After what seemed like a relatively short off season, the Pittsburgh Pirates are officially ready to start Spring Training, with the entire squad reporting today, the 22nd, and the first full squad workout tomorrow, the 23rd. With fans flocking to Bradenton to see what this years squad has to offer, the rest of us back here in Pennsylvania are anticipating April 3rd for the MLB season opener between the Pirates and Cardinals at PNC Park at 1:05 pm. Since the Pirates off season was relatively quiet, we will look at the projected starting lineups, and pitching rotation.
Obviously, the outfield is locked up with Andrew McCutchen roaming Center Field, Starling Marte in Left Field, and Gregory Polanco in Right Field. ‘Cutch is coming off his fifth straight All-Star appearance, and fourth straight Silver Slugger Award, after batting .292 with 23 homeruns and a career high 96 RBI. We know what king of production we will get from him this year; yet another All-Star, possible MVP performance. Marte’s bat was exceptional last year, and it will probably only get better. His glove on the other hand? Even better. After his first Gold Glove Award last season, the Pirates expect the same production from him in the field for 2016. Polanco’s stats in his first full season in the bigs were not what many people wanted, but they certainly could have been worse. His batting average went from .235 in 2014 to .256 in 2015. El Coffee is only going to get better, as his ceiling is endless. If Polanco can reach the .270 mark in batting average this season, the Pirates will arguably have the best outfield trio in all of baseball. Let’s take a look at the infield.
Although there are several question marks with the Pirates infield, there really is some room for optimism. Francisco Cervelli will lead our infield behind the dish. After two straight very respectable seasons by the trusted catcher, look for Cervelli to lead our infield, and mold the starting pitchers into what they are supposed to be. Josh Harrison looks to be the starting second baseman. He is coming off of two great seasons, after hitting .315 in 2014, and .287 in 2015. Jung-Ho Kang looks better than ever after season ending leg surgery, which ruined his hopes at a Rookie of the Year award. Look for Kang to take the Hot Corner for the Pirates this season, as long as he is healthy at the start. Jordy Mercer will obviously be the starting Short Stop. Mercer has to give some quality production in the first half of the season or else Huntington and Co. are going to have to look for someone else come July. Mercer’s average has gone down each of the last two seasons, but he still has potential, and has a decent glove. First base is where the real question comes into play. John Jaso is coming off a career high batting average at .286. Even though, he only played in 70 games, look for Jaso to lead the Pirates first baseman. Jaso will likely platoon first base with Michael Morse, and Jason Rogers. Rogers can also play third base if Kang isn’t available at the beginning of the season. Josh Bell (1st Base), and Alan Hanson (2nd Base), will both start off the season in Indianapolis AAA, but they both will most likely be in Pittsburgh by July. The Pirates offense shouldn’t be what holds them back at chasing the NL Central.
Starting pitching is truly high risk high reward this year. Gerrit Cole needs to be the Ace he is supposed to be. That means at least 20 wins and a 2.50 ERA or under. This is not asking too much from the former #1 overall pick. Although he currently has an injury in his ribs, he reported that he had no pain in his bullpen session today. Francisco Liriano needs to be a quality #2 guy. The type of production needs to be similar to that of 2013 where he won 16 games and had a 3.02 ERA. Look for Liriano to win around 12-15 games in 2016. Jeff Locke is currently #3 in the rotation. In all honesty, I just don’t understand this one at all. Oh, I forgot, Clint Hurdle adores Jeff Locke. Having Locke as the #3 will not get the Pirates a division championship unless he completely changes his production…Let’s move on. The #4 guy is Jon Niese. Niese had a 4 ERA last season, but with Ray Searage, hopefully he can lower that at least into the 3’s. This should happen, because Niese had three quality seasons from 2012-2014, and he should get about 10-12 wins. Ryan Vogelsong had an ERA of over 4 the past three seasons. Once again, this will not get it done. Yes, he is currently the 5th man in the rotation, but he might have to move up if Locke or Niese can’t get it done. Here’s to hoping Searage can pull his magic yet again with a struggling, veteran starting pitcher. Fortunately, Tyler Glasnow, the #7 overall prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, is poised to step on the bump at PNC Park at some point this season. The bullpen is going to need to be as stellar in 2016 as it was in 2015. Luckily, it is looking pretty similar with Melancon, Watson, Hughes, Caminero, Scahill, and Feliz all returning. The 2015 Pirates bullpen won 31 games, and it needs to stay the same in 2016, unless the starters all win at least 14 a piece.
Overall, there are some issues to worry about, but there is major upside with a young, talented roster. The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates will make another playoff run, but it is time to take the NL Central.
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