2016 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

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 2016 season. Next up: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates, in recent years, have done things a little bit differently than most other teams. It has worked out, as the club has reached the postseason in each of the last three seasons, averaging 93 wins per season in that span of time. The last two campaigns ended with disappointing Wild Card game losses to the Giants and Cubs, but the Pirates have proven that their methodology brings results.

At first glance, their 2016 starting roster doesn’t scream “playoffs”. But maybe that’s part of the club’s genius. The Pirates eschewed Pedro Alvarez, who has hit 131 home runs in his career, in favor of John Jaso at first base. Jaso has 37 career homers and has only once gone into double-digits in a season. The Pirates, though, like him because of his defense, as Travis Sawchik explains for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Alvarez put up -13 DRS (defensive runs saved). If Jaso is a league-average defender – and he has made only one error in 92 chances this spring – then the Pirates are on their way to vastly improving the team’s defense, which has been in decline since ranking third in all of baseball in DRS in 2013.

The Pirates also traded second baseman Neil Walker to the Mets and inserted Josh Harrison on the right side. Sawchik cites Harrison as a +8 DRS defender in about a half-season’s worth of innings at the position, while Walker was -2 DRS in 2015. The team may lose a bit of offense going from Alvarez/Walker to Jaso/Harrison, but the hope is to make up for it and then some with improved defense.

Another area in which the Pirates excel is picking pitchers out of the scrap heap, putting them in front of Ray Searage, and reaping the rewards. It’s been done countless times, as Searage has turned around the careers of Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, J.A. Happ, Vance Worley, and Charlie Morton. He extended the career of A.J. Burnett, and helped Gerrit Cole reach his potential.

Searage’s latest project is Juan Nicasio. The right-hander compiled a 5.03 ERA over parts of four seasons with the Rockies, making 69 of his 88 appearances as a starter. It wasn’t just Coors Field, as he comes into this season with a 4.48 career ERA away from home. Nicasio enjoyed some success last year with the Dodgers, finishing with a 3.86 ERA in 58 1/3 relief innings. While he struck out more batters than ever before – common for relievers transitioning from starting – he also battled control issues, averaging nearly five walks per nine innings.

Early in spring training, Searage simply made Nicasio focus on keeping his fastball low in the strike zone. It seems like simple advice that anyone could give, but it’s less about the actual advice and more about how it is communicated. In 15 innings this spring, Nicasio yielded exactly zero runs on 10 hits and five walks with 24 strikeouts. The Pirates on Wednesday informed him that he officially made the Pirates’ starting rotation, which means Ryan Vogelsong is heading to the bullpen.

Defense, rebound targets… oh yeah, the Pirates also have a center fielder who has finished in the top-five in NL MVP Award voting in each of the past four seasons, including winning in 2013. Last year, the 29-year-old hit .292/.401/.488 with 23 home runs, 96 RBI, 91 runs scored, and 11 stolen bases in 157 games. While McCutchen won’t enter the season as a favorite to win another NL MVP Award, no one would be surprised if he won it.

Starling Marte will join McCutchen in the outfield, taking his place in left field. Despite having “star” in his name, Marte is still not really on the radar. He has put together three consecutive seasons of five or more Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference, yet he has not been nominated to an All-Star team yet. In 2015, he hit .287/.337/.444 with 19 home runs, 81 RBI, 84 runs scored, and 30 stolen bases while playing elite defense.

Liriano will have the honor of starting on Opening Day for the Pirates, but Cole is truly the team’s ace. Cole placed fourth in NL Cy Young Award balloting last year and would have had a decent shot at winning it if not for historically-great seasons by Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke. The right-hander went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA with a 202/44 K/BB ratio in 208 innings. Because he plays in the same league as Clayton Kershaw, Cole isn’t a favorite to win the 2016 Cy Young Award, but like McCutchen, no one would be shocked if he ended up with some hardware after the season.

Liriano has become a tough pitcher to deal with and he keeps getting better. He put himself back on the radar in 2013 with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts and backed that up with a 24.5 percent strikeout rate along with a 9.5 percent walk rate. This past season, Liriano finished with a slightly higher ERA at 3.38, but boosted his strikeout rate to 26.5 percent and lowered his walk rate to 9.1 percent. Strikeout and walk rates are great predictors of future success. ERA retrodictors like FIP and xFIP take this into account, as they put him at 3.19 and 3.16, respectively.

At the back of the bullpen, the Pirates have the ever-reliable Mark Melancon, another player who benefited from a change of scenery. He struggled with the Yankees, Astros, and Red Sox, putting up a 4.07 ERA over parts of four seasons before joining the Pirates. Over the last three years in Pittsburgh, Melancon has racked up 100 saves with a 1.85 ERA and a 203/33 K/BB ratio in 218 2/3 innings. There was some concern last year about his velocity, as he lost over 1 MPH on his fastball and his strikeout rate dropped by more than four percent. However, he still got the job done, leading all of baseball with 51 saves.

Overall, the Pirates will probably notice a slight decline in offense compared to last year, but with improved defense, one of baseball’s most reliable core group of players, and yielding more from reclamation projects, it doesn’t seem like much a leap to believe they can cross the 90-win threshold again.

Prediction: 93-69, second place in the NL Central.