Although the Pittsburgh Pirates’ offense fell flat in the final two games of their National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, we all can agree the Bucs lineup in September and October was more dangerous than the typical starting eight from the first five months of the season.
It would’ve been nice to see how dynamic the Pirates could’ve been if leadoff man Starling Marte never got hurt in mid-August, but the presence of proven veterans Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau – both acquired through waiver trades – lengthened and strengthened the Pittsburgh lineup.
Both players are on the back side of their respective MLB careers, so it’s no guarantee they’ll match their 2013 levels of production in the seasons beyond. However, the Pirates should at least make an effort to retain Byrd, 36, and Morneau, 32, for the 2014 campaign.
The easier case can be made for Byrd, who capped his most productive year in the big leagues with a flourish in Pittsburgh. While his defense in right field was mostly lackluster, Byrd was just the opposite at the plate, posting a .318/.357/.486 line (AVG/OBP/SLG) in 30 regular season games as a Pirate. Those numbers were mostly in line with how Byrd performed with the Mets from April to August, so it wasn’t just a well-timed hot streak – he really was that good this season.
Byrd kept up his torrid pace in the playoffs, launching a key home run in the wild card win over Cincinnati and going 6 for 18 against St. Louis, including three key RBIs across Games 2 and 3, both Pirates victories. It appears the work Byrd put in last winter with swing guru Doug Latta and in the Mexican League translated into a new lease on his baseball life.
A one-year contract offer would be prudent for Byrd, as Pittsburgh’s elite outfield prospect Gregory Polanco has played just two games at the Triple-A level and will likely need more seasoning before a promotion. Perhaps general manager Neal Huntington can capitalize on skepticism that Byrd will be unable to maintain his 2013 level; Byrd also expressed in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s season-ending loss that he would like to stick around.
Morneau hasn’t been quite as outspoken in that regard, but one would imagine the first baseman could be convinced there’s a fit for him in Pittsburgh. The Canadian-born former AL MVP delivered on little of his power potential once donning a Pirates uniform – he had only four extra-base hits, all doubles, in 31 total games for Pittsburgh – but he still got on base at a .370 rate.
If you watched the Pirates at all this year, you know reaching base wasn’t a strength of theirs. Only star center fielder Andrew McCutchen surpassed Morneau’s OBP, with Marte’s .343 coming the closest to matching it among other full-time players. Morneau may have been miscast in the cleanup spot, but he brings value with the bat even if he’s not driving the ball into gaps and over fences.
Morneau’s also a strong defender at first base and a lefty swinger, making him an ideal complement for part-timer Gaby Sanchez – if manager Clint Hurdle is willing to stick to a platoon situation. Alex Dickerson is the lone legitimate first base prospect in the Pirates system, and he’s never played above Double-A. Morneau wouldn’t be blocking anyone right away if he is retained on, say, a two-year contract.
Bringing back Byrd and Morneau is easier said than done, as the free-agent market will likely drive their prices beyond their values. Regardless, the Pirates would be better off if their lineup from Wednesday’s Game 5 is replicated for Opening Day against the Cubs on March 31.
It may not work out, but the Bucs would be wise to make a run at keeping a pair that got a taste of winning in Pittsburgh. They might be willing to take a little less for another crack at the playoffs in 2014.