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March 30, 2013

Reds expected to repeat in NL Central

(Continued)

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Pirates

2012: 79-83, fourth place.

Manager: Clint Hurdle (third season).

He’s here: C Russell Martin, LHP Francisco Liriano, RHP Jeanmar Gomez, RHP Mark Melancon, LHP Jonathan Sanchez, 3B Brandon Inge, 1B-OF Brad Hawpe

He’s outta here: RHP Joel Hanrahan, RHP Kevin Correia, C Rod Barajas, RHP Chad Qualls, RHP Chris Resop, 2B Brock Holt.

Projected lineup: LF Starling Marte (.257, 5 HRs, 17 RBI, 12/17 SBs), 2B Neil Walker (.280, 14, 69), CF Andrew McCutchen (.327, 31, 96), 3B Pedro Alvarez (.244, 30, 85, 180 Ks), 1B Garrett Jones (.274, 27, 86), C Russell Martin (.211, 21, 53 with Yankees), RF Travis Snider (.250, 4, 17 with Blue Jays and Pirates), SS Clint Barmes (.229, 8, 45).

Rotation: RH A.J. Burnett (16-10, 3.51 ERA, 180 Ks), LH Wandy Rodriguez (12-13, 3.76 with Astros and Pirates), RH James McDonald (12-8, 4.21), RH Jeff Karstens (5-4, 3.97), LH Jeff Locke (1-3, 5.50).

Hot spots: The back end of the rotation is in flux as the season begins. Liriano is likely out until May while recovering from a broken right (non-throwning) arm sustained in December. Karstens is dealing with arm issues as well, meaning the 25-year-old Locke will probably get a starting spot coming out of spring training by default. At 36, Grilli is a journeyman reliever who gets to close for the first time in his career. He sparkled as a setup man last year but now must fill the void left by the trade of Hanrahan, a two-time All-Star.

Outlook: It sounds almost bizarre, but it could very well be the playoffs or bust for this group of Pirates. Pittsburgh flirted with the postseason and the franchise’s first winning record in two decades last summer before fading over the final six weeks. The roster returns pretty much intact. The addition of Martin should help shore up some of the defensive issues the team had last season. McCutchen became a true star in 2012, finishing third in the NL MVP race and making Pittsburgh relevant for the first time in ages. Burnett and Rodriguez provide some stability at the top of the rotation, and Alvarez harnessed his power into a career-high 30 home runs. Still, owner Bob Nutting wants more. He extended Hurdle’s contract during spring training but says the team needs to take the next step or there could be wholesale changes both in the front office and in the clubhouse. Pittsburgh’s biggest problem might be that the NL Central competition got better in the offseason while the Pirates mostly stood pat. A winning season isn’t out of the question, but neither is a significant step back.

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