This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 11: the Pittsburgh Pirates.
2015 Record and Finish:
98–64 (.605), second place in National League Central, first place in NL wild card (second overall); lost NL wild-card game to Cubs
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
87–75 (.537), third place in NL Central
The Case For
The Pirates are one of the best-run organizations in baseball. That much is clear after a remarkable three-year stretch in which they have made three playoff appearances and won 98, 88, and 94 games; only the Dodgers and the Cardinals have won as much. During that span, the Pirates spent a fraction of what rival league contenders have: Pittsburgh’s payrolls from 2013 to '15 totalled $270 million (the Dodgers, over the same time, shelled out $713 million). The front office under general manager Neal Huntington also have proven to be one of the best organizations at finding cheap, undervalued talent, but the core talent in Pittsburgh is also as good as any in the league.
Pittsburgh has one of the game’s true superstars in Andrew McCutchen, in his prime. Together with Starting Marte, who enjoyed a breakout season at age 26 last year (he was actually Pittsburgh’s top player as measured by Wins Above Replacement) and 24-year-old Gregory Polanco (who has all the tools to be a star), the Pirates have a dynamic supporting cast in the outfield around Cutch. They also have a rotation anchored by Gerrit Cole, who emerged as a bona fide ace last year after becoming the first Pittsburgh starter since 1991 to finish in the top five in Cy Young voting, as well as a terrific back-end bullpen combo in Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, who anchored the best bullpen in the majors (yes, better than the Royals).
Last year, the Pirates were arguably the No. 1 team in baseball—they posted the majors’ best record from May 9 on—and all the key components will be back to make another run and try to avoid that deathtrap wild-card game. The Pirates have the talent to make a fourth straight postseason, but we all know what they must do this year: Take the division and avoid that play-in game against Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke or Jake Arrieta.
The Case Against
Huntington faced a significant challenge this winter, with nine arbitration-eligible players—a situation that played a role in the team parting ways with Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez and limited its spending in the free-agent market, where Pittsburgh could certainly have spent money on a starter. And so the outcasts, misfits and reclamation projects that were in camp this spring included a pitcher who was not good enough to make his team’s playoff rotation last October (Jonathon Niese); a 38-year-old who has a 4.63 ERA since 2013 (Ryan Vogelsong); a former All-Star closer who posted a 6.38 ERA last year (Neftali Feliz); a 29-year-old with hard stuff but no control (Juan Nicasio); and a former ace setup man who hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors in 2 1/2 years (Daniel Bard).
Those players may seem like Powerball tickets, but after a winter without an impact acquisition and after losing A.J. Burnett to retirement and J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton to free agency, the Pirates’ season depends on hitting big on one or two. Perhaps most critical of all is Niese, who is being counted on to log impact innings in the rotation behind Cole, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke. We’re used to pitching coach Ray Searage working his magic, but this year it may take a miracle for the Pirates to cobble together a staff that is good enough to keep up with the Cubs and Cardinals.
X-Factors: Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, SP
Glasnow, a 6'8" righthander with a power fastball and a hammer curve, dominated the lower minors and reached Triple A in 2015; all signs point to him joining the rotation at some point this season. Across three levels, he was 7–5 with a 2.39 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings. Taillon is a 6'5" righthander who also has a power fastball and big-time curve, but the 24-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 and hernia surgery in '15, and he hasn’t thrown a professional pitch in almost three years. While it’s hard to predict where Taillon will end up this season, all indications are that he will be good to go to start the season and could be ready to make the Show at some point this year as well. If the Pirates need help in the rotation this summer, they’ll have two very intriguing options available down on the farm.
Number To Know: 43
That's the number of home runs lost with the departures of Alvarez and Walker, who accounted for 31% of the Pirates’ home run total a year ago and were Pittsburgh’s most reliable sources of power in recent seasons. The Pirates, who ranked 23rd in the majors in homers and 21st in slugging percentage last year, are hoping that new acquisitions John Jaso and David Freese can add some thump to a power-starved lineup.
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Most Overrated: John Jaso, C/1B
"Two years, $8 million, [but] no power, no speed, no position. He’s got good strike zone discipline and he’s got some on-base percentage. He’s always been a guy that walks a good 12, 14, whatever the percent. He doesn’t strike out a lot, either. He’s not a middle-of-the-lineup bat, but he’s a guy that can get on base, and hopefully those guys are driving him in. It’s a risk.... I don’t think it was a bad get, but at the same time, I just never was a fan of the guy."
Most Underrated: Jung-ho Kang, SS
"This guy, if he’s playing every day [and] getting 600-plus at-bats, I think he’s going to hit over 20 home runs. This guy is a threat with the bat. I don’t think a whole lot of people know about this guy, but scouts know about him. One thing that was impressive about him last year, he struggled his butt off in spring training, but you never saw him with poor body language or pout or anything. That guy played his butt off in spring training and he was struggling his butt off and, sure enough, it paid off. I’m sure if you ask [manager] Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington, he’s an important part of their lineup. When they lost him, that really hurt them last year."