Yes, the first pitch of the Pirates 2016 season opener is a mere twenty-six hours (and counting) away, so it is time for the much anticipated and highly regarded Grandstander Season Prediction. I always try to do this a little differently each year, so this year it will be done in the form of Q & A.
QUESTION: Will the Pirates be good this year?
ANSWER: If by "good" you mean competitive and having a winning record record, the answer is YES. In Marte, McCutchen, and Polanco, they could very well have the best outfield in all of baseball. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang was, in my opinion, the second best player on the team last year at the time of his injury. If he comes back (by late April according to most sources) in that same form, they have a terrific third baseman. Solid performers at short, second and catcher. That's a pretty good every day lineup.
QUESTION: What about first base?
ANSWER: Yep, that is a pretty big question mark. It's going to be a platoon of John Jaso and Michael Morse/David Freese. Can that platoon replace the 27 home runs that Pedro Alvarez hit last year? Probably not, but if it can produce 20 or so dingers and play better defense (not hard considering who was there last year), I'll take it, and so will Clint Hurdle.
QUESTION: What is the biggest concern with this team?
ANSWER: In my mind it's simple...starting pitching. Gerrit Cole is a bona fide major league ace. No problem there. Francisco Liriano is solid, and I have high hopes for Jonathon Neise. After that it gets shaky. Jeff Locke? We know what we are getting in him - a 26-30 lifetime pitcher with a career ERA over 4.00 through five seasons. He's not going to turn into Sandy Koufax any time soon. Thirty-eight year old Ryan Vogelsong was beaten out of a starter's job by Juan Nicasio. Nicasio certainly earned that on merit in Spring Training, but will he be able to sustain that when the opponents start playing for real? All indications are that the troika of Locke-Nicasio-Vogelsong are merely placeholders until top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow arrive after a month or two of minor league seasoning in Indianapolis. That's a lot of "ifs" in the rotation. Maybe it will work out. Pirates fans sure hope so.
QUESTION: What about the bullpen?
ANSWER: The Pirates under Neal Huntington have always been able to put together a strong bullpen. Mark Melancon of the 51 saves in 2015 is back, as is Tony Watson and Jerrod Hughes, who will begin the season on the DL. Neftali Feliz has been added and he look very good in the Spring. The rest of the guys are the usual suspects of long relievers and situational guys. This should be a strength of the team.
QUESTION: How about the bench?
ANSWER: Another strong point. Do everything guy Sean Rodriguez is back as is catcher Chris Stewart. Add in guys like Morse, Freese, and Jaso when they are not starting at first, and outfielder Matt Joyce, well, that's a pretty good bench, I believe. And there is still competition for that all-important "25th guy on the team" between Jason Rodgers and, unbelievably, Pedro Florimon.
QUESTION: Will improved defense offset the loss of the offense that Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez provided last year?
ANSWER: Only the advanced metrics boys would be able to provide a definitive answer to that one. Surely, the Pirates think that it will, and fans can only hope that they will be right in that regard.
QUESTION: Will there Pirates be able to play better against the teams in the NL Central?
ANSWER: The Pirates have had the curious statistic of playing lousy against NL Central teams in each of the last two years, playing under .500 within the division, even against the lousy teams like the Brewers, Reds, and Cubs (in 2014). If the Pirates are to make any noise at all in 2016, they HAVE to improve on that performance.
(A word about the Cubs. As they were last year, they are and will continue to be he darlings of the national media simply because a traditionally lousy team has gotten good and they are the lovable, cursed, downtrodden, Wrigley Field playing and blah blah blah Cubbies. My opinion is that they are to baseball what the Cincinnati Bengals are to the NFL. They may be good in the regular season, but until they do something spectacular in the post-season, I'm not picking them to win the whole thing. Of course, they do have one big weapon going for them - Theo Epstein. For that reason, I am wary of them.)
QUESTION: So, how many games are they going to win, and are they going to make the post-season?
ANSWER: The team won 98 games last year, second best in all of baseball. They are not going to do that this year. The Cubs are good, and the Cardinals are always going to be the Cardinals. Those three teams are going to beat up on each other all season so it will be difficult to win upwards of 95 games in the Central. Because of my concerns with the starting pitching, I see the team taking a step backwards. They will be good, they will provide all of us with a fun and entertaining season of baseball, they will win more games than they lose, but I see them winning 89 games and not making the payoffs.
I will be happy to be wrong on this one.
Now, let's get ready to Raise It!!!