Stop me if you've heard this one before. (Don't, really; it's just a saying.)
The Pittsburgh Pirates get off to a good start and even hold first place for a while during the middle of the season, making talk start about a possible playoff spot, or at least breaking their streak of losing seasons.
Then they fold, in more-or-less spectacular fashion, and do neither of the above.
That's happened each of the last two years, and last year was an even bigger crash-and-burn than 2011 was. After defeating the Diamondbacks August 8, the Bucs were 63-47, 2½ games out of first place in the National League Central and leading the wild-card race. From that day to the end of the season, Pittsburgh went 16-36, finishing below .500 for the 20th consecutive year. How bad was that? Even the Cubs, who were awful for the last two months of 2012, were better from 8/8 to season's end, going 18-35.
So what did the Pirates do in the offseason to attempt to fix the issues of the last two years? That's right, they traded away their lockdown closer, Joel Hanrahan, for an assortment of prospects and maybes. One of the players received in return was Mark Melancon, who was once considered a closer prospect for the Astros. The Pirates' depth chart currently lists Jason Grilli as closer. Grilli is 36 and has five career saves. I'm guessing they'll give Melancon a shot at the job.
The rest of the team returns more or less intact from 2012; some of their young players (Starling Marte, Travis Snider) have talent, but need to prove it at the major-league level. The only other major addition is catcher Russell Martin, who signed a two-year, $15 million deal after having a mediocre (.211/.311/.403, though with 21 home runs) season with the Yankees.
And the Bucs do have one of the best players on the planet in Andrew McCutchen, who was an early favorite for MVP last summer before he faded and Buster Posey came on. McCutchen is just 26 and should be entering his best years, which the Pirates have locked up through at least 2017 (and a 2018 option) at below-market rates, one of the smartest things the franchise has done in years.
One more addition to the Pirates is worth mentioning: former Tigers and A's third baseman Brandon Inge is in camp on a minor-league deal; if he makes the team he'll back up Pedro Alvarez at third. Brandon Inge is tougher than you. If you don't believe that, watch this play, on which he dislocated his right shoulder diving for a ball and then popped it back in place:
Having dislocated a finger myself and popped it back in, I can tell you this is not advisable. Inge missed the rest of the 2012 season after that (except for a single attempt to play in September), but can still serve a major-league team decently as a bench player.
The Cubs split 16 games with the Pirates in 2012, and will open the season in Pittsburgh April 1, with two more games April 3 and 4 after the traditional cold-weather-city off day after the opener. Then the teams won't meet until May 21-23, again at PNC Park; they don't have their first Wrigley Field matchup until June 7-9. Thanks, MLB schedulers.
Tomorrow, I'll begin a look at the Cubs' NL East opponents with a preview of the Atlanta Braves.