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2017 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The biggest change for the Pirates during the offseason came not with a free agent sign or a trade, but with a realignment of its outfield. Five-time All-Star and 2013 National League MVP Award-winner Andrew McCutchen spent every inning of his eight-year major league career in center field, but he is shifting to right field for the 2017 season. Starling Marte moves from left to center, and Gregory Polanco moves from right to left.

Many Pirate fans were emotionally preparing for the possibility of life without McCutchen, as his name kept coming up in trade rumors, but nothing ever materialized. The 30-year-old had the worst season of his career last year, finishing at .256/.336/.430 with 24 home runs, 79 RBI, 81 runs scored, and six stolen bases in 675 plate appearances. His defense, too, hit a low point, prompting the realignment of the Pittsburgh outfield.

The McCutchen situation wasn’t the only issue plaguing the Pirates during the offseason. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang was arrested in South Korea for a DUI, his third since 2009. He was involved in a one-car accident that caused property damage and fled the scene, but thankfully no one was hurt. Kang’s driver’s license was revoked and he entered an alcohol treatment program. He was cut from South Korea’s World Baseball Classic roster and he still may face punishment from Major League Baseball, though his entering a treatment program may prevent that. Kang was also under investigation for a sexual assault incident in Chicago during the summer.

Aside from that, though, the Pirates’ offseason was quiet. Their biggest addition came in the form of starter-turned-reliever Daniel Hudson, who inked a two-year, $11 million pact with the club in December. He appeared in 70 games for the Diamondbacks last season, finishing with a 5.22 ERA and a 58/22 K/BB ratio in 60 1/3 innings. It may seem foolish at first blush, but pitching coach Ray Searage has a long history of taking pitchers down on their luck and fixing them up.

Hudson has a chance of becoming the Pirates’ closer if not to open the season, then at some point this summer if the club trades lefty Tony Watson. Watson took over as the closer after the Pirates dealt Mark Melancon to the Nationals. The lefty saved 15 games and ended the season with a 3.06 ERA and a 58/20 K/BB ratio in 67 2/3 innings. As Watson can become a free agent after the season, GM Neal Huntington may feel incentivized to trade Watson by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Behind Hudson and Watson, the Pirates have veterans in Felipe Rivero, Juan Nicasio, Antonio Bastardo, and Jared Hughes.

Let’s hop back to the outfield briefly for a rundown. Marte won his second Gold Glove Award and made his first All-Star team last year, batting .311/.362/.456 with 48 extra-base hits, 46 RBI, 71 runs scored, and 47 stolen bases in 529 plate appearances. Compared to his 2015 output, he hit for more average and less power, and stole more bases. Marte and the Brewers’ Jonathan Villar were the only players to slug .450 or better while swiping 40-plus bags.

Polanco represents a lot of the Pirates’ potential. The former top prospect had his best season as a major leaguer last year, batting .258/.323/.463 with 22 home runs and 86 RBI in 587 plate appearances. Few are expecting the Pirates to hang around with the defending champion Cubs this season, but if they do defy expectations, it will be because of a big year from Polanco.

The starting rotation will be the backbone of the Pirates. FanGraphs is projecting four starters to be average or better in terms of Wins Above Replacement. Gerrit Cole leads the staff and will try to improve on a disappointing 2016 campaign during which he hit the disabled list three times and mustered a 3.88 ERA with a 98/36 K/BB ratio in 116 innings. Cole’s 2015 season is illustrative of his potential as he finished fourth in NL Cy Young balloting with a 2.60 ERA and 202 strikeouts across 208 innings. While one can rattle off at least 10 names more likely to win the Cy Young this year than Cole, his winning the hardware would not in the least bit be surprising.

Young Jameson Taillon will slot in No. 2 for the Pirates. The right-hander has been injury prone throughout his career and experienced fatigue in his right shoulder last year, prompting the Pirates to carefully manage his workload. Still, he made 18 starts and finished with a 3.38 ERA and an 85/17 K/BB ratio in 104 innings. Taillon’s ability to make 30 starts in 2017 is still very much in question. When he does start, he can be one of the best in baseball, but 15 versus 30 starts will be the big factor in his value.

In the middle of the rotation is Ivan Nova. Is he another reformed pitcher whose success should be credited to Searage? The right-hander had a mostly unimpressive career and carried a 4.90 ERA with the Yankees before they sent him to Pittsburgh on August 1. In 11 starts with his new club, Nova impressed with a 3.06 ERA and a 52/3 K/BB ratio in 64 2/3 innings. While history says Nova isn’t that good a pitcher, he’s the umpteenth wayward hurler to get his wheels realigned in Pittsburgh and set on an even better path. Ask J.A. Happ, Edinson Volquez, and Francisco Liriano if Searage knows what he’s talking about. The Pirates were willing to make the bet, inking Nova to a three-year, $26 million contract in December.

The final two spots in the rotation are up for grabs between Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Tyler Glasnow, and Drew Hutison. Glasnow was a consensus top-15 prospect across baseball entering last season. He pitched 23 1/3 innings in the bigs, compiling a 4.24 ERA and a 24/13 K/BB ratio. He has the most promise of the bunch given his age and high-90’s fastball. Hutchison has experience as the only one of the bunch to have made his major league debut prior to 2016. Though he flashed greatness at times over parts of four seasons with the Blue Jays, he was wildly inconsistent as his 4.93 career ERA shows. Brault made seven starts and one relief appearance last year to the tune of a 4.86 ERA. Kuhl made 14 starts and put up a 4.20 ERA.

Returning to the infield, Josh Bell is looking at a full season at first base. He recently underwent knee surgery to remove a loose body, but is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season. A top prospect entering last season, Bell hit a solid .273/.368/.406 with eight doubles, three home runs, and 19 RBI in 152 PA in the big leagues. In the event Bell’s knee acts up, John Jaso and David Freese are capable backups.

Josh Harrison will reprise his role at second base. The exciting 29-year-old made his first All-Star team and finished ninth in NL MVP voting in 2014, but his two seasons since then have been underwhelming. Last year, he hit .283/.311/.388. Harrison is pretty much a gap hitter who plays plus defense and provides plus speed on the bases. The Pirates’ ability to vie for the NL Wild Card (or more) will have some relationship with Harrison’s ability to improve on his recent performance.

Jordy Mercer rounds out the infield at shortstop. He hit .256/.328/.374 with 11 home runs and 59 RBI in 584 plate appearances last season. If the Pirates find themselves in the thick of things, they may feel tempted to upgrade the position via trade. Mercer is 30 years old and the Pirates may not see a reason to build with him as part of their future.

Francisco Cervelli will take the lion’s share of the playing time behind the dish. He’s one of the better hitters in baseball when it comes to getting on base. His .377 OBP last year ranked 20th among hitters with at least 350 PA. While Cervelli doesn’t do much else with the bat, he’s earned a reputation for calling games, handling a pitching staff, and playing defense. Chris Stewart will back up Cervelli.

The NL Central is going to be extremely tough for the Pirates as they’ll be staring down the defending champs. The Wild Card may be a more realistic goal for the club, but even that will be difficult with the Cardinals and Mets expected to finish second in their respective divisions as well.

Prediction: 81-81 record, 3rd place in NL Central

Anthony Alford to miss 4-6 weeks following wrist surgery

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Blue Jays’ outfielder Anthony Alford will miss at least 4-6 weeks after undergoing surgery on his left wrist, the team announced on Saturday. Alford was placed on the 10-day disabled list earlier in the week after sustaining a left hamate fracture on a foul pitch, and could miss significant time in what looks to be a lengthy rehab process. MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm reports that the procedure has been scheduled for next week and will be performed by Dr. Donald Sheridan in Arizona.

Alford, 22, was called up to the majors from Double-A New Hampshire last Friday. He went hitless in his first three outings, finally catching a break against the Brewers on Tuesday when he pinch-hit a leadoff double in the seventh. The injury occurred two innings later when Alford fouled off a pitch in the ninth inning, fracturing his wrist in the process.

Alford will join eight other players on the Blue Jays’ disabled list, including outfielders Steve Pearce (calf strain), Dalton Pompey (concussion) and Darrell Cecillani (partial shoulder dislocation). He’s expected to be replaced by 24-year-old outfield prospect Dwight Smith Jr.

Stephen Strasburg hit a new career high today

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Good luck getting a hit against the Nationals this weekend. Stephen Strasburg followed Max Scherzer‘s 13-strikeout performance on Friday with a dazzling outing of his own on Saturday afternoon. The right-hander whiffed a career-best 15 batters in seven innings, allowing just three hits and a walk in the Nats’ 3-0 win.

It took Strasburg several innings to get into a groove after pitching into (and out of) a jam in the first inning. The Padres loaded the bases with Allen Cordoba‘s leadoff single, a throwing error by Ryan Zimmerman and a four-pitch walk to Cory Spangenberg. By the third, Strasburg was cruising, striking out the side on 18 pitches and keeping the Padres off the basepaths until the sixth. He recorded his 15th and final strikeout in the seventh inning, catching Padres’ prospect Franchy Cordero swinging on a 1-2 pitch to effectively end his outing.

While 15 strikeouts set a new career record for the Nationals’ ace, he came close to reaching the mark twice before. The first time, he struck out 14 of 24 batters during his major league debut against the 2010 Pirates, though the 5-2 win did little more than keep the Nationals neck-and-neck with the Marlins at the bottom of the NL East. Five years later, he tied his 14-strikeout record against the 2015 Phillies, tossing a one-hitter in eight innings to cement his ninth victory of the season.

The only one who doesn’t seem overly enthused by the new record? Strasburg himself, who told MLB.com’s Jamal Collier and AJ Cassavell: “It’s pretty cool, but there’s another game five, six days from now. I’ll enjoy it tonight, but back to work tomorrow.”