[Before starting this article, I’d like to preview a new segment that’s going to be coming on Bucco’s Cove all summer. Myself and occasional contributor/musician extraordinaire Tim Vitullo just finished a fantasy baseball draft for a unique league format: Pirates players only. We’ll both be bringing you updates throughout the season about our squads, the Clemente Bridge Bums and the Federal Street Fracas. Look for a post later this week about the league format and both of our thoughts on the draft results!]
With Opening Day only two hours away and my slothfulness at a local maximum, I’m going to condense a few ideas that I meant to be separate posts into one post with a paragraph, give or take some space, about each topic.
Ivan Nova is the biggest key to the Pirates this year
Having two good starters is enough to win some games, but having three (plus some serviceable guys in the back end) is what will really get a team into playoff contention. The Pirates re-signing Ivan Nova this offseason shows their belief in his turnaround and is a different free agency-approach than they’ve had with reclamation projects like Edinson Volquez and J.A. Happ. That $26 million also represents the second largest contract handed to a free agent starting pitcher this offseason (behind Rich Hill). I’m not sure if that says more about the available free agents or Nova or the Pirates, but Nova is sure to be a key cog this season in getting the Pirates over the hump.
The Jung-Ho Kang farce
I don’t deny that Kang is a fuckup. Getting a DUI is inexcusable, getting multiple DUIs is inexplicable, and getting multiple DUIs when you easily have enough money to at least hire an UberX every single day is graduating with a degree in idiocy, summa cum laude. The federal government’s desire to keep out bad hombres such as Kang has put the Pirates in a bit of a pickle, although they clearly saw this coming by extending Freese last year, which helps to soften the blow. Regardless, Kang is a career .273/.355/.483 with a glove that plays at 3B and SS (the Pirates’ thinnest position this year) and would be a big addition to the squad, assuming he can straighten up and lay off the bottle. Recent reports suggest the Pirates think they can get him a visa, so we’ll all just sit around and hold our breath.
Gerrit Cole — #1 starter or ace?
Cole regressed last year from his 5th place Cy Young finish in 2015. The big difference was several injuries that seemed to slow down his season and prevent him from getting into a rhythm. By all accounts, Cole is healthy and ready to go this year, being named the Opening Day starter for the first time in his career. The questions around him are whether we can expect him to show the ace potential that he showed in 2015 or the inconsistency that plagued him throughout last year’s operation. I’m bullish on Cole’s prospects for the year as he creeps closer to free agency and think he’s going to be a big component of the Pirates’ success this year.
There’s a lot of question in the bullpen, but I don’t think this guy is one of them. The quick fantasy opinion for 2017 from Fangraphs: “Rivero is one of the top non-closer relievers - in both fantasy and reality. Give him a long look if you're speculating for saves, especially in NL-only.” Rivero is really, really good, and I think even the complainers about the Melancon trade last year are going to see the value in the return they got. He isn’t a free agent until 2022 and could see save opportunities as early as this season. There aren’t many lefties who can throw the gas that he does (he had the fourth highest average fastball velocities among lefties last year). He can pound lefties low and away,
but actually has a reverse split for last year, limiting righties to a .203/.290/.337 line over 55.1 innings last year. Look for Rivero to really blow up this year and become a household name beyond just Pirates fans (and Nationals fans who regret trading him away for two meaningless months of Mark Melancon).
All the young dudes
In the rotation, I’ve already covered Gerrit Cole and Ivan Nova. Nova provides the potential for the biggest swing, but the younger starters, collectively, are equally important. Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow. This crew will decide the fate of the Pirates three out of every five games and are what give the Pirates the ceiling to win the division if the dominoes fall just perfectly. I have a lot of faith in Taillon — his curveball is filthy and I fully expect him to be fantastic this year, potentially the Pirates best pitcher and a dark horse in the Cy Young race (although with Clayton Kershaw in the NL, is there really ever a race?). Kuhl progressing from being an innings-eater to a #2/3 starter would be a huge help, but it’s hard to see many routes for that.
I’m glad to see that the Pirates made Glasnow the fifth starter. This is a bit of a departure from how they’ve handled pitching prospects in the past and I like the chance they’re taking. It might blow up in their face, but Glasnow could also come in and blow the doors off the league and use his second-highest difference between perceived and actual velocity (as discussed briefly starting at the 26:26 mark of this episode of Effectively Wild) to dominate and push the Pirates’ rotation from good to very good.
Young position players will be key as well. Josh Bell makes his full-time debut this year — the biggest question is how long it takes for his power to come around and he can really become the force at the plate that he’s supposed to be. Adam Frazier is another key young player, with the ability to bounce around the field and hit for a high average. Jung-Ho Kang’s potential return from exile in the land of the KBO and a 0.05 DUI BAC limit will have an impact on Frazier’s playing time as he would get pushed a slot down the depth chart if that were to happen. However, Frazier may force Clint Hurdle’s hand by hitting well in his opportunities and leaching playing time away from Josh Harrison and David Freese. Frazier is sneaky good but lacks the power that the modern game so values, but looks for him to emerge as a regular starter by year’s end. At worst, he’s fantastic depth.