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The Pittsburgh Pirates are once again off to a hot start. The owners of a 53-34 record, good for second in their division, the Pirates are looking to finish 2013 in the style they hoped to finish 2012. If current trends are any indicator, Pittsburgh should have no problems locking up their first playoff birth since 1992.

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PNC Park – Home of the Pittsburgh Pirates

The biggest strength that the Pirates have this year is pitching, although it wouldn’t seem that way when looking at the starting rotation. Entering the season, Pittsburgh’s starting rotation consisted of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, and James McDonald. The first three names of that list are the most recognizable but also came with the most uncertainty at the beginning of the season. Burnett entered the season at 36 years old. Wandy Rodriguez is 34. And Francisco Liriano has always been known to have streaks of greatness that are perpetually stalked by an inability to throw strikes. McDonald was going to be a solid mid rotation guy, and Locke, with half a years experience, would attempt to fill out the back end.

Once the season got underway, all expectations were exceeded and the rotation proved to be a dominating force. Burnett showed that the Fountain of Youth filters out of the Allegheny River, pitching to a 3.12 ERA and 10 K/9 in 14 games. Wandy drank some of the same stuff and produced equally strong numbers. But the real stories went to both Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke.

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Even Russell Crowe is excited

Liriano was a high risk/high reward acquisition that many assumed would do far more damage to the team that dared take a flyer on him. But so far, he has been magnificent. Through 10 starts, Liriano has posted a 2.23 ERA and a 9.9 K/9. While the walk rate remains high on the higher end of the spectrum (3.41 BB/9), he is still well under he previous two seasons, which both had a BB/9 ration of 5. While it’s hard to apply the decreased walk rate to any one thing in particular, Liriano will continue to be an asset to the Pirates if that walk rate stays down.

Locke, who has been equally as dominant this year, has a different set of concerns. While on the surface his 2.06 ERA and 7-1 record look remarkable, some of his other numbers raise some questions. So far this season, Locke has been very fortunate to strand a large amount of runners on base. He currently stands with a 85.6% strand rate, which is unsustainable for any big leaguer. Locke has also given up fewer home runs than his fly ball rate would support (8.2%), another reason for second half regression considering it is far under his career average. As both of these stats return to the norm, Locke will see his ERA climb closer to his xFIP of 4.11. Even with this regression though, Locke should continue to contribute to the Pirate rotation in a meaningful way.

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Jeff Locke

There is no denying the strength of this rotation. The pitching staff that is 1st out of all major leagues when it comes to team ERA (3.11) and opponent batting average (.225), and third in baseball in WHIP (1.19). But strong rotations tend to get teams only so far before injuries and bullpens cost the team wins. The Pirates have already been faced with these challenges this year and have proved that they have depth, both in the minors and in the pen, which make up for the doubts within their rotation.

So far this season, the Pirates have had to fill their rotation after injuries left them with holes. First they turned to Jeanmar Gomez who after starting eight games, currently sits with a 2-0 record and a 2.76 ERA. They also were forced to turn to highly touted prospect Gerrit Cole, who started his career off 4-0.

The bullpen has also been one of the safest late inning bets in the MLB. Jason Grilli leads the NL in saves and is 27-28 in save opportunities. Before Grilli enters in the ninth, the Pirates have the best set-up men in the game. Mark Melancon has and ERA and WHIP just above 0.8 in 41 innings. The rest of the bullpen combines to have an ERA of 2.92 and an opponent batting average of .217. The strong bullpen helps to fill in for the starting rotation which averages just over 5 1/3 innings per start.

The Pirates second half will not be as good as their first half. The starting rotation will continue to be tested and there will be some regression for Locke and the questions with Liriano will remain. But the Pirates have proven that they have the depth to overcome any pitching problems that may arise.

The worst thing to happen to the Pirates this year

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Now that we are a few weeks into the season, let’s take stock. The Rockies and Braves play each other with the best records in baseball on the line. Former aces look mortal and sluggers are slumping. Everyone is overreacting, but it is important to remember: we are only a few weeks into the season! It’s a small sample size. Still, it doesn’t take long until a sample becomes a trend. With that in mind, here are the hot and cold starts and what to actually believe.

Hot Teams

Boston Red Sox 12-6 (.667) 1st Place AL East as of 3/23

Last year, the Red Sox finished in last place and were part of the salary dump trade to the Dodgers that people saw as a team giving up. And yet, here they are a year later sitting at first place in the AL East with a team and city that is playing for something beyond the standings. 

The Boston offense is producing well, and Mike Napoli looks like he is happy to be out of Texas. Big Papi is back from the DL and the top of the order is healthy (Ellsbury) and getting on base (Pedroia). The offense is doing well, but the success of the Red Sox so far comes down to one thing: pitching.

Last year, the Red Sox starting pitching was among the worst in the league. This year, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are leading the way. Neither has lost a game yet on the season, and they look like the pitchers everyone expected them to be. So, do you believe it? Well, kind of. The fried chicken fiasco and the attitude of Josh Beckett are long gone. With that departure, the young Boston pitchers lost a bad influence and look like they are taking to new manager John Farrell well. Also important is the arrival of Allen Webster with the big league club. Webster was part of the trade with the Dodgers, and despite all the big names involved, is looking like he might be the diamond in the rough.

The Red Sox picked a great time to get hot. The city of Boston needs something to root for right now, and I think everyone in America is happy that they are succeeding. For now. The Red Sox aren’t going to keep up their current pace, but I am a believer in the younger, healthy rotation. If they can stay healthy, and the offense can continue to put runs on the board, there is no reason that Boston shouldn’t keep winning baseball games. Sports are always important when they come to signify something other than just the standings, and that is happening in the city of Boston right now. In the words of Big Papi:

Colorado Rockies 13-5 (.722) 1st place in NL West as of 3/23

The Rockies have surged out of the gates this year, surprising, given their last place finish in 2012. A healthy Tulowitzki, CarGo and Wilin Rosario lead the offense, while Jorge de la Rosa (2-1, 2.82 ERA) and Jhoulys Chacin (3-0, 1.46 ERA) anchor the staff.

The Rockies are doing well despite almost no roster turnover from last year, with 21 of the 25 roster spots returning from 2012, and no major free agent signings in the offseason. The main thing to focus on with the Rockies, as with any team, is health. Tulo is an all-star caliber shortstop who’s worst enemy is health. If he is healthy, he transforms any lineup. The Rockies offense is legit. Dexter Fowler is having a coming-out party and Rosario is showing that his offensive prowess last year was no fluke. 

Photo credit: Bleacherreport

The Tulo Mullet – Never forget.

However, the pitching will not hold up. Chacin just went on the DL and won’t be back any time soon. De La Rosa has shown potential throughout his career, and could be legit, but the rest of the staff is a shambles. Garland is coming off shoulder surgery, and can’t be trusted to hold up for an entire season. The bullpen is a strong point, but whether they can continue their success all season will come down to the managing of rookie manager Walt Wiess. 

The Rockies are currently scoring 4.22 runs per game, and the offense is capable of continuing at this pace. They may just surprise everyone and be a .500 team, but the starting pitching will not hold up. Expect a come back to earth, as early as tonight against the Braves.

Honorable Mentions:

Atlanta Braves 13-5 (.722) 1st place, NL East – legit. The offense with the additions of Justin Upton and Evan Gattis will have pop all year provided they can keep the strikeouts down. The pitching, including Paul Maholm should continue to keep runs off the board. The team is currently best in the majors with a ridiculous 2.36 ERA, and while this may come up a bit, the Braves are still the team to beat in the NL.

Oakland A’s 12-8 (.600) 2nd Place, AL West – legit (kind of). The A’s have succeeded so far thanks to an incredible 5.26 runs per game so far. There is no way they will keep this up. Coco Crisp is about to hit his season high in homers in the first few weeks. Jed Lowrie is hitting well, but has never been able to stay on the field for a full season. The A’s are a legitimate contender this year, but they will do it with their pitching, not their hitting. The hitters are on a hot streak right now, but the runs per game will come down, and it will be on the pitching staff to pick up the slack for the A’s to make it to the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Cold Teams

The two teams I will be talking about here are actually not doing terribly. They are only a few games below .500 and will both likely climb in the standings soon. However, they are included here because the expectations for success were so high. The Dodgers and Jays will both be fine and both be contenders by the end of the year, but they are both off to cold starts, and here is why:

LA Dodgers 8-10 (.444) 4th place, NL West

The Dodgers have run cold so far this year. Everything starts and ends with pitching, and even Clayton Kershaw has looked mortal (not counting opening day when he crushed my Giants). Zach Greinke landed on the DL after a brawl with Carlos Quentin. The rest of the staff has looked average, but none have stood out. Meanwhile, the offense is bipolar. Big name acquisitions such as Adrian Gonzalez (.385 avg) and Carl Crawford (.338 avg) are hitting great, while local stars Matt Kemp (.235 avg) Andre Ethier (.230 avg) are slumping badly. The hot and cold starts should even out, as good hitters don’t stay cold for long. That being said, there are some real problems with this team.

Photo Credit: USA Today

Not a good way to start a season.

The left side of the infield is weak. Shortstop and third base is currently a merry-go-round of average to bad players, and even when Hanley Ramirez comes back from the DL, the Dodgers will have below average defense and average offense at third or short depending on how they structure their lineup card. Kershaw is fine, but the rest of the staff could have troubles. Ryu is still adjusting to American baseball, Greinke is out indefinitely, Billingsley is having Tommy John and done for the year, Lilly is coming off another surgery, and Josh Beckett’s best years are far behind him. The bullpen is not yet reliable, and manager Don Mattingly has not yet figured out the intricacies of managing a bullpen over the course of the season.

There is a lot to worry about with the Dodgers, maybe buying a championship isn’t as easy as we thought.

Toronto Blue Jays 8-12 (.400) 5th place, AL East

Speaking of buying a championship: the Toronto Blue Jays are also having some troubles with their new roster. Fresh off relieving the city of Miami of their baseball team, the Jays are struggling to put it all together. Jose Reyes was lost to injury on a bad slide during an attempted steal of second base. Jose Bautista is still dealing with some nagging back issues, and the Jays are 2-4 without him in the lineup. Meanwhile, starters Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle have yet to contribute much in a Jays uniform.

Photo Credit: NY Daily News

Reyes may only be able to watch the Jays for most of this season

The Jays are batting .227 as a whole, good for 3rd worst in baseball behind the Mariners and Marlins. Meanwhile, the pitching staff has given up the second most runs in baseball behind only the Astros. If we go based on the numbers alone, the Jays should actually have a worse record than 8-12 at this point. They have been bailed out a bit by the long ball (21 on the year) and the arrival of J.P. Arencibia as a power threat, but the Jays seem to be trending in the wrong direction. A healthy Bautista will do a lot to curb some losses, but the Jays do not seem to be doing any better with the 2012 Miami Marlins roster than the 2012 Miami Marlins did.

2013 Projections

No baseball blog would be complete without an attempt by its authors to project the final results of the season. So, here they are, our season predictions:

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Ryan’s Picks

AL West: This division should have belonged to the Angels last season but they always seemed just a couple games out of contention. Expect a showdown between the top two teams this year, but don’t expect the Angels to let the division slip away from them. They’ve got a strong lineup and should be able have enough to top the A’s pitching and chemistry, the latter of which will be hard to replicate again. The Rangers will regret giving a great bat to a division mate, while finding solace in the fact that Berkman doesn’t have eye issues.  Meanwhile, the Mariners will win every five days while the Astros won’t count this season as a total loss; they got new hats.

Angels

Athletics (WC I)

Rangers

Mariners

Astros

AL Central: The AL Champs should have an easy time reclaiming the division with a dominant 1-2 pitching duo and 3-4 hitting duo. The rest of their lineup balances their stars, making the Tigers easy favorites. The White Sox and Indians fill out the second tier in this division, but the Indians outfield advantage trumps the Chi Sox pitching advantage, making Cleveland the better of these two otherwise average teams. The bottom tier gives the advantage to youth and the recent acquisition of James Shields, making the Royals the next best team. The division closes out with Joe Mauer & Co.

Tigers

Indians

White Sox

Royals

Twins

AL East: This division is going to be a toss-up, with each of the top four teams having a different strength but so many question marks. The Orioles are extremely dependent on a shaky starting rotation, and need a balanced production out of their lineup, similar to 2012, to make up for their lack of studs. The Rays always seem to be contenders and I expect them to call up future star Wil Myers at some point in the season to give them an added boost, but will it be enough to counter the loss of James Shields and unproductive bottom of the order. This leaves the Yankees and the Blue Jays. I don’t like putting the Yankees at the top of the division with their aging lineup and pitching rotation, and the holes in their lineup due to injury/free agency that they didn’t seem to replace, but their lineup appears to be the most reliable. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have a great team, if it were 2012. They paid an awful lot for a lot of question marks, but I think as a whole it was an improvement and a good one to make when there is so much in flux in the division. This should be enough to get them to the postseason.

Yankees

Blue Jays (WC II)

Rays

Orioles

Red Sox

NL West: All eyes will be on the NL West and in particular the Dodgers, but expect the Dodgers to do enough to seal the division. Their superior lineup and arguably superior rotation should be enough for them to edge out the Giants. While I do think that on paper the Dodgers should be able to enter the playoffs with a decent lead over their division rivals, the Giants have been blessed with some great team chemistry that will keep them close. The Diamondbacks will be a distant third without Upton, but their pitching will be enough to get them third place. The Padres are still young and still missing two top of the rotation starters to make them contenders. The Rockies will struggle to lose less than 100 games, but this might prove as an opportunity to Jamie Moyer, who is still better than half the Rockies rotation.

Dodgers

Giants (WC II)

Diamondbacks

Padres

Rockies

NL Central: The Cardinals were the favorites for the division but after losing Chris Carpenter for the season, proved too much for a rotation that is still morning the loss of Lohse. Their strong young lineup should be enough to earn the Cardinals second place in the division and a third place wild card finish. The Reds have a balanced rotation and lineup, making them the favorite for the division. Meanwhile the Brewers and Pirates will be in a tossup for third place, with the Brewers superior rotation giving them the edge over the Pirates. The Cubs and Theo Epstein, in a last ditch effort to rid themselves of their curse; will attempt to sign every member of the 2004 Red Sox lineup to the roster.

Reds

Cardinals

Brewers

Pirates

Cubs

NL East: While the Nationals receive tons of press over their deep pitching staff, the Braves starting rotation proves to be equally as balanced, and their lineup, buoyed by bounce back seasons from both Uggla and McCann will take the NL East. The Nations will be right on their tails in a race that will come down to the wire, but wind up short and with the first wild card spot. The Phillies made a couple key acquisitions in the offseason, but further cemented themselves as the best team of 2005. The Mets will struggle this season, with a subpar lineup, forever thanking themselves that the Marlins are in the NL East.

Braves

Nationals (WC I)

Phillies

Mets

Marlins

Matt’s Picks

AL West: The AL West is turning into a top heavy division. The Angels, A’s and Rangers are all good teams right now, but the movement of the Astros and the permamediocreness of the Mariners keeps the division from getting too strong. The Angels certainly have the hitting to carry them through the season, but their pitching is a question mark. The A’s have the pitching, but their hitting may rely on the further development of Cespedes. Look for the A’s to squeak in with the second wild card and the Rangers to be surprisingly bad and finish close to .500 for the first time in years.

Angels

A’s WC2

Rangers

Mariners

Astros

AL Central: The AL Central has been described as the worst division in baseball by many, and I’m inclined to agree with them. The Tigers will cruise on their pitching and hitting, but the Royals, despite trading away their farm to go all out this year will finish a disappointing second. The rest of the division will fight tooth and nail for .500 and respectability.

Tigers

Royals

White Sox

Indians

Twins

AL East: Its going to be a strong division as usual, but not as strong as you might think. The Rays were surprisingly good last year and that was for the most part without their star player. Joe Madden is underrated look for Mike Montgomery and Wil Myers to make an impact during the stretch drive. The Blue Jays are stacked, but the clubhouse could be an issue, still they will easily take the 1st wild card spot. The Yankees are going to experience a fall off thanks to their aging stars (predicted last year, actually going to happen this year). The Red Sox are going to be very bad, and the Orioles were a fluke.

Rays

Blue Jays WC1

Yankees

Red Sox

Orioles

NL West: This division will be one that everyone is watching as it contains the defending champions, the team that is printing money who are coincidentally the teams that the writers of this blog follow (and three other unimportant teams). The Dodgers will win 95 games and change the way that owners think about the game, but are mortgaging their future successes for this season with bad contracts. The Giants are going to miss the playoffs thanks to injury troubles following an extended World Series season (sound familiar?) and 10 players in the World Baseball Classic and the failed notion of keeping the band together. The Padres youth movement will start to take shape but they are still a season or two away. Kevin Towers is a bad GM who willingly traded away his best players for mediocre ones. And even though Tulo will begin to return to form, the Rockies don’t have the pitching.

Dodgers

Giants

Padres

Diamondbacks

Rockies

NL Central: The Reds and Cardinals will duke it out all season, but the Reds are going to be the team to beat. Aroldis Chapman may or may not work in the rotation, but they have enough pitching and bullpen depth so that it will make no real difference. The Pirates will be decent, but I just kinda feel sorry for McCutchen at this point. The Brewers will be bad and the Cubs will be worse. It will be interesting to see if the MLB decides to take action against Braun and other suspected PED users, and the fate of the Brew Crew will hinge on that (non) decision. Epstein is starting to turn the Cubs around, and I expect strong play from Brett Jackson, but when the best player on your team is Alfonso Soriano there is a problem.

Reds

Cardinals – WC2

Pirates

Brewers

Cubs

NL East: Chone Figgins will hit .360, win a batting title, and spirit the Marlins to the Division championship!!! And then the Marlins one fan that’s left will wake up and shuffle to his $6 dollar seats and get drunk on $10 beer. The Nationals are the best team in baseball and the Braves are arguably the second best. This will be a fun division race, but the limitless Strasburg Nats will take it. The Phillies are old and bad. The Mets are a year or two away from their rebuilding and the Marlins are just a joke at this point. Bring back the Expos?

Nationals

Braves WC1

Phillies

Mets

Marlins