Pirates Preview: Boom/Bust Feel in 2016


What does the 2016 season hold for the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Watching Jake Arrieta slowly dissect the Pirates last October, a sliver of doubt crept over me.  After another early exit in the playoffs, I thought to myself, “Are we ever going to get over this hump?”

When I was younger, I relished at the thought of rooting for a Pirates contender.  Seeing a team stuck in the MLB graveyard for two decades, it should make me appreciate the recent run of the Pirates.  It does, but with the mountain top now in sight, I want more.  Just thinking about a possible World Series champ in Pittsburgh leaves me grinning from ear to ear.  But then this doubt shot over me.

Though the Cardinals remain a threat, the Cubs, who dismantled both St Louis and the Pirates, are the clear favorite, rightfully so after their additions this offseason.  Adding Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey solidifies their young, talented roster.

The Pirates took a different approach.  In lateral moves, the team dropped Pedro Alvarez and traded Neil Walker to the Mets, eliminating 43 home runs from their lineup.  Channeling his inner Billy Beane, Neal Huntington signed his own Greek God of Walks, John Jaso.  And yes like Scott Hatteberg, Jaso is being asked to play first base, a position he has two games of experience playing.

Huntington traded for Jason Rogers and added from World Series MVP David Freese, which allows Jung Ho Kang to ease his way back.  To bolster the pitching staff, he brought in Juan Nicasio, Neftali Feliz, Jon Niese and for some reason Ryan Vogelsong, who will start the season in the bullpen.  Nicasio was one of the top pitchers in all of Spring Training, earning him a spot in the rotation.  Seems like Ray Searage has worked his magic again, I would sign him to a lifetime contract at this point.

At first, my doubts about this team were still radiant.  As Spring Training progressed, I begin to feel better about the state of this team.  The Bucs did go 8-20 this spring, but who really cares about those records.  Andrew McCutchen is red hot coming into the season, hitting the most Spring Training home runs for the Pirates since Matt Hague.  Cutch has gotten off to slow starts over the past few years, but hitting in the second spot of the lineup may just be the key to a MVP season.   Jaso will lead off, something he did when Joe Maddon managed the Rays.  Though his batting average was .222 this spring, Jaso drew 10 walks and had an on-base percentage of .404.  As long he continues to get on base, he may not leave the leadoff spot. 

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There is no guarantee that this new approach will keep the Pirates churning on all cylinders.  In games where there is little offense on both sides, being able to hit the long ball can go a long way in helping a team win those one run games.  We may hit fewer home runs this season, but I predict some guys will set career highs this year.   Two of the guys are Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco.  If they can get increased power product from the pair, it greatly help the Pirates.

There are many factors outside the Pirates control that will determine if they continue their postseason run in 2016.  If the Cardinals have truly taken a step back, can the Pirates seize the division even with the Cubs already anointed NL Central champs? My opinion is they can.  I know the Cubs are good, but the team failed to endure any real rough patches in 2015. There were no major injuries for the Cubs unlike what the Pirates and Cardinals experienced.  Remember, this franchise is notorious for choking away seasons when they were picked to finally win a World Series.  Everyone has picked the Cubs to win one this year, but last year everyone tabbed the Nationals to win the Series.  Washington failed to make the playoffs.

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It is safe to say this season can go either way for the Pirates.  They have almost reached the top of the mountain, something that was so far away five years ago.  I do not see the Pirates slipping under .500, but reaching the playoffs will be a tough endeavor.  Still, I predict the Bucs to win 90 games this season and make another trip to the Wild Card game.  Hopefully this time the Pirates get over that hump.  My feeling is they will.