A magical three-season run of postseason appearances ended with a thud last year. The Pirates went 78–83, finishing 25 games behind the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs in the National League Central. In 2015, the Pirates won 98 games, one more than the Cubs.
Righthander Gerrit Cole is the ace of a young rotation, and questions surround the 26-year-old after he went 7–10 with a 3.88 ERA in 21 starts last year while bothered by elbow problems. He is one of the most talented young pitchers in the game, as evidenced by his 19-win season in 2015, and the Pirates desperately need him to return to form. Righthander Ivan Nova was re-signed to a three-year, $26-million contract. He had a fine 11-start run after being acquired from the Yankees in a trade on Aug. 1. Righthanders Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow and lefthander Steven Brault figure to round out the rotation. They are talented but young and inexperienced (none will be older than 25 on Opening Day), and they have pitched a combined 233.1 innings in the major leagues. Taillon impressed as a rookie last year, going 5–4 with a 3.38 ERA in 18 starts after missing the previous two seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery and a sports hernia operation.
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Lefthander Tony Watson, an All-Star setup man, moved into the closer’s role last season when Mark Melancon was traded to the Nationals in late July. He converted 15-of-18 save opportunities in the final two months. Righthander Daniel Hudson was signed to a two-year, $11.5-millon contact in free agency to replace Neftali Feliz as the primary setup man after spending the last seven seasons with the Diamondbacks. Hudson induces groundballs at a high rate, which fits the Pirates’ organizational pitching philosophy. Hard-throwing Felipe Rivero will be the top lefthander, and the Pirates have high hopes that the 25-year-old can learn to consistently throw strikes and become a lockdown reliever. Righthanders Juan Nicasio and Jared Hughes and lefthanders Antonio Bastardo and Wade LeBlanc can pitch multiple innings. That will come in handy with such a young rotation.
Second baseman Josh Harrison received a four-year, $27.3 million contract after hitting .315 with 13 home runs in 2014. While he has batted a combined .285 in the two seasons since, he also has just eight homers. Jordy Mercer is a steady if unspectacular shortstop. He is a decent hitter with some power and makes all the routine plays in the field along with the occasional highlight-reel one.
Switch-hitting rookie Josh Bell will take over at first base after hitting .273 with three homers in 45 games last season. While he has struggled to make the conversion from right field, he has an advanced approach to the plate and the chance to add more power to his game. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang’s status is cloudy as he could be facing a suspension after being arrested for drunk driving in his native South Korea during the offseason and being accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a Chicago hotel room last June. He has hit .273 with 36 home runs in his first two major-league seasons after starring in the Korea Baseball Organization.
The Pirates have one of the best trios in the game, but the question is what is to become of center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The 2013 National League MVP is coming off a season in which he hit a career-low .256 with 24 home runs while playing awful defense. McCutchen will make $14 million this season, which would be the highest salary in franchise history, in the final guaranteed year of his six-year, $51.5 million contract that includes a $14.5 million club option for 2018 that can be bought out for $1 million. History shows that the Pirates almost always trade their star players before they reach free agency, so it seems likely he will be dealt by the July 31 non-waiver deadline. Starling Marte has won Gold Gloves in left field in each of the last two seasons but will be moving to center this season wtih McCutchen shifting over to right. Marte is also a dynamic offensive player with power and speed who stole 47 bases last season but hit a disappointing nine homers. Right fielder Gregory Polanco is a five-tool talent who has the chance to be a star. The 25-year-old hit a career-high 22 home runs last year in his third season and is still tapping into his potential. Austin Meadows will be waiting for an opportunity at Triple-A Indianapolis. The 21-year-old, who was the first of the Pirates’ two first-round draft picks in 2013, would likely be ready to slide into the lineup in place of McCutchen by July.
Francisco Cervelli has proven to be a quality starter behind the plate during his two seasons with the Pirates after spending seven years as a backup with the Yankees. While he has an outstanding .373 on-base percentage since coming to Pittsburgh, the Pirates place an even greater value on his rapport with the pitching staff and pitch-framing ability.
Chris Stewart is a solid backup catcher, pretty much a Cervelli Lite with his strong defense and leadership ability. John Jaso began last season as the starting first baseman after being signed to a two-year, $8 million contract in free agency. The Pirates are counting on him to be a solid backup at both corner infield and outfield spots this season while providing left-handed production on a roster filled with right-handed hitters. Veteran third baseman David Freese was signed midway through spring training last year to serve as protection while Kang recovered from knee surgery. Freese played so well in a part-time role that the Pirates gave him a two-year, $11 million contract extension during the season. He could be a pivotal figure if Kang’s legal troubles threaten his availability this season. A couple of homegrown products, Adam Frazier and Alen Hanson, will serve as super utility players as they can play all over the infield and outfield. Hanson’s outstanding speed could make him a factor as a pinch-runner.
General manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle have done an outstanding job of turning around a moribund franchise. However, both have begun showing subtle signs of frustration about working under the payroll constraints of owner Bob Nutting, perhaps a sign that they could show wanderlust when their contracts expire at the end of this season.
The Pirates seemingly have little chance of overtaking the Cubs in the NL Central this season, though they plan to give it a shot. However, if they fall too far behind in the standings, they are likely to shift into rebuilding mode and sort out which young players — especially starting pitchers — fit into their long-term plans and try to add more prospects by trading McCutchen.