On Friday I asked a question: Does it seem like people outside of Pittsburgh are higher on the Pirates this year than people inside Pittsburgh? I use the “in Pittsburgh” part figuratively, since I’m referring to people and media who follow the Pirates closely, versus national media and fans of other teams. But it seems like every day there is a new national writer picking the Pirates to win the World Series, or calling the Pirates “America’s Team“, or just fans of other teams who see the Pirates as a big threat.
When you look through the 2015 roster, it’s easy to see how people outside of Pittsburgh are coming to this conclusion. This is a team that made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and will be returning most of their roster from last year, with very few changes at the key positions. Here is a look at that roster, breaking things down by position groups, and looking at why the Pirates are getting so much attention.
Last year the Pirates featured one of the best offenses in baseball. The lineup they will trot out there on most nights in 2015 will be very similar to the 2014 group. The biggest differences are the switch from Russell Martin to Francisco Cervelli at catcher, Pedro Alvarez taking over for the Ike Davis/Gaby Sanchez platoon at first base, and Gregory Polanco in line for a full season in right field, which replaces last year’s situation of “Travis Snider plays horrible, Josh Harrison starts to break out for a month, Polanco comes up and struggles after a hot start, then somehow Snider turns into a strong contributor down the stretch.”
The first base situation last year wasn’t great, so the Pirates can only improve with Alvarez. Corey Hart will also factor in the mix, giving them a platoon at the position once again. There might be some concerns about the defense from the position, but the offense has a lot more upside than what Davis and Sanchez produced last year.
“Our hope is that this year Pedro goes back out and is that guy that hits 35 or more home runs, and Corey Hart has a great bounce back year, and we get that great production that everybody ideally wants to have at first base,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said.
The right field situation all depends on how well Polanco makes the adjustment to the majors this year. He started heating up at the end of Spring Training, and the hope is that he carries that over to the regular season. While Polanco didn’t do well in his debut, that doesn’t rule out future production. Starling Marte didn’t light the world on fire in his debut in 2012, but was a 4+ WAR player in each of the next two seasons. Polanco has the tools to be an impact hitter in the majors, but needs to adjust to MLB pitching before that will show up in the stats.
The biggest potential drop off is at catcher. Russell Martin had a huge season last year, and while it’s unlikely that he would have continued those career-best numbers going forward, you can’t ignore that his performance contributed to the Pirates having one of the best offenses. The drop off might not be massive if Francisco Cervelli can surprise. He looked great in camp, and has put up good numbers in a small sample size the last few years. He’s had an issue staying healthy, which is a big reason why he’s had a limited sample size in recent years.
There is a chance that Cervelli could be a surprise, but that requires a lot of things to go right. If his hitting the last few years was legit, and if he can stay healthy, and if his Spring stats were a sign of things to come, then the Pirates won’t miss Russell Martin at all. That’s a lot of “ifs”. As it stands now, the Pirates have a good chance of getting improved production from Gregory Polanco this year, along with a chance at improved offensive production at first base.
As for the guys returning, a lot of the offense will depend on which versions of the 2014 players show up. How close will Josh Harrison be to his breakout performance? Was 2014 a career year for Neil Walker, or was it him taking his game to a new level? Is Jordy Mercer the hitter we saw in the final four months of the season, or is he a guy who could struggle at any given time, like we saw the first two months of the year? Did Starling Marte make a lasting change, and will his monster numbers from the final two months carry over to 2015 (thus giving him MVP numbers)?
Overall, the Pirates project to have a strong offense this year, which should conservatively be one of the better groups in baseball, and aggressively could end up as the best offense in the game.
Part of what will help the offense is the bench that has been assembled this year. Last year we saw a two-week period where the MLB bench included Michael Martinez, Jayson Nix, and Brent Morel. Every team has one of those types of players on the roster at some point during the season. But with the depth the Pirates have added this year, it seems unlikely that they’ll have the same situation in 2015, with a slim shot of those types of players getting starts.
As noted above, Corey Hart will platoon at first base, going up against left-handers, while also getting some time in the outfield. The big question here is whether Hart has recovered from his double knee surgery during the 2013-14 off-season. If he has, then he could be a big boost off the bench, capable of starting at first if Alvarez struggles, or filling in on a part-time basis in the outfield.
Sean Rodriguez was added in a trade to be a super utility player, serving as this year’s Josh Harrison. The Pirates plan to play him at every infield and outfield position, if needed, including shortstop and center field. Jung-ho Kang will serve as a utility infielder, playing second, short, and third.
Rodriguez added some power last year, but saw a drop in his walk rate. In the past his walks have been up, but his power has been down. If he can get both things working at the same time, he could be another guy who could be good enough to start. Kang is making the jump from the KBO, which means his performance is unpredictable. He’s got a ton of raw power, but questions about his leg kick and how that could impact his strikeout totals. The Pirates see him as an eventual starter, and the hope would be that he shows that skill off the bench.
The trend with those three is that you’ve got guys who have either been starters in the past, and/or could be starters in the future. That gives the Pirates some strong depth if a starter goes down.
Andrew Lambo won the final bench spot out of Spring Training. He has crushed the ball in Triple-A the last two years, but hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do in the majors. This role should give him that opportunity, and will allow the Pirates to see if his Triple-A numbers were legit, and whether he has a future in the majors as more than just a bench player.
Finally there’s the backup catcher role, which went to Tony Sanchez for the start of the year. Chris Stewart will eventually return from the disabled list and take the job.
The biggest question mark on the team comes with the rotation. That’s not necessarily because of the quality of that rotation. The Pirates have some good starters. Francisco Liriano gives them a top of the rotation guy who has excelled with the team the last two years. Gerrit Cole has the upside of an ace, and the Pirates will hope he finally breaks out this year. A.J. Burnett will return this year after a down year in Philadelphia. His injury could have contributed to that last year, and he’s healthy now. That said, the focus on defensive shifts and pitch framing will also help him out. Vance Worley and Jeff Locke will complete the rotation, with Charlie Morton returning from the disabled list eventually.
The Pirates have had a lot of success with their approach to pitching. Find ground ball pitchers or focus on increasing ground ball rates for pitchers. Have those pitchers pound the strike zone, and utilize defensive shifts to maximize production on the ground balls. Focus on pitch framing to get additional strikes, and to cut down on the walk rates. That, plus the pitcher friendly park, the focus on overall defense on the roster, and the great work done by Ray Searage and Jim Benedict, has led to members of the Pirates pitching staff playing up the last few years.
The cause for concern here comes with the injuries. Liriano has been injury prone. Burnett was injured last year, and is a risk for further injuries at this point in his career. Morton isn’t hurt, but is dealing with the side effects of his injury last year. I wouldn’t call Gerrit Cole injury prone just because he missed time last year, but that’s a situation to watch. Then you’ve got inconsistent performances from Locke and Worley, with the hope that Worley figured everything out last year and made a lasting change.
The Pirates have an approach and the talent to put together strong numbers from their rotation. But it’s definitely not a guarantee, and not a situation that makes you comfortable about this part of the team.
Last year this was a big weakness for the Pirates, up until September when everything got back on track. They added Antonio Bastardo over the off-season, giving them a second dominant left-hander to pair with Tony Watson. Watson and Mark Melancon returned, giving the Pirates two of the best relievers in the game.
Jared Hughes had great numbers last year, but is likely to see some regression this season. He should still remain a good reliever, but won’t look like one of the best relievers in the game like his numbers indicated last year.
The Pirates added Radhames Liz, Arquimedes Caminero, and Rob Scahill over the off-season. All three will start the year in the majors. Liz is a long reliever who has a ton of velocity, and finally got things figured out in the Dominican Republic over the off-season. Caminero is another hard thrower who looked great in camp and could have also gotten things figured out. Scahill is the final hard thrower of the group, but seems like he’s only up on a short-term basis at the start of the year.
With Melancon, Watson, and Bastardo in the mix, plus a good middle reliever like Hughes, the Pirates only need one of the hard throwers to step up and be a seventh inning man. That would give them the start of one of the best bullpen units in baseball, with several players who work in the mid-to-upper 90s with their fastballs.
Another Playoff Appearance?
It’s not hard to see why the Pirates are getting so much attention. The overall story is good, with a bit of an underdog feel to things. But they’ve assembled a strong team that has very few weaknesses and a lot of depth at every position. The lineup looks to be one of the best offenses in baseball. The rotation will take advantage of the Pirates’ strategy and defense. The bullpen projects to have a lot of live arms, anchored by two of the best relievers in the game last year. This looks like one of the best teams in baseball, heading in to the 2015 season, and looks like a team that could contend for a World Series title.