The Mets open their last series of the first half tomorrow when they play the first of a three-game set against the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates. Like the past two seasons, the Pirates have started out hot and in the thick of the playoff race. Their last two campaigns didn’t end as promising, though, as Pittsburgh faltered in the second half to complete their 19th and 20th consecutive losing seasons. Will this be the year they have sticking power in the ultracompetitive NL Central? Campbell Sproul of FanSided’s Rum Bunter is our guest today to preview the coming clash.
Will DeBoer, Rising Apple: The Pittsburgh Pirates are poised to have their first winning season since 1992, but over the past couple years they’ve had late-season collapses to spiral them back under .500. What makes the 2013 Pirates different from the 2011 and 2012 editions?
Campbell Sproul, Rum Bunter: Pitching. We all knew (or at least I hope we all knew) the 2011 Pirates were smoke and mirrors. The 2012 Pirates were a good team, but the bullpen and starting pitching was not nearly as deep (for example, Erik Bedard was in the Pirates rotation for the whole year). This year’s staff is deeper, and just better overall. That’s what ought to put the Pirates over the hump.
WD: Andrew McCutchen was an MVP candidate last season, but his OPS and related power numbers are down this year. What’s going on with McCutchen?
CS: Andrew McCutchen’s power numbers are down somewhat, but I’d actually argue that nothing is “wrong” with him so far this year. His power numbers last year aren’t to be expected of him every year. He’s more of a 20-25 HR guy, 85-90 RBI. I’d actually argue he’s still a worthy MVP candidate this year as well, his WAR is 3rd in the N.L. to this point.
WD: At the same time, the Pirates are on a better pace through 90 games than they were last season. Who is making up for McCutchen’s lack of production?
CS: Again, I wouldn’t say McCutchen’s production is lacking, but if you want to talk about guys stepping up, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte deserve a ton of credit. Alvarez is on pace to easily be a 40+ home run guy, with 100 RBI. Marte, while still young and inexperienced is tearing the cover off of the ball, and is 7th in the N.L. in WAR, while hitting .289 out of the leadoff spot and covering PNC’s vast left field exceedingly well.
WD: Let’s talk about your own first-time All-Star starter Jeff Locke. Where did this guy come from, and can he keep up the pace post-ASB?
CS: Locke came over to the Pirates when they traded Nate McLouth to the Braves in 2009. He’s been a surprise even to some Pirates fans this year (he was expected to be a serviceable back end starter, not an All-Star, with a mid-90s four seam fastball, an excellent two-seamer, and a solid curveball). He won’t keep up his current pace all year, but don’t expect a collapse either. He might regress some, but he’ll keep an ERA under 3.00 all year.
WD: Joel Hanrahan‘s trade seemed like classic Pirates, but that Jason Grilli has clearly made the transition seemless is an understatement. Could you talk about the effectiveness of Pittsburgh’s bullpen depth?
CS:I mentioned it in my first answer, but the Pirates bullpen depth is incredible this year. Outside of Mike Zagurski (now a free agent) and Jose Contreras (also a free agent), nearly every pitcher in the Pirates bullpen has stepped up. Mark Melancon (8th inning setup man) has an ERA of 0.85, Justin Wilson has been a huge surprise with an ERA under two as the lefty specialist, and guys like Duke Welker, Ryan Reid, and Bryan Morris have all performed admirably in spots where they were called up to fill holes.
WD: If Pittsburgh makes it to the one-game Wild Card, should the Pirates start Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano, or someone else?
CS: If Pittsburgh makes it to the one game wild card, as of this point, I’m handing the ball to Francisco Liriano. He has an ERA of 2.00, he’s averaging 9.4 K/9, and he gets a ton of ground balls.
WD: Finally, you knew something like this was coming: The last time the Pirates had a winning record, you were…
CS: …not even in utero.
The Mets and Pirates square off from PNC Park tomorrow night at 7:05 p.m. EDT. The blazing-hot Jeremy Hefner will take the hill for the visitors, while steady veteran Charlie Morton will line up for the Bucs. For my perspective on the series, visit Campbell Sproul’s preview on Rum Bunter. You can read more of Sproul’s analysis here and follow him on Twitter.