Five key questions heading into the 2016 Pirates season
February 12, 2016 12:49 PM
The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen celebrates with Josh Harrison during a May game against the Mets at PNC Park.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pirates’ 98-win season in 2015 was their best finish since 1991, but for the third year in a row they fell short of the St. Louis Cardinals and settled for a spot in the National League wild-card game. Did they do enough this offseason to climb even with the Cardinals and the charging Chicago Cubs? They will begin to answer that and many other questions when pitchers and catchers report Wednesday to Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Before the Pirates report to spring training, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette looks at five key questions heading into the 2016 season.
1. Did the Pirates make up for what they lost this offseason?
Despite returning the core of a 98-win team this season, it’s a very different Pirates team this time around. Gone are several familiar faces, some old and some even older: Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Aramis Ramirez, A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton. That sextet alone added up to 50 home runs — remember, even Burnett hit one — and 356 innings for the Pirates last season, which is a lot of power and production to replace. So far, it seems the Pirates’ response is to ride with a first-base platoon that includes a converted catcher learning a new position and a rotation that includes another aging right-hander and a left-handed No. 3 starter who was edged out of the New York Mets starting five midseason last year. Otherwise, the Pirates cast looks as strong as any out there, and it’s hard to argue with their recent roster rebuilds and subsequent successes, but the Cardinals and Cubs aren’t getting weaker, either.
2. Pedro or the platoon?
Perhaps the Pirates’ biggest bet this offseason was deciding a first-base platoon of Michael Morse and newcomer John Jaso, a former catcher with a checkered injury history and all of five innings of major league experience at first base, were a better value than Pedro Alvarez, the all-or-nothing slugger who hit 30, 36, 18 and 27 home runs the past four seasons. Alvarez’s problem, of course, was his utter defensive unreliability, spelled out quite clearly in his 23 errors — twice as many as any other first baseman. The decision to move Alvarez might have been made long before the non-tender deadline last fall, as the Pirates traded Jose Tabata at the trade deadline for Morse, who was guaranteed $8 million in 2016 regardless of whether Alvarez was offered a contract in his final year of arbitration. Morse has plus power, while Jaso is a high on-base percentage guy, but like Alvarez, neither was groomed and grown as a natural first baseman.
3. What’s the plan at second base, short and long term?
Until Jung Ho Kang returns from rehabbing his left knee, the one injured in Chris Coghlan’s takeout slide in mid-September, the Pirates have a hole in the middle infield. Josh Harrison likely will hold down third base until Kang’s return, after which Harrison is expected to shift to second base. Sean Rodriguez, the Pirates’ Swiss-Army knife utility player, has experience at second but is more valuable to the team when he can bounce around as a reserve defensive specialist. Kang’s potential early-season absence could spell a long-awaited opportunity for prospect Alen Hanson, a 23-year-old switch-hitting converted shortstop who hit .263 with 35 steals in 117 games last season for Class AAA Indianapolis. Other potential options off the bench are infielders Pedro Florimon, who has played four innings at second base and is out of minor league options, and Gift Ngoepe, an elite defender the Pirates added to the 40-man roster last fall to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Ngoepe, 26, has just 71 plate appearances above the Class AA level.
4. How will the back end of the rotation hold up?
There seems to be a consensus among Pirates fans that the club didn’t do enough this offseason to strengthen its rotation behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. It’s a fair criticism, too, since plugging in Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong or Jeff Locke the majority of your starts isn’t going to scare anybody. But few were too happy a year ago when — for $3 million more in base salary — the Pirates started a broken-down Burnett coming off the worst year of his career, followed by Morton and Locke. The Pirates are content to start the season with their current starting five and use the early months to better assess the situation. Should minor leaguers Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow progress as expected this spring, they could be ready by midseason to step into a starting role at the major league level and be a cheap upgrade. Even if Vogelsong doesn’t turn into an All-Star at 38 like Burnett did last year, his $2 million deal made him a low-risk acquisition who can be shuffled around to find a fit in his former home.
5. Who will win the last spot in the bullpen?
The Pirates bullpen is again expected to be among the best in baseball. Closer Mark Melancon and set-up man Tony Watson are back, as are right-handers Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero. The Pirates added right-handers Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio, which leaves only one spot. Should manager Clint Hurdle opt for another left-handed option out of the bullpen, Kyle Lobstein might be retooled as a long reliever, or perhaps veteran non-roster invitee Robert Zarate will make his way onto a major league roster for the first time. Several right-handers could fill the final spot in the bullpen, beginning with Rob Scahill, who had a 2.64 ERA in 30⅔ innings last season, John Holdzkom and recent acquisition Trey Haley. The Pirates also signed left-handers Eric O’Flaherty and Cory Luebke, veterans with major league experience, to minor league contracts with invites to spring training camp. Based on Hurdle’s history of bullpen usage, though, it seems likely the Pirates will use the last spot on a left-hander.
BELOW: A look at the Pirates’ 40-man roster heading into camp
Data from http://post-gazette-sports.silk.co
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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