There will be a piece out tomorrow explaining why the Pittsburgh Pirates will be worse in 2014, but why not start off on the bright side with all of the reasons they will improve from last year's NLDS finish.
1. Full Season of Gerrit Cole
Cole made his major-league debut in late June against the San Francisco Giants and pitched well, however, he wasn't extraordinary and, more importantly, he wasn't striking batters out the way a pitcher with a 100 mph fastball and a 90 mph slider should be. As the season progressed, Cole learned how to throw a similar curveball as A.J. Burnett and his results improved immensely. During September, Cole pitched as if he were in line for a Cy Young Award, compiling a 1.69 ERA in 32.0 innings pitched with 39 strikeouts as opposed to just 24 hits and 10 walks. Opposing batters managed a measly .524 ops with an astronomically low .248 slugging percentage. To put that in perspective, Clint Barmes managed a .309 slugging percentage over the course of 2013. Cole then proceeded to pitch well against the Cardinals in the postseason.
While he is carrying plenty of weight on his young shoulders, if Cole can continue to pitch the way he was late in the 2013 season over the course of 30+ big league starts, the potential for regression from starters like Francisco Liriano or the absence of A.J. Burnett may not be felt.
2. Andrew Lambo
Simply put, Garrett Jones wasn't very good in 2013. His replacement, Justin Morneau, didn't hit a single home run as a member of the Bucs. Andrew Lambo is coming off a season where he hit 33 home runs between Altoona, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh while posting an OPS of .922 in the minors. As a small-market team, the Pirates can't simply pass up on a player coming through the minor leagues that posted the numbers Lambo did, so whether fans like it or not that he's the current option as the left-handed first baseman, he will remain in that spot when the season begins. But to improve on what Jones and Morneau provided the Bucs, he will simply have to be a league-average first baseman, and there is no reason to think he won't be.
3. Right Field
For most of last season, right field was a black hole in the Pirates lineup. While the same cast of characters that started last season as the primary right fielders, Jose Tabata and Travis Snider, will be returning in the same spots this season, there is reason to hope for improvement. First off, Tabata actually ended last season on a very strong note, hitting .312 with an OPS of .848 from August 1 through the end of the season. Tabata was routinely collecting multiple hits, doubles, triples and even the occasional home run. If Tabby can hit in a similar fashion through 2014, right field certainly won't be an issue. Next, Travis Snider, a former top prospect in the Blue Jays' system, played the majority of last season with a nagging toe injury that had a huge impact on his ability to hit for any power. Between April 8 and May 16, right around the time when the injury first started impacting his game, Snider was hitting .315 with a .390 OBP and a .828 OPS, compared to just .170, .230 and .521 after that date. If Snider is back at full health for the first time as a Pirate, he will post much more respectable numbers. Lastly, if both Tabata and Snider fall flat on their face, top prospect Gregory Polanco is just a matter of months away from the big leagues, and a major league executive recently told Peter Gammons that once Polanco joins Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, the Bucs will have the best outfield in the majors.
4. Jordy Mercer
Mercer should be much more comfortable handling the Pirates shortstop job after last season and will be putting in work to become better defensively. His defense improved as the season went on, and Mercer provides more at the plate than the average eight-hole hitter. Just as a couple players about to be mentioned, Mercer will be enjoying his age 27 season, which is considered fairly important for a baseball player.
5. Stars turning 27
It's a commonly accepted theory that baseball players enter their peak, and often have their greatest season at age 27. Who are two of the Pirate batters that will be 27 on opening day? McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, the two most important pieces in the lineup. McCutchen, coming off of an MVP season at 26, looks set to improve yet again. Alvarez, who tied for the NL lead in home runs, will be working to ensure he doesn't have a dismal start to the season for the fourth consecutive year.
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