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Improved roster depth could drive Pirates' fortunes deep into season

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers against the Brewers during the first inning Thursday, May 16, 2013, at PNC Park.

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Monday, May 20, 2013, 11:06 p.m.
 

Just beyond the season's quarter pole, the Pirates are on pace to win 96 games. The club is off to its best start since 1992, which marked the last time the Pirates won more games than they lost.

The club has teased before — it faded down the stretch in each of the past two seasons — but might this year different? Is this season's start sustainable?

There is reason to believe this year could be different. The principle reason to believe another late-summer collapse can be avoided is rooted in depth.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said this team has the deepest lineup of his tenure. Starling Marte has developed into a dynamic presence atop the lineup. Russell Martin has given the team rare punch at catcher. The club also added Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez before last season's trade deadline, allowing Hurdle to strengthen lineups via platoons.

“Our lineup is extended better than it's ever been before,” Hurdle said. “We have a guy up top that is doing some fantastic things in setting innings up and a couple in the middle driving in runs. So you have to have that in play.”

Unlike a year ago when center fielder Andrew McCutchen carried the lineup for weeks at a time, offensive production has been distributed evenly. And if McCutchen recaptures his form of last season when he was an MVP candidate — he has three straight multi-hit games, raising his average to .281 — the offense has the potential to become more dynamic.

“We have more pieces to the puzzle; it's something we didn't have on a consistent basis last year,” McCutchen said. “We have a catcher who can hit for power and average, a leadoff guy who can lead off, get on base and score runs. They are two things we didn't have last year.”

Perhaps more important than the lineup depth are the starting pitching options the Pirates have gathered to weather a 162-game season.

The Pirates begin their series versus the Cubs on Tuesday tied with Arizona for second in the NL in ERA (3.35), trailing only St. Louis (3.14).

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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