The Tigers opened up interleague play this week, and we all know what that means: a series against their hated NL Central rivals, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The "regional rivalries" that Major League Baseball has tried to cultivate may seem silly in this case, but I, for one, have come to appreciate the annual showdown with the Pirates. They have an exciting team, a gorgeous stadium, and a fanbase full of great people.
One of those awesome individuals is Charlie Wilmoth, managing editor of Bucs Dugout, SB Nation's excellent Pirates community. Charlie was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Pirates for us in time for this week's series.
1. The Pirates have made the playoffs two years in a row after two decades without October baseball, but as we Tigers fans learned several years ago, that success quickly becomes taken for granted. With such a young, talented team in front of them, what are Pirates' fans expectations heading into 2015? Are they hungry for more than just another postseason berth? What will constitute a "successful" season in your eyes?
Some fans have already gotten restless, and it's hard to blame them, especially given that the Pirates' payroll still hasn't risen to the level most fans would like to see. I agree with them about the payroll, but the team has played so well these past couple of years, and the Pirates' competence still feels fresh to me, so it's hard to feel too negative.
I would be disappointed if the Bucs didn't make the playoffs this season. What happens once they get there is partially beyond their control, and I'm not going to spend much time in April worrying about it.
2. I had the great fortune of meeting Andrew McCutchen before the 2013 season, and while I was a fan of his before, he now can do no wrong in my eyes. What is his weakness, if he even has one? How close is he to re-signing the long-term contract we heard whispers of during the offseason? Are you worried that him cutting his hair will have a Samson-like effect on his baseball skills?
If only being good at baseball were as easy as having long hair. If it were, I'm sure Brad Ausmus would have had Justin Verlander grow his out by now. Incidentally, the Pirates actually did once have a player, Craig Wilson, who fans nicknamed "Samson" because he supposedly could only hit with long hair.
McCutchen's greatest weakness is his arm. And fielding balls hit over his head, although he's gotten better at that in the past couple years. My guess is that the Pirates won't extend him beyond his current contract. He's already under control through 2018, and signing him past then would likely mean overpaying for his decline years.
3. McCutchen is flanked by two excellent, young outfielders in Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte? Which one of them is better, and who would you rather lock up to a long-term contract? They seem very similar, so have the Pirates secretly discovered how to clone human beings? If so, can we borrow that technology for Miguel Cabrera?
Marte is better right now and is already signed long-term, but Polanco has a ton of upside, and I hope the Pirates sign him too. I actually don't think they're that similar, except in that they're both really toolsy. Marte is smaller and right-handed, and he's a bit of a free swinger. Polanco is huge and left-handed and somewhat awkward in the way young men who just had a growth spurt tend to be. His history suggests he'll end up having much better plate discipline than Marte.
4. The Pirates have long been known for having one of the lower payrolls in baseball. While the pursestrings seem to have loosened somewhat (Francisco Liriano got a nice deal this offseason), there are still limits on what they're willing to spend (goodbye, Russell Martin). What is the one thing that has made the Pirates so successful in recent years that they didn't have for the previous 20 years?
The Pirates' ownership and management now want to win and have some clue how to do it, whereas they didn't when Kevin McClatchy and Dave Littlefield were in charge. It's like if you had Gallagher running a laboratory, and then you kicked him out and replaced him with a competent chemist. All of a sudden you're no longer just smashing watermelons and calling it science.
5. How many games do you think the Pirates will win this year, and where will they finish in the NL Central? Conversely, how many games would the Pirates win if they had the Tigers' bullpen, and how far would they drop in the standings?
86 and they finish second.
It's strange to me that the Tigers didn't do more to upgrade their bullpen after what happened last fall, but I'm not sure it will obviously be bad this year. Joakim Soria, Al Alburquerque, Angel Nesbitt ... there's talent there. And Joba Chamberlain was a terrific re-signing for the price. I know the point of your question wasn't to get my opinion of the Tigers' bullpen, but I do think these things are difficult enough to predict that I don't feel confident saying how much better the Bucs' bullpen is.
Once again, a big thank you to Charlie and the rest of the staff at Bucs Dugout for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out their work this series and for all things Pirates all season long!