As interleague play has evolved over the years, Major League Baseball has set every team up with a "natural" rival in the opposite league. For most teams, this make geographical sense; the Yankees play the Mets every year, the White Sox play the Cubs, and so on.
For the Tigers, this means an annual home-and-home series with the Pittsburgh Pirates. While there isn't much bad blood between the two teams, Pittsburgh's recent renaissance has made the series quite competitive. The Pirates lead the series 13-8 since 2012, including Monday's 7-4 victory over the Tigers.
In order to learn more about the 2016 Pirates, we spoke with Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout, SB Nation's excellent Pirates community.
1. The Pirates have been relegated to the NL Wild Card game in each of the past three seasons, losing the last two. While this is a major upgrade from the 20 years prior, it has to be frustrating to see such a great team not get rewarded. With the Cubs spending big and the Cardinals reloading from within during the offseason, what have the Pirates done in order to put them over the hump in the NL Central?
I'm not sure they've done enough, but their plan -- one that, thus far, looks pretty successful -- seems to have been to add parts that work well together without spending much money. Their seeming ability to fix pitchers is well known, and the early results with newcomers Juan Nicasio and former Tiger Neftali Feliz have been very encouraging. But they've also done well on the right side of their infield, where they've replaced Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker with John Jaso and Josh Harrison. The new duo looks significantly better defensively, and Jaso might be able compensate for not having Alvarez's power with a much better OBP. The Bucs are also doing more subtle things, like tweaking certain pitchers' mechanics and having their outfielders play shallower than in the recent past.
2. Perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen has two more guaranteed years left on his contract, but some fans already seem to be getting itchy about his future in Pittsburgh. We’re a long way off from this day of reckoning (McCutchen has a team option for 2018 as well), but should the Pirates look to extend his contract any further?
Probably not. While it's true that the Pirates are only obligated to pay McCutchen through 2017, they have a cheap option on him for 2018, which means they already control him through his age-31 season. It would be great, for sentimental reasons, if they could keep him in Pittsburgh beyond that. But I'm not sure it would be the best use of funds, given that they'd have to pay him close to market rates for what are likely to be his decline years.
3. Speaking of contract extensions, the Pirates signed Gregory Polanco to a five-year extension with a pair of team options shortly after their Opening Day victory. Polanco has a ton of potential, but his production thus far seems to have been somewhat inconsistent. What do you expect out of him in 2016? How high is his overall ceiling?
His ceiling is stratospheric, and is floor is relatively high as well. He headed into the season with a good knowledge of the strike zone, excellent speed and a very good arm. He still looks awkward on the bases at times, but that should improve a bit as he ages (perhaps compensating for the likely decline of his speed), and his power should continue to develop as well. He was terrific down the stretch last season and he's off to a ridiculous start this year, batting .381 with nine walks thus far. The next step for him is to start hitting homers, and there are good signs there -- he's hitting the ball markedly harder than he did this time last year. Who knows what he'll eventually become, but he's exactly the sort of player for whom an extension is a great idea.
4. From the outside, pitching coach Ray Searage seems like a wizard, turning career also-rans and has-beens into productive starters. This year’s crop of projects includes Jon Niese and Juan Nicasio, both of whom the Tigers will see in this series. What have you seen from either starter thus far that has you encouraged for 2016? What has you worried?
Niese has basically looked like Niese so far, although he has 12 strikeouts against just two walks this season, which suggests there might be something there. Nicasio, though, has been a great surprise. He was lights out in spring training and has harnessed a plus fastball and a good breaking ball, working them around the plate and commanding them significantly better than he had in the past. He's still basically a two-pitch guy, so we'll see whether he's able to stick in the rotation as the season goes on, but thus far his performance has been very encouraging, and even if starting doesn't work out, one could easily see how he could dominate as a late-inning reliever with his current repertoire.
5. How many games will the Pirates win in 2016? Where will they finish in the NL Central?
I'll go with 88 and second place. I projected 86 wins to start the season, but they've already banked five, and Nicasio, Polanco, Jaso and Feliz have all looked better than anticipated. 88 wins probably won't be enough to catch the Cubs, but it might get them past the Cardinals, who have lost talent since last season and are already dealing with injuries.
Once again, a huge thank you to Charlie and the rest of the Bucs Dugout staff for answering our questions on short notice. Make sure you check out Bucs Dugout for the very best news coverage and analysis all season long!