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Experts say Pirates will buck regression trend, thanks to pitching

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 10:36 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco works out with Andrew McCutchen at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Polanco was reassigned to minor league camp on Friday.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers against the Rays on Saturday, March 8, 2014, at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte makes a running catch during drills at spring training on February 18, 2014 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte sits in the dugout between innings during a game against the Phillies on Sunday, March 16, 2014, at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte signs autographs before a game against the Blue Jays Wednesday, March 5, 2014, at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte prepares to take batting practice Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker is greeted by Josh Harrison after hitting a solo homer during the seventh inning against the Phillies Sunday, March 16, 2014, at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — In the past decade, at least one team has endured a significant dropoff the year after it made the playoffs.

The San Francisco Giants won 86 games in 2011, then amassed 94 victories and won the World Series in 2012. Last season, they managed 76 wins and finished fourth in the National League West.

That kind of setback doesn't always stop a team from making it back to the postseason. In 2005, the St. Louis Cardinals led the majors with 100 wins and ran away with the NL Central title. Although they won 17 fewer games in 2006, the Cardinals still held off the Houston Astros for the division crown.

After winning 94 games and advancing to the NL Division Series last season, are the Pirates candidates for regression this season?

“No, I don't think that applies here,” said Jim Duquette, a former front office executive with the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles. “They have a lot of pitching depth. Is the defense better? Check mark there. And I think there's plenty of offense now.”

Not everyone agrees. Using its Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test rating system, Baseball Prospectus predicted the Pirates will go 78-84 and finish fourth in the NL Central.

Developed a dozen years ago by Nate Silver, the founder and editor-in-chief of fivethirtyeight.com, an analysis site owned by ESPN, PECOTA has proven to be a reliable predictor of player performance — forecasting who will have a breakout season, who will improve and who will decline.

Yet PECOTA is neither perfect nor omniscient. A player's performance over a season can be influenced by a number of unpredictable factors, such as injuries, defensive shifts, bad weather and even bad moods.

Last year, PECOTA projected the Pirates would finish 79-83 and tied with Milwaukee for third place in the division.

Yahoo and Sports Xchange also have predicted the Pirates will not make it back to the playoffs this season.

Joe Lemire of SI.com disagreed, writing: “Pittsburgh's ground ball-heavy pitching staff will still play to its favor, and the likely midseason arrivals of outfielder Gregory Polanco and right-hander Jameson Taillon will keep the Pirates churning along.”

The Sporting News picked the Pirates to finish over their betting line of 84 12 wins.

“We've got enough guys on the right side of their prime that, as an aggregate, we should continue to move forward,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We've got to do everything in our power each day to get a little bit better. If we continue to take that approach, we'll look up in September and find ourselves in a pretty good position. We'll continue to look to add to it, but we feel good about this group.”

Some might say Huntington backed that belief with inaction. Despite losing free agents A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, the Pirates made no splashy player moves in the offseason.

“You might look at them and wonder, ‘Didn't they want to do something to put them over the hump?' ” MLB Network analyst Eric Byrnes said. “Quite frankly, they don't have any holes. They have depth in the rotation. I can understand why they didn't go crazy this offseason.”

The Pirates' biggest acquisition was right-hander Edinson Volquez, who got a $5 million deal and a chance to win the No. 5 starter job. Volquez has battled high ERAs and walk rates and arguably has been one of the worst pitchers in the majors over the past five seasons.

Yet even without Burnett, the Pirates should enter this season with a stronger rotation than they had at the start of 2013. On Opening Day last year, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton were on the disabled list, and James McDonald and Jonathan Sanchez were in the rotation.

“A healthy Charlie Morton and Francisco Liriano and an experienced Gerrit Cole is a pretty good foundation (for 2014),” Huntington said. “We've got a nice core to build around.”

Liriano was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year — a nice honor, but it also means Liriano had an awful season in 2012 (6-12, 5.34 ERA). The left-hander also was subpar in 2011 (9-10, 5.09), solid in 2010 (14-10, 3.62) and terrible in 2009 (5-13, 5.80). The direction he takes this season will affect the entire rotation.

“The key is Liriano,” said Al Leiter, who pitched 19 seasons in the majors. “Eventually, Gerrit will be the ace, but Liriano has to pitch the way he did last year just to alleviate the pressure.”

Byrnes also believes pitching will be pivotal, but he sees the bullpen as the difference maker. It's a lesson he learned while playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who went from 90 wins and a first-place finish in 2007 to 82 wins and also-ran status a year later.

“The big difference (for Arizona) in 2007 was the bullpen was lights out,” Byrnes said. “When you talk about the Pirates' success, look at how crucial that bullpen was last year.”

The Pirates bullpen led the NL in saves (55) and save percentage (70.0) in 2013 and ranked second in ERA (2.89), WHIP (1.17) and opponents' OPS (.621). It's also a big reason the team had a plus-6 differential in one-run games.

“Will the Pirates regress this year? Position player-wise, they're the same,” Byrnes said. “They're going to put up some runs, but they don't have any sort of juggernaut offense. Their starting pitching is good. The X-factor becomes the bullpen. I realize it's the same cast of characters, but they need to have big years. If they don't, I don't think the Pirates are good enough in other areas to compensate for it.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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