Prior to last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates had been a punchline for the better part of two decades. This franchise finished with sub-.500 records every year from 1993 to 2012, with an occasional sub-.400 campaign mixed in. Whatever else was going on in the world, Pittsburgh's baseball team was bad. That one fact was unchanging. New Pirates came and went; none of them won.
[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]
It hadn't always been that way, of course. The Bucs were terrific during the Bonds-Drabek-Leyland years, in the early-'90s. And this team basically owned the '70s, making six postseason appearances, winning a pair of World Series titles. The 1979 Pirates were a party, almost indescribably entertaining. It was like this and this and this, plus disco. And Willie Stargell was the MVP of everything — NLCS, World Series, regular season. And the mascot, a large parrot, was supplying coke.
It was not a boring team, is what I'm saying.
But that was 35 years ago. Pittsburgh has given us plenty of boring baseball in recent seasons.
Finally, in 2013, the Bucs returned to relevance. Last year's team won 94 games, then took the Wild Card game over Cincinnati. Pittsburgh is clearly a team on the rise, led by a collection of young stars and near-stars and future stars. If the Pirates don't finish well above .500 in 2014, most of us will be surprised.
The questions facing this team have certainly changed for the better. Let's get to 'em...
Q: Please explain Francisco Liriano. Go.
A: I mean ... I should not even be eligible to write about Liriano, ever again. I would have paid to not own him last season, following a multi-year carnival ride. I was done with him, completely. Didn't want to be teased.
So of course he went 16-8 with quality ratios (3.02 ERA, 2.92 FIP) and he struck out a batter per inning. Liriano's slider was a demon pitch, his velocity excellent, and his ground-ball rate was among the highest in baseball. He'll be the Bucs' opening day starter, and deservedly so. Today, right at this moment, I have nothing bad to say about Liriano — and even if I did, you'd be wise to dismiss it. Because I should not be eligible to discuss him.
Liriano is being drafted way down in Cashner-Fister-Corbin territory, so there's profit potential here again. Perhaps it's the appropriate price, considering the way Liriano has bounced between brilliance and horror. But he's coming off a fantastic season, plus he took a pair of solid turns in the playoffs. Again, I have nothing bad to say. Pittsburgh added another fixer-upper starting pitcher in the offseason, Edinson Volquez, so we'll see how that rehab project goes.
Q: OK, let's talk Gerrit Cole. Any reason to worry about a sophomore slide?
A: Well, there are no guarantees in fantasy, so a certain level of worry is understandable — especially with a young starter. But let's keep in mind just how remarkably steady Cole was last season. He never allowed more than four runs in any of his 21 major league starts, playoffs included, and he was at his absolute best in the final month. He went 4-0 in September, posting a 1.69 ERA and striking out 39 batters in 32.0 innings.
Cole won't come cheap at the draft table in 2014, because he's a buzzy 23-year-old who earned our trust last year. But he's great. He's a hard-thrower with tremendous breaking stuff, he keeps the ball in the park and he's stingy with bases-on-balls. He'll also pitch in a friendly home park. I'm plenty interested.
Q: This team isn't really going to go with Gaby Sanchez at first, right?
A: If I may speak on behalf of the global community of N.L.-only owners, just for a sec: Please, Pittsburgh, sign Kendrys Morales. Please, please, please.
They probably won't, but I can hope. I've got an N.L. dynasty team that could really use a corner.
But that's enough about my needs; we were talking about the Pirates. Sanchez seems like a fine option to serve on the light side of a platoon — he's hit .291/.405/.474 vs. lefties over the past three seasons — though he's not really an ideal everyday first baseman. The Bucs have been linked to Ike Davis via trade rumor, and he would pair nicely with Gaby in a R/L platoon. (Plus he's the sort of reclamation project this team is so fond of.) Justin Smoak's name has popped up in rumors as well. And then there's a possibility that 25-year-old outfielder Andrew Lambo could force his way into the conversation at first for Pittsburgh. Lambo had a terrific season in the high minors in 2013, hitting .282/.347/.574 with 32 home runs and 99 RBIs across two levels.
Let's just say that the situation at first is currently unsettled. It's hardly a lock that Sanchez will be this team's regular starting first baseman.
Q: What's the ETA on the next wave of Pirates prospects?
A: If things go according to the presumed plan, then Pittsburgh will be able to add an impact arm and a potential impact bat at mid-season, via call-up. Gigantic right-hander Jameson Taillon is widely considered one of the best pitching prospects in the game, and he's coming off a good (if not spectacular) season at Double-A and Triple-A. Last year, Taillon struck out 143 batters in 147.1 innings, posting an ERA of 3.73. He's just 22 years old, likely to open his season at Indianapolis but finish in Pittsburgh. It's no sure thing that he'll make a splash in mixed leagues this season; think of him more as a potential spot-starter in our game, at least for now.
For fantasy purposes, I'm a bit more interested in 22-year-old outfielder Gregory Polanco. He's a do-everything talent with developing power, excellent speed (38 SB in 2013), and a refined batting eye (52 BB, 73 Ks). He's a left-handed hitter who hasn't really struggled with left-handed pitching, a promising trait. He also won the Dominican Winter League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, facing older competition. He's legit. Polanco needs to be owned in dynasty, and he'll be a batter to target in standard mixers whenever he arrives — hopefully that happens by June.