The day that baseball fans everywhere love and what is essentially the unofficial start to the season is finally here. Pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training as it begins for all thirty Major League Baseball clubs. The Pittsburgh Pirates are back in Pirate City, also known as Bradenton, Florida. The Pirates made many moves over the offseason, only the more noteworthy of which will be covered throughout this piece. The Pirates return to Bradenton with a great core of players still intact with guys like Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, Francisco Cervelli, Francisco Liriano, and Gerrit Cole amongst others. Now let's take a look at the new faces and how things have changed for Pittsburgh this offseason.
The Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation is going to look different this season, with newcomers Ryan Vogelsong and Jon Niese now in the rotation. J.A. Happ and A.J. Burnett are both gone now and the Pirates must turn to Vogelsong and Neise to keep their success going. Happ signed with the Toronto Blue Jays this offseason at 3 years, $36 million. Burnett ended a 17-year career following 2015 and hung up his cleats.
The Pirates then traded second baseman Neil Walker this offseason to acquire Niese for the rotation. They later signed Vogelsong to a $2 million deal for the 2016 season. However, this rotation is likely to change for many reasons. For years, Pirates fans have struggled through the ups and downs of one Jeff Locke. With his inconsistency and his inability to make it past the fifth inning without trouble, highly touted prospects like Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon will be waiting in the wings for the Pirates this season. Not only do these guys deserve a chance, but the Pirates cannot keep Locke around in the rotation if they want to have a chance at winning the National League Central.
The Pirates also went out and added some arms to complete their already great bullpen. The Pirates have enjoyed having leads heading into the latter innings of games because their bullpen has been arguably the best in baseball over the past few years. Tony Watson will still be the set-up man to closer Mark Melancon for Pittsburgh. One acquisition for the Pirates was the signing of right-haned reliever Juan Nicasio.
In gfive major league seasons, the 29-year-old Nicasio has an earned run average of 4.88. But 2015 was his best season yet, as he pitched to an ERA of 3.86 in 58.1 innings for a Dodger bullpen that was very bad. Furthermore, his FIP in 2015 was 2.83. FIP is a sabremetric, for those who are unaware, and it essentially gives us what a guy's ERA should be. Another free agent signing for the Pirates was 27-year-old Neftali Feliz. Feliz' numbers are far better than Nicasio's, with his career ERA at 3.17 through seven seasons. 2015 was a down year for Feliz but every other year he has pitched with an ERA in the low 3.00's or better. Expect the Pirates bullpen to yet again be their best asset and a top bullpen across the majors in 2016.
The Pirates outfield is another asset that they have in their arsenal. Nothing has changed as far as Pittsburgh's outfield is concerned and it will be Marte, McCutchen, and Polanco left to right for the Pirates outfield this season. Marte had a career year in 2015, posting his highest home run and RBI totals thus far. That could improve yet again this season if Marte is able to cut down on his strikeout total.
Andrew McCutchen will be healthier than he was last year as he struggled out of the gate for Pittsburgh. He never admitted to it, but McCutchen seemed to be dealing with some sort of knee ailment early on last spring as the season got underway and he struggled. A healthy Andrew McCutchen all year spells trouble for opposing teams all season.
Gregory Polanco is another guy that can grow for Pittsburgh and get even better. Polanco played his first full season in 2015, batting .256 with 9 homers and 52 runs batted in. With an OPS of just .701 last year, Polanco could see that number increase in 2016 as he continues to grow and develop. And hopefully for the sake of his defense, he does not look as lost in right field as he has in the past.
The Pirates infield is a very puzzling one with the trade of Neil Walker and the non-tendering of first baseman Pedro Alvarez. After all the erratic play at first and at third base in years prior to 2015, the Pirates had seen enough and have gone in a different direction. The Pirates have taken an unconvetional approach to addressing first base by bringing in John Jaso.
Jaso is not a guy who hits for power, but he does get on base a lot which has proven to be important in the past in baseball. The Kansas City Royals last year were not a team built on power but they had guys that could hit and it paid off. Jaso compiled a .380 on-base percentage last season and he has a career .361 on-base percentage. With hardly any time playing first base in his career, Jaso will be an option for the Pirates at first in 2016. He could later be moved to the outfield as a substitute to give those guys a day off if and when Pittsburgh decides to call up prospect Josh Bell at some point in the season.
Another intriguing move the Pirates made that is flying far under the radar was the trade for infielder Jason Rogers. Rogers could provide a great bat off the bench for the Pirates especially because they do not have a lot of depth heading into 2016. Rogers hit 4 HR and 16 RBI in 89 games last year with the Milwaukee Brewers and he also racked up an OPS of .808. Rogers was also the Brewers 2013 minor league player of the year.
Josh Harrison will be the Pirates everyday second baseman in 2016 with Walker out of the picture now. Jordy Mercer will play shortstop and when ready, Jung-Ho Kang will be the Pirates third baseman. There has been some question as to whether or not Kang will be ready but all signs seem to point to him playing. There has been video's on Twitter of Kang fielding grounders with no knee brace on and 93.7 the Fan co-host and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook has said all offseason that Kang will be ready barring any setbacks. There have not been any setbacks reported so it would came as no shock if he is at the hot corner on Opening Day for Pittsburgh.
In a time when people are panicking, the Pirates history proves that they have as good of a shot as any in the NL Central. Yes the Chicago Cubs are the clear cut favorite but no division is won on paper, it's won on the field. These teams have not stepped on the field yet.