Season Preview—How the Bucs Can Get to 90 Wins

The roster is set, the rotation is primed and the team arrived safely in Boston ready to open the season Monday afternoon, but now what can we expect from this team in 2017?

The Pirates went from 98 wins in 2015 to 78 wins last season with almost everything going wrong especially with the pitching staff. With all that went wrong last year (and a lot did here and here), the Pirates were still in the wildcard hunt in August and still had a shot at .500 heading into the final series of the year. Despite what you read online, it’s not crazy talk to think that the Pirates could improve their win total by 10 games and finish in the 86-90 range. And here are four ways how they can do it…

The Return of an Ace

Gerrit Cole had a late start to the season thanks to a rib issue in spring training, started to get on track (2.77 ERA into June) and then was sidelined again with right elbow inflammation. He came back and suffered arguably the worst four starts of his career, hit the DL and then shutdown in September after one return start. Bottom line is he never got on track last year because of injuries, basically had no spring training to get stretched out and his numbers suffered because of it.

The good news is Cole is back and healthy. He pitched this spring in Bradenton and showed high velocity, which is encouraging. Cole is ready to get back to his 2015 form when he made 200+ innings and led the Bucs with a 2.60 ERA (2.66 FIP). Keep in mind, his career FIP is still an excellent 2.96 FIP. There’s been a lot of talk about Cole not being an ace and all that noise, but I think this is the year he puts in another 200-inning campaign and once and for all, quiets his critics, stops the “what ifs” and returns as the ace the Bucs badly need.

McCutchen’s Rebound

We have spoke on Andrew McCutchen‘s worst season to date and his defensive woes here. We also have broke down the numbers after his Atlanta series plenty of times including this article. The fact is, with Cutch’s declining defensive numbers, he has to come back to being an All-Star caliber player with the bat to get this team back to the playoffs. For his career, he owns a 139 wRC+ and will need to hover right around that if he is going to give this team a chance to compete.

Clint Hurdle has announced that McCutchen will be back to batting third in this lineup which completely ends the experiment of batting him second that they tried last year. Maybe there is something to the comfort of batting him third, which could be one less thing to make him uncomfortable with since he will now be dealing with the adjustment of playing right field.

It hasn’t been an exciting spring for the former MVP. He has just batted .192/.241/.385/.626, while also batting .238/.273/.286/.558 in the World Baseball Classic. This could be quite worrisome, but Cutch has been a notorious slow starter. He  was able to come up with a few clutch hits for Team USA and has shown a few signs of hitting to the opposite field more this spring.

We feel pretty confident that Andrew will regain some form of his former self, though the MVP days are likely long gone. Could he regain an All-Star form? Hopefully his bat and name recognition can get him back to the summer classic. If so, the Pirates are already in good shape of becoming a playoff contender once again.

Healthy Catchers

We wrote about this a couple weeks ago, and I think it stands to be a big turnaround for the Pirates in the catching department. Last year, the Pirates were pummeled with injuries to Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and even Elias Diaz. The Bucs had to call up Jacob Stallings and sign journeymen like Fryer and Kratz. It was not a recipe for success…

This graphic illustrates how much of a hole the catching position was for the Bucs in ’16. Routinely tops in the NL in fWAR by their catchers, last year was a complete disaster with having to use six guys.

This year, however, Cervelli and Stewart, are healthy and played a full spring. Cervelli saw time starting for Italy in the World Baseball Classic as well. I can’t stress enough how having a stable catching pair will mean to this team and pitching staff. Cervelli not only has proved to be a stellar OBP guy, but he’s top 10 in the league in pitch framing and that can do wonders for a rotation, especially a young one like the Pirates have this season. At even Diaz, who will start the season in Triple-A is healthy and at the very least provide a solid defensive glove behind the plate if needed at all throughout the season.

A Sleeping Giant?

This player is the biggest wild card on this team for this upcoming season. After signing a multi-year contract at the beginning of last season, Gregory Polanco went on a tear against National League pitchers. Through the first 50 games, Gregory slashed .310/.386/.556/.942 with eight home runs and seven stolen bases. He normalized a bit over the next 25 games and then practically fell off of a cliff the rest of the season. Injuries plagued him some and he was never able to gain any traction.

After another offseason, the improving youngster returned to Pirates City with a brand new body. As you can see from the picture headlining this article, El Coffee has dedicated himself to getting stronger. Will it translate to further home run power? That is something we will have to wait and see when the season opens tomorrow at Fenway. However, his dedication shows that he is making sure he can do everything he can to withstand a full 162-game season without breaking down.

Polanco also participated in the WBC this spring with much different results from Cutch. He slashed .579/.619/.843/.1.461 to help lead the Dominican Republic to the semifinals. During his time in Bradenton, he also slashed .294/.429/.353/.782 in 17 at-bats with three stolen bases. If the picture wasn’t enough to convince you he could be a serious player to watch this year, his numbers this spring should.

Of all the players on this team, Polanco looks the most poised to become a huge breakout star. With many baseball insiders already valuing Starling Marte as a star, 2017 can be the year that they welcome Polanco to the club as well. His catch probability stats show he should play left pretty comfortably when his shoulder allows him to return to the field. He was touted as a five-tool prospect with a ceiling that could be greater than Marte’s. Meanwhile, Marte has been a five WAR players the past few seasons. With the thought of Cutch getting back to around that number and a breakout season by the 25 year old Dominican in Polanco, the city of Pittsburgh could finally see this amazing outfield it has been craving for some time.

If these four things happen for the Bucs or even three-of-the-four, the Pirates will be in good shape this season. We all know the defending champs are loaded and will be a force to deal with in the NL Central, but at the very least the Pirates should be able to finally pass the Cardinals for once. Either way, if Cole, Cutch, Polanco take positive steps forward and health is on the Pirates side unlike last year, they’ll be above .500 and competing for the division title.

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