Tomorrow afternoon the Pittsburgh Baseball Club begins another season in the sun when they kick off the 2016 campaign against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park.
There’s been so much discussion this offseason about the wildcard one-game-and-done format that’s crippled the Pirates the past two seasons after being shut out two consecutive years to Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta. They can’t afford to go into that game again. This town (and the team) wants a series. The division title is in their sights. It could have easily them winning the NL Central Division title last season with 98 wins, but the Cardinals couldn’t lose and won 100 games while the Pirates were bounced by the Cubs, who won 97 games themselves. How rare is it to win 98 games and not win the division? In the past six seasons, only two teams total won more than 98 games (the 2015 Cardinals that I just mentioned and the 2011 Phillies with 102 wins). That’s it. In any other year, 98 wins is golden and you would take that every single year. I don’t believe those three teams will come close to that amount of wins again this year. With that said, let’s take a look at my keys for the 2016 season.
If there’s one thing to point to in breaking down what will a major key for the team this season, I believe it’s Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. We all know what McCutchen can and will do. Yes, he may have one of his best seasons yet if he stays healthy and continues his power display from spring. But we know all that. Cutch will be great and Cutch will do his part. But for me, this season comes down to if Marte and Polanco continue to take a step forward in their development, especially Polanco.
Through his first season and a half and 242 games, Polanco has a .249/.316/.369 slash line with a .685 OPS. Not the greatest line that was expected out of the youngster since coming through the ranks from the Dominican Republic. His minor league career numbers tell a different story of a much more solid hitter: .285/.356/.432 with an OPS of .789.
The good news is that there’s still time for El Coffee. It’s hard to believe because we’ve seen him for the past two seasons, but Polanco is still just 24 years old. He’s still filling into that frame of his and has plenty of time for developing. The good news is his age and the fact that last year’s numbers while overall were disappointing were actually increases in every major statistical category. Just nine home runs last year, but Polanco clubbed 35 doubles in 153 games in 2015. If he continues taking strides forward, 40+ doubles and 10-15 home runs would be welcomed in this lineup. His OPS increased from .650 to .701 and his OPS+ from 84 to 93. WAR also increased dramatically from -0.1 in 2014 to 2.6 in 2015. If Polanco’s beautiful swing can improve and put together another productive year with an OPS+ over 100 and a WAR around 3.0, the Pirates will be in great shape for this season. It wouldn’t hurt for El Coffee to cut down on the mistakes in the base paths as well and stop running into outs. This is one of the reasons why I like you lower Polanco in the order to sixth or seventh, take some pressure off him and hope he excels in improving for a third consecutive year.
I’m less worried about Marte and for obvious reasons. Marte is looking more and more like a star in the making. Him and McCutchen putting up similar numbers could be a force in the lineup. With his defense playing a significant role, Marte recorded a 5.0+ WAR the past three seasons. Some sites actually had him ranked more valuable to the team than McCutchen. And his offensive numbers are getting even better. Marte’s doubles went from 26 to 29 to 30 while HRs increased from 12 to 13 to 19 last season. He recorded a 114 OPS+ last year in 153 games for the Bucs while providing the defense with excellent defense in PNC’s spacious left field. According to FanGraphs, Marte saved 24 defensive runs last year in LF ranking first in all of baseball and nine runs ahead of the next outfielder. Marte then showed up this spring looking fuller, but still ripped like the athlete he is. He put together a fantastic spring with .326/.356/.512 line and looks ready for another big year. Just how big of a season may make the Pirates season.
Those are my two most important keys to the season from the hitting side. The Pirates could really take off if Marte and Polanco both improve on their career numbers, which is very possible considering their talent and age.
My other key to the season are the young arms, but mainly just one in Tyler Glasnow. Everyone on Twitter and around Bucco Nation is concerned about the back end of the rotation and understandably so. But if they can hold it together for a couple of months, the Pirates will be in good shape. Nicasio and Locke are just keeping the spot warm for when Glasnow arrives in what will most likely be June.
Glasnow was the Pirates 5th round draft pick in 2011 and since hitting the minors, he lit up scorecards with high strikeout numbers and a microscopic ERA’s. He’s unquestionably the organization’s No. 1 prospect and MLB’s No. 10 prospect overall. So what has he done in the minors to this point? He owns a 2.07 ERA in 81 games (80 starts) with a silly 11.8 K/9 and a 4.2 BB/9. He also only served up 18 home runs in 383 minor league innings, a rate of 0.4 home runs per nine innings. That’s incredible. To compare Glasnow to someone on the Pirates staff right now—think Gerrit Cole with more strikeouts. Of course he’s not there yet, but Glasnow has the ability to be better than Cole. He’ll need to keep his walks down and pitch a little more to contact to keep his pitch counts down, but Glasnow is the next big thing. He got a taste of Triple-A last year in 41 innings and dominated like he’s done at every level. The Bucs will want him to get more innings under his belt there and avoid the whole Super Two fun debate and probably will be here in June.
So what can Glasnow do once he arrives? Remember what Cole did in 2013 when he came up to Pittsburgh? He made 19 starts and help lead the Pirates into the postseason for the first time in 20 years. That’s the kind of spark plug that Glasnow could provide in the second half of the season. If Glasnow can come up and pitch effectively, it would strengthen the rotation immediately and could propel the Pirates down the stretch and into a division title.
There it is, folks. Marte, Polanco and Glasnow. The keys to the 2016 season. Obviously injuries can always play an important and devastating role, but you can’t predict those. If Glasnow can solidified the back end of the rotation and Polanco can join Marte and Cutch in being a major cog in the lineup, I think the Pirates will win somewhere between 89-94 wins. The question remains though will that be good enough for the NL Central Division title this season?