Tomorrow afternoon at 1:05 PM, the Pirates will kick off their 2016 season against Adam Wainwright and the arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals. PNC Park will be electric, willing the Pirates to victory, but after that there will be 161 games to play. The baseball season is long and grueling. Six months of playing almost everyday takes its toll. This upcoming season is one that the Pirates hope to finally finish atop the NL Central. The way the team looks in April is always much different than it looks in October, but I don’t have a DeLorean, so I have to base what I believe this team will do on how they look now.
During the winter, GM Neal Huntington made a few moves that did not take very well to many Pirates fans, including trading away “Pittsburgh Kid” Neil Walker to the Mets for pitcher Jon Niese. Huntington had plans to fill Walker’s void with Josh Harrison’s versatility and the emergence of Jung Ho Kang. First base, however, has been a revolving door for the Pirates. Last year, all logic pointed to Pedro Alvarez being the everyday first baseman, but his defensive woes forced Huntington’s hand to non-tender Alvarez this offseason while they still had one more year of club control. Despite his defensive inabilities, Alvarez led the Pirates in home runs last year. And by not bring Pedro back, Huntington had to fill the hole somehow. His answer was another righty-lefty platoon like he did for the previous few seasons. 2016’s version will be righty Michael Morse and newly signed lefty, and converted first baseman, John Jaso. Because of the lack of success with the platoons at first base in years past, this move was not necessarily popular with Pirates fans either. Where Huntington did make some moves that were hard to argue were signing former-Pirate Ryan Vogelsong to a cheap deal, pitching reclamation project Juan Nicasio, and veteran bullpen pitcher and former Texas closer Neftali Feliz. These moves added even more pitching depth to a great pitching team. The team will gain even more depth mid-season when prized prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow are expected to make their Major League debuts.
Going into spring training, the team knew they’d have a hole to fill while Jung Ho Kang is out until he’s ready to go after last season’s collision against the Cubs. During Spring Training, Huntington signed veteran third baseman, and former Cardinal, David Freese. Freese will play third base until Kang comes back, then Freese is expected to play all over, including some, you guessed it, first base. Another big story out of spring training was Juan Nicasio, not Ryan Vogelsong as expected, landing the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Nicasio impressed everyone in spring ball, striking out just about everyone he faced in 15 innings, and not giving up any runs in the process. Nicasio could end up being another beneficiary of Ray Searage’s magical work.
Going into the season, the Pirates have Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart handling catching duties, John Jaso and Michael Morse at first base, Josh Harrison at second, Jordy Mercer at shortstop, David Freese starting out at third until Kang is ready, and the dream outfield of Marte, McCutchen, and Polanco. Non-roster invitee Matt Joyce made the club as the fourth outfielder and Sean Rodriguez will be the utility man again. It’s a solid lineup with some speed and the ability to get on base, but does lack power. McCutchen, Marte, and Kang are the only legit threats to hit 20+ home runs. It will be interesting to see how the Pirates generate runs without hitting as many home runs. Home runs aren’t the only way to manufacture runs, but it’s hard to win playing small ball in this division.
Thankfully, the Pirates strength is pitching. A rotation of Cole, Liriano, Niese, Locke, and Nicasio is a solid one. Cole is a bonafide ace, Liriano is one of the more underrated pitchers in baseball, Niese can be good (which is all he has to be. Nobody brought him here to be an ace), Locke has his moments, and Nicasio can dazzle fans if he can do a shade of what he did in the spring. And we can’t forget the duo of prospects in Taillon and Glasnow. The bullpen is arguably the best in baseball. Watson and Melancon are 8th and 9th inning masters and Hughes, Caminero, Vogelsong, Feliz, and offseason additions Cory Luebke and Kyle Lobstein make up the rest of the bullpen. Pitching will be strong for the Pirates. There’s very little to argue that it won’t be.
For me, I expect the Pirates to be good. Really good. 98 wins? Probably not. I’m saying 91 wins. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s good enough to win the tough NL Central. I do think it’s good enough to make yet another wildcard game. McCutchen will hit 30 home runs and finish at least top three in MVP balloting. Gerrit Cole will win 20 games and be a Cy Young finalist. Liriano will pitch 200 innings. Glasnow will shine as Cole did as a rookie.
Here’s to a great Pirates season Bucco fans! RAISE IT!
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