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.