2014 Pittsburgh Pirates: No retreat

Jerry Lynch

One of the game’s great pinch-hitters, ranks 10th all-time with 116 pinch-hits. Had five pinch-homers for the pennant-winning ’61 Reds. Lynch had two tours with the Pirates, from 1954-56 at the start of his career and from 1963-66 at the end of it. In between, drafted by the Reds in the Rule 5 draft, he spent parts of seven seasons with the Reds until he was traded back to the Bucs for Bob Skinner. A fourth outfielder, he never had more than 420 at-bats, which he did for the Reds in 1958, hitting .312 and slugging .498. Hit .315 with 13 homers and 27 walks in 181 at-bats for ’61 Reds; slugging .624 with a 1.031 OPS. He finished 22nd in the MVP voting despite his limited play. Best Pirate season was 1964, when he hit .273 with 16 homers and 66 RBIs; had career-high six triples with the ’55 Pirates. Final totals: .277 average, 115 home runs, .329 on-base, .463 slugging, 798 hits, 420 RBIs, 2.6 WAR (his defense didn’t help).

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: The Pirates kept most of the money they made during their successful 2013, with the exception of a $5 million contract they gave to pitcher Edinson Volquez. It won’t be long before they realize they should have kept that too. Improvement will have to come from within, but the Pirates have the farm system to do that. Jameson Taillon is not as good as Gerrit Cole, but he’s better than Volquez and a lot of starters in between. He’s only 22, the second pick in 2010 draft and fanned 143 in 147.1 innings last year, ending in AAA. He’ll probably start 2014 there but won’t stay. And outfielder Gregory Polanco has been returned to the minors, but it’s a loan. He’s also 22 and started 2013 in Class A and finished it in AAA. In between, he batted .285, slugged .434, stole 38 bases and walked 52 times. He, too, will be up before long.

Trivia: Only four Pirates have led the NL in homers. Who are they, and who did it the most times, and who hit the most in a single season? Answer below.

What he said: Pitching coach Ray Searage on free-agent signee Edinson Volquez, who has allowed 19 hits, seven walks, three homers and 15 runs in 14 spring innings: “I’m not going to give up on this guy.” What he meant: “We’re paying him $5 million. In Pirate money. What choice do I have?”

Outlook: The Pirates improved by 15 games over 2012, which would normally indicate regression ahead. And they may, having reached 94 wins in 2013, not win as many in 2014.

If so, it will be short-lived, because the Pirates are poised for more years like last season than the 20 that preceded it.

Last season marked the third of a 37-game improvement since the Pirates won 57 in 2010. Luxury may just become them for a while.

The Pirates’ farm system is ranked third by ESPN’s Keith Law, and it’s not just Taillon and Polanco, although that’s a good start. Taillon will give depth to a rotation that needs it, with A.J. Burnett gone, Jeff Locke wild and Volquez disoriented. And Polanco might give the Pirates, with Andrew McCutcheon and Starling Marte, the best outfield in baseball.

But there’s more: 6-foot-7 Tyler Glasnow, 20, fanned 164 and gave up just 54 hits in 111.1 innings at low Class A, numbers that, like capital letters on a text message, demand attention; outfielder Austin Meadows and catcher Reese McGuire, both of last year’s No. 1 picks debuted successfully, hitting .316 and .323 in rookie ball, respectively; pitcher Nick Kingham isn’t as hyped as Cole or Taillon but is only 23, throws strikes, and has a 3.27 career ERA; there’s even a potential shortstop, which the parent team desperately needs, in Dominican Alen Hanson, 21, who has an .822 career OPS and has dabbled in AA.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the Pirates who start 2014 won’t be as good as the team that finished 2013. Marlon Byrd, who was a big help in the outfield, wasn’t replaced so it’s temporarily back to Jose Tabata. And Justin Morneau, who wasn’t as helpful, wasn’t replaced either, which mean’s there will be way too much Gaby Sanchez than the offense of any 94-win team should have.

The shortstop will apparently be Jordy Mercer, which is an improvement over Clint Barmes, but given Mercer’s 22 walks and 62 strikeouts, not one to rely on. It would behoove the Pirates to fix the shortstop situation with something more.

The Pirates will need to make additions as the season progresses, from inside the organization and out, as they did last year. And they may not win 94 again, and may not even make the playoffs. But they certainly could, and it’s going to be a while before they revert to the other side of .500 again.’

Maybe not 21 years, but a good few of them.

Trivia answer: The most for a Pirate home run league leader was not Tommy Leach, who led the NL with six in 1902 (don’t laugh: he hit 22 triples that year and 63 homers in a 19-season career). The most and most often was Ralph Kiner, whose 54 home runs led the NL in 1949; he led the NL for seven consecutive years — 23 in ’46, tied with Johnny Mize at 51 in ’47 and 40 in ’48, 54 in ’49, 47 in ’50, 42 in ’51 and tied at 37 with Hank Sauer in ’52. The other Pirates to lead the NL in home runs were Willie Stargell (48 in ’71 and 44 in ’73) and Pedro Alvarez, who tied with Paul Goldschmidt to lead the NL last year with 36.

Team song: Loudon Wainwright: Ode to Pittsburgh

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