First Pitch: Why the Pirates Shouldn’t Concede the Division to the Cubs Just Yet

PITTSBURGH – Opening Day has arrived!

I’m not sure of the schedule yet, but at some point this week, the 2016 World Series trophy will be awarded to the Chicago Cubs. Or at least that’s what every article I’ve read this off-season seems to indicate. Meanwhile, every other team is playing for second place.

Don’t get me wrong, if I were picking division winners, I’d go with the Cubs for the NL Central. But I don’t think the gap will be as big as advertised, and I think the Pirates will be close behind them. That sounds crazy, based on all of the off-season articles and predictions. But how often does a team get way over-hyped in the off-season, only to fall short of those lofty expectations? And when in recent years have off-season predictions been a good barometer for an upcoming Pirates season?

The Pirates have been predicted at around a .500 record each year the last few years. No one saw 94 wins in 2013. They weren’t projected for a return trip to the playoffs in 2014. They were finally projected to be good, but not great in 2015.

All of the focus was on what they didn’t have, rather than what they did have. In 2013, it was understandable that people looked at the losing streak as a reason they wouldn’t win. In 2014, they didn’t have A.J. Burnett. Last year they didn’t have Russell Martin.

Every year it’s ignored that they’ve got an MVP in Andrew McCutchen, plus top young players like Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte, and a combination of scouting and coaching that leads to huge reclamation pitching projects each year. That doesn’t consider every team is filled with high upside guys, with the Pirates banking on a few of those guys exceeding their projections.

The big knock against the 2016 team is that they don’t have strong starting pitching, beyond Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. That’s a valid concern, but it’s not enough to discount literally every other part of the team.

Their lineup looks like it could end up one of the top lineups in the NL, due to a new focus on lineup optimization and on base percentage. They’ve got one of the best hitters in the league hitting in a higher valued spot. They added John Jaso, who is outstanding at getting on base and hitting against right-handed pitching. They’re returning Starling Marte and Jung-ho Kang, who could both be 4.0+ WAR players. You could also add Francisco Cervelli to that group. Then there’s Gregory Polanco as a breakout candidate, capable of really putting the lineup over the top.

The bench has a lot of good hitters, with Michael Morse, Matt Joyce, Cole Figueroa, Jason Rogers, and others factoring into the mix. Some of those guys have some power, but all of them have the ability for a high OBP, which the Pirates are valuing more this year.

The bullpen returns the best late inning combo in Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. They’ve got hard throwers like Neftali Feliz and Arquimedes Caminero. Cory Luebke was showing some great stuff in Spring Training, and could be a very impressive second lefty in the pen. Ryan Vogelsong and Kyle Lobstein can provide some innings, taking over for the starters early, and Jared Hughes can also fill in that role when he returns.

The rotation doesn’t have a strong group for the final three spots, but the top two starters were two of the top 30 starters in baseball last year. And at this point, can we count anything out with the Pirates and their starters? Would anyone be surprised if Juan Nicasio is this year’s big breakout player? If Jon Niese returns to a 2.5 WAR? If Jeff Locke’s new mechanics lead to more consistent results?

These are all optimistic views of the 2016 team. And Opening Day is a day for optimism. But it’s not like optimism isn’t warranted here.

The Pirates have once again built a team full of high upside guys. The projection systems and pre-season predictions are low on this approach, because they don’t project an optimistic scenario. Instead, they project the 50th percentile of predictions. Here are the areas where the Pirates could go beyond that:

**Francisco Cervelli stayed healthy last year. If he repeats that season, it will be a huge boost for the Pirates, with Cervelli capable of putting up around a 4.0 WAR.

**John Jaso could be a nice boost for the Pirates if first base helps him stay healthy and his bat plays up to his career numbers against right-handers.

**We’ve seen Josh Harrison anywhere from an impact player, to a below-average starter. Where will he end up as a starting second baseman?

**How will Jung-ho Kang return from his injury? He was one of the best hitters in baseball in the second half last year.

**Can Gregory Polanco break out?

**Will Jon Niese return to a 2.0+ WAR?

**Will Juan Nicasio be the next breakout pitcher?

**Can Jeff Locke at least recapture his previous first half success?

**How much will lineup optimization boost the offense?

**Can Neftali Feliz return to being a dominant reliever?

**Finally, how will all of the prospects do when they come up?

The reality is that not all of these situations will play out perfectly. But the Pirates have so much upside on their roster that several of those situations are bound to work out with the optimistic expectations. We’ve seen this play out in previous years with the reclamation pitchers, Francisco Cervelli, Russell Martin, and prospects like Cole and Marte.

The Pirates don’t need every high upside guy to work out, which is something we’ve seen in the past as well, with struggles from Pedro Alvarez, Jonathan Sanchez, Erik Bedard, Pedro Alvarez, and others.

All of this upside, anchored by the strong expected production of core guys like McCutchen, Marte, Cole, Liriano, Melancon, and Watson, is what will make the Pirates a strong team once again in 2016. The Cubs might end up winning the division. The Pirates might end up playing in the Wild Card game in PNC Park once again. But don’t be surprised if it’s a lot closer than every off-season projection would indicate, with the Pirates having a real shot at the division if more of their high upside situations work out.

**Get a FREE Pirates Prospects Subscription In Time For Opening Day. Check out our offer through DraftKings, where you can get a free one-year subscription just in time for the start of the season.

**How Many Games Will the Pirates Win in 2016? Looking at ZiPS projections to get 89 wins. This is with the 50th percentile projections, and doesn’t factor all of those high upside situations. I could see 94 wins.

**Cole Figueroa Gets the Pirates Final Bench Spot. The roster is set, but it’s not official. That will come tomorrow morning. Sean McCool and I will have live coverage from PNC Park throughout the day.

**Pirates Wrap Up Spring Training, But Won’t Set Roster Until Sunday. Ryan Palencer recaps the final Spring Training game in Indianapolis.

**Pirates Won’t Hold Any Starting Pitching Prospects Back From Indianapolis. A breakdown of all the full-season minor league lineups and rotations.

**Draft Prospect Watch: New Mock Draft From Baseball America. John Dreker recaps the latest mock drafts, and who would be falling to the Pirates.

**Pirates Release Three Minor League Players. A few more moves as minor league camp wraps up.

First Pitch

  • Yeah I hate over-hyped spring training and off season predictions. I can see the pitchers catching up to Bryant, or key injuries, which they avoided last year or their geriatric back of the rotation all of a sudden breaking down. 101 wins? Puh-leez! Let me get my mortgage papers to bet the under.
    Let’s Go Bucs!

  • Cubs fan here. I don’t know who was predicting the pirates top be mediocre the last two years but it wasn’t the Chicago media. All I heard on sports radio going into 2014 and 2015 was how good the Pirates and Astros were or were going to be. As a Cub fan the team to beat for me has always been the 2016 Pirates and I find it kind of amusing how the Cardinals are all bent out of shape about off season predictions. The reason the media and experts are fawning over the Cubs is because it’s the Cubs. If the Pirates didn’t have a history of success, there would be a different tone to the coverage. Maybe the Pirates haven’t won a World Series in a while, but from a Cubs fan perspective, I still see the players wives dancing on top of the dugout (ask your parents). The Pirates are a really good team, but so are the Cubs, and although it seems like everyone is expecting the Cubs to win I assure you the fans and the team are cautiously optimistic, as opposed to the Cardinals who act entitled and put-off. Get ready, it’s going to be a great season, and if you’re lucky, Polanco won’t trip and misplay a pop up this year (sorry – couldn’t resist)

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    April 3, 2016 9:21 pm

    No team should ever concede anything to any other team, especially before the season even starts. Before last year, many thought the Nats would win 100+ games. Prior to last year, I doubt if many people thought the Cubs would win almost 100 games or that the Mets would win the NL East and get to the World Series. In this day of free agency, what looks impressive on paper sometimes doesn’t work on the field or in the clubhouse – due to chemistry issues (see Padres last year). Some teams overachieve, due to having great pitching and defense – see the Royals the past two years.
    So, a lot can happen over the course of 162 games – injuries, trades, and unexpected performances – good and bad. On paper the Cubs look pretty strong, because of the top of their rotation and their young positional players. But, I find it hard to believe that Arietta will match his performance last year – when he was almost unhittable after the all star break. One of their young players – Bryant, Schwarber, or Russell could experience the “sophomore jinx” and take a step back this year. Can Heyward perform well, under the weight of the huge contract he got? Some players struggle under the weight of signing a huge contract – see Robinson Cano. And, no one can predict injuries.
    As I’ve said in previous posts, as the Pirates are currently constructed, I see a 85-90 win team. But, I don’t think this team will remain as currently constructed for long – as I expect some combination of Taillon, Bell, Glasnow, and Hanson to be in Pittsburgh by June, and representing significant upgrades in certain areas. I will be shocked if the likes of Vogelsong, Figueroa, Morse, Rodriguez, and Lobstein are all with the team by July 1. I can easily see 2-3 (or more) of them to be gone by then. Kang’s return in a month will also require roster changes.
    By July, we will have a better sense of where this team is, and if any of the young players are going to make the jump to the majors and be successful. The young players listed above, will make or break this team in 2016.

  • mysonisnamedafterRoberto
    April 3, 2016 11:36 am

    The other point that hasn’t been stated about the Cubs. Last year they were extremely fortunate with the lack of injuries. Looking at their top 5 bats and their top three arms they miss literally no time.

    It was well below the league average.

    They don’t have great depth.

    • I don’t think their bullpen gets addressed enough. It certainly doesn’t scare me.

  • Re: This tweet from Johnny D reminded me of my own experience.

    John Dreker ‎@JohnDreker

    First game hasn’t started yet & I’m already dealing with the confusion of people who don’t realize working from home means I’m still working.

    The last two years of her career, my wife worked 50-65% of the time at home. Mrs Foo is fairly low-key, but I learned that lesson really quickly. (the cat didn’t, tho).


  • Yeh…we gotta even that score!!!!

  • In answer to all of those questions: TWT (Time Will Tell).

    🙂 🙂

  • I haven’t seen this kind of sports media fascination with an NL team like that for the Cubs since I don’t know when. I think it was way back in…….Spring 2015, and it was the Nationals. Correct me if my memory is faulty.

  • I think that Juan Nicasio has a better chance to become a 2.0 WAR pitcher than Niese does.

  • Eff the Cubs.

    GO BUCS.

  • Great way to kick off the season! Play ball!

  • It’s a great day for baseball. Lets Go Bucs

  • scrappy2499
    April 3, 2016 8:23 am

    I had to chuckle a bit when I saw you list Pedro twice under high upside guys that did not work out…Got my subscription too. Game time can’t get here quick enough!

  • The Cubs look great this season…

    …but I like to think I’ve followed baseball enough to realize, until the World Series is played, it’s too soon to anoint a champion.

    Heck, going into last season with Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmerman and Fister (16-6, 2.41 in ’14)…And Harper, Desmond, Rendon and a rebounded Werth (.849 OPS in 2014)…who didn’t think the Nats weren’t studs?

    All those studs got them was an 83-79 record.

    Sure, right now the Cubs look like the team to bet on…and I’ll throw my hat in the ring as saying they’re the favorite, but things fall apart quickly in baseball…and it’s a long season.

    • On top of your accurate comment about the nationals, how many people accurately predicted the Royals to do what they did last year? Let the season play out and keys go bucs!

  • Yep there is some real “hidden” upside to the Pirates! What if Taillon or Glasnow make a big impact after Super Two deadline in mid-June? If Polanco starts really breaking out to his true (star-level) talent? If J-Hay stays healthy and plays closer to 2014? And I think here might just be some real positive surprises with David Freese, Kang coming back strong, and even Steven Brault! It is not time to raise the flag of surrender to the Cubs (isn’t it common for teams that make major leaps in their win totals in one year to regress the following year – has happened with the Pirates – 2013 – 2014?) – instead, let’s just Raise the Jolly Roger!

  • This is the year

  • I like the optimism! Happy Opening Day!

  • Got my subscription. I’m ready. Let’s go Bucs!