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No. 12 Pirates: Lack of moves doesn't mean lack of progress

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Cardinals beat Pirates 6-1 in Game 5 to win NLDS
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Pittsburgh Pirates starter Gerrit Cole pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning of Game 5 of a National League baseball division series, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Editor's note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

2013 record: 94-68
Finish: 2nd-place, NL Central (wild card)
2013 final payroll: $74,608,266 (25th of 30)
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $81.8 million (28th of 30)
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 12
Pirates in six words: Can MLB’s best story repeat itself?

OFFSEASON ACTION
More like offseason inaction, get it? Oh, anyhow. No, really, the Pittsburgh Pirates, coming off their first playoff appearance since 1992, have done nothing this offseason. Not literally nothing – it just seems that way.

They changed their primary logo from a Pirate to a “P.” They also have some good postgame musical acts coming to PNC Park. As far as personnel changes, Pittsburgh’s official transactions page lists moves such as “invited non-roster RHP Jameson Taillon to spring training.” That’s just the sort of announcement that Pirates fans will have to hang on their hooks, because there’s very little help coming from the outside.

They brought in Edinson Volquez to compete for a starting rotation spot. Chris Stewart will compete for a backup catcher’s spot. We’re all still waiting to see what happens with A.J. Burnett, and if he does come back to Pittsburgh, it’ll seem like a move from the outside because his status has been in limbo for so long. Would it have been so hard to add a free agent or two to support MVP Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte, Francisco Liriano and Jason Grilli? It’s all a little discouraging. But is it bad?

[Also: No. 13 Royals: Trading a valuable commodity could boost their chances ]

There are ways beyond spending in free agency, or making big, splashy trades, to improve a team. You can also do it from within, and general manager Neal Huntington’s organization has been building a strong farm system. Down the stretch in 2013, they traded for Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, and Byrd really ended up helping in the regular season and playoffs. But the biggest improvement came when right-hander Gerrit Cole got promoted. At 22 years old, he finished with a 3.22 ERA, 100 strikeouts and 28 walks in 19 starts. And then he won a playoff game against the NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Cole throws hard and disguises his pitches well. He throws a slider, or a curveball, or a slurve – it’s not easy to tell – and that’s what makes him one of the better pitchers in the National League already. And, getting back to how the Pirates might get better, they have pitching prospects Taillon and Tyler Glasnow on the verge of breaking through. The rise from the ashes has been slow (oh, so slow, sometimes) but steady for the Pirates. There’s reason to believe they’ll keep getting better, even if it’s from within.

REALITY CHECK

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Andrew McCutchen is simply one of baseball's best players. (AP Photo)

Clay Davenport’s annual projected standings put the Pirates at 83 victories, which would be a regression, but remember: Davenport’s math is conservative; only the Tigers were projected to win more than 90 games, and it’s unlikely they’ll be the only team to do that next season. The Pirates probably were a little bit lucky to win 94 games in 2013, but that’s not bad; the Pirates were due for some luck. But if a conservative projection puts them at 83 victories with the roster as we know it, they’re going to be in contention for the playoffs again.

Here’s a guess, but one of the reasons the Pirates didn’t change a lot was because of their defense, one of the most thoroughly prepared units in the majors in 2013. They were shifty, those Pirates. Literally, shifty. Few teams shifted on defense the way the Pirates did. But it also seems reasonable for other teams, given the entire season’s worth of data, to adjust to the Pirates' defensive alignment. Will the Pirates catch the ball as well in 2014?

They still need a left-handed hitting complement to platoon with Gaby Sanchez at first base. Jordy Mercer looks like he can hit at short, but he’s no Clint Barmes on defense. Only Barmes is one of the worst hitters in the National League. Marte doesn’t walk enough, Alvarez strikes out too much, and both are prone to long slumps. It’s being assumed that Jose Tabata can handle right field every day. Manager Clint Hurdle did a great job piecing the puzzle together. It might not work out as well in 2014.

The Pirates also are assuming that Liriano, who was excellent in ’13, will keep it together at the top of the rotation with Burnett's ultimate destination still in question. Right-hander Charlie Morton has taken awhile to put it together, and now that he’s got security with a three-year contract, it will be interesting to see if he builds on his best personal season (keeping in mind that it was only 20 starts).

Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon should be rocks (as in steady) at the end of the bullpen. But if Tony Watson and Justin Wilson regress in the middle, the Bucs will have some problems getting to the eighth inning. It’s the kind of detail that will matter when the pennant race comes down to one or two games.

SAVIOR
Andrew McCutchen became a superstar in 2013, even though his production was similar to his career year of 2012. The difference, of course, was the Pirates winning. It’s fun to not only watch him play but also to see his personality come out off the field. His new MTV venture with David Ortiz bears watching this spring.

Of course, none of McCutchen’s extra curriculars has much to do with the Pirates winning again in 2014, but it does have something to do with the Bucs being entertaining. These are great times to be a Bucs fan. Their tactic of not spending much cash this offseason can be questioned, and nobody can stop fans from worrying. But there’s also a payoff, because Pirates baseball has become jolly again.

HAIKU
Patchwork offseason
Cannot alter shift in Bucs
Enthusiasm

Previous teams
No. 13 Royals
No. 14 Angels
No. 15 Diamondbacks
No. 16 Giants
No. 17 Indians
No. 18 Blue Jays
No. 19 Mariners
No. 20 Phillies
No. 21 Orioles
No. 22 Padres
No. 23 Rockies
No. 24 Marlins
No. 25 Brewers
No. 26 White Sox
No. 27 Mets
No. 28 Twins
No. 29 Cubs
No. 30 Astros

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