Thursday afternoon the Tigers kick off their 2018 campaign from Comerica Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates, another organization that is dealing with the departure of a franchise player. To get you caught up with the Pirates and where they look to be headed this season, we reached out to Eli Nellis, manager of Bucs Dugout, SB Nation’s Pirates community, to answer a few questions for us.
For the first time since 2005, Andrew McCutchen isn’t a part of the Pirates organization, signaling the end of an era. As they move in a different direction as a franchise, how weird is it going to be adjusting to life post-Cutch and do you trust the front office to execute a rebuild/reload?
It will be different as a fan. It’s certainly weird to see him in another team’s uniform. A lot of fans are mourning the loss of MVP-level McCutchen, and not the current, somewhat diminished version of him. That’s understandable from a sentimental standpoint, but the team will move on.
As for the front office... I think Neal Huntington is a good general manager who has been hamstrung by an unnecessarily, even recklessly tight budget. Now more than ever, it seems he doesn’t have the proper financial backing from ownership. The team didn’t add sufficiently the last few years, which got them to the point of trading McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. I put that more on ownership. Huntington will do a decent enough job reloading this roster within his means, but I’m afraid we’ve already seen how Bob Nutting will artificially cap the Pirates’ potential.
The Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals all added big names this offseason while the Pirates traded away two franchise players. How do you expect them to stack up in what looks to be a highly competitive NL Central this season?
I don’t believe a whole lot in offseason winners or losers, but those moves really highlight the direction the division was already headed. The Cubs will be a force year-in, year-out, and the Cardinals usually figure something out. The Brewers’ emergence will make it even tougher for the Pirates to sneak upward.
It’s possible the Cardinals or Brewers flop this year, but it will be the Cubs or one of those two teams winning the division.
Without Gerrit Cole, which young pitcher do you think has the potential to rise to the top of the rotation this season?
Jameson Taillon is the obvious answer here. He battled injuries as a prospect and a cancer scare last year. It’s easy to pull for him to finally make that leap and have a smooth, successful year. The talent is there, if things break his way.
The Pirates still have a solid young core and added to that through the trades of McCutchen and Cole. Who do you think is primed to take the next step in his development?
Josh Bell showed an advanced approach at the plate as a rookie. At times he seemed more like a veteran hitter with his control of the zone and all-fields approach. I’m hoping there’s even more there for him to tap into, particularly in hitting for power.
Starling Marte had a rough go of it last year with a PED suspension and a poor performance when he did play. Gregory Polanco still leaves more to dream on versus actual production. The directions those two take will have a lot to do with the Pirates’ success.
The Tigers are in the midst of what looks to be a massive rebuilding project that officially kicked off the second Justin Verlander was dealt away. How do you think the state of the Pirates compares to the state of the Tigers?
Even when the Pirates were contending, almost all their moves were made with an eye towards the future, building a sustainably solid team rather than selling out for dominance in a particular window. That’s a very different approach from Dave Dombrowski’s, so it appears the Pirates are in a better spot to build than where he left the Tigers.
That said, the Pirates have generally been on the slower end of developing players. I can’t speak much to Al Avila’s plan, but it’s possible a quick Tigers reload beats the Pirates’ slow, constant process.
Though expectations for the Tigers are low, they still have a few players who won’t completely embarrass themselves on the field. Which Tigers pitcher or hitter, do you think has a good chance of wreaking havoc on the Pirates this series?
EN: I’m sure Michael Fulmer will be tough, particularly against Pirates hitters in the cold. And Francisco Liriano, though not what he once was, has random dominating outings, which I could see him having against an old team of his.
Once again, thanks to Eli for chatting with us about the Pirates. You can read more of his work over at Bucs Dugout, or follow him on Twitter at @elinellis. We’re looking forward to the opening series!