Manager: Clint Hurdle Projected Record: 88-74
While nobody was paying attention, the Pirates very suddenly became a veteran team. The once charming Bucs who finally broke through, had a winning record, and made the playoffs now has a wealth of experience to draw from. Not to mention talent. Although they’ve lost some veteran players in recent years, their young players have grown up and become veterans in the place of the guys who have left. It is safe to call the Pirates an established ball club now. They are, and they are not going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
A.J. Burnett returned from Philadelphia and should help that rotation, although it doesn’t appear to need very much. Gerrit Cole is going to be a household name and Jameson Taillon is going to join him, probably in the second half of this season. Clayton Richard is the latest reclamation project to head to Pittsburgh, and after Liriano and Edinson Volquez, there’s no reason to think he won’t help them make a push toward another playoff appearance.
Similar to the way the seem to pluck starting pitching out of thin air, the bullpen is a true “next man up” operation. They moved on from Joel Hanrahan and didn’t miss a beat when they inserted Jason Grilli. Grilli moved on and Mark Melancon becomes a shutdown closer. They traded Justin Wilson to the Yankees, but his loss will probably be mitigated by another pitcher nobody’s ever heard of. The latest is John Holdzkom, who they signed out of independent ball last year and all he did was bring an upper 90s cutter late in the season, pitching nine dominant innings late for the Pirates. No more betting against this bullpen…too tired of losing. They’re going to be good.
The loss of Russell Martin is probably going to hurt, but Francisco Cervelli is a pretty good catcher. This position was a weapon for the Pirates, especially last year. It probably will not be the weapon it was last year, but Cervelli is very capable. As far as replacements for Martin go, the Pirates did quite well with the acquisition of Cervelli.
Pedro Alvarez is going to shift over to first base, where he could form a platoon with the newly acquired Corey Hart, who makes his return to the NL Central after spending last season in Seattle. Josh Harrison is going to get the nod at the hot corner from the outset after having a break out season in 2014. Aside from Alvarez switching sides, Harrison becoming a full time player, Corey Hart coming over, and Sean Rodriguez coming in to play a super utility role, the Pirates are pretty much the same as they were last season. This is a good infield. It doesn’t dazzle on paper, but it is effective.
Starling Marte is a good left fielder. When talking about the least appreciated players in the game, his name should be near the top of the list. How many other players can steal 30 bases, contribute a .291/.356/.453 out of the lead off spot, be a 4.1 fWAR player and not be close to the center of attention on their team? Well, it’s a guy who plays next to Andrew McCutchen. There probably wouldn’t be too much dissent if Andrew McCutchen were declared the best player in the National League. The discussion about whether he is the best player in baseball would be worth having, because it is not ridiculous. Last year, Cutch was good for .314/.410/.542 with 25 HRs and a strike out rate of under 18%. For all of the reasonable discussion for Giancarlo Stanton got for the National League MVP, McCutchen was far less talked about. Maybe it is because he only played in 146 games, his fewest since his 2009 call-up. For whatever reason, he didn’t get the love he deserves. Mike Trout gets fawned over for good reason. But Andrew McCutchen takes a backseat to nobody in the game. Not even Trout. True to their form, the Pirates have grown another talented prospect, and that is Gregory Polanco. His 89 games in the majors last season were up and down, but this is a special talent who is surrounded by other special talent. When he puts it together, which could be as early as this season, the Pirates are going to be leaders in the discussion for best outfields in the game. They are among the discussion now, even before Polanco emerges…which is scary.
The Pirates are a team who play good baseball with no obvious weaknesses. The loss of Martin was immediately and effectively overcome with Francisco Cervelli. They have a pretty strong pitching staff, which will get another high end prospect in Jameson Taillon, probably in the second half of the season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery last year. Unless they repeat the same early season unevenness that plagued them last year, there is no reason to think the Pirates will do anything but chase down a division championship this season. Whether they get to that point or not may depend on the progress that players like Gregory Polanco make. Even if his progress is slower than expected and Taillon does not come up and provide a spark to this team in the second half, the Pirates are good enough as currently constructed to compete for a division title now. This could be the year it happens, and it could be the year that they make a deeper run into October. The Pirates are not going anywhere, and 2015 could shape up to be their ultimate coming out party.