PITTSBURGH – The Pirates and Cardinals will kick off the 2016 MLB season today at 1:00 PM, with the first game of a very difficult division race. Last year, the Cardinals had the best record in baseball, winning 100 games. The Pirates were second, with 98 wins. And this year, the Cubs are projected to be better than both of those teams, with the Pirates and Cardinals still projected to be good.
Simply put, if you thought the NL Central was difficult last year, wait until you see the 2016 race. And with every game counting, the Pirates will open with a very important game and series.
“It’s a strong division. It will continue to be a strong division,” Clint Hurdle said before today’s game. “This opportunity to start with [the Cardinals] — I just think it’s kind of cool that we get to play the first game in the 2016 season. Didn’t happen in 2011. Didn’t happen in 2012. Didn’t happen for years before. So we’ve provided some tangible evidence for our fan base and Major League Baseball that we’re an organization on the rise, and we plan to stay there and even move to greater heights.”
My pre-season projection had the Pirates winning 89 games, with a chance to improve on those numbers with a lot of their high upside guys. I could personally see them finishing around 94 wins, and hosting the Wild Card for the fourth straight year. But that’s not going to be something the Pirates plan on settling for this year.
“Our goal is to win the division. That’s not going to change,” Hurdle said. “Our goal is to win a World Series. That’s not going to change. They’ve got an opportunity to do it.”
While I believe the Pirates do have a chance to beat the Cubs and Cardinals for the NL Central, it’s going to take some creative strategy to squeeze every win out of this team. Fortunately, the Pirates seem to be doing everything they can, going against tradition to maximize their roster.
One of the big stories out of Spring Training was the optimization of the lineup, with the Pirates stressing high OBP guys at the top, and batting their best hitter, Andrew McCutchen, second. The Pirates rolled out their Opening Day lineup with that optimization, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this is a lineup they use frequently this year, just as they used it frequently during Spring Training.
Of course they won’t have guys starting every day. Last year, they started stressing rest for each player, keeping players fresh. That’s something that players are usually against, since every player wants to play daily. But the Pirates managed to convince their players of the benefits of calculated days off, and how that could lead to better results.
“It’s a very smart group,” Hurdle said. “Once you show them the numbers and give them a reason why, communicate to them, talk to them about it – why you’re doing it, how you are doing it – those are things we have brought in. It’s been great.”
One thing Hurdle revealed today was that the club might not take typical bullpen roles in the late innings. Hurdle said that they won’t have a true seventh inning guy, but that Neftali Feliz will have “every opportunity to pitch late”. If Feliz can be a late inning guy, then the Pirates could end up moving Tony Watson around, using him in higher leverage situations in the seventh inning, rather than handcuffing him to the eighth.
“If it makes more sense to use him in the seventh, I think that’s an area that we’ll go to, and see how it sets up from there,” Hurdle said of Watson.
The Pirates were also more aggressive on the bases this spring, with Andrew McCutchen being one of the notable guys who was stealing more. The last few years, McCutchen has seen his stolen base attempts drop, going down to just 16 attempts in 2015. McCutchen looks like he’ll be running more this year, based on his Spring Training work.
“I saw more of an inclination for him to run this spring that he did in previous springs,” Hurdle said. “He always continues to try to develop areas of his game, and I think he is trying to recapture that element as well.”
The biggest thing for the Pirates though will obviously be the performance of their players throughout the season, especially key guys like McCutchen. He got off to a slow start last year, and has struggled in the month of April during other seasons. His goal this year has been to get out of the gate hot in April.
“He’s going to try to get out of the box clean,” Hurdle said. “He did a tremendous amount of off-season work to try to better himself and be in the best condition and shape he’s every been in, like he does every year. 2015 was an outlier. That was a challenging start, and this is a different start. He’s opportunistic and as enthused to get out in the field like everybody.”
**Juan Nicasio made his final start in Bradenton on Friday, and Gerrit Cole made his final start on Saturday, going six innings and 97 pitches. Hurdle didn’t say when Cole would be added to the rotation, but discussed their outings briefly, and their travel a bit more.
“I think they went fine,” Hurdle said of the starts. “Their travel didn’t go so well, but everything else went well. It took them a while to get home. Ray was with them as well, so they traveled with Uncle Buck.”
**David Freese will stand in as the starting third baseman until Jung-ho Kang returns. Hurdle discussed what a big addition that was for the club late in Spring Training: “A really good addition for our club. Very thankful for Neal [Huntington] staying on that situation throughout Spring Training, into Spring Training. We had multiple conversations at times. Seemed like we were planets apart. It’s a veteran player. He’s done some exceptional things within the game. He’s hungry. He’s got an edge. He wants to reignite his own personal career. He loves the opportunity here in Pittsburgh. We’ve talked on the phone. We had him in-house. There’s an edge to his game. The fight in the batter’s box, the desire to play defense and score runs. It’s been a welcome addition.”
**Hurdle was asked about and discussed the recognition Ray Searage has been getting lately: “I’m all for our guys being given recognition when it’s earned – and Ray has earned it. Mostly importantly – he’s earned it within his industry. He’s earned it with the group of men that he works with every year. He’s earned it with the front office, the other coaches in other organizations, the pitching coaches he interacts with.”
**Hurdle on Opening Day: “Opening Day is wonderful. I’ll share a quote that I picked up last week from Joe DiMaggio. ‘This is kind of like a birthday when you are a kid – you’re just looking forward to getting something good.’ It has a lot of meaning along those lines. So many people gravitate to it. I don’t know about the other sports. Opening Day is fresh and real. It’s a great opportunity. Winter’s over and we are moving into the spring and summer. I love it, and I’ll be the first to tell you I’m happy when it’s over, because we can then go back and take out the extras and make a more normal pace.”