Our look at the NL Central teams, part of our continuing series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2016 season, continues with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished in second place in the division last season.
The Pirates are riding a wave of three straight second-place finishes in the NL Central and three straight playoff appearances after going 20 years without making the postseason. It’s a competitive division, with the Pirates, Cardinals and Cubs all winning 97-100 games last season. That means offseason transactions are important to stay near the top of the division. The Pirates saw 43 of their home runs leaving the team this winter, with the departure of free-agent 1B Pedro Alvarez, who recently signed with the Orioles, and a trade that sent 2B Neil Walker to the Mets in exchange for SP Jon Niese. They signed 1B John Jaso to replace Alvarez and are giving 2B Josh Harrison the position full-time after he’s been a utilityman in recent years. Other than those moves, the roster largely remains the same from last year, with the core of pitching staff intact and OF Andrew McCutchen still manning center field.
The offense’s .253 batting average was slightly above the National League average, with McCutchen and C Francisco Cervelli leading the way with averages north of .290. The team’s home run output wasn’t great last season, with its 140 home runs ranking in the bottom half of the league. The pitching performed better, with the NL’s second-best ERA (3.21), fifth-most strikeouts (1,338) and the second-most saves, with 54, thanks to closer Mark Melancon who notched 51 of the saves, with a 2.23 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 76.2 innings over 78 appearances. The starting rotation was led by SP Gerrit Cole, who had a 19-8 record, while posting a 2.60 ERA and striking out 202 in 208 innings in a career year for the young hurler.
The Pirates’ offense could be a mixed bag this season. Jaso brings a higher career batting average to the team than Alvarez provided, albeit in limited playing time, with a career-best .286 last year. Jaso’s defense, could be a detriment, though, as he moves over to first base, where he has only played two games in his career. The Pirates will likely have to manufacture runs, with McCutchen the only anticipated starter who hit at least 20 home runs last season. If SP Francisco Liriano can duplicate the success he’s had in recent seasons, the team should have a strong 1-2 combination at the top of the rotation with him and Cole. The rest of the rotation has question marks, as Niese struggled last season with the Mets and SPs Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong had ERAs last season of 4.49 and 4.67, respectively. If the Pirates can get the ball in Melancon’s hands with a lead, he should be able to successfully close out the game and get the team the win.
Last season was a three-horse race between the Pirates, Cardinals and Cubs, and it’ll be the same in 2016. If the Pirates can maintain their 98-win pace from last year, they should be good for one of the NL’s Wild Cards — if not the division title — but they may regress a little from last season’s win total because I think the team got a little worse this winter. They’re still a good team, but in tough division like the NL Central, any loss of talent could hurt a team more than it would in other, less competitive divisions.
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