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2016 Pirates Preview

After an eventful offseason, the Pirates went to Bradenton last month to get ready for the 2016 season. Did Neal Huntington assemble a team that can compete with the Cubs and Cardinals, or did the Bucs take a step backwards?

With Opening Day less than a week away, here’s a glrmpse of what the Pirates will be taking north.

The outfield is the bread and butter to this team and possibly the best in the game. Andrew McCutchen should be even better this year now that his knee is at full strength. Starling Marte is coming off a Gold Glove season and should add 20+ homers and stolen bases to go with it. Gregory Polanco made strides last season, jumping from a 0.3 WAR player to 2.3. If Polanco can cut down on base running mistakes and mental errors, this could be his breakout year.

The Pirates are replacing the right side of the infield with Josh Harrison at second and John Jaso at first. Neither has the power of Neil Walker or Pero Alvarez, but over the past two seasons they have had a better on-base percentage and accumulated more WAR (8.6 to 5.3). Those changes should also improve the defense. Last year, Walker allowed 6.8 more runs than the average second baseman and Alvarez allowed 14.7 more runs despite playing limited innings. The Pirates’ rotation is based around groundball pitchers, so getting even average defense could make a huge difference.

Jung Ho-Kang looks like he’ll be ready to play third sometime in April with Jordy Mercer by his side at short. Mercer should be better offensively this season, especially if he continues to cut down on softly hit batted balls (20.8 percent in 2014 to 16.5 percent last season).

New addition David Frees is the wild card of the group, possessing a strong bat off the bench and the versatility to offer skipper Clint Hurdle some flexibility as well as insurance until Kang is healthy.

Francisco Cervelli was last year’s offseason steal, and assuming he can stay healthy, there’s no reason he can’t produce at a similar level. Chris Stewart signed a two year deal this offseason, so it looks like he is going to stay as Cole’s caddy for a few more seasons. If either gets hurt, Elias Diaz is arguably the best MLB-ready catcher in AAA, so there’s a great insurance plan in place.

Gerrit Cole took the jump from quality starter to ace last year, and it would not be surprising if he competes for a Cy Young in 2016. Francisco Liriano is a fantastic number two, and while Jeff Locke may not be a fan favorite, if his ERA matches his FIP from last season (3.99), he’s a solid back of the rotation arm.

The strength on this rotation will depend on Jon Niese and future rookies Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. Niese has always had a good groundball rate (50 percent in his career), but his fastball’s value took a dive in 2015 (5.9 runs above average in 2014 to -0.5 last season). The Pirates have fixed plenty of starters with similar problems, so he’s a trendy pick as this year’s best reclamation project. There’s no way of knowing how Glasnow and Taillon will pitch when they make the jump to the show, but if they can come close to matching Cole’s production in 2013, the rotation won’t have a weak link.

Juan Nicasio had a strong spring and may offer an option if Ryan Vogelsong or Locke don’t perform.

Keeping Mark Melancon is an unexpected luxury, and the Pirates shouldn’t blow a lot of leads late with him and Tony WatsPirates Melancon and Cervellion in the 8th and 9th. Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero will be expected to get the ball into the hands of Melancon and Watson, while Neftali Feliz and Kyle Lobstein are this year’s bullpen projects. Feliz used to be a fantastic late inning arm with 97 career saves and if he bounces back, this bullpen is once again probably the best in the National League, if not all of baseball.

Freese provides a veteran option off the bench on the days when he’s not in the starting line-up. Sean Rodriguez returns to provide late inning defense and occasional spot starts at up to six positions. Jason Rogers came over from the Brewers in a trade, and while it’s not clear how often he’ll play in the field, he did have an .808 OPS in 58 appearances as a pinch-hitter last season. Matt Joyce and Jake Goebbert will compete for the fourth outfielder job and a left-handed bat off the bench. Michael Morse will be the other half of the first base platoon after hitting .275 with the Bucs last year.

On paper, this year’s team may look like a downgrade from the group that took the field last September, but there is a lot to be excited about. There aren’t any glaring weaknesses, even if they are a starter short from having a rotation that can compete with teams like the Dodgers and Mets. The division should be ruthless again, but the Pirates seem to have the pieces in place to compete.

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