Team MVP: Andrew McCutchen
McCutchen, growing older and entering his prime seasons, finally experienced an outbreak in the power department that took him from a nice young player to one of the elite, up the middle franchise guys. His 158 wRC+ ranked second among qualified Center Fielders (to Mike Trout), and the 31 home runs were by far a career high. His home runs have steadily increased, from 12 and 16 in his first two seasons to 23 and 31 in the two most recent years. The speed, or tendency to run, has declined, but if that is truly in exchange for 25-35 home runs, not a problem at all. Full disclosure: I believe that the power, rather than continue growth, will be closer to 25 home runs consistently. However, I hope he proves me wrong.
Team Cy Young: A.J. Burnett
A popular punchline in recent years due to the monstrous contract given to him by the Yankees, Burnett found a bit of redemption in his 2012 performance. The 36 year old finished 2012 with a 3.51 ERA, and the move out of Yankee Stadium worked wonders, as he saw his HR/FB% drop from 17% to 12.7%. That, combined with his best walk rate since the 2006 season, led to Burnett’s National League success. He is well past his prime, so Pittsburgh will cross its fingers in hopes of another season of 200+ innings and >= +3 WAR.
Fresh Face with Impact: Russell Martin
Pittsburgh catchers in 2012 combined for +1.3 WAR and an 86 wRC+, which is around middle of the pack for catchers. Martin was the biggest name that Pittsburgh brought in over the winter, and the combination of he and Michael McKenry should provide some pop and improved offensive output from the catcher spot. The declining skills of Martin may have been covered up by power playing up in Yankee Stadium for the past two seasons, but a lot can be said for having two solid catchers on the roster.
Impact Prospect: Gerrit Cole
Cole fills out, in the best way possible, all of the stereotypical power RHSP attributes. He is 6’4”, 220 pounds, and throws absolute fuel, sitting in the mid to upper 90s. He will feature a four pitch repertoire when he starts his career in Pittsburgh sometime in 2013, and at some point early in the AAA season, I believe things are going to click for him and he is going to dominate. He has as good a chance of any current pitching prospect to become a true ace, and we may start to see flashes of that beginning in the middle of this year. Both Cole and Jameson Taillon have left scouts yearning for a little bit more, and when each of them finds it with command and sequencing, it will be fun to watch.
Biggest Sleeper or Breakout Candidate: Mark Melancon
Melancon’s 2012 season, namely the early season blow ups when fans in Boston first realized what they had gotten into with rotation changes and Bobby V running the show, will be remembered as more disastrous than it actually was. Melancon is a solid back of the bullpen arm, there is no way the home run bug will bite him as often this season, and a move back to the National League always helps. If Jason Grilli is injured or falters, Melancon is first in line to take over the 9th inning responsibilities.
To 2013 and Beyond:
When will the playoff drought end? Even with recent strides and the emergence of a star in McCutchen, the Pirates finished fourth in the Central last season, 4 games below .500. With the Cardinals and Reds set to be great and the Cubs rebuilding efforts going well, the time to strike is… now. Unfortunately, the two star pitching prospects need a bit more minor league seasoning, and the current MLB talent is not likely to produce a division winner.
McCutchen is entering only his age 26 season, so the prime could either last a while or still be on the way. This means that the window is not totally closed. The two ace RHPs will be here in 2013 and likely 2014, and with more shrewd roster moves (Martin, Burnett Wandy), the Pirates will consistently compete. The biggest obstacle is the talent of other teams in the division.
Starling Marte – LF
Garrett Jones – RF
Andrew McCutchen – CF
Pedro Alvarez – 3B
Gaby Sanchez – 1B
Neil Walker – 2B
Russell Martin – C
Clint Barmes – SS