Each year, it seems one team defies all its odds and makes a run for a postseason berth.
The Oakland Athletics turned many heads last year by coming out of nowhere to capture the AL West divisional crown from the likes of the powerhouse teams of the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
This year, the NL Central will feature the always-competitive St. Louis Cardinals and the retooled Cincinnati Reds, the defending division champions. But the Pittsburgh Pirates are shaping up to be this season’s version of the A’s.
The Pirates have had 20 consecutive losing seasons dating back to their last playoff appearance in 1992. Barry Bonds was the star player of that team with Jim Leyland as the manager.
Despite the perennial losing, Pittsburgh took significant strides forward last season. The team was actually in the hunt for most of the year, even being 16 games over .500 in August.
But the team faded down the stretch to finish with another losing season. Still, the 79 wins was the highest total in the past 15 years.
Heading into the season, the team really only has one star player: Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen was locked up last season to a long-term deal, so he appears ready to take the next step as the team’s leader.
The supporting cast around McCutchen will basically be the same core: Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Clint Barmes. The Pirates added veteran catcher Russell Martin and will count on contributions from young left fielder Starling Marte.
While the offense projects to be streaky, the team’s pitching can be its strong point, especially the starting rotation. A.J. Burnett returned to form last year, and the Pirates will have a full season of Wandy Rodriguez.
James McDonald and Jeff Karstens should be steady, while Francisco Liriano can be effective if he stays healthy.
Losing closer Joel Hanrahan will be a big blow to the Pirates’ bullpen. Veteran righty Jason Grilli will be called upon to save games this season.
On the whole, the roster on paper is average, but for some reason, manger Clint Hurdle gets the most out of his players. The same was true when he managed the Colorado Rockies.
Hurdle agreed to a contract extension that will take him through the 2014 season with a club option for 2015. Especially with a team of mostly young players, Hurdle’s no-nonsense attitude is perfect for Pittsburgh.
Though upsetting the Reds or Cardinals for the division title may be a tall order, the Pirates can put themselves in the mix for one of the two NL wild card spots if they play consistent baseball and avoid another late-season swoon.