number per ballpark, which may not tell the full story somewhere like PNC that treates righties and lefties much differently) and they tailored their team to PNC Park's specific advantages even more so than we're currently able to quantify. It could also just be dumb luck. 162 games is a full season, but it's not a particularly enormous sample size. If you flipped a coin 162 times, you wouldn't be guaranteed to get 81 heads and 81 tails.
This is not to dimish the accomplishments of the 2013 team; they won 94 games and a wild card game and I'm not trying to take that away from them. I'm just pointing out that it's not impossible that the Pirates could play better on the field in 2014 by every metric possible and wind up with 90 wins or 88 wins instead of 94 and have that not be an undeserved outcome.
You might recall that I had similar concerns last winter, and obviously the team turned out to be much better than I expected. This is, I suspect, partially some of the unease that comes with rooting for a contending team instead of a rebuilding one. The simplest way to look at this off-season is to say that while the 2013 Pirates were made up of a really talented young core (McCutchen, Marte, and Cole, mainly), they were also driven quite a bit by veteran free agents and trade acquisitions. Presumably, the goal has always for this to eventually tip back in the other direction; the 2013 Pirates needed Burnett, Martin, Liriano, and Byrd to truly contend, but hopefully the 2015 or 2016 Pirates won't. By leaving the first base situation as it is and not working to replace Burnett with more than the likes of Edinson Volquez (this is subject to change, of course, since the winter isn't quite over yet and there's time for the Burnett and first base situations to change), the Pirates are pretty clearly hoping that 2014 is the year that they start to bridge that gap.