McCutchen, Pirates trying to recapture 2013 magic

Before last season, Andrew McCutchen wasn’t a widely-recognizable figure, even in Pittsburgh.

The story goes that the Pirates’ dreadlocked all-star centerfielder would often be mistaken for former University of Pittsburgh football standout Larry Fitzergerald, who has gone on to an outstanding pro career as a wideout in the National Football League.

The 2013 Major League Baseball season shored up any type of identity crisis for McCutchen, in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. After carding a .317 batting average with 21 homers, 84 runs batted in, and finishing third in the National League in hits with 185, McCutchen captured the league’s Most Valuable Player Award last November in a surprising landslide vote.

The Pirates’ identity underwent a major facelift last summer as well. Led by a pitching staff that was one of Major League Baseball’s best, the Pirates accomplished their first winning season and playoff berth in 21 years all in one fell swoop.

Their 94-68 record was good for second place in the National League Central Division behind the eventual league champion St. Louis Cardinals, who the Pirates pushed to five games in the National League Division Series before finally succumbing.

It all earned the effervescent Clint Hurdle recognition as the National League’s 2013 Manager of the Year, but also came with a considerable price tag.

The Pirates are no longer flying under the radar, and enter the 2014 season – which begins Monday with a 1:35 p.m. game against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park – as one of the teams to beat in the National League for the first time in over two decades.

“Honestly, I don’t think we had been flying under the radar,” said utility infielder-outfielder Josh Harrison, who made an offseason appearance in Altoona as part of the Pirates’ winter CARE-van. “We had been making noise the past couple of years, and [in 2013], we made a little bit more noise.”

After enjoying success through the month of July in both the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Pirates sustained it from wire to wire in 2013, and earned the top wild card playoff spot in the National League.

“We had a special group,” Harrison said. “On any given night, we knew that it could be a different player [making the key contribution] in a game for us. We’ve all been working hard this offseason, and we’re all eager about looking at 2014.”

McCutchen told the Associated Press during an interview last November that the Pirates aren’t content to rest on their laurels.

Indeed, they can’t afford to do so.

After getting a taste of success in 2013, the Pirates will start this season with what can be the burden of high expectations.

The Pirates rode their pitching to last season’s success. Whether it will be as collectively good this season remains to be seen.

Veteran lefthander Francisco Liriano made big news in Pittsburgh after being acquired from the Chicago White Sox, leading the Pirates in wins with 16 and spearheading a pitching staff that ranked third in the National League in regular-season earned run average (3.26).

Rookie Gerrit Cole made an impressive debut with the Pirates, living up to – at least initially – the high billing that he achieved as the first choice in the 2011 Major League Baseball draft. Cole won 10 regular-season games and posted a playoff win over the St. Louis Cardinals, earning the right to start the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS.

Righty Charlie Morton was strong and consistent in his return from Tommy John elbow surgery, carding a 7-4 record and 3.26 earned run average in 20 starts and getting rewarded with a lucrative multi-year extension by the Pirates this offseason.

As good as the starters were, the bullpen was even better for the Pirates, finishing second among all National League pens in earned run average (2.89).

“The bullpen was great,” said lefthanded middle-innings eater Tony Watson (2.39 earned run average in 67 regular-season games), who also visited here in the offseason. “Everybody did their jobs. We all like to compete out there, and we all pull for one another.”

Led by closer Jason Grilli (33 saves) and eighth-inning setup man Mark Melancon (16 saves, 29 holds and a 1.72 earned run average), the Pirates lost only five games last year in which they led after seven innings.

But Watson, fireballing lefthander Justin Wilson (2.08 ERA in 58 games), pleasant-surprise veteran Vin Mazzaro (3.02 ERA in 57 games), and Bryan Morris (3.46 earned run average in 55 games) all teamed to give the Pirates extraordinary depth in the sixth and seventh innings. Mazzaro was designated for assignment by the Pirates on Saturday.

Veteran Jeanmar Gomez (3.35 ERA in 34 games) proved equally valuable in both a spot starter and bullpen role.

“We’re hungry for the 2014 season, and ready to go,” Watson said during his winter visit to Altoona with the CARE-Van.

As good as the pitching was last year, there are plenty of caveats, however.

Liriano suffered a groin injury in a spring training game March 20, but he has been pronounced good-to-go for his Opening Day assignment Monday against the Cubs. Can Liriano put back-to-back gem seasons together?

Veteran righthander A.J. Burnett, who led the team in strikeouts a year ago, jumped ship in the offseason for a slightly better offer from the Philadelphia Phillies. Although Burnett may have been just the Pirates’ fourth best starting pitcher had he returned this season, his absence creates a void.

Veteran lefthander Wandy Rodriquez was solid last year until a forearm injury in early June shelved his season. Can he make a comeback in 2014? What about young lefty Jeff Locke, who was as bad in the second half of last season as he was good in the first half?

Offseason acquisition Edinson Volquez – who has been tabbed for the fifth spot in the Pirates’ rotation to begin the season – is a veteran righthander with a history of ups and downs.

Young righthander Stolmy Pimentel, obtained from the Boston Red Sox with Melancon back in 2012, could be ready to step into the rotation early this season. Highly-touted righty prospect Jameson Taillon is likely to be called up from Indianapolis by midseason.

The Pirates succeeded last season despite an offense that finished just ninth in the National League in both team batting average (.245) and runs scored (635). Supplementing McCutchen’s offensive statistics were the 36 home runs and 100 RBIs contributed by third baseman Pedro Alvarez.

Left fielder Starling Marte – who the Pirates signed to a six-year, $41-million dollar contact earlier this month – is a star in the making. Marte’s 41 stolen bases and 10 triples were among the league leaders in both categories last season. Catcher Russell Martin, who made valuable contributions both offensively and defensively, was an unsung hero in his first year as a Pirate last season.

But the Pirates didn’t make any major moves to bolster their offense in the offseason, and face the 2014 campaign with major questions at first base, where the combination of Gaby Sanchez and new acquisition Travis Ishikawa isn’t a long-term solution, and in right field, where youngster Gregory Polanco is being tabbed for stardom but will start the season at Class AAA Indianapolis.

Just like last year, the Pirates will go only as far as their pitching can take them this season. And they won’t be sneaking up on anybody.

“We’re starting from scratch,” Watson said. “2013 is over. We’ve got to take 2014 one game at a time, but we’re going to go out there and try to keep up what we did last year.”

John Hartsock can be reached at