Every season there tends a player or two that step up and surpass any expectations everyone had for them. That was JHay’s breakout year in 2014 and it was A.J. Burnett Part 2 last season as well as J.A. Happ in the second half of 2015. Someone always emerges as a surprise of the summer that no one saw coming. So who will be that surprise player for 2016? I break down a couple of candidates below.
Jon Niese—The former Mets left-hander has been a consistent starter in the past four seasons, averaging 174 innings with a 3.65 ERA during that time. He’s been a workhorse and he’s only 29 years old. Could he improve on those numbers and surprise Bucco Nation? Well, he wouldn’t be the first pitcher to come to the Pirates and find significantly better results. Liriano, Volquez, Burnett, Melancon, Happ, Blanton, Caminero, Worley, etc. The list goes on and on of players that have produced in Pittsburgh after working with Ray Searage. So it’s not crazy to think Niese will improve his numbers from recent years. Niese is a ground ball machine, a skill the Pirates covet and this seems to be a match made in heaven. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Niese with an ERA in the low 3’s throughout the season and make everyone forget about Neil Walker a little.
Jeff Locke—The yinzers on Twitter hate Jeff Locke. Why is that? Most likely because of high expectations that everyone had for him and he hasn’t been great, but on the flip side he hasn’t been awful by any means. Locke’s numbers the past three seasons: 81 starts, 3.98 ERA, 6.6 K/9, 3.6 BB/9 and 92 ERA+. What team wouldn’t take those numbers from a No. 4 or 5 starter? The unrealistic expectations by the fans have been Locke’s downfall among Bucco Nation. And his numbers last season (4.49 ERA) which are above his career numbers makes the southpaw a decent bounce back candidate this season. He certainly has the talent and he’s working on a new delivery this spring and says he feels good, so I think it’s very possible for Locke to put it all together this season and surpass expectations.
Juan Nicasio—After his stellar spring training performance (15 IP, 0 runs, 24 K’s, five walks), I’m not sure how many people a breakout season from Nicasio would surprise. Two weeks ago, Nicasio mowed the Orioles lineup of regulars down with 10 strikeouts in just four innings of work to continue his fabulous spring training with the Bucs. The former Rockies starting pitcher came up as a starter, struggled in Coors Field and found decent success working out of the bullpen for the Dodgers in 2015. But have the Pirates found something from a former Rockies pitcher that shows he can start again and be effective in the bigs? His spring to date sure says that, so far so that he may have made the rotation out of spring. And he’s another pitcher coming over from other teams who is getting the chance to work with Uncle Ray again. Expect better numbers this season. Nicasio has a live arm, one that posted a 10.0 K/9 with the Dodgers, and if he could put it together as a starter, he could give this rotation a big shot in the arm. Even if Nicasio stays in the bullpen, he’s bound to provide a lot of value for the Bucs this season.
Gregory Polanco—Let’s face it, El Coffee has been a disappointment to date. Coming up as a highly-touted OF prospect, Polanco has been inconsistent at the plate, unfocused in the field and a complete disaster running the bases. In two seasons, he’s slashed .249/.316/.369 with a 90 OPS+. The good news is that Polanco improved on most of his numbers in 2015 from his rookie season, has the talent to take over and is still just 24 years old. Could Polanco be in line for a big year? I think that’s one of the keys to the Pirates having a successful season—Polanco taking a big leap forward. I would move him down in the order to take some pressure off and hope he fixes some of his base running blunders. He batted first or second in 124 games last season, including leadoff in 98 of those games. That can’t continue with his .320 OBP from last season. While it was an improvement from the year before, I would still drop him in the order to take the pressure off. Polanco’s frame looks bigger and more filled out this spring and with one full season in the Majors under his belt, Polanco could making significant strides this season and be a big surprise for the Bucs if he turns in a Marte-esque year.
John Jaso—I think Bucco Nation is really going to like Jaso (and not just his hair). Hurdle has been batting him in the top of the order all spring and he may be that OBP machine to get on right in front of McCutchen. Jaso has posted seasons of OBP numbers like .372, .390 and .380 last season in 70 games. We haven’t seen someone with those OBP numbers hit in front of Cutch yet. Let’s hope Jaso changes that this season. Jaso will most likely platoon at first and be in the lineup against righties this season, but if he stays healthy and can provide any semblance of defense at first base, he could surpass his career numbers in doubles and home runs. He’s flirted with 20 doubles, 10 HRs in a season before and the Pirates would love those numbers and a high OBP from Jaso to set up Cutch.
Neftali Feliz—See above with Niese and Nicasio. I loved this signing by Huntington. A pitcher picked up by the Bucs from another team and working with the Ray Searage magic. The difference is Feliz has been a dominant reliever before and not too long ago. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2010 after posting a stingy 2.73 ERA and 40 saves for the Rangers. After a questionable move to the rotation and a couple of injuries, Feliz most recently fired a 1.99 ERA in 30 innings of work in 2014. He struggled mightily in 2015 with the Rangers and Tigers and now shows up in Pittsburgh looking for a rebirth to his career. He’s looked fantastic this spring and is basically a lock for a bullpen spot and I think he’ll be the 7th inning guy to replace Soria as the three-headed monster with Watson and Melancon.