I’ll have a more all-encompassing, bombastic season preview up soon, but I wanted to write up something quick about each of the starters and their respective role in making the 2016 Pirates the NL Champs. I’ll try to avoid list-style posts for the most part, but this seems like a good format for the content, so here we go.
SP Gerrit Cole – It seems like Cole is considered an “ace” around the league, but then when the conversation turns to the Wild Card game that the Pirates might find themselves in, no one mentions Cole as the ace that no one wants to face. (The only reason the Pirates have already been relegated to the Wild Card game is because the Cubs are going to go full-on Golden State Warriors this year after signing the entire Cardinals roster, Iron Man, and Jesus Christ himself in the offseason.) He needs to turn that impression around this year, or at least put up the numbers to do so and let the public figure it out for themselves. Cole is the fire in this rotation and needs to go out and win, period, given the shaky nature of the rest of the rotation. We’ll see if he can make the jump from “ace” to ace this year.
SP Francisco Liriano – If Cole is the ace of spades, Liriano is the ace of hearts. Or maybe the king of spades, I’m not sure. Regardless, many teams would kill to have Liriano as their #1, and the Pirates have him as their second guy. Liriano is established enough at this point that I think he’ll just keep chugging along, using his nasty slider to keep hitters swinging at pitches nowhere near the strike zone. As he gets older, staying healthy will be key, because the Pirates’ rotation isn’t deep enough right now to afford losing the innings and production he gives.
SP Jon Niese – The Pirates went out and got Jon Niese for a reason; while moving Walker was obvious given his impending free agency, getting Niese in return seems to me to be a calculated move by the Buccos, and not just because of the years of control they have. Last season, his fly ball rate was at a career low 24.7% and his ground ball rate was at a career high 54.5%. Sound like something the Pirates might be interested in? He’ll have to prove himself as a #3 starter, though, because some other estimators of his actual performance, like FIP and SIERA, aren't as bullish on him improving this season.
SP Jeff Locke – The pitcher who’s been with the big league club the longest (counting some starts in 2011 and 2012) has something to prove this year as well. I’ve written about Locke a little more extensively over here, but the gist of it is that he needs to go out, eat innings, and try to avoid the disastrous starts that he’s prone to having. Ideally Hurdle will have a shorter leash with him this year than in the past. It’s Jeff Locke, we all know what we’re getting here. Let’s just hope there’s a little more of the 2013 All-Star Jeff Locke peeking through.
SP Juan Nicasio – Nicasio had a hell of a spring (24 strikeouts in 15 innings! 24!) and earned his spot in the rotation. The hard part now will be keeping it; the last time he was a starter, in Colorado, things started to go south to the point that the Rockies shipped him south to the Dodgers. His velocity saw an increase as a reliever, but that will likely not hold as the season marches on and starting wears on him a little. Might as well give him a shot though, right? If he can’t make it past May, at least Tyler Glasnow will be there to step in.
Bullpen – I’m lumping all these guys together even though none of them are in the starting lineup ever. Melancon, Watson, Caminero, and Hughes will all be fine (once Hughes returns from injury). The rest of the bullpen are castoffs and bums who will likely pitch pretty well all season for the Pirates. And if not, they’ll find someone who will. I’m not concerned about the bullpen at all, unless their workload sees a significant increase if a few guys in the rotation don’t pull their weight and make it through enough innings.
C Francisco Cervelli – The Pirates 2015 MVP by Baseball Prospectus’s WARP is the real deal. Staying healthy last year and getting regular playing time lead to Cervelli posting a .370 OBP and 3.8 WAR last year, good for second in all of MLB in both categories. Cervelli is going to be a key hitter for the Pirates this year, as offensive production from the catcher spot isn’t something all clubs can rely on. His defense is pretty good, too; should be another solid year for him.
1B John Jaso – The Pirates’ new leadoff hitter posted a .380 OBP last season, which is only the third best single season of his career. Jaso getting on base in front of Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte is going to be important, as those guys want to see as many pitches in the zone as possible. The most interesting aspect of this is how Jaso handles first; he’ll almost certainly be better defensively than Pedro Alvarez, but that’s an extremely low bar for the fans and media to be setting for him; ideally, he’ll at least be average defensively, which should be good enough to keep him over there.
2B Josh Harrison – Harrison moves back to second, his original position. He should settle in nicely there and provide better defense up the middle than Neil Walker did. I also expect at least somewhat of a rebound to his 2014 numbers, given that he’s healthy now, which wasn’t true for a lot of last year.
3B Jung-Ho Kang – I know Freese will be starting there at the beginning of the year (see below), but Kang is the Pirates starter for real. The key here is how he makes it back from his injury. Will he have the same lateral mobility he had to make some nice plays like we saw last year? And will that leg injury affect his batting, especially given the pronounced leg kick he sometimes has? It seems like the Pirates are taking their time here and I trust the training staff, so hopefully they have him back in game shape and ready for full activities ASAP. Kang building off his freshman season and continuing to display the gap and home run power that made him so exciting last year will be crucial to the Pirates’ success, given the departure of much of their power in Alvarez and Walker.
SS Jordy Mercer – A lot of Mercer’s future depends on this season. If Kang comes back healthy and is hitting, he could easily slide over to short to replace Mercer, putting any number of people in the infield around him given that the Pirates’ roster is built around players who can play multiple positions. His defense is great, but he needs to back it up with the bat this year. Mercer has shown flashes in the past, but consistently getting on base is going to be key for him this year; that starts with taking advantage of the fastballs he sees. Last year, Mercer saw a career low 56.5% fastballs, meaning more junk is likely coming his way this year. Being selective and forcing pitchers to throw fastballs should help him get more hard hit balls.
LF Starling Marte – Marte kind of had a strange year in 2015. He blasted 10 homers over the first two months and his slash line was .265/.317/.486 for that time. This is atypical compared to his career line of .283/.340/.445 in that he hit a lot of homers, but didn’t get on base much. His BABIP was way down for those two months at .308 compared to his career line of .353 (this is actually 19th all-time if you consider players with at least as many plate appearances as him; he relies on that high BABIP for his success due to his high K% and low BB%). But after the first two months, he stopped hitting so many home runs and improved virtually all other aspects of his hitting, including getting his BABIP back up, striking out less, stealing more bases, and getting hit with more pitches. We also all know his defensive value and pretty much what we’re going to get from him day to day. So where does Marte go from here? The 2016 preview on Fangraphs for fantasy baseball claims “Marte is a no-doubt top-20 outfielder, but be prepared to pay a premium to watch him regress to the mean.” Given that, I’m going to go in the opposite direction.
My bold prediction is that Marte finishes top 3 in NL MVP voting this year. The dude is going to be a superstar and is going to surpass Andrew McCutchen in WAR. Maybe not so bold, since I’m not the first to make this prediction at some point, but I don’t think anyone else thinks that this year is going to be a huge year for Marte. His improved plate discipline from late last season has continued into Spring Training; he’s only struck out three times in 43 at-bats. Couple that with the speed he still has and his defensive prowess and I think we have a superstar on our hands in 2016. Plus, he's a cool cat out in the field.
CF Andrew McCutchen – There isn’t much more to say about this guy. He looks ready to go, bashing 6 Spring Training homers in only 43 at bats. That’s a far cry from the limping version of McCutchen that we saw at the beginning of last season. If he stays healthy, he could be in for another run at the MVP trophy. Cutch is a total boss.
RF Gregory Polanco – If Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte had a baby, would it be Gregory Polanco? Probably not exactly, but it would be a miracle of modern science. Polanco has a cannon, is fast as hell, and was a great pure hitter coming up through the minors. His Major League numbers belie that notion, though; his career OBP is only .316 and he lacks a lot at the plate based on the expectations he had coming up. And despite his speed, his baserunning is terrible and he seems to make mental errors in the outfield at times, too. Staying sharper and more focused is going to be something that can elevate his game, regardless of whether or not he achieves the batting numbers everyone expects him to. Look for Polanco to make some bigger strides this year at the plate and possibly have more power as well; he showed up noticeably bigger at camp this year.
Bonus: 1B/3B David Freese – Freese will be manning the hot corner to begin the season, until Korean Jesus is healthy enough to deign the denizens of PNC Park with his presence. The Pirates signing Freese was sneaky good; he fills in for Kang, then platoons with Jaso as needed at 1B, all for only $3 million, which is an absolute steal considering the Angels were possibly going to extend him a $15.8 million qualifying offer earlier in the offseason. Once Kang is back, a bench of Freese, Morse, and Matt Joyce pinch hitting are the best options the Pirates have had in years.
So that's that, your 2016 Buccos regulars. This is more or less the squad that will ve fighting to make the playoffs and win the World Series.