The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off of a miserable season where 69-wins don't even tell the whole story. It was worse than being 12-games below .500. The headlines about the the off-field stuff were worse than the losses on it. Caesars Entertainment has published their first win totals of the year and they don't, at least in terms of wins/losses, see this season being much better. They have the Pirates at 70.5 games. So, for all you betting folks out there, here is how I will be betting that and why.
Why I am taking the over
Assuming this stays at 70.5, the over is an easy bet for me. I've seen other sports books with a higher number. For example, Fanduel Sportsbook has them at 72.5, which would cause me to hedge a bit on this. If held at gun point, I'd still take the over at 72.5, but wouldn't be as eager as I would be at 70.5. Here's why I like this bet.
2019 is dead
2019's 69 wins was the worst of Clint Hurdle's time in Pittsburgh and the Pirates needed a slew of injuries and off-field incidents to stoop that low. New leadership is in place now and all those injured Buccos, except Jameson Taillon, will be back on the field in 2020.
I'm not saying that guys like Gregory Polanco and Chris Archer returning will make a huge difference, but starting the year healthy will at least give Derek Shelton the flexibility of putting his best nine guys out there every night.
The only key subtraction from 2019 is Felipe Vazquez, and he is a big one, but Keone Kela is very capable and should help curb the loss of the aptly-named "Nightmare."
Progression of younger players
The Pirates were a pretty young team in 2019, and I expect a jump from a number of those young starters.
Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds were each in the NL Rookie of the Year conversation, and I expect their steadiness and consistency to continue on into 2020.
Colin Moran is another who could make a jump at the plate. Everyone is waiting for the power to come from his 6'4" frame, and he's shown flashes of it. I still think he's a first baseman though.
Statistically, Mitch Keller cannot have a worse year than he did in 2019. I mean, he can, but he is way too talented to post a 7.13 ERA and 1.833 WHIP. He ended the season with some positive momentum and I'm counting on that improvement, along with the tutelage of Oscar Marin to cause Keller to get it together and become the top-of-the-rotation guy that this team desperately needs.
Less positional uncertainty
In 2019, it was difficult early on to really know who our best nine players were. We saw Hurdle try a number of guys at different positions, particularly at catcher, short stop, and third base. The positive that came from all that jostling is that the lineup for 2020 seems much more clear.
Jacob Stallings is and was our best catcher. Kevin Newman is by far our best short stop, and Colin Moran, with all of his defensive woes, still offers more at the plate than others, mostly Jung Ho Kang, who contended for his position last season.
The only real position battle I see is in right field, and that is only if Polanco is noticeably hindered by his shoulder. If he is healthy, he's it.
This has been echoed by nearly every new hire the organization has made this off-season. The Pirates want to focus on what their players do well and develop them around those traits. Gone are the days when the organization required players play a certain way despite it not jiving with their strengths. This will be a factor that, if successful, will not be immediately noticeable when you're watching the game, but positive results it would produce cannot be understated.
What could mess this all up?
A lot of this hinges on the previously-mentioned, Oscar Marin. The pitching staff was the weak spot last season, and a new coach could work wonders for a young staff. If he doesn't make a quick impact, or if it takes a while for players to adjust to him and they regress, this could be a problem.
Josh Bell is a wild card. He had an MVP first half of 2019, and an average second half. Which Bell are we going to get in 2020? He needs to be special if this team is going to improve. Their power numbers last season were lacking and he provided most of the punch. So, we need something that resembles the first half of the season to exist throughout.
I could see the bull pen being an issue again, especially considering their best player from 2019 will be spending 2020 in a jail cell.
The one factor that could really implode your over bet is Ben Cherington. He doesn't care what bet you made, and he shouldn't. If the team is not competing for a playoff spot around deadline time, you could see all those moves we've expected this winter. Guys like Marte, Frazier, and maybe even Bell could be shipped out for, hopefully, the stars of the future. This, to me, is the biggest threat to betting the over. If the Pirates are sellers, it means they are close to being on track for the 71 wins you need to win that bet. But, after they sell, they probably won't have the firepower to keep the pace.
With all that said, I feel like there is enough talent, and emerging talent on this team to win 71 or more (but not much more) games. That's not really saying a lot. It doesn't take much for a team to win 71 games. So, this isn't putting lofty expectations on the team. I just don't see them being worse than last season.
Follow Jared on Twitter: @a_piratelife