As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
The Pittsburgh Pirates say they are not rebuilding or retooling following three straight postseason appearances. However, the Pirates will have a new look in 2016 after trading righthander Charlie Morton and second baseman Neil Walker in the offseason while declining to tender Pedro Alvarez a contract, risking going to a salary arbitration hearing with the slugging first baseman.
All three were eligible to become free agents at the end of the 2016 season, and the Pirates say they did not plan on re-signing any of them.
The Pirates still have the nucleus of a good team but play in a strong division. The National League Central was home of the teams with the top three regular-season records last year — Cardinals (100–62), Pirates (98–64) and Chicago Cubs (97–65).
Righthander Gerrit Cole emerged as the ace of the staff in 2015, his first with more than 150 innings pitched. His 19 wins were the most by a Pirates pitcher since John Smiley won 20 in 1991. Cole has not only great stuff but also a strong competitive streak and a good idea of how to pitch. Lefthander Francisco Liriano gives the Pirates a strong 1-2 punch. Liriano has the ability to dominate a game but is prone to bouts of wildness and has a history of injuries, though he stayed off the disabled list last season.
In addition to trading Morton to Philadelphia, the Pirates lost righthander A.J. Burnett to retirement at the end of last season. They are hopeful of filling the void with lefty sinkerballer Jon Niese, who was acquired from the Mets in the trade for Walker, and veteran righthander Ryan Vogelsong, who struggled in 2015 in his fifth and final season with San Francisco before leaving via free agency. The Pirates’ strong infield defense and shifting tendencies should help Niese. However, it is safe to wonder how much the 38-year-old Vogelsong has left. Lefty Jeff Locke figures to round out the rotation. He was selected to the All-Star Game in 2013, his first full major league season, but has been inconsistent since. Kyle Lobstein, another sinkerballing lefty, could challenge Locke after being acquired from Detroit.
Mark Melancon has been lights out since being installed as the closer midway through the 2013 season, and he led the major leagues with 51 saves in 53 opportunities last year. He has perfected his cut fastball to the point that some opposing batters claim that they cannot see the ball as it reaches the plate due to its movement. Lefthander Tony Watson is one of the top setup men in baseball. With Melancon expected to leave via free agency at the season’s end, Watson will likely move into the closer’s role in 2017.
Righthanders Arquimedes Caminero, Jared Hughes and Juan Nicasio figure to share the workload in the sixth and seventh innings. Caminero’s fastball averaged 98 mph last season after he was acquired from the Miami Marlins in a cash deal just before the start of the spring training. Hughes is especially effective at stranding inherited runners with his double play-inducing sinker. Nicasio was signed as a free agent in December after spending last season with the Dodgers and will be stretched out as a starter/long reliever in spring training.
Super utility player Josh Harrison is slated to replace Walker at second base and have a position to call his own. However, the high-energy Harrison may be needed at third base early in the season to take the place of rehabbing Jung Ho Kang. Shortstop Jordy Mercer isn’t a regular on Web Gems, but he is extremely sure-handed and makes all the plays he is supposed to make. He will look to rebound at the plate after a poor offensive season in 2015.
Alvarez nearly offset his 27 home runs with 23 errors last season, but the Pirates will be hard-pressed to replace his offensive production. Veteran catcher/outfielder John Jaso was signed as a free agent to be the left-handed hitting side of a first base platoon, even though he has played just five major league innings at the position. The Pirates like Jaso’s on-base skills and believe he has the athleticism to make the position switch. Veteran Michael Morse will likely be the right-handed hitting half of the platoon, though the Pirates also acquired another right-handed-hitting first baseman in Jason Rogers in a December trade with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Switch-hitting prospect Josh Bell will be in the wings at Indianapolis and could push for a major league opportunity by midseason. Kang finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last year after becoming the first native South Korean position player to make the jump to the major leagues from the Korean Baseball Organization. He sustained a broken leg and torn knee ligament last September in a collision at second base, but the Pirates are hopeful he can return sometime in April.
The Pirates have one of the most talented outfields in the game, anchored by center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The 30-year-old has been selected to the last five All-Star Games and has finished third, first, third and fifth in NL MVP voting during the past four years. Left fielder Starling Marte possesses as much raw talent as McCutchen and is three years younger. Marte won his first Gold Glove in 2015 and is a threat offensively with both power and speed. Right fielder Gregory Polanco also has the chance to be a star. Just 24 and having played less than two full major league seasons, Polanco is still developing his game.
Francisco Cervelli was a revelation in his first season with the Pirates after spending the first seven years of his career as a backup with the Yankees. Cervelli came to Pittsburgh with the reputation of being a good handler of pitchers and pitch framer but also proved to be a plus with the bat in his first season as a starter.
Sean Rodriguez, who appeared in 139 games in a utility role last season, could also fill in at second base until Kang is ready. Rodriguez provides some pop off the bench, but his biggest attribute is his ability to play every position but catcher and center field. Switch-hitting journeyman Pedro Florimon and slick-fielding prospect Gift Ngoepe will compete for a utility infield role in spring training. Chris Stewart is a fine backup catcher. He is strong defensively and has worked to make himself a passable hitter. The Pirates are intrigued by the high on-base percentage left-handed hitting Jake Goebbert compiled in the minor leagues and signed him to a major league contract as a free agent over the winter.
Neal Huntington took over arguably the worst franchise in baseball when he was hired as general manager late in the 2007 season. Ownership stuck with him through some lean years, including a 105-loss season in 2010, but the patience has paid off. Huntington’s rebuilding plan has resulted in three straight playoff trips following 20 losing seasons. Manager Clint Hurdle was hired in 2011 and immediately changed the culture of the clubhouse and the outlook of everyone inside the organization — as well as the beaten-down fan base — with his relentlessly positive attitude. The turnaround that he and Huntington have pulled off is nothing short of remarkable, especially with frugal owner Bob Nutting keeping the payroll low.
After finishing second for three straight years, the Pirates would love to win the division this time and avoid playing the winner-take-all Wild Card game. That may be tough to do with the Cubs loading up in free agency and the Cardinals still possessing a talented roster. However, the Pirates won’t be pushovers with a nucleus that includes Cole, McCutchen and Marte. While Pittsburgh might not make it four “Buctobers” in a row, they should at least be competitive in 2016 while a host of prospects stand ready to help in 2017.
Prediction: 3rd NL Central
RF Gregory Polanco (L)
2B Josh Harrison (R)
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
LF Starling Marte (R)
3B Jung Ho Kang (R)
1B John Jaso (L)
C Francisco Cervelli (R)
SS Jordy Mercer (R)
C Chris Stewart (R)
1B/OF Jake Goebbert (L)
1B Michael Morse (R)
INF Pedro Florimon (S)
UTL Sean Rodriguez (R)
RHP Gerrit Cole
LHP Francisco Liriano
LHP Jon Niese
RHP Ryan Vogelsong
LHP Jeff Locke
RHP Mark Melancon (Closer)
LHP Tony Watson
RHP Arquimedes Caminero
RHP Jared Hughes
RHP Juan Nicasio
RHP Rob Scahill
RHP Neftali Feliz