2013 was a glorious season for the Pirates. They jumped out to a hot start as they had in 2012 and 2011, but this time they stayed strong, avoiding the summer meltdown that had plagued them the previous two seasons. Andrew McCutchen played like an MVP from wire-to-wire, Francisco Liriano revived his career, youngsters Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole arrived in full force, and the Pirates eclipsed .500 and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
While the real-life Pirates look like a prime regression candidate, there is a good amount of fantasy value on this team. McCutchen is a star and a rightful first-round pick. Marte, too, has become a high-value outfielder, capable of another 10-40 season with strong averages. Cole is on his way to becoming an ace, and could be there as soon as this year. Liriano carries some risk, but you don't have to break the bank to get him, and he remains a lethal strikeout pitcher when healthy. Pedro Alvarez is who he is, a 30-homer masher whom you will have to account for in batting average and OBP. It's not the most fruitful roster for the fantasy community, but it isn't barren of talent, either.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Starling Marte, LF
2. Neil Walker, 2B
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
5. Gaby Sanchez, 1B
6. Russell Martin, C
7. Jose Tabata, RF
8. Jordy Mercer/Clint Barmes, SS
1. Francisco Liriano
2. Gerrit Cole
3. Wandy Rodriguez
4. Charlie Morton
5. Jeff Locke/Edinson Volquez
Bullpen: Jason Grilli (closer), Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Vin Mazzaro, Justin Wilson, Jeanmar Gomez, Bryan Morris
Is Starling Marte primed for fantasy stardom? In his first full season in the majors, Marte was a big reason why the Pirates finally ended their playoff drought. He hit .280/.343/.441 with 12 homers, 41 steals and 83 runs, finishing the year as the No. 24 outfielder in fantasy baseball. There are a few red flags in his profile, however. First, Marte had a 24.4-percent strikeout rate and 4.4-percent walk rate. The fact that he was able to post a .343 OBP despite those numbers is rather curious, and a lot of that was probably due to his .363 BABIP. If he's going to approach or exceed last year's numbers, he'll likely have to put up another unusually high BABIP. We've seen that become part of certain players' skill sets, based on other traits they bring to the table. Can Marte be one of those guys?
Marte may have had a high BABIP, but his batted-ball rate, to a degree, supported it. He had a 21.6-percent line-drive rate, a 50.8-percent ground-ball rate -- which is especially advantageous for a guy with his speed -- and a 9.9-percent infield-hit rate. He popped out just three times in 566 plate appearances. Add it all up, and it was good for a .369 xBABIP. Marte is always going to leg out his fair share of infield hits. As long as he can continue to total batted-ball rates like he did in 2013, we can expect his BABIP to be higher than the average player.
Is the front end of this rotation as good as advertised? After looking like he may never come back, the Francisco Liriano of old excelled for the Pirates last year. The lefty went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA, 2.92 FIP and 3.12 xFIP. The lack of variations suggests that his ERA total was legit. He struck out 163 batters in 161 innings while surrendering just nine home runs.
Top prospect Gerrit Cole joined him in the rotation in June, and immediately showed why many believe he can be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for a long time. In 117.1 innings across 19 starts, the rookie racked up a 3.22 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 3.14 xFIP, 1.17 WHIP and 100 strikeouts. Cole spent just half a season in the majors last year, but he's already a darling of the fantasy community. He's the No. 21 starting pitcher by consensus industry rank on FantasyPros, ahead of fellow youngsters Alex Cobb, Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran.
If the Pirates are to get back to the playoffs this year, Liriano and Cole will have to be every bit as good, if not better, than they were last season. So can they be?
Let's start with Liriano. The best news here is that his average fastball last year was 93 mph. While that's not quite the heights he reached while disintegrating bats with the Twins, the fact that he was able to sit at 93 suggests that his arm is sound. Moreover, his slider was as biting as ever, as he saved 2.27 runs per 100 sliders thrown according to Fangraphs, giving him the fifth most-effective slider in the league. The difference in his fastball and changeup velocity could be greater, but he still ranked 25th in terms of runs saved with his change. Liriano is always going to be an injury risk, but that's baked into his No. 35 ranking among starting pitchers. That's more than a fair price for a guy with top-20 upside.
Cole features a traditional four-pitch arsenal, headlined by a fastball that averaged 96.1 mph last year and a curveball that has drawn comparisons to Adam Wainwright's. At 23 years old, there's really nowhere for him to go but up. His K/9 was just 7.67 last year, and he generated just a 9.2-percent swinging-strike rate and 30.5-percent O-swing rate (the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone hitters chase). That speaks to secondary pitches that could use a little sharpening. Still, with the repertoire he has in place, Cole deserves to be drafted as a top-25 starter.
And what about the guy who could join Liriano and Cole this year? Prospect junkies everywhere know Jameson Taillon's name, and the masses will likely know his name before the 2014 season is up. Taillon, the No. 16 prospect according to MLB.com, is expected to begin the year at Triple-A Indianapolis. Chances are he'll be up in the bigs before long, and that makes him a commodity worth targeting late in most mixed leagues.
Taillon amassed a 3.67 ERA, 1.34 WHIP and 106 strikeouts in 110.1 innings at Double-A Altoona last year. He followed that up with a 37-inning stint at Indianapolis, posting a 3.89 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 37 strikeouts. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and his breaking ball has the bite of a curve. Scouts believe his change can develop into a plus-pitch at the major league level, as well. Keep an eye on Taillon as he gets going in Indy this year. Last season's numbers in the minors did leave the Pirates wanting a bit, and given his youth and the team's relative depth in the rotation, they won't rush him unless he forces the issue. If he starts passing bats with regularity, he could make an immediate impact in mixed leagues. If your roster is deep enough to stash him, he's someone to consider on draft day.
Gaby Sanchez, 1B -- Sanchez has hit just 14 homers in the last two seasons combined, but he had 19 apiece with the Marlins in 2010 and 2011. He has always had that mid-level power that would be relevant with decent averages. Given a walk rate that was up at 13.8 percent last year and reached double digits in 2011, as well, he's especially relevant in deeper mixed leagues that use OBP.
Jason Grilli, RP -- We know that a handful of Opening Day closers will go bust, and Grilli is as good a bet as any to suffer that fate. He's 37 years old, has made 118 appearances the last two seasons, and is coming off a forearm strain that cost him most of July and all of August. In 7.2 September innings last year, he had a 4.70 ERA and hitters had a .335/.412/.516 slash against him.
Gerrit Cole, SP -- Cole already experienced a mini-breakout as a rookie, and everything is in place for him to get all the way there in his second year in the league. He has the stuff, repertoire and makeup of a true ace. You won't be able to get him at a discount, but you won't be disappointed in the draft-day price as you watch him jump up a tier of pitchers in 2014.
NL-only guys to know
Russell Martin, C -- He's going to kill your rates, but he has belted 18, 21 and 15 home runs the last three seasons. There is a surprising number of options for NL-only leaguers at catcher, but a handful of owners will have to dumpster dive at the position. Martin is one of those guys in the 10-to-12 range that at least brings something concrete to his owners.
Jose Tabata, OF -- Tabata hit .282/.342/.429 in 341 plate appearances last year. He had just six homers and three steals, and if the promising speed he flashed earlier in his career does not manifest itself in stolen bases, he doesn't have a ton of value for fantasy owners. He's a guy worth targeting later on in NL-only leagues, but don't be married to starting him in your lineup.
Charlie Morton, SP -- Morton had a 3.26 ERA and 3.60 FIP in 116 innings with the Pirates last year. He'll start the year in the rotation slotted behind Liriano and Cole, and while he doesn't offer a ton of strikeout upside, he doesn't walk very many batters or give up a ton of home runs. That should allow him to keep his rates in check, making him a decent backend rotation guy for NL-only owners.