2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Big Question: Can the Bucs make a third consecutive trip to the postseason?

In 2013, the Pirates snapped a painful 20-year October drought and advanced through the National League Wild Card Game to the NLDS, where they lost in five games to the division-rival Cardinals.

In 2014, the Pirates made it back to the National League Wild Card Game but fell to the eventual World Series-champion Giants.

Postseason baseball is an expectation now in Pittsburgh, and this 2015 group looks amply equipped to keep the tradition going. Let’s start with the outfield, which might be baseball’s best …

Andrew McCutchen, starting center fielder, has finished top three in the National League MVP voting each of the last three seasons. He posted a career-high and National League-leading 168 OPS+ in 2014 and he doesn’t turn 29 years old until October 10, 2015. A good defender to boot, “Cutch” is probably the second-best overall position player in the major leagues. Starling Marte, the Pirates’ 26-year-old starting left fielder, batted .291/.356/.453 with 13 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 135 games last season. He’s getting better every year, and the Pirates have him under contract through at least 2019 at a very team-friendly rate. Gregory Polanco, right field, was ranked a top 10 prospect by Baseball America before the 2014 season. He struggled in 89 games as a rookie, but well-built 23-year-old has all the tools to become a star.

These three can hit, field, and they’re all in or very near their baseball prime.

In the starting rotation the Pirates also have a couple of building blocks: Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. Cole battled a right lat injury in 2014 that limited him to 138 regular-season innings, but it shouldn’t be a lingering thing and he has looked sharp this spring in the Grapefruit League. The former No. 1 overall pick (2011, out of UCLA) boasts a 3.45 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 8.4 K/9 through his first 255 1/3 career major league innings. He’s only 24 years old and under club control through 2019. Liriano was the biggest bargain of the offseason, re-signing with the Pirates for three years and $39 million in a free agent market where Ervin Santana scored four years, $55 million. Liriano has delivered a 3.20 ERA and 9.4 K/9 in 55 starts over the last two seasons with Pittsburgh. He’s only 31 years old — the same age as $155 million man Jon Lester.

It’s a strong core, and with a few surprises from other players on the roster the Pirates should be in the mix all year for another Wild Card spot and maybe even the National League Central title.

What else is going on?

  • Francisco Liriano has never pitched more than 200 innings in a season, and neither has Gerrit Cole. Pittsburgh will be hoping that changes in 2015 because the rest of the rotation is a little bit iffy. A.J. Burnett left money on the table to sign with the Bucs this offseason and he had great success in 2012-2013 under Pirates coaching coach Ray Searage — the new go-to reclamation project guru — but the 38-year-old righty posted a rough 4.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in 34 starts last summer with the Phillies. He might be beyond saving. Charlie Morton had a pedestrian 96 ERA+ in 2014 and Vance Worley is due for some serious regression after managing a 2.85 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in his first 110 2/3 innings with the Bucs.
  • Top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow may be able to provide some help in the second half. Taillon, the No. 29 prospect on Baseball America’s latest Top 100, is on his way back from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. He’s expected to start pitching in minor league games in May. Glasnow, No. 16 on Baseball America’s Top 100, hasn’t appeared in a game above High-A ball but looks to be a fast-riser. Baseball Prospectus recently ranked the Pirates’ farm system eighth overall.
  • Josh Harrison broke out in 2014 just as Pedro Alvarez’s defensive issues at third base began to boil over. Alvarez has been moved into a first-base platoon with Corey Hart and Harrison enters 2015 as the starter at the hot corner. Harrison was a 2014 National League All-Star and even earned MVP votes after batting .315/.347/.490 with 13 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 143 games. The 27-year-old began the 2014 season as a utilityman. It was quite a rise, though his past numbers suggest he is in for a dropoff.
  • Losing catcher Russell Martin to free agency leaves a sting, but the Pirates did pretty well to fill the void in acquiring Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees last November for lefty reliever Justin Wilson. Cervelli, 29, has batted .293/.372/.449 in 223 plate appearances over the last two seasons and is decent defensively. He shouldn’t be expected to carry that kind of batting line over a full starter’s slate, but something remotely close would be great. Cervelli is hitting very well in the Grapefruit League this spring.
  • Jung Ho Kang drew interest from a range of Major League Baseball teams this winter after hitting .356/.459/.739 with 40 home runs and 117 RBI in 117 games last season for the Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization. But it was the Pirates who landed him with a $5,002,015 posting fee and four-year, $11 million major league contract. Kang was a superstar in South Korea, and the usually-frugal Pittsburgh front office surprised a lot of people by nabbing him off the international market. $16 million isn’t a big amount of money for most clubs, but it is for the Pirates. Kang, 27, is expected to open the 2015 season in a utility infield role. If his defense is good enough, he could eventually steal playing time from shortstop Jordy Mercer, who batted .255 with a .305 on-base percentage in 2014.

Prediction: McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco will help lead the Pirates to a second place finish in the National League Central and a third straight appearance in the National League Wild Card Game.

Nationals’ starting pitching carrying them into World Series

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In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.

In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.

The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.

Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.

It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.

The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.