The Pittsburgh Pirates won 94 games last season -- the third-most in the National League. They made their first playoff appearance since 1992, losing in the NLDS to the Cardinals in five games.
The Pirates return nearly all of the players from last year's team -- with a few tweaks here and there -- and enter 2014 with a wide array of interesting Fantasy options.
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Fantasy owners have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Pittsburgh's core of 2013 MVP Andrew McCutchen (across-the-board production from the first-round pick), Pedro Alvarez (lots of homers, not a great average), and Neil Walker (solid but unspectacular stats from the middle infield spot). And Starling Marte delivered on his prospect promise last year, hitting .280 with 12 home runs and 41 steals in 135 games. He could show gains in power and batting average in 2014, while improving his stolen base rate (he was caught stealing 15 times in 2013).
The fun with the Pirates (Fantasy-wise) will likely come from four fringe-y players, who are basically fighting for two spots (or possibly platoon roles), and could all have an argument for some dollars being thrown their way in an NL-only auction:
• Gaby Sanchez (first base), a 2011 All-Star, hit .254 with seven home runs over 264 at-bats in 2013. He's the only player on the roster with significant time at first base -- which is a fairly big deal, considering the Pirates need solid defense at first (despite a -0.9 dWAR from Sanchez), with the pitchers having induced the most groundouts in the majors last season.
• Andrew Lambo (first base/outfield), a 6'3", 220-pound 25-year-old, hit .282 with 32 home runs over 444 at-bats in the minors last season, but hit just .233 with a home run over 30 at-bats with the Pirates. Lambo has played mainly as a corner outfielder throughout his career, but saw some first base action in the Venezuelan Winter League and has 41 appearances there in the minors; he's expected to push Sanchez for the first base job.
• Jose Tabata (outfield) hit .282 with six home runs in 308 at-bats last year -- the fourth straight season in which he had between 305 and 405 at-bats. A former top prospect, Tabata seems to have settled into a part-time groove with Pittsburgh.
• Travis Snider (outfield), another former top prospect, struggled through injury on his way to a .215 average last season. The injury turned out to be far more significant than the "toe" that accompanied his name for the latter half of the season in reports -- he had surgery after the season to remove bones from his left foot.
With Garrett Jones gone (to the Marlins), there are at-bats to be snagged here. Barring any moves, Sanchez will likely win the job at first base, while a healthy Snider makes for an interesting sleeper in right field. However, Gregory Polanco's huge offseason (winning MVP of the Domincan Winter League) and minor league progression (more on that below) could have him up in the majors by mid-June. When the dust settles, it may be Polanco who has the most value in this series of mini-battles.
As for pitching, the rotation could again end up being one of the best in baseball., even with A.J. Burnett likely retiring. Led by Francisco Liriano (16 wins, 3.02 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 9.1 K/9) and Gerrit Cole (10 wins, 3.22 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 7.7 K/9), the Pirates produced the third-best ERA (3.26) in the majors last season. If Wandy Rodriguez can remain healthy, and Charlie Morton can continue his recent success (3.75 ERA in 58 starts over the last three seasons), the season may come down to the work the team's pitching coach -- underrated genius Ray Searage -- can do on Edinson Volquez. And even if something goes awry with one or two starters, the Pirates boast plenty of depth to fill holes. Top prospect Jameson Taillon will almost certainly make his major league debut at some point in 2014. And both Jeff Locke (3.52 ERA and 10 wins over 30 starts last season) and Jeanmar Gomez (2.80 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in eight games started) will be waiting in the wings.
The bullpen features one of the game's best closers -- Jason Grilli -- and an excellent setup man/backup closer in Mark Melancon. Grilli strained a flexor in his forearm in late July and didn't return until early September, where he gave up four runs over his first four games, then promptly righted the ship, saving three games and giving up just five hits and no runs over his next five appearances. He should be clear of injury concerns heading into 2014.
The Pirates have no players in the projected batting order over the age of 30. And with an underrated pitching staff and a top-line bullpen, there should be plenty of Fantasy value on this roster in 2014.
Bounceback candidate ... Edinson Volquez, starting pitcher
Just from looking at his stats, Volquez doesn't come across as the best Fantasy option for 2014 -- his WHIP hasn't dipped below 1.45 since 2009, his strikeout rate has tumbled from 9.6 in 2010 to just 7.5 in 2013, and he has somehow managed to produce exactly a 5.71 ERA in two of the last three seasons. But Volquez is now under the tutelage of Ray Searage, who turned around the fortunes of Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jeanmar Gomez, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, and Paul Maholm -- among others.
But even without Searage, Volquez has an argument for improvement. His perennially low xFIP was 4.07 last season, fueled by a low strand rate (64.5 percent) and above-average BABIP (.325). And his walk rate (4.1) -- while one of the highest in the majors -- was the second-lowest of his career. It's not exactly a recipe for success, but Searage has a track record of being able to fix pitchers who have shown some degree of success in the past, and could turn Volquez into a Fantasy-relevant starter once again.
Under appreciated ... Charlie Morton, starting pitcher
It's easy to look at the Pirates' projected rotation and think that Jameson Taillon -- when he's ready for the call-up (probably in mid-June) -- will take Morton's spot. But this may not be the case. Morton, 30, just signed a three-year extension with the team. He has a 3.75 ERA over the last three seasons, and these were all interrupted by injury: 2011 hip surgery (for a torn labrum) and June 2012 Tommy John surgery. If you look at what he was able to do in 2013, under the guidance of Searage and clear of the elbow and hip issues, we get a clearer picture of what Morton is capable of -- a 3.26 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 116 innings pitched. His 6.6 K/9 is probably the ceiling for strikeout potential, but a full, healthy season from Morton could result in some Mark Buehrle-type value -- a steady, decent ratio with a handful of strikeouts, able to support a fourth or fifth spot in an NL-only rotation, with some intermittent use as a two-start waiver add in mixed leagues.
Impact prospect ... Gregory Polanco, outfield
There's a case to be made here for Taillon as the impact prospect, but Polanco could be the more intriguing of the two. The Dominican Winter League MVP, Polanco hit .331, with five home runs and seven steals over 166 at-bats. He walked 28 times and had just 34 strikeouts. This was coming off a season which saw Polanco play in 127 minor league games across three levels, finishing with a .285 average, 12 home runs, and 38 steals. Last year was Polanco's second straight season with 12 or more home runs and 35 or more steals. And while he is a center fielder by trade, he's played about 33 percent of his games in right field, where he'd likely land if he's called up to Pittsburgh this season. The right field spot is ripe for the taking, especially if Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, and Andrew Lambo fail to make an impression over the first few months. Polanco, 22, could not only complete one of the more exciting outfields in all of baseball, but he'd provide another left-handed bat in the lineup. He's still an NL-only play, but is a great add in dynasty leagues, with similar upside to Marte.
Jameson Taillon has been overshadowed throughout his career (he was picked right after Bryce Harper in the 2010 draft and had Gerrit Cole getting much of the attention in the minors), but he has been a top 20 prospect (according to Baseball America) in each of the last three seasons, and should find his way to the Pirates by mid-June, in a manner similar to Cole's arrival after the Super-2 deadline in 2013. ... Austin Meadows hit .316 with seven home runs and three steals in 48 Rookie-level games last year. He was the 13th overall pick for the Pirates in the 2013 draft. He has a few seasons in the minors ahead of him, but dynasty leaguers should take note. ... Josh Bell hit .279 with 37 doubles and 13 home runs in Class-A last season. The 21-year-old is, like Meadows, at least two seasons away, but has plenty of potential to make an eventual impact in the majors. ... Tyler Glasnow struck out 164 batters in 111 1/3 innings last season, also in Class-A. He posted a 2.18 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. With the young, stacked rotation, the Pirates have the luxury of taking their time with Glasnow, who -- according to Baseball America -- has the best fastball among Pirates prospects. ... And just for the sake of an update, the two pitchers the Pirates signed from the Indian reality show, Million Dollar Arm -- Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel -- are no longer with the organization. Patel lasted two seasons in the minors and Singh last pitched in 2012, making 39 appearances with a 3.00 ERA and 8.1 K/9.