Playing Pepper 2016: Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Pittsburgh Pirates
98-64, second in the NL Central (first wild card), lost in wild card game
Last year’s Pepper

Pirates fans have to wonder just what the universe has against them.  First, they spend 20 years in the sub-.500 wilderness before finally becoming a playoff-caliber team.  However, they are in the same division as the Cardinals, so for three straight years–including last year’s 97 win team that was better than all but one other team in the big leagues–they’ve had to play in that agonizing wild card game and, sadly, have lost in it twice.  It’s got to be somewhat agonizing, even if Pirates fans probably hate to complain given how good it is compared to the past.

To tell us what the 2016 season has in store for the Bucs, I’ve brought together a number of Pirate bloggers.  None of them were part of last year’s Pepper, though David did appear in 2014’s version.  With four of them involved, let’s go back to the table for all the vitals.

Blogger Blog Twitter
Kevin Creagh The Point of Pittsburgh @thepointofpgh
Adam Bucs Raise It @Bucsraiseit
David Kaleida 6-4-3 Putout @RDavidK
Nick Caporoso Clemente's Wall @ClementesWall21

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

TPOP: The offseason was disappointing on a few levels. As it stands right now, the Pirates have a projected 25-man Opening Day payroll of $95M. In December, team President Frank Coonelly explicitly said payroll would be around $105M. Additionally, TPOP has analyzed potential revenues and calculated that the Pirates could be spending around $115-$120M on payroll, based on these estimates. So the Pirates are underspending by a minimum of $10M and maybe even up to $20M.

I really wanted them to trade for Adam Lind, a much more powerful bat that could be a legit cleanup option for this team that is going to fake it with either Kang or Marte. They can’t make the argument that Lind’s defense is a detriment considering that John Jaso will be learning it on the fly (and they suffered through Pedro last year).

I do like Jaso’s on-base percentage, but the power is going to suffer on this team unless some players step it up to fill the void left by Walker/Alvarez’s departures. The Walker-Neise trade was the other significant move. It was pretty clear that Walker and the Pirates were not going to live happily ever after, so the return of Neise is pretty good. If Ray Searage can work his dark arts on Neise and turn him from a #4 to a #3, then Neise’s two options at $10.5M/yr make this trade a steal.

BRI: As a Pirates fan, you always hope that they will do more, but you come to accept that they will not push the envelop and take extreme risks financially. I think that the Front Office wasn’t anticipating the FA starting pitching market to explode like it did, so perhaps that may have caught them off-guard. Generally speaking I think that they addressed needs- the starting pitching and lack of depth there is my biggest concern.

643: Partially. The Pirates could have really used another solid starter. It takes a lot of faith in Ray Searage to believe that Ryan Vogelsong can be that at this point in his career. John Jaso looks to be an underrated hitter if he can hold down first base. Even if he’s only “bad” at first he’ll be a defensive improvement on Pedro Alvarez. The bullpen looks like it will be good again and Jung Ho Kang is progressing well in his recovery from knee surgery but still might not be back until late April.

CW: The Pirates had an interesting offseason. Many fans were let down to see hometown favorite Neil Walker be dealt, and to see former #2 overall pick Pedro Alvarez be non-tendered. However the Pirates were not wrong in doing so. Walker was in his last year of arbitration and was due for a significant raise. The Pirates had a hole in their rotation and were able to get a nice middle-of-the-rotation arm in Jon Niese. With Walker’s defense declining, his injury history, and his rising price tag the Bucs were able to fill a hole. Pedro was not in the new formula for the Pirates. The Pirates are trying to take a new approach with less swing and miss guys and bring in players who make more contact. Pedro was far from that. To replace him the Pirates signed a high OBP guy in John Jaso. Jaso of course has not been received well as he does not have any real experience at first base, but on the offensive side he will surprise people with his ability to find ways on base.

The Bucs also did a great job of shortening their games this offseason. They kept closer Mark Melancon, who was definitely a trade candidate going into the offseason. They also went out and added a ton of power arms including: Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio (who may start). They also added some interesting depth pieces that will be in triple-a in Daniel Bard, Trey Haley, AJ Shugel, and Eric O’Flaherty.

One area they did not do a great job addressing was the back end of the rotation. Cole, Liriano, and Niese are locks for the first 3 spots in the rotation, but the back end if a big question mark. As I mentioned above Juan Nicasio could be in line for a shot at the rotation as the Bucs are stretching him out this spring, they also added aging veteran Ryan Vogelsong, and the incredibly inconsistent Jeff Locke. I would like to see Nicasio make the rotation, but it seems as if the Pirates will go with Locke, and they have made comments about viewing Vogelsong as a starter. I would have liked to see them added one more proven arm to the rotation, but they always seem to find a surprise guy every year who is much better than projected.

C70: Everyone is pointing at the Cubs to take the NL Central. What’s the strongest case for Pittsburgh finally getting that crown?

TPOP: If the Cubs suffer a sophomore jinx or just plain ol’ regression, the Pirates will be right there to pick up the baton and run with it. And naturally, if the Cubs suffer key injuries. Of course the Cardinals had injuries last year, but were covered in sweet baby panda fur and wore a bandolier of rabbit’s feet and powered through all of that.

BRI: I think offensively they are going to be a pretty tough team. Andrew McCutchen is in prime, and Starling Marte is entering it- if Gregory Polanco takes strides to reach his potential offensively, that will be a scary combination.

643: That consensus picks have a strong tendency to underperform. I still expect this to be a three-horse race that any of the teams could win.

CW: The biggest reason the Pirates can finally get over that hump in terms of winning the division and not playing in a fourth straight Wild Card game is the improvement in the defense and what looks to be a more consistent lineup.

Pedro Alvarez has been a defensive liability the last two years. And after his throwing problems at third base in 2014, his transition to first base was not smooth in the slightest. Alvarez had 19 fielding errors (23 all together) and was the only first baseman in all of the MLB to have more than 10 fielding errors, with Jose Abreu finishing second with eight. Even though John Jaso, Alvarez’s replacement, has not played first base, outside of five innings, he would really have to try to be worse. Jaso is an exceptional athlete, and, as a former catcher, he has soft hands, so his transition to first should be a lot more fluid than Alvarez’s was. Another improvement with the Pirates defense is Josh Harrison taking on the starting second base spot, his natural position, after being a utility player the last few years. Neil Walker had soft hands and would make the routine play, but his range was below average. The shifts the Pirates use did help mask some of those inefficiencies of Walker, but Josh Harrison has the ability to get to balls that Walker couldn’t and in turn will preserve more base runners and runs, equaling more wins.

The lineup also looks like it should be more consistent in 2016 than it was in 2015. Starling Marte, who will always be streaky, is coming off a career year and looks to continue to grow into a star. Andrew McCutchen had a slow start last year before turning in on in May, and a Cutch that doesn’t hit .194 in his first 21 games is already an improvement. Pedro Alvarez was either dialed in or he was a guaranteed strikeout. With Jaso’s ability to reach base, a career .361 OBP and an OBP over .380 in 3 of the last 4 years.

They’ve lost a lot of home runs from the 2015 team, but with the look of a more consistent line and a better defense, this year’s team could become the team that puts the Pirates over the hump.

C70: The Pirates shed a number of Cardinal-killers over the past few months (Aramis Ramirez, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker) but Gregory Polanco looks to continue that trend. What are the expectations for him overall this season?

TPOP: Polanco is poised to have a breakout year. I think he’ll be around .275/.345/.450 with 16 HR’s. I say he be around 3.5 to 4 WAR at the end of the season.

BRI: You could argue that the Pirates will win or lose depending on his progression this season. I think to contend, they will need him to take steps forward from an offensive perspective.

643: I think we saw Polanco’s floor last year. The sky is still the limit on his potential but he’s got to cut down on the mental mistakes and improve his awareness.

CW: Any time you lose players that kill a divisional rival, especially a divisional rival who is always competitive, it will be a big loss. Alvarez was a .254/.333/.488 hitter against the Cards and a .273/.348/.522 at Busch Stadium. He came up clutch numerous times, especially against Kevin Siegrist. Anytime you lose a player who plays like that against a team that they play 18 or 19 times a season, it hurts. However, the team has Gregory Polanco, who has hit St. Louis well over his first year and a half as a big leaguer.

The former top prospect in the organization arrived with high expectations, but he has not lived up to the hype. He struggled mightily in the first half of the year last year, but in the second half of the season, he hit .276/.324/.425. He was hampered with a knee injury in September after an awful slide, but was still a productive bat overall in the latter portion of the year. Expectations are not as high as they once were for the 24 year old outfielder, but given what he has shown in spurts and what he did post All Star break are a good sign. Polanco should continue to grow into his lanky frame, and with him being in his second full season in the majors, Polanco’s expectations should still be high, as this is the year he will look to fulfill all the hype surrounding him in 2014.

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

TPOP: The easy answer is Polanco. For a second answer, I’ll say that Jaso blossoms and puts up an injury free season that results in career highs of at bats with the same good rate production. I think Jaso is the perfect #2 hitter for this lineup with his .360-.370’ish OBP, but lineup construction may bump him down to #6 and waste that OBP.

BRI: I just have a feeling that Starling Marte is going to breakout this season and become a legit superstar. He showed flashes last season- power numbers spiked. Always been elite in the field, if he takes his offense to the next level (which I do think he will do this season)- he will be a scary ball player.

643: Polanco could make the most noticeable strides, but I think it’s more likely that we’ll see Starling Marte take another step.

CW: A breakout candidate for the Pirates in 2016 is Tyler Glasnow. Glasnow will start the year at AAA, but, as long as he gets his control issues harnessed, should be in the Majors shortly after the Super 2 date passes in early June. The right handed pitcher is a strikeout machine and one of the top 10 prospects in all of baseball.

Last year Glasnow split time between AA and AAA, and dominated both. For AA Altoona he posted an ERA of 2.43, FIP of 2.82, he struck out 11.71 batters per 9 innings pitched, and walked just 2.71 batters per 9. At AAA he saw his walk rate spike to 4.83 (yikes) per 9 innings pitched, but his ERA (2.20), FIP (2.82), and strike outs per 9 innings pitched (10.54) all remained excellent.

As I said above, Glasnow should reach the Majors at some point in early June. A rotation anchored by Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, (other top pitching prospect) Jameson Taillon, and Francisco Liriano is one that should give the NL Central fits the next few seasons.

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

TPOP: 89 wins, 2nd place in NL Central, in the wild card game (hosting again).

BRI: I will say they will be 86-76 and finish 2nd in the division.

643: Homer pick: 95-67, first place. Reasonable pick: 92-70, second place. AGAIN.

CW: I look at the Pirates and expect around 87 wins. The Pirates have notoriously started off slow in April and May the last few years. That trend will continue. I mentioned earlier that the Pirates have questions at the back end of the rotation. The answers are two names in Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, two of their top prospects. However, the two answers will not be seen until mid-June. Because of this the Pirates will see the back end of the rotation struggle until they get the call. However, the Pirates will rebound in June and through the rest of the year once they get their rotation settled. The Pirates once again will be battling for 2nd place and the wild card spot.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

TPOP: The Brewers. Their smug, arrogant nature from a few years back, when they would rub the Pirates nose in the dirt at every chance, has that karma coming back to bite them right now. It’s going to be a lean 3-4 years for them as they try to rebuild in a division with Cubs/Pirates/Cards and the Cubs finally going full-large market and spending huge money for the next few years.

The Pirates did not fare well against the Brewers last year (9-10 last year, plus 8-11 against CIN which cost them the division basically) and Miller Park has always been a house of horrors for them. Pirates really need to take advantage of the Brewers this year for 12 wins, at least.

BRI: Definitely the Cards, as they have been the class of the Central for years and years. The Cards are the standard, so any time the Pirates can beat them, if has a different feel than any other team. They’ve played each other tight the last few seasons during the regular season, which also makes it exciting. I will give the edge to the Pirates (ever so slightly).

643: The Cards are the obvious pick, but the actual choice is the Brewers. The Pirates just have had so much trouble winning in Milwaukee over the last five years that it makes beating them so much sweeter even now while they are rebuilding.

CW: This will be an unpopular opinion here, but my favorite team to beat in the NL Central is the Cardinals. Now, I will say the Cubs really closed the gap last year after the Chris Coghlan/Jung-Ho Kang incident and Joe Maddon‘s response to it. However, the Cardinals are still the evil empire.

Every year the Cardinals just flat out win. No matter who gets hurt, no matter who they call up from AAA, players perform, the team wins, and it’s annoying. I can not tell you how many times last year I expected the Cardinals to slip due to injury, and it never happened.

They also ‘Cardinal’ you to death as I like to call it. What I mean by that is you can be leading the Cardinals 6-3 in the 9th innings, but out of nowhere they string together three straight singles and then someone catches a gap to clear the bases and tie the game. The Cardinals never die, and it’s annoying.

All of that said, I’ll admit part of the reason I hate the Cardinals is because they are the gold standard not just in baseball but in all of professional sports. I am jealous of the success of the Cardinals. I’d kill for the Pirates to be that successful one day.

As for this season series, I expect it to be a very hard fought series just as it has been the past three seasons between the Pirates and Cardinals. The Pirate rotation took a step back this offseason, but, in my opinion, so did the Cardinals lineup and defense with the loss of Jason Heyward.

The Pirates have a better lineup, the Cardinals have a better rotation (adding Leake after losing Lackey and Lynn was big for them), and the bullpens are pretty even. In the end I expect it to be a very even series at season’s end. Unfortunately though, I expect the Pirates and Cards to be battling for second place and a Wild Card spot. Stupid Cubs.

My thanks to all these guys for dealing with this Cardinal fan.  I imagine these Pirate battles are going to be interesting this year as well!


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