Is there a team who has gotten jobbed harder than the Pittsburgh Pirates? Seriously? Last year, they had the 2nd best record in MLB…and their reward for such a masterful season was one game against the team with the 3rd best record in MLB and the hottest pitcher in what may be the history of MLB. The year before they got to square off with Jake Arrieta (and not succeed like so many before them) they got to duel with Madison Bumgarner, who basically carried the Giants to another World Series championship.
Now, the Pirates may be better than they’ve ever been. Their already really good team is about to be supplemented by some more really strong prospects. And those prospects are getting dropped into a place where they have to contribute, not carry the load. This is a team who has done all of the leg work to have a consistent run of sustained success. And for all their trouble they get caught up in a division with the Cardinals, who are consistently good. And now, the Cubs have rebuilt and look to be as good as any team in baseball. In 2016, the Pirates will probably be a bridesmaid again. But if there was ever a bridesmaid worth marrying, this is it.
Andrew McCutchen. 2015 may have been his worst season since 2011, where he only had 5.8 fWAR. To say a guy who had a .292/.401/.488 had a down year seems odd. But his batting average was down 22 points, thanks in part to a dip in BABIP (to .339) and a slight tick up in strike outs (to 19.4%). His on-base and batting average were both as low as they’ve been in years. And he was still 4th among qualified ML center fielders in fWAR. The reality is, Cutch is on the short list of players who can be seriously discussed in the “best player in the National League” conversation. Because he is. It would be a mistake to think that the 29 year old McCutchen has a “down year” like last season. In some ways, a pretty big positive regression should be in store…and that should scare the daylights out of any man, woman, or child who is sensitive to bat on ball violence.
Last season, Pirates’ starting pitchers accounted for a 3.53 ERA and a 3.34 FIP. That ERA was fifth best in baseball and the FIP was second best. Led by Gerrit Cole, the Bucs run out a staff that is light on names down the rotation, but it’s heavy on effectiveness. Francisco Liriano has enjoyed a career renaissance since he arrived in Pittsburgh, becoming on of their most consistent starting pitchers. In 2016, the Pirates should have the services of Tyler Glasnow and, possibly, Jameson Taillon, two of their highest rated prospects. It’s a rare opportunity for a quality baseball team to carry two highly rated prospect starters that may both be ready to contribute in the same season, and combining that with a staff that is able to produce on a regular basis should give the Pirates all the ammunition they need to continue pitching at a high level.
Generally speaking, the Pirates combine their strong pitching with a balanced offensive attack. They don’t do any one thing particularly well, but they do enough things well enough to score runs. Their 697 runs scored last year were a combination of strong on-base skills, aggressively attempting to steal bases, and making solid contact. They take extra bases and drive in runs through continuing to move through the order. The Pirates were in the top ten in baseball in both singles and doubles. Combining those numbers with walks, stolen bases, and good base running allows the Pirates to sneak up and and score runs. There is no reason to think that is going to change heading into 2016.
Although the Pirates were in the top ten in singles and doubles last season, they were in toward the bottom of the league in triples and home runs. In some similar ways to the Cardinals, the Pirates are very much dependent on sequencing. A walk, a stolen base, and a double are not uncommon ways to see the Pirates score runs. Of their 1462 hits, 1003 were singles. Their 140 HRs were 23rd in the league. That isn’t to say the long ball is everything, because the team directly below the Pirates in HRs were the Royals, who had an even more effective offense overall. While going deep is a weakness for the Pirates, it is overcome by the fact that they do other things so well. But it is worth nothing that this team is not built to come back from deficits quickly. Their offense just isn’t built to do it.
For a team who pitches so well, it is a bit of a surprise to come across a -20.8 UZR as a team. It’s also a bit of an anomaly to see a positive defensive runs saved value as a team. And while this stat is cringe-worthy for a lot of reasons, the Pirates had the 2nd most errors in MLB last season. It’s hard to say that the Pirates are a “bad” defensive team. And it will not be said here. But what is going to be said here is that they have some areas that need to be addressed and improved in the field.
2016 Is a Success If…
For the Pirates, who have “been there, done that” in the Wild Card game, it’s high time for them to win the division. Or win the Wild Card game and win a playoff series. They are well past the point of being content with making the playoffs and being run by a great starter in their own building. If they appear in the NLCS, this season will be a step forward for the Pirates. And that step forward should be considered a success.
2016 Is a Failure If…
If the Pirates fail to make the playoffs or fail to play more than one game in the playoffs, likely with Gerrit Cole on the mound, this season is going to be considered a failure in Pittsburgh. While it would be silly to question Clint Hurdle‘s job status should this scenario play out again, crazier things than firing the manager have happened.
The Pirates are really good. They will benefit from beating up on the Reds and Brewers and they will get beat up by the Cardinals and Cubs. And they’re going to do their fair share of beating up on the Cardinals and Cubs. The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the most complete teams in baseball, and their 98 wins last season are a shining reflection of that fact. They’re led by one of the best players in the game and they surround him with other really good players who compliment what he does so well. This isn’t the fun team who finally got back to the playoffs, anymore. This is a team who is in it to win the whole thing. And they can. They have every component necessary to win the World Series.