The Pittsburgh Pirates have been through some down times in the playoffs as of late. After re-emerging for the first time following twenty consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates have made it to the Wild Card game in each of the last two years only to fall at that hurdle. Pittsburgh had some voids to fill with the losses of guys like A.J. Burnett, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez. Burnett was a reliable innings eater for the Pirates in the middle of their rotation while Walker and Alvarez combined for 43 home runs last season for Pittsburgh.
This is where Neal Huntington comes into play every year. There is a percentage of the fan base that labels the Pirates cheap but Huntington does not act like they don't spend money. He even says they don't win in the offseason. But who really does? All that matters is what you do on the field. Every year is different and last year everyone was talking about San Diego winning the offseason. This year the talk is about Arizona and what they did. All that matters is what the team does once games start. It's no secret the Pirates came up short, but sometimes you have to learn how to lose before you learn how to win. That's why guys like David Freese are signed in the offseason. But we'll get to that later. The bottom line is that Huntington finds a way to put a winner on the field every year so why couldn't this be the year? Until the Pirates do not have the record to show for it, the noise should not exist.
A New Plan?
It seems as if the Pirates are going with a new approach to the game this year. They signed John Jaso to play first base, even though he had hardly played the position in the major leagues before. But they were confident in his ability to adjust to the position and it should prove to be a great signing. Why? Because Jaso gets on base, which leads me to the "plan" they have. The Pirates are taking more of an approach where they get on base and push the issue on the basepaths, which is identical to the Kansas City Royals of last year. Pittsburgh is taking more of a station-to-station approach when it comes to producing runs this season.
Breakout Candidate: Gregory Polanco
Gregory Polanco emerged on the scene for Pittsburgh in 2014, playing in 89 games. Polanco finished the year with a .235 average, seven home runs and 33 runs batted in. He increased those totals to .256 with nine homers and 52 runs batted in in 2015. Many baseball folks will tell you Polanco has yet to reach his full potential and you can count this writer in that pool of people. For prediction purposes, Polanco will have an average in the .270's with 18 homers and 75 RBI's in 2016 for the Pirates. He is not a power guy, but the way he swings through the ball will help him once he finds his place in the major leagues and 2016 is his chance and time to shine.
Manager Clint Hurdle named newly-signed pitcher Juan Nicasio to the starting rotation for Pittsburgh on Wednesday. The Pirates first three will be Francisco Liriano, Jonathon Niese, and Nicasio for their opening series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The new man earned his way into the rotation by pitching 15 scoreless innings in the spring while striking out 24 batters in that time. The only puzzling starter is Jeff Locke. Time and again, Pittsburgh continues to stick with Locke, who has never put together a complete season. He had an all-star worthy first half of the season years ago, but regressed badly in the second half and now he struggles to get through five innings. Locke does not belong but he and Gerrit Cole will round out the Pirates starting five in 2016. There are two highly-touted minor leaguers in Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow that could see time in the majors at some point in 2016, but when that will be is solely up to the Pirates and their management team. With Locke and Nicasio making the rotation, this leaves newcomer Ryan Vogelsong as the odd man out and he will start the year in the bullpen.
The Pirates bullpen, based on its track record, enters the 2016 campaign as arguably their best asset. The bullpen is highlighted by Tony Watson as the set up man and Mark Melancon as the closer for Pittsburgh. Melancon posted 51 saves in 2015 and was one of the biggest reasons why Pittsburgh's bullpen was tops in the majors. Watson was impressive in his own right and posted 41 holds and a sub-2.00 ERA. The Pirates also signed the aforementioned Vogelsong as well as Neftali Feliz, who Pittsburgh hopes to turn around as they so famously have done in the past. Feliz's numbers of late won't wow you by any stretch of the imagination, but he has enjoyed success in the past. The Pirates are hoping they can tweak some things and add him to their arsenal in an already dominant bullpen.
The Pirates quietly made some nice moves in the offseason. Fans were outraged by the trade of Neil Walker and things like that and the label of "cheap" still exists amongst some fans with the Pirates. Yet, there is a lot of upside to the 2016 club. Andrew McCutchen heads into 2016 healthy and that is something that he may not have been last year. Cutch, as they call him, may have been injured as he batted .188 for the first month or so of the season in 2015. This year, McCutchen seems poised for another MVP-worthy season. The signing of David Freese was a great move as well by Pirates management. Freese brings a career .276 average to the Pirates along with a World Series ring and World Series MVP as well.
Everyone loves predictions, so let's give the people what they really want. This will probably blow up, as most predictions do, but here it goes. The Chicago Cubs have essentially been handed the NL Central crown for 2016 but expect the Pirates to be right behind them, finishing 93-69 and the first Wild Card spot in the National League. Neal Huntington is no Theo Epstein nor do the Pirates spend money the way the Cubs do. Yet, given Huntington's resources, along with the fact that this Pittsburgh team is one of only three in baseball to make the playoffs each of the past three years, the Pirates get the pass for now. Expect the Pirates to be a legitimate threat yet again and find success on the field, even if it seems far fetched or at one point seemed that way. They filled holes that they needed to and defensively should actually be a bit better with Pedro Alvarez no longer starting at first base.