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The Strike Zone

2014 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

Young hurler Gerrit Cole and the Pirates will aim for a second straight playoff berth. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) Young hurler Gerrit Cole and the Pirates aim for a second straight playoff berth. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 14: The Pittsburgh Pirates. You can find previews for teams 30 through 15 here.

2013 Record and Finish: 94-68, second place in NL Central (fifth overall); lost in NLDS to St. Louis

2014 Projected Record: 83-79, third place in NL Central

The Case For

Last season, the Pirates finally broke a two-decade streak of sub-.500 futility, as the organization's stockpile of young talent augmented by notable salvage jobs (Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jason Grilli) meshed with its front office's analytical bent. The result was a pitching-and-defense driven team that ranked second in the league in run prevention (3.56 per game) and third in Defensive Runs Saved (+43) while also featuring NL MVP Andrew McCutchen as its lineup centerpiece. Burnett may be gone, but the cast is otherwise largely unchanged. Figure that a full season of top-of-the-rotation talent Gerrit Cole supplemented by in-season arrivals of starter Jameson Taillon and outfielder Gregory Polanco — both top-25 prospects according to Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America — should offset the otherwise static roster, and that the bullpen should again be a key factor in easing the starters' workload and shortening games, and you have a team that should contend again.

The Case Against

That the cast is largely unchanged suggests that the Pirates did little to address their lineup's most pressing needs at first base and rightfield — the positions they shored up last August via the acquisitions of the since-departed Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd — or to account for the possibility of regression from their core. For the near term, their solutions seem flimsy; first base appears to involve a platoon featuring Gaby Sanchez and 30-year-old former prospect Travis Ishikawa (who spent all of 2013 in Triple-A), and rightfield will feature some combination of Jose Tabata and perpetual disappointment Travis Snider.

2014 Fantasy baseball team preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

X-Factor: Ray Searage

It's no coincidence that pitchers such as Burnett, Liriano, Grilli, Mark Melancon and Charlie Morton have turned their careers around in Pittsburgh under Searage, the Pirates' pitching coach for the past three seasons. His mechanical tweaks of Lirano's delivery allowed the mercurial southpaw to improve his command and put together his best season since 2010 (3.02 ERA, 9.1 strikeouts per nine and a 2.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Thanks to Searage's tutelage and emphasis on using two-seam fastballs, the Bucs had the majors' highest groundball rate and lowest home run rate (see below). Searage did a great job of shepherding Cole through uncharted territory as far as workload last year; the 23-year-old phenom threw 185 1/3 innings in the minors and majors — 53 1/3 more than in 2012 — and still had enough gas to give the team two strong postseason efforts. He'll have to be on his toes to keep Liriano, Cole and the rest of the pitchers in line, but his track record provides reason for optimism.

Number To Know: 52.5 percent

That's the 2013 Pirates' groundball rate, a figure that represented the majors' highest team mark since at least 2002, when Baseball Info Solutions began tracking the data, and only the second above 50 percent in that span (the 2005 Cardinals were first). Morton (62.9 percent) had the highest individual rate among pitchers with at least 100 innings, and Burnett, Jeff Locke, Liriano and Cole — in other words, every qualifying Pirate — all ranked among the top-25. The best thing about groundballs is that they're not home runs, and indeed, the team's 0.62 homers per nine is the second-best mark of the Wild Card era. The second-best thing about grounders is that they played right into the hands of the organization's analytically-driven commitment to defensive shifts. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Pirates shifted on 494 balls in play, the majors' sixth-highest total; among NL clubs, only the Brewers (538) had more. That helped the team improve by 68 runs over the year before (according to DRS) and rank fourth in the league in defensive efficiency (.699).

Scout's Takes

Most overrated: Francisco Liriano.

"He's never won 15 games or thrown 200 innings in the majors, and has a history of not being healthy. Right now, he's their number one starter."

Most underrated: Neil Walker.

"Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte are the big names, but Walker's a solid all-around player. He's a switch-hitting second baseman who's got a little bit of power, he hits good pitching, moves runners over, and is a steady fielder."

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