The Pittsburgh Pirates ended two decades of losing in 2013, winning 94 games and taking the St. Louis Cardinals to the limit in the NL division series. Now the club gets to deal with something that has been foreign to them since 1992: heightened expectations. Five things to know as reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and the rest of the Pirates start spring training:
PLUGGING AWAY: The Pirates’ needs as they begin camp look an awful lot like the needs they had after Game 5 loss to St. Louis that ended their season. First base and right field remain a question mark after the team opted to not dive too deep into its pockets. Travis Snider and Jose Tabata will likely get a chance to grab the starting job in right, likely placeholders until highly touted prospect Gregor Polanco is ready for the majors. Gaby Sanchez and Andrew Lambo could platoon at first, though Huntington cautioned the team is not “settling” at those positions and the quest for smart upgrades remains in play.
ENIGMATIC EDINSON: The Pirates pulled off one of the biggest coups in free agency a year ago with left-handed Francisco Liriano, who revived his career with a sterling 16-8 record, earning some Cy Young votes in the process. They’re hoping pitching coach Ray Searage can find the same magic with Edinson Volquez, a former All-Star turned journeyman who posted an ugly 6.01 ERA with the Padres last year before getting released.
REPLACING A.J.: A.J. Burnett excelled last season despite a 10-11 record, posting a 3.30 ERA in 30 starts and ranking fifth in the NL with 209 strikeouts. At one point late last year, he said he planned to either return to the Pirates or retire. This week, the 37-year-old righty instead joined the Phillies. Filling his spot at the top of the rotation won’t be easy, and now Pittsburgh needs another starter — Jeff Locke and Brandon Cumpton will compete for the extra spot, among others.
CUTCH’S ENCORE: Andrew McCutchen solidified himself as a superstar and one of the best players in the game in 2013, when he won the first MVP by a Pirate since Barry Bonds was patrolling the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium. The 27-year-old remains one of the better bargains in baseball, with a salary of just $7.25 million this season. He began embracing his role as a leader in the clubhouse and his daily excellence seemed to rub off on teammates like left fielder Starling Marte. The spotlight will be white-hot on McCutchen this season. How he responds to the added pressure of being the face of a franchise that has finally shed its status of a loser will go a long way to determining how the Pirates adjust to move forward in 2014.
COLE TRAIN: Maybe the biggest reason the Pirates declined to offer A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer of $14.1 million over the winter is because they don’t necessarily feel they needed Burnett to be the team’s No. 1 starter. Second-year pitcher Gerrit Cole appears ready to inherit that mantle at the age of 23. It was Cole, not Burnett, who started Game 5 against St. Louis. It was Cole, not Burnett who adjusted on the fly. Cole went a perfect 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in September and October as he learned to pair a changeup with a fastball that tops out in the high-90s.