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Fantasy baseball 2013 team previews: Pittsburgh Pirates

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Though he struck out 180 times last season, the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez also hit a career-high 30 homers.

Fantasy baseball 2013 draft prep central: Rankings, position primers and much more

The dream officially ended around the 150th game of the season, but the writing was on the wall a few weeks earlier. There would have been some symmetry to the Pirates finally notching a winning season 20 years after their last one, a year in which they went 96-66 and lost in the NLCS to the Braves. At one point, it appeared a foregone conclusion. On Aug. 6, the Pirates were 62-46. From that point forward, they could have gone 20-34 the rest of the way and finished the season above .500. It was not to be. They went 17-37.

It was not a complete loss, though. Andrew McCutchen established himself as a real-life and fantasy star. Pedro Alvarez got back to his slugging ways. A.J. Burnett was reborn, and along with Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald gives the Pirates a respectable rotation. All three should be owned in fantasy leagues this year, as they were last year. What's more, MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo lists Pirates propects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon as his Nos. 5 and 6 right-handed pitching prospects in all of baseball. The Pirates will have to go at least 21 years between winning seasons, but once they break that ignominious streak, they won't have to wait too long to get their second winning record since 1992.

For strictly fantasy purposes, the lone early- or mid-round pick on the team is McCutchen. After he goes, it will be a long time until another Pirates' name is called. Not quite 20 years, but long nonetheless.

Projected roster

Lineup:

1. Starling Marte, LF 2. Neil Walker, 2B 3. Andrew McCutchen, CF 4. Pedro Alvarez, 3B 5. Garrett Jones, 1B 6. Travis Snider, RF 7. Russell Martin, C 8. Clint Barmes, SS

Starting rotation:

1. James McDonald 2. A.J. Burnett 3. Wandy Rodriguez 4. Jeff Locke 5. Kyle McPherson

Others: Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Jameson Taillon

Bullpen: Jason Grilli (closer), Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Bryan Morris, Zack Stewart

Key questions

? Has Pedro Alvarez earned fantasy owners' trust? In the span of three seasons, Alvarez has beaten a path from mashing prospect to categorical bust and then all the way back. The third baseman answered his sophomore flop of 2011 with a 30-homer season last year. How impressive of a power hitter was he? His .223 isolated slugging percentage had him inside the top 25 and ahead of guys like Prince Fielder, Buster Posey, Adam Jones and Yoenis Cespedes.

Count me among the writers buying Alvarez's breakout campaign. There's no ignoring his dreadful 2011 season, but we can explain it away with one simple statistic. His ground-ball rate that year was 55.2 percent. In 2010, it was 45.7 percent. Last year, it was 46.8 percent. For one reason or another, Alvarez hit a ton of ground balls in 2011, something he did not do in either of his two other seasons in the majors. Other than ground-ball rate, his peripherals have remained flat during his three-year career. He has posted walk rates of 9.6 percent, 9.2 percent and 9.7 percent. His strikeout rates have been 30.8 percent, 30.5 percent and 30.7 percent. As long as we're willing to write off 2011 as an anomaly in which he rolled over everything for some reason, we should believe in his 2012 performance. In addition, this is Alvarez's age-26 season, meaning he is just entering what should be his prime. You'll likely have to deal with some unseemly rates, but another 30-homer year with near 100 RBI is in the offing. Those numbers aren't as easy to come by at third as they have been in years past.

? So you're buying Alvarez's resurgence. But what about A.J. Burnett's? After six consecutive years in the brutal AL East, Burnett found the NL Central to his liking. He had arguably the best season of his career at age 35, going 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 180 strikeouts in 202.1 innings. His 3.40 xFIP was the best of his career, and his 56.9-percent ground-ball rate was his second best total in his 13 years in the majors.

Burnett didn't change anything in his repertoire. He still used just three pitches -- fastball, curveball (or knuckle-curve) and changeup -- and he used them all at about the same rates he always has. His strand rate of 74.1 percent and BABIP of .294 might be friendly numbers, but they don't suggest any extremely good luck. No, it appears Burnett won the "Ted Lilly Memorial Award," given to the pitcher whose stats dramatically improve without any explanation other than moving to the National League from the American League. Given that he's 36 years old, it might be foolish of us to not expect at least some regression, but so long as his velocity doesn't fall off a cliff this year, Burnett should be able to post numbers similar to the ones he had in 2012.

? Is Starling Marte ready to be a fantasy starter? Marte earned a promotion last July after hitting .286/.347/.500 with 12 homers, 21 doubles, 13 triples and 21 steals in 99 games with Triple-A Indianapolis. He didn't look overmatched for a 23-year-old getting his first run in the majors, hitting .257/.300/.437 with five homers and nine additional extra-base hits in 182 plate appearances. He also added 12 steals.

Marte will start the year as Pittsburgh's everyday left fielder, meaning he should push north of 500 at-bats, especially if manager Clint Hurdle leads him off. In every professional season in which Marte has gone to the plate at least 200 times, he has stolen at least 21 bases. He's likely to be one of the cheapest sources of speed in drafts this year, and could swipe upward of 30 bags. Throw in what appears to be blooming power, something that should appear right about now if he has it, and Marte could be a late-round flier who offers a 15/30, while scoring somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 runs. Show me another late-round flier with that sort of potential. Unless you're in a deep league, you might not want to count on Marte as a starter right off the bat, but odds are he'll develop into one in even 12-team leagues as the season progresses.

Sleeper

Starling Marte: This one should be fresh in your head. At just 24, there's plenty of room for him to get better right away in his first full year in the majors. I'm betting on 15 homers and 30 steals out of the Pirates' left fielder.

Bust

James McDonald: Forget about the All-Star Game snub and remember the pitcher who completely fell apart down the stretch. McDonald's walk rate nearly doubled to 13.2 percent after the All-Star break, his strikeout rate fell by more than one-fourth and opposing hitters posted a ridiculous .389 wOBA against him. After getting incredibly lucky in the first half, as evidenced by a .242 BABIP and 78.6-percent strand rate, luck flipped against him. His 6.37 FIP in the second half was more reflective of how he had pitched on balance for the season. Stay away this year.

Breakout

Jason Grilli: The Pirates' young pitchers probably won't log enough time in the majors to be termed a breakout, and McCutchen and Alvarez have already broken into the fantasy mainstream. That leaves us with Grilli, the team's no-name closer. He fanned an impressive 90 batters in just 58.2 innings while posting a 2.80 FIP a year ago. He should be one of the last closers off the board, but numbers like that portend of top-five potential.

NL-only guys to know

Russell Martin: Yeah, he's uninspiring, but you need to have a catcher, right? If you can't have one of the few studs, you might as well get one who can give you about 15 homers.

Garrett Jones: Like Martin, he's not the most exciting player in the world, but 20 homers is likely his floor. You could do worse at first base if you miss out on the first few tiers.

Gerrit Cole: He could make some noise with the major league team at some point this season, but remember that he has started exactly one game above the Double-A level. Keep your eye on him as the season develops.

Jameson Taillon: Similar to Cole, but a step or two back, Taillon has made just three starts above Single-A. In those three starts at Double-A Altoona, though, he went 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 17 innings.

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