This is one of a series of posts in which I will be breaking down every team in baseball. I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share my observations.
Today we look at the Pirates, who have played in two win-or-go-home Wildcard games in the last two years. With most of the same core players returning this season, they could make it three in a row. Pittsburgh fans, best prepare for another nail-biter.
Projected Lineup: LF Starling Marte, RF Gregory Polanco, CF Andrew McCutchen, 2B Neil Walker, 3B Josh Harrison, 1B Pedro Alvarez, SS Jordy Mercer, C Francisco Cervelli*
Projected Rotation: RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP A.J. Burnett*, LHP Francisco Liriano, RHP Charlie Morton, LHP Jeff Locke
* new additions
The Pirates had a busy offseason, but now that it’s March, they seem to have just as many holes as they did in November.
The big void is the one left by departed catcher Russell Martin. He’s a guy whom it’s impossible to completely replace—especially the threat he is on both offense and defense. New backstop Francisco Cervelli is a good game-caller, works with pitchers well, but he’s not Russell Martin. And try as he might, Cervelli will never be able to grow a beard as good as Martin’s (although, like Martin, Cervelli came from the Yankees where beards are forbidden, so you know he’ll try).
Offensively, making up for Martin’s production shouldn’t be a problem, because the Pirates have so many other dynamic players who will be contributing. Andrew McCutchen is still the centerpiece, coming off a 2014 season even better than his MVP campaign the year before. What’s even more remarkable is his consistency. Cutch has now posted at least a .300 average, .400 on-base percentage, and twenty homers for three straight seasons, the first player to accomplish the feat since Joey Votto did it from 2009-11.
Unfortunately, McCutchen’s production also has the effect of overshadowing another Pirates’ outfielder who should be getting a lot more recognition. Let’s illustrate this point by looking at this outfielder’s numbers next to a few similar outfielders around baseball, most of them perennial All-Stars. We’ll look at their aggregate numbers over the past two seasons.
Player A: .283 average, .795 OPS, 21 steals, 9.0 WAR
Player B: .266 average, .765 OPS, 23 steals, 10.4 WAR
Player C: .280 average, .799 OPS, 35 steals, 7.5 WAR
Player D: .286 average, .796 OPS, 71 steals, 10.7 WAR
The first three guys are Adam Jones, Alex Gordon and Hunter Pence. All have very solid numbers, as we’ve come to expect from some of the top-tier players in the game. The fourth guy is Starling Marte. As you can see, Marte can hang with any of these guys. Even with Jones’ bat, Gordon’s defense or Pence’s durability, none of them can match Marte’s overall production as measured by WAR. Look for him to be a big contributor at the top of the Pirates lineup this year.
The only potential weakness in the lineup might be a lack of production from the left side. The Pirates are counting on either a breakout year from Gregory Polanco or a resurgent season from Pedro Alvarez. The Polanco scenario seems more likely, but you can never count on a 23-year-old to turn into a superstar without at least having a backup plan.
The Pirates were also the raffle winners for Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang. He was a superstar in Korea, mashing 40 homers in just 117 games for the Nexen Heroes a year ago. He will compete for the shortstop job in Pittsburgh, but his production is far from a sure thing, because one must always take stats from foreign baseball leagues with a grain of salt. Remember, this is the league that is currently employing a 33-year-old Jorge Cantú (who is actually doing quite well).
The starting pitching is a reunion of sorts, with the Pirates bringing back old fan favorite A.J. Burnett after he left to spend one season in Philadelphia (and let’s face it, one year is long enough for anyone to be in Philadelphia). Burnett’s two years in black and yellow were among the best of his career, so he’s hoping the familiar scenery can inspire a good year, after a rather forgettable one with the Phillies.
Burnett will join familiar teammates Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, who likewise have seen nothing but good years in Pittsburgh. I don’t know if it’s something in the water there, or the weird slaw sandwiches with fries inside, but lately this city has been a pitcher’s best friend.
The Pirates also have depth where a lot of teams don’t, with young MLB-ready arms in the minors who are ready to make an impact. Jameson Taillon is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, and Nick Kingham isn’t far behind him. Look for these guys to join the team down the stretch, or earlier if the big league staff needs the help. Sometimes, there’s no better weapon than a kid from the minors that no one has ever seen.
However the season shakes out, the ultimate goal is to go deep in the playoffs. After being bounced early two years in a row, the Pirates are determined to be strong in October, and most importantly, not be involved in another damn Wildcard game. That means it’s the division or bust—and the Pirates have as good a chance at it this year as anybody.
Projected Finish: 87-75, 2nd place in NL Central, Wildcard berth