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MLB preview: How can Pirates catch Cubs in NL Central?

| Wednesday, March 29, 2017, 12:51 p.m.
Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl reacts after giving up a two-run homer to the Cubs' Ben Zobrist during the first inning Saturday, July 9, 2016, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl reacts after giving up a two-run homer to the Cubs' Ben Zobrist during the first inning Saturday, July 9, 2016, at PNC Park.
Cubs second baseman Javier Baez throws to first after forcing out the Pirates' Gregory Polanco at second but is unable to turn the double play on Starling Marte during the fifth inning Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, in Chicago.
Cubs second baseman Javier Baez throws to first after forcing out the Pirates' Gregory Polanco at second but is unable to turn the double play on Starling Marte during the fifth inning Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, in Chicago.

See bottom from Rob Biertempfel's predicted order of finish by division and a breakdown of each team

Last season, the Pirates did not finish merely a few games out of first place in the NL Central standings. They were buried.

The chasm between the Pirates and first-place Chicago Cubs was 301⁄2 games. It was the Pirates' biggest division deficit since 2010, when the team amassed 105 losses and finished 34 games behind Cincinnati Reds.

The Pirates were eliminated from the NL Central race Sept. 11. Sixteen days later, they were knocked out of the hunt for a wild-card berth.

The second NL wild-card spot went to the San Francisco Giants, who wound up 81⁄2 games ahead of the Pirates.

"Everybody was trying to give everything they had. We just didn't have enough," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Sometimes, the reality of just not being good enough can really infuse you for what you need to do better."

So what should the Pirates do better in 2017 to make up ground in the NL Central standings and NL wild-card chase?

Start strong, finish stronger

During spring training last year, the players and coaches kept stressing the importance of piling up early-season victories. In 2015, the Pirates won only 17 of their first 35 games.

When they finished two games out of first place in the division, the Pirates looked back wistfully at those 18 losses that slipped away in April and May.

The Pirates began last season with 22 games against NL Central teams and 13 against non-contenders Detroit, San Diego, Arizona and Colorado. They squandered the opportunity by going 18-17.

Worse yet, the Pirates staggered to the finish line, going 11-24. In that stretch, they were swept at home by Miami, absorbed three losses against the Cubs to trigger an eight-game losing streak and were swept by the Cardinals in the season's final weekend.

"You need to be peaking at the end of the season," pitcher Chad Kuhl said. "That stretch in August and September is when you need to be playing your best ball."

Also, it would help if the Pirates were better able to beat teams they should beat. They went 20-18 against the Reds and Brewers last season, which was only a modest improvement on their 17-21 mark vs. those bottom-feeders in 2015.

"It's good to get off to a hot start," Kuhl said. "But it's also important to be consistent and play good baseball the entire year."

Make more plays

The Pirates ranked 27th in the majors in defensive efficiency, converting 68.3 percent of balls in play into outs.

The Cubs were first with a sparkling 73.2 percent rate — the best mark in the majors since the White Sox had a 72.8 rate in 1991.

The Pirates made 111 errors (third most in majors) and allowed 4.68 runs per game (the ninth-highest average).

"We know we need to improve on defense," Hurdle said. "We're trying to play fast but not hurry, and that's carrying over into our game. They're gifted athletes. Sometimes when they make it look easy, it's not."

Being at the forefront of utilizing defensive shifts helped the Pirates boost their defensive efficiency rate four years ago. However, they've taken big step backward the past two seasons.

"When we shift, it creates holes. It's going to happen," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "If we can all move as a unit and all play our part, the percentages are going to be there. The biggest thing is buying into it — and it's hard to buy into it, trust me — and believe in it."

During spring training, the Pirates did more drills using the shift than they had the past few years. There also might be some different usages of the shift during the season under new coach Joey Cora than there was under coach Nick Leyva.

"We're still going to shift, but I don't know if we'll be as crazy about it as we've been the past few years," Mercer said.

Stay healthy

According to research by Stan Conte, the former head of the Los Angeles Dodgers medical department, MLB set records last season for total placements on the disabled list (561), days lost on the DL (31,662) and dollars lost to DL stints (more than $670 million).

In terms of total days lost, the Pirates rank slightly better than the MLB average of the past three seasons. Last year, they racked up 805 total days on the DL, the seventh-lowest total in the majors.

However, the impact of injuries is not felt solely in the number of days missed.

Losing a slugger for 15 days would be a tougher blow for a team than being without a long reliever for two months. Timing matters, too. A cluster of injuries, even for a few days, can be devastating.

Twenty-five percent of all trips to the DL in the majors last year were made by right-handed starting pitchers.

The Pirates were bit by that bug in a bad way as Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon missed time. Injuries wrecked Cole's season, but Taillon was not slowed by his DL stint and still put together a solid year.

Cole (elbow), Chris Stewart (knee surgery), Elias Diaz (infected leg), A.J. Schugel (shoulder), Josh Harrison (groin strain) and Starling Marte (lower back tightness) ended the season on the DL. Also, Neftali Feliz didn't pitch after Sept. 3 (although he never was placed on the DL) because of an arm injury that the team never explained.

Attack bullpens

Compared to the 2015 season, the Pirates last year produced fewer comeback wins (32 to 43), walkoff wins (11 to 4) and wins in their final at-bat (20 to 13).

They were 6-69 when trailing after six innings, compared to 7-50 in 2015. One reason is most of the regular position players had down years against relief pitchers.

Relievers held National League batters to a .246 average and a .717 OPS last season.

The Pirates hit .244 with a .712 OPS against relief pitchers.

The role of bullpens has taken on even greater importance the past few seasons, with managers dispatching waves of hard-throwing relievers to blow away batters in short-burst outings.

The mark of an elite hitter is the ability to succeed against relievers, when the batter usually loses the platoon advantage and faces sharper, fresher arms.


NL CENTRAL OUTLOOK


NL EAST OUTLOOK


NL WEST OUTLOOK


AL EAST OUTLOOK


AL CENTRAL OUTLOOK


AL WEST OUTLOOK

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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