After 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates have proven that they are contenders year-in and year-out. The 280 combined wins (94, 88, and 98) in the past three seasons is good for second amongst all MLB teams; unfortunately, the top spot belongs to the, division-rival, Saint Louis Cardinals. The Pirates don’t plan on stopping any time soon with some of the best prospects in the game polishing their skills in double and triple-A baseball; the future looks very bright, and those prospects may make an appearance as soon as this summer. The next step is to get over the hump that is the NL Wild Card game, where they have found themselves in each of the past three seasons, losing two.
For now, however, this team has a very deep and respected lineup. Led by former MVP Andrew McCutchen (.292, 23 HRs, 96 RBI), this lineup when healthy is dangerous from top to bottom. Coming off of a 98-win season the Pirates only lost two majority infield-starters: Aramis Ramirez (.245, 6 HRs, 33 RBI) to retirement and Pedro Alvarez (.243, 27 HRs, 77 RBI) to Free Agency. It may be too early, but one could make the case that the teams’ defense has improved with the acquisition of Jon Jaso and ex-Pirate killer David Freese (.257, 14 HRs, 56 RBI) to replace Pedro Alvarez’s 23 errors at first base last season.The pitching staff has also added strength to an already robust rotation with the additions of Jon Niese (9-10, 4.13 ERA) and Juan Nicasio (3.86 ERA, 10 SO/9) as well as the resigning of the Pirates’ all-time saves leader Mark Melancon (51 Saves). Most notably, Pittsburgh’s fiery ace Gerrit Cole has a fresh-contract (1 Year- $571,000) that made headlines over the offseason as it did not seem to reflect his performance (19-8 2.60 ERA) and worth to the team in 2015. Having watched Cole closely since he was first drafted number one overall in 2011, expect that debacle to be a starting point to prove to the team that he is worth investing in. Expect top-pitching prospect Jameson Taillon to make an appearance, or two, mid-season as well if some on the staff gets injured; he will make an immediate impact combined with the one-two punch of Cole and Francisco Liriano (12-7 3.38 ERA).
Backed by arguably the best outfield in baseball by Gold-Glove winner Starling Marte (.287, 19 HRs, 81 RBI), an already established (and most importantly healthy) Andrew McCutchen, and the raw potential in Gregory Polanco (.256, 9 HRs, 52 RBI) this may be the year that the Pirates need to make a run before these players on the brink of stardom demand to get paid big. When Jung-Ho Kang (.287, 15 HRs, 58 RBI) returns from his season-ending injury, and first base is occupied by either David Freese, Josh Bell, or Jon Jaso, expect this defense to be as strong as ever with Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer manning the middle after trading Neil Walker to the Mets.Francisco Cervelli (.295, 7 HRs, 43 RBI) premiered in Pittsburgh about as well as any new player has that I have ever seen. He became a fan favorite, and most importantly a vocal-leader to an already boisterous team. Andrew McCutchen is newly-married, healthy, and has blasted 6 homeruns in just one month – a good sign for the season to come. Uncertain of his abilities, Jung-Ho Kang has immerged as one of baseball’s freshest stars. Set to return in May, Kang expects to pick up where he left off: on his way to NL Rookie of the Year before the injury.
The only spots of concern is at the end of the 5-man rotation and parts of the bullpen. Pittsburgh resigned southpaw Jeff Locke (8-11, 4.54 ERA), who will round out the bottom of the rotation with nothing but uncertainty. Locke showed flashes of brilliance last season with an 8-inning, 4 hit-outing against the Brewers and an 8-inning, 2 hitter against the Indians. The consistency was never there throughout the season, something he will need to fix if the Pirates want to make a playoff run.
Newly acquired Ryan Vogelsong adds experience to the bullpen at 38-years old. He brings the weight of a 9-11 record accompanied by a 4.67 ERA with him into the 2016 season, but coming out of the bullpen may be the change needed to get his numbers back on track. If Ray Searage could revitalized A.J Burnett at the end of his career, who’s to say Vogelsong won’t do the same?
Expect to see another year of three 90-win NL Central teams. If the Pirates can pull of 3 or 4 extra wins by taking advantage of the lower-ranked NL Central teams, they could easily win this division. With Aroldis Chapman’s 100+ MPH fastball headed to the Yankees, those few extra wins should be served up on a platter.
As for expectations, we’re spoiled. A 98-win season sets the bar extremely high for this season. There will always be the people who think a 90-95 win season is a failure because of that bar, but wins do not define a season. Like we saw last year, 98-wins means nothing if you can’t get out of the play-in games. The key will be to win the division to avoid that play-in game. The National League is too strong and it’s abundance of all-star aces makes the odds of winning a one-game playoff series harder than it’s ever been. Not having Jake Arietta or Madison Bumgarner decide their playoff fate will hopefully be enough motivation to take the division by storm.
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