Pirates pitchers and catchers report Wednesday, and so begins the long trudge through Spring Training, on through summer and, hopefully, a third consecutive trip to the Major League Baseball postseason in October.
Here are five numbers, in my estimation, that will serve as a pretty healthy barometer as to if the Pirates can get back to the playoffs:
That is about the number of stolen bases against this team that is acceptable. Any number far greater has to be deemed a failure — and could weigh heavy into keeping them out of the playoffs — and any number yielded that would be fewer would be a big bonus. When the Pirates lost Russell Martin to Toronto in a bidding war this past offseason, the club also saw a tremendous defensive run-stopper head North of the border. Last season, with Martin teaming with Chris Stewart, the Pirates allowed only 107 stolen bases. For a sense of perspective, in 2013 that number was 132 as Martin and Michael McKenry largely handled the catching duties. For a deeper perspective, consider the 154 stolen bases the Pirates embarrassingly permitted in 2012 when Rod Barajas and McKenry were the primary catchers.
All that said, it is common knowledge stolen bases can’t solely be pinned on the catcher(s), but an ability to handle the staff and prowess behind the plate greatly diminishes the run game of the opposition. This season, with Stewart now teaming with Francisco Cervelli, it will be interesting to see how many stolen bases the tandem can limit opponents to.
That’s the number of home runs Pedro Alvarez needs to hit to truly be that bopper in the lineup for this club and strike fear into the opposing pitcher. He doesn’t need to match the home run production of 2013 — when he was an All-Star and hit 36 homers — but he must come a lot closer to that number than what he did last year, when he grossly underwhelmed with just 18. Naturally many will be paying attention to Alvarez’s positional shift to first base, but if he can undertake that smoothly, his mind should be at ease when he steps into the box — something that seemed not to be the case last season when he struggled defensively at third base.
Those are the number of inning the Pirates need to get out of 38-year-old starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. For me, there isn’t a set ERA, no real WHIP threshold he needs to achieve or anything like that — no, Burnett’s success (and by extension his role) will be measured by his ability to stay on the mound each time he’s given the ball. Now, 185 innings would signify the fewest he has worked since 2007 in Toronto when he made just 25 starts, but with Burnett sailing toward the sunset, don’t expect something such as the 213.2 IP he worked last season. If he can give the Pirates 185 IP, that would be a success for the guy working on that one-year, $8.5 million contract. If it’s significantly more innings, look for the Pirates to be a shoo-in for the playoffs; if it’s much less, they will be in trouble.
Those are about the number of at-bats second baseman Neil Walker needs to get for this team to have stability at that position and, also, be an indicator of just how healthy Walker is in 2015. That number of at-bats would put Walker in the area of missing just about 15 games or so, which with his regular prescribed days off and the anticipated bumps and bruises that he sustains through a 162-game season is perfectly fine. The severity of Walker’s back issues have been something the player and the club have been in stark disagreement with and have, for the most part, been the Pirates’ hesitation in giving him a long-term contract. Walker feels as if he is more than fine and is past the back issues that haven’t seen him play more than 137 games — or get more than 512 at-bats in a season — since 2011. If Walker can stay healthy day-after-day and get right around 550 at-bats, the Pirates stand a very good chance of succeeding; if that number is far less then the second base position becomes a bit of a crapshoot.
In my estimation, those are the amount of wins the Pirates must achieve away from PNC Park this season to reach the postseason. In the past couple of years, the Pirates have been very, very good at home — but could have saved themselves some trouble by being better on the road. To wit, in the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined, the club has gone 101-61 at PNC but just 81-81 in games on the road. Last year in road games, the Pirates were just 37-44, which, in a way, pressed them into being so good at home.
If this team can win more of their share of road games (say, 43 or so?) and couple that with the production they have been getting at PNC Park, a division title is a real possibility.