Playing Pepper 2015: Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Order this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Pittsburgh Pirates
88-74, second in the NL Central, lost in the Wild Card Game

The Cardinals seem to rotate through teams to worry about.  For a while it was Houston that gave them the great battles.  Then it was Cincinnati rearing its head.  Milwaukee popped in there for a year or two.  Everyone takes a crack at them.

For the last couple of years, the most serious of competition has come from the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Pirates awoke from their lengthy sub-.500 stupor not content to just go 82-80.  Instead, they have pushed the Cardinals to the very brink each year, making the Redbirds dig deep for a divisional crown.

There seems little reason to believe 2015 will be much different.  To prove that point, we have today Marcus from the delightfully-named Hidden Vigorish.  Give Marcus a follow on Twitter @piratesvigorish.  We also have Pat from Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?, one of the longer-running Pirate blogs out there.  He’s on Twitter @whygavs.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

HV: This was the most exciting Pirates offseason in a long time. The Pirates rarely make moves early in the offseason, and seldom make major moves. But this was a much different off season. The Pirates acquired a new catcher to replace Russell Martin, signed AJ Burnett, and resigned Francisco Liriano…all before the Winter Meetings were even held. To bid on and then sign Jung-ho Kang was icing on the cake. I think they addressed all their needs this offseason as capably as they possibly could have given their financial constraints.

WHYG: I think they got pretty close. The big free agency concerns when the season ended were Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, and Edinson Volquez, and the Pirates managed to re-sign Liriano, replace Volquez with AJ Burnett, and at least address Martin’s departure but trading for Francisco Cervelli.

Burnett should be an interesting signing as he really excelled at PNC Park with the Pirates’ defense behind him in his first Pirate stint and his peripheral numbers were similar to Volquez’s last year, even though his traditional stats look a lot worse. At the very least, he should be able to eat up some innings in the middle of the rotation for the Pirates in the same way Volquez did last year. Cervelli isn’t quite a 1:1 replacement for Martin, obviously, but his defensive reputation for framing and working with pitchers is very good. My hopes for the winter were that if the Pirates couldn’t keep Martin (which was always a long-shot), that they’d at the very least replace the part of his value that can only come from another catcher (ie, that defensive value) and I think that they did that.

They also addressed two pretty glaring weak spots from 2014 by bringing in players to shore up the infield depth and bullpen. In the infield, Sean Rodriguez can ably play pretty much any position with an average or slightly below average bat, while Jung Ho Kang will be really interesting to watch develop as the first Korean born KBO player to jump to the US. Corey Hart’s knees seem to be much better than they were in Seattle last year, so it’s possible the club might finally have a potent first base platoon with Hart and Pedro Alvarez. In the bullpen, they added quite a few live arms (Antonio Bastardo, Radhames Liz, Arquimedes Caminero), and so while the whole group might take some time to sort out, there should be more depth there than in 2014.

C70: How excited are you about the starting rotation?

HV: I’m torn over this rotation. It is a deep rotation. I think the back end is really solid. The Pirates options for the 4 and 5 spots in the rotation are better than what most teams have. But the front of the rotation lacks an ace. Gerrit Cole has ace potential, but it hasn’t always come out. The Pirates have been aced out of the playoffs the last two seasons (Madison Bumgarner in the 2014 WC game and Adam Wainwright in the 2013 NLDS), so lacking a true ace is a big concern of mine.

WHYG: Quite a bit, mainly because of Gerrit Cole. Liriano, Burnett, Charlie Morton, Vance Worley, and Jeff Locke are all pretty much known quantities at this point and they are, frankly, a pretty nice way to fill out the 2-5 spots in your rotation. There’s no real horse in that group, though, that can be counted on to shut down teams every or strike fear into the hearts of a playoff opponent. Cole’s shown the ability to be that pitcher in small flashes at the end of both 2013 and 2014, and I think pretty much every Pirate fan is hoping that this is the year he makes his big leap forwards.

C70: Was 2014 a breakout year or a fluke for Josh Harrison?

HV: I think Josh Harrison is for real. Maybe not .800+ OPS for real, but he is a legit everyday third basemen.

WHYG: Can I cheat and say a little bit of both? It was probably somewhat of a fluke in that I don’t expect Harrison to finish in the top ten in the NL’s slugging percentage race (honestly, every time I write that I double-check it to make sure it happened) or to garner deserved down-ballot MVP votes. At the same time, his numbers last year weren’t that far removed from his AAA numbers, and his peripheral batted ball data suggests that he wasn’t hugely lucky on balls in play or anything like that in his big year. My best guess for Harrison is that he’ll probably settle into a solid .290/.330/.430 third baseman with a solid glove, and there’s plenty of value in a player like that even if it’s not quite the level that he was at last year.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

HV: I hope it is Gerrit Cole, but I think it will be Gregory Polanco. He has all the tools. He got off to such a hot start last year as a rookie, but digging out of his first major league slump was a challenge. I think he will be better for it.

WHYG: Besides Cole, who I already mentioned, there’s Gregory Polanco out in right field. Polanco had a bit of a disappointing rookie year (.235/.305/.343) after a ton of hype in spring training and during his Triple-A stint, but the Pirates committed to him this winter when they traded Travis Snider to the Orioles for some minor league pitching. Polanco’s plate discipline (which was part of the reason he was such a highly-regarded prospect) was mostly intact with the Pirates, though, and given that he’s just 23, there’s plenty of reason to think he can rebound from the rough rookie season in 2015.

I also want to mention Starling Marte here; I’m not sure if he really counts since his hot finish to 2014 was a big part of the Pirates’ late playoff push, but every year Marte seems to get a little bit better and he was phenomenal down the stretch last year. He’s put together a bit of an unusual offensive profile (he doesn’t walk much and he strikes out too much, but he’s a line drive machine, he’s fast enough to beat out ground balls for infield hits, and he gets hit by a ton of pitches, which drives his OBP up), but I think there’s a decent chance that he takes things to the next level at the plate this year.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

HV: 91-71. I think this is the year they catch the Cards and win the division.

WHYG: 92-70, first place, two games ahead of the Cardinals. You guys can deal with the stress of the Wild Card Game this year!

C70: What do you like best about being a Pirates fan?

HV: The Pirates are like family to me. I am proud of my family. We went through some tough times together but we are stronger for it. What I most like about being a Pirates fan is knowing that our spirit can never be broken. We have already endured the worst.

WHYG: It sounds weird to say now, but the experience of having been through 20 consecutive losing seasons was really a galvanizing process for the fan base. The last two seasons have been absolutely incredible: every Pirate fan knows exactly how bad things can be, and that memory makes savoring the good times that much better. I couldn’t go to any of the 2013 playoff games, so I made a trip home for last year’s Wild Card Game. I was worried that the atmosphere wouldn’t be quite the same as it was the year before, but it was still electric to watch the Pirates take the field in front of 40,000 roaring Pirate fans. Now if only the Pirates can find a way to give us more than a few home playoff games this year …

Do appreciate Marcus and Pat taking the time to fill us in about the Pirates this season.  There’s no doubt there are going to be some more fun matchups between them and St. Louis this year!

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