Pirates face challenge as National League contenders improve

Travis Sawchik
| Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, 10:29 p.m.

When pitchers and catchers report Feb. 18 to Bradenton, Fla., the Pirates will open spring training with an enviable core.

They have a former MVP in his prime (Andrew McCutchen), a young ace (Gerrit Cole) and other assets, such as Starling Marte, Jung Ho Kang, Francisco Liriano and Francisco Cervelli.

The core that helped the Pirates to a 98-win season and third straight postseason appearance last fall remains mostly intact. There should be enthusiasm and great expectations as winter inches closer to spring.

But a season does not play out in a vacuum. And public expectations are tempered perhaps not only because of offseason acquisitions viewed as modest in quality but also because of the increasingly difficult neighborhood in which the Pirates reside.

While the club's goal of winning its first division title since 1992 appears to be daunting because of the strength of the National League Central — the strongest division a year ago — the path to a wild-card berth also figures to be more difficult.

On paper, many of the other NL contenders became stronger during the winter.

Former New York Mets general manager and Sirius XM analyst Jim Duquette said he sees a clear divide between rebuilding and contending clubs in the NL, with the field of contenders growing.

Duquette sees six rebuilding clubs: Colorado and San Diego in the NL West, Milwaukee and Cincinnati in the NL Central, and Philadelphia and Atlanta in the NL East.

Perhaps the improved NL East and NL West will help the Pirates. The unbalanced scheduled worked against the club last season. But Duquette said he believes the other nine NL clubs could be in playoff contention.

“The Cubs get your attention with what they did. I think the Mets get your attention. The Giants get your attention,” Duquette said. “I feel (the NL) is a little bit of the haves and have-nots, basically nine teams vying for five spots.”

Duquette likes the Pirates' chances but is concerned they are not as deep as in 2015.

“They are a postseason-bound team again,” Duquette said. “It's hard to bet against them, but it is going to be more difficult.”

The Cubs supplemented their young core with impact free agents. They have the top World Series odds, according to Bovada.com, and they are projected to have the most regular-season wins, per Fangraphs.com's projections.

While the St. Louis Cardinals lost Jason Heyward and John Lackey to the division rival Cubs, promising young players such as Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk emerged last season from the club's seemingly endless talent reserve.

The Cardinals also figure to benefit from better health. They lost the most wins-above-replacement value to injury in 2015 — 15.8 WAR lost to DL, according to ManGamesLost.com — and still won 100 games.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is aware of the challenge.

“There's no question the Cubs did a fantastic job on balancing amateur player acquisition and timing it with those young players being ready to hit the major league level and then pouring a ton of money into free agency,” he said. “They are going to be good going forward. The Cardinals are going to be good going forward. Our belief is, with this core that we have, that we are going to continue to be good going forward.”

But it's not just the NL Central that appears to be formidable.

In the NL East, the Washington Nationals, one of last season's underachieving teams, have a new manager, second baseman and leadoff hitter and are expected to rebound with 88 wins, according to Fangraphs.com's projections.

The defending NL champion Mets are projected to win 86 games, and Duquette said he believes the Miami Marlins could finish above .500.

In the NL West, Fangraphs.com projects the San Francisco Giants, who added Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, as an 86-win team.

The Los Angeles Dodgers again look like a 90-plus win team, and perhaps no team improved more, at least for the short term, than the Arizona Diamondbacks by signing Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller.

Oddsmakers makers give the Pirates' the sixth-best odds of the winning the NL, tied with the Cardinals, after the Cubs, Giants, Mets, Nationals and Dodgers, according to Vegasinsider.com.

Entering spring training, Fangraphs.com projects six NL teams will finish better than the Pirates and their 83-win projection.

The good news for the Pirates? The club has topped its Fangraphs.com projections each of the past three years. The Pirates topped their projection by 14 wins in 2013 (projected wins: 80, actual: 94), by four wins in 2014 (84/88) and by 14 wins last season (8 498).

Huntington said projections cannot consider all variables.

“If we were only ever to go off projections, we wouldn't go play 162 games,” Huntington said. “There's the subjective information that's also very important. What do our scouts see? What does our staff see? How can we make this player better? How can we make him more valuable than what his projections are going forward?

“Because of people like Ray Searage and Clint Hurdle and our strength and conditioning staff ... we've been able to get more out of players than the projection said we would have.”

History also is working against the Pirates. There have been only 14 instances of a team reaching the postseason in four consecutive seasons in major league history.

In their favor? In recent history, the Pirates have made a habit of beating the odds.

Travis Sawchik is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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