For a team that went 20 years without a winning record, you would think the last couple years would have been very rewarding for the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, the novelty of winning baseball games (98 wins in ’15) can only take you so far and eventually you have to make it happen in the playoffs. The Bucs have lost two years in a row in the NL Wild Card Game, scoring a total of zero runs in those two games. Granted they went up against top of the line pitchers in those respective seasons (Madison Bumgarner in ’14 and Jake Arrieta in ’15), but getting shut out two years in a row in a loser-go-home affair is hard to swallow. The temptation may be for Pirates fans to think that sooner or late they will get it done, but the fact remains that the division is arguable the strongest in baseball and nothing can be taken for granted.
Depth Chart (as of 3/10)
C: Francisco Cervelli
1B: John Jaso
2B: Alen Hanson
SS: Jordy Mercer
3B: Josh Harrison
LF: Starling Marte
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Gregory Polanco
SP: Gerrit Cole
SP: Francisco Liriano
SP: Jon Niese
SP: Ryan Vogelsong
SP: Jeff Locke
CL: Mark Melancon
New Faces: Neftali Feliz, John Jaso, Kyle Lobstein, Juan Nicasio, Jon Niese, Jason Rogers, Ryan Vogelsong
Departures: Pedro Alvarez, Antonio Bastardo, Joe Blanton, AJ Burnett, JA Happ, Travis Ishikawa, Andrew Lambo, Radhames Liz, Charlie Morton, Aramis Ramirez, Tony Sanchez, Travis Snider, Joakim Soria, Neil Walker, Vance Worley
Position Battles: The linchpin of the Pirates position battles is Jung Ho Kang. The 28-year old native of South Korea finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Kris Bryant would have made it tough to win regardless, but Kang went down in mid-September following a broken leg he sustained from a hard slide from Chris Coghlan of the Cubs. He likely will not be ready for the start of the season, but if all goes well, his return could be early on in the calendar.
However, in his absence a hole exists at third base and presumably that will be filled by Josh Harrison who is slated to take over second base duties following the departure of Neil Walker. Harrison has played all over the infield in his career and the majority of his games have been at third, so he’s the logical choice until Kang returns. However, that leaves a vacancy at second base and that’s where the candidates are plentiful.
Rookie Alen Hanson looks to be the front-runner at this point. The 23-year old native of the Dominican Republic was signed as an amateur free agent by the Pirates in 2009 and has made his rounds in the minors. He seemed to be in line for a September call-up last year, but suffered a hand injury that delayed his likely debut until this season. Hansen doesn’t have much of as far as offensive power, but he did steal around 30 bases a season and had a respectable .787 OPS. So while he will not be Robinson Cano, he shouldn’t be a total stiff offensively.
While the job appears to be Hanson’s to lose, he is in fact a rookie and so he will need to continue to play well to earn his spot in the Opening Day lineup. Veterans Sean Rodriguez and Pedro Florimon will also contend for playing time at second. Rodriguez will be on the roster regardless because of his versatility (he played at six different positions for the Pirates in ’15), which is highly valued in today’s game. He also brings a skill set which involves beating up water coolers, unmatched in all of baseball.
Injury Concerns: As mentioned before Kang’s return is vital for the Pirates success in 2016. There is no reason to believe he won’t come back and be able to stay healthy, but his injury (broken leg with some knee damage) is one that you always worry could affect his approach at the plate. Will he be apprehensive or passive at the plate or on the basepaths?
The Pirates hope his confidence has been shaken due to his circumstances. His numbers last year speak to his value to the ballclub. He boasted a .287/.355/.461 line and added 15 homers in 421 at bats. At 28 years of age, he’s an “older” second year player, but hopefully with that comes the maturity to move on after a gruesome injury and pick up where he left off.
Harrison only played 114 games last season due to a thumb injury. He hit .287 during those 114 games and while he isn’t counted on for huge numbers, the Pirates bench is not anything to be feared. An injury to Harrison would just complicate the infield situation that they are in now. Michael Morse, Florimon, and Rodriguez offer that insurance policy, but asking them to play full-time isn’t what the Pirates would prefer. With their strong outfield, the Pirates can afford to have a below average infield, but at a certain point there needs to be some consistency.
Key Player: This almost goes without saying, but the most important player on this team is Andrew McCutchen. The 2014 MVP (who has also finished in the top five of voting each of the last four seasons) had another stellar season in ’15. He cracked 23 homers, knocked in 96, hit .292, and posted a .889 OPS. While his best statistical season was 2013, McCutchen has been one of the most consistent performers in all of baseball the last four seasons.
While he only has one Gold Glove to show for it, his fielding is superb and he averages 24 stolen bases a season. McCutchen is one of those players whose numbers don’t tell the whole story for how valuable he is to a team. Not only does he look the part (the man looks good in a baseball uniform!), but exudes leadership on a regular basis and though he is still only 29 years old, he is one of the elder-statesman of the team.
And though the numbers aren’t everything, the Bucs sure could use a little boost in production from their center fielder in 2016. His strikeout numbers could drop a bit (133 in ’15), and you’d like to see some more aggressiveness on the base paths (only 11 steals last season after he stole 20+ each year from 2009-13).
To be fair, McCutchen is not a 30+ homer guy and you can’t complain about a player with a .298/.388/496 line for his career. However, following the losses of of Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates will need someone to pick up some of the slack left by those players absence in the lineup. Look for McCutchen to have a monster season.
Underrated Asset: Gregory Polanco could also be a candidate for key player in ’15. A breakout season from him would really put the Pirates outfield on another lever. Either way, Polanco is one of those players that isn’t talked about much, but is vital for the Pirates’ success. Since breaking onto the scene in 2014, Polanco has not been setting the world on fire with his statistical output. The 24-year old right fielder only hit nine homers in 2015 in 153 games while knocking in 52 runs. Polanco hit 16 and 17 homers in 2012 and 2013 respectively in the Pirates minor league system as well as driving in 86 and 100 runs in those two seasons.
However, since his call-up Polanco just hasn’t produced anything close to those numbers. A .256/.320/.381 line for 2015 is certainly nothing to write home about, but Polanco surely has talent. He is not talked about a lot, but that’s because he hasn’t given people reason to talk about him. If the Pirates get off to a hot start in 2016, don’t be surprised to see Polanco playing a big part in that.
Burning Question: How will the rotation fare beyond the second starter?
There is no arguing that Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano are a solid 1-2 punch in the Pirates rotation. Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA, 1.091 WHIP in ’15) is only 24, and his in third season in the majors, finished in the top five of the Cy Young voting. Liriano has experienced a career resurrection since coming over to the Pirates as a free agent in 2013. The big left-hander struggled with injuries with the Twins and White Sox prior to his stint with the Pirates, but since putting on the black and gold, he is 35-25 with a 3.26 ERA.
The questions emerge when you look beyond Liriano, at the 3-4-5 starters in the rotation. It’s not really a question of who those players will be, barring injury – those three starters are known. The real question is how well will those guys perform.
In return for Neil Walker, the Pirates received lefty Jon Niese. Niese had spent his entire eight-year career with the Mets and while he never was an ace, he was durable, averaging 28 starts and 171 innings from 2010-2015. Niese’s best season was in 2012 when he posted a 13-9 record with an ERA+ of 112 in 190.1 innings pitched. The Pirates hope that Niese can complete a solid lefty 2-3 punch with Liriano.
So far this spring, however, Niese has been anything but impressive. He allowed four runs in each of his first two starts in a total of five innings. Of course, Niese is going to be a starter for the Pirates no matter how poorly he performs during Spring Training so it’s not really a big deal either way.
The Pirates also signed 38-year old Ryan Vogelsong in free agency this winter. The 2011 All-Star will be joining the Bucs for a second time after being a member of the Pirates from 2001-2006, but this is one of those scenarios where anything positive you get from him performance-wise is a bonus. While he had a couple good years with the Giants, since then he has been very pedestrian even though, like Niese, he has stayed relatively healthy. The last three seasons, Vogelsong has a 4.63 ERA and an ERA+ of 77. Vogelsong is in Pittsburgh to provide some veteran leadership for the young guys and specifically Gerrit Cole.
The fifth spot will likely be owned by 28-year old lefty Jeff Locke. Locke has been with the Pirates since 2011 and he had a good season in 2013, making the All-Star team. Locke had a rough 2015 (4.49 ERA in 30 starts), but he also wasn’t considered the fifth starter last season. Hopefully for the Pirates, with the pressure off, Locke can relax and provide solid innings from the five-spot.
Best Case Scenario: The Pirates once again win 90+ games even within a very tough division. The outfield, the backbone of the team, stays healthy and Polanco has a breakout season. Even with the departure of offensive weapons of Alvarez and Walker, the offense picks it up and continues to find ways to score runs. The bullpen is solid once again and the starting pitching is dependable. At some point, prospect right-hander Tyler Glasnow will make his major league debut and a boost from him would do wonders for the Pirates Postseason hopes.
Worst Case Scenario: An injury to a guy like McCutchen would be devastating for the Pirates. Not only do you lose his production on the field, but you lose his leadership and everything else he brings to the team. The rest of the league learns how to hit Cole and Liriano’s injury history comes back in force. Injuries to the bullpen and the inability to score runs without the old power bats further debilitates the team’s success. The Cubs and Cardinals beat up on the Bucs and leave them in the dust by the All-Star Break and the goal becomes achieving a winning record, much less make the playoffs.
Realistic Prediction: The Pirates are not going to all of a sudden be a laughing stock this season. They are still going to win a lot of ballgames and Clint Hurdle is a fantastic manager. They are in a tough division and even though they won 98 games last season, many people are penciling them in at the three spot behind the Cubs and Cardinals. Well, guess what, so is this writer. Beating last season’s performance is going to be tough and if the Pirates were in the NL East maybe that could happen. The Cubs have improved too much on paper and the Cardinals are too “Cardinal-like” for the Pirates this season. Bucs finish in third place with 87 wins and contend for the second Wild Card spot in the NL.