Two years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates surprised many by winning 94 games and returning to the playoffs. It was their first postseason berth since a slightly less grayer Jim Leyland took them to three straight division titles from 1990 to 1992. There were signs that the team was coming around -- those paying attention saw a hot start in 2012 go wasted by a frigid second half -- but an 88-74 pythagorean win record left some doubting whether the Pirates were for real.
Last year, the Pirates proved that they were not one-year wonders. They reversed their 2012 trend in 2014, winning 39 of their final 67 games after a first half barely over .500. They stormed past the fading Milwaukee Brewers to earn their second postseason berth in as many years, but were steamrolled by Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in the NL Wild Card Game. The Bucs only won 88 games this time around -- hey, pythag was right! -- but there is little doubt that the Pirates are legitimate contenders in the National League.
This year, the question isn't "can they contend?" We know that they can, and the young talent on their roster is only getting better. Instead, the question is "can they win it all?" ESPN's Buster Olney picked the Pirates to win the World Series this year, and, while it's a deviation from the slew of inevitable picks for the Nationals and Dodgers, it's far from crazy. This team is good, and should make a run at their third consecutive playoff berth this season.
The Pirates possess arguably the best outfield in baseball, and one that should give NL Central opponents for years to come. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is the best outfielder in baseball not named Mike Trout, and is flanked by a pair of budding stars in Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. McCutchen has been worth 21.8 WAR over the last three years (second only to Trout) and has a trio of top-three MVP finishes during that span. He hit .314/.410/.542 with 25 home runs and 18 stolen bases last season. Marte wasn't too far behind in 2014, hitting .291/.356/.453 with 13 homers and 30 steals. He has been a four-win outfielder in both of the past two years, and people still think 2015 could be a breakout season. Polanco is the youngest and least decorated of this troika, but his ceiling is just as high. He hit .235/.307/.343 in 312 plate appearances last year and impressed scouts with his patient approach at the plate. He has middle-of-the-order power and runs like a deer, leaving the rest of us to wonder what exactly is in the water in Pittsburgh.
Josh Harrison started the 2014 season in the same pinch-hitting and utility role that he filled when he broke up Justin Verlander's attempt at a no-hitter in 2012 (yeah, we're still bitter). However, he broke out in a big way last season, hitting .315/.347/.490 with 13 home runs. He was one of the most consistent hitters on the team, hitting .300 or better in four of the final five months of the season. Harrison played five different positions last year, but will start the season as the team's third baseman. Across the diamond from him will be former third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who had all sorts of issues throwing the baseball last season. He continued to struggle hitting for average in 2014, but cut his strikeout rate and hit 18 home runs in 445 plate appearances. The Pirates signed right-hander Corey Hart during the offseason, who will probably fit into the short side of a platoon at first. Hart struggled in 2014, but is a career .290/.362/.504 hitter against left-handed pitching.
Second baseman Neil Walker is the longest-tenured member of the Pirates, having been in the organization since 2004. Walker had a career-best season in 2014, hitting .271/.342/.467 with 23 home runs and 76 RBI. Still only 29, Walker has one more year of arbitration remaining before he hits free agency after the 2016 season. The Pirates may already have a ready-made replacement in South Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang. The 27-year-old Kang is still a bit of a mystery, as he is the first big-time position player to arrive from the Korean Baseball Organization. It looks like Kang will open the year as a backup option for both Walker and shortstop Jordy Mercer. Mercer's bat took a nosedive after a productive 2013 season, but his steady glove was enough to make him a league average player. Former Tampa Bay Rays utility man Sean Rodriguez is also in the fold, giving manager Clint Hurdle all the versatility he needs to navigate the 162-game season.
The only major change from the Pirates' 2014 lineup was the loss of catcher Russell Martin, who signed a five-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. In his place is another former Yankees backstop, Francisco Cervelli. Like Martin, Cervelli and backup Chris Stewart are considered excellent pitch framers and game managers. Cervelli showed a surprising amount of pop at the plate last season, hitting .301/.370/.432 in 162 plate appearances. He likely won't repeat those numbers as a starter -- his minor league ISO is just .090 -- but his high walk rate makes his bat serviceable. Stewart is currently recovering from a hamstring injury and will likely begin the year on the disabled list, opening the door for Tony Sanchez. The 27-year-old Sanchez is having a whale of a spring, hitting .478/.538/.870 in 26 plate appearances.
In one of the more surprising moves of the offseason, the Pirates opened their normally airtight pockets and re-signed free agent left-hander Francisco Liriano to a three year, $39 million deal. Liriano has resurrected his career with the Pirates in the past two season, allowing a 3.20 ERA and 3.26 FIP in 323 1/3 innings. He struggled with his command in 2014, walking 4.49 batters per nine innings. He had eight starts with four walks or more, including two six-walk outings. Liriano will be rejoined by former teammate A.J. Burnett, who re-upped with the Pirates this offseason after a year in Philadelphia. Burnett lost a league-high 18 games with the Phillies, allowing a 4.59 ERA in 213 2/3 innings. Burnett had his only two sub-4.00 ERA seasons since 2008 with the Pirates in 2012 and 2013, and the Bucs are hoping that he returns to form for one final year.
Burnett was miffed when Clint Hurdle passed over Burnett to start rookie Gerrit Cole in Game 5 of the 2013 NLDS, but Cole is the unquestioned ace of the staff now. The burly 24-year-old right-hander allowed a 3.65 ERA and 3.23 FIP in 138 innings last season, the highest of his MLB career. He averaged 6 1/3 innings per start, an impressive total for a young pitcher. However, a shoulder injury left him on the disabled list for nearly two months. Right-hander Charlie Morton has undergone two hip surgeries (and Tommy John) in the past three years, but earned a place in the Pirates' 2015 rotation with a 3.72 ERA and FIP in 157 1/3 innings last season. He got roughed up in a spring start yesterday, but is the kind of ground ball artist that has keyed the Pirates' resurgence in recent seasons.
Right-hander Vance Worley and left-hander Jeff Locke are currently in a battle for the fifth starter role, but Worley appears to have the upper hand after allowing a 2.85 ERA and 3.44 FIP in 110 1/3 innings last year. The Twins' Opening Day starter in 2013, Worley flopped so badly that he was sold to the Pirates at the end of spring training in 2014. His ERA in Triple A wasn't pretty, but he earned a call-up after striking out 10.75 batters for every walk he allowed in seven starts. Locke's trajectory has been nearly the exact opposite of Worley's. He made the NL All-Star team in 2013 when he BABIP'd his way to an 8-2 record and 2.15 ERA. He hasn't been nearly as sharp since then, allowing a 4.58 ERA in his last 188 2/3 innings.
The Pirates had one of the better bullpens in baseball last season, allowing a 3.28 ERA, fifth-best in the National League. They had the third-lowest strikeout rate in the league, but led the NL with a 49.8 percent ground ball rate. Closer Mark Melancon and setup man Tony Watson led the way with sub-2.00 ERAs in a combined 148 1/3 innings, while big right-hander John Holdzkom was impressive down the stretch. Holdzkom may fall victim to the options game, however, as pitchers like Locke, Stolmy Pimentel, and Arquimedes Caminero would all have to pass through waivers. Newcomer Antonio Bastardo doesn't fall in with the Pirates' new groundball-heavy regimen, but he has been a solid reliever for a number of years who strikes out a boatload of hitters.
Down on the farm
The Pirates have graduated a trio of monster prospects to the majors over the past few seasons, and all three -- Marte, Polanco, and Cole -- look like franchise cornerstones for years to come. The Pirates still have a loaded farm system that ranks among the top eight in baseball according to both Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus. Pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are the class of the system, though neither is likely to help the big league club in 2015. Glasnow put up impressive numbers at High-A Bradenton, while Taillon missed the year due to Tommy John surgery. Outfielder Josh Bell is a massive individual with a ton of raw power, but questions about his defense and the roadblocked outfield ahead of him are pushing him towards first base. Austin Meadows, Alen Hanson, and Nick Kingham are promising talents in the upper levels, while players like Reese McGuire, Mitch Keller, and Cole Tucker dot a deep class in the lower minors.
Player to watch: Jung-Ho Kang
It would be easy to throw Andrew McCutchen's name into this section and caption it "well duh," but sometimes the spectacle of baseball is more interesting than on-field production. Kang, a shortstop, hit .356/.459/.739 with 40 home runs in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) last season, a league that essentially has moon bounces for ballparks. The Pirates won the bidding war for Kang with a $5 million posting fee, or 16 percent of the amount that the Boston Red Sox paid in taxes after signing Yoan Moncada. Kang's numbers don't provide any indication of how good he will be in the states, but to his credit, he was better than anyone else in the KBO last year.
That's a nice story, but the real reason to keep an eye on Kang is because he's basically a Korean Kenny Powers. Kang showed up to Pirates camp in a t-shirt that read "The Trillest," is looking for "new hobbies," and is thisclose to being declared a clubhouse cancer by certain media hacks. He's one of the biggest unknowns in baseball right now, but is handling it like a rockstar -- or as rockstar-ish as you can get in Pittsburgh. One thing seems to be certain: the power looks legit, and should be fun to watch.
The Pirates returned to the postseason in arguably the most impressive way possible in 2014, weathering a storm of injuries and a hot start from the Milwaukee Brewers to storm back into the hunt in the second half. While losing Martin could hurt, the addition of Cervelli and continued emphasis on pitching and defense should help the Bucs not miss a beat. The offense, which was fourth in the NL in runs scored last season, could feasibly get even better if Marte, Polanco, and Alvarez play up to their potential. Contributions from those three, the rest of their supporting cast, and another MVP-caliber season should result in the Pirates playing meaningful baseball again this fall.