It’s not common that a team can be so respected, yet so forgotten at the same time. I’m talking about a team that has made the postseason every year since 2013, but never took advantage of the opportunity. They are opportune enough to sneak into the playoffs, but have failed to capitalize each time. They might feel like a National League version of the Rays: a small budget team with an emphasis on pitching, and like the Rays, they always seem to be in the playoff race. If the pictures haven’t given it away, I’m talking about the Pirates.
Clearly, it’s no secret this team is good. When you make it to the playoffs for three consecutive years, even through the Wild Card, teams know you are dangerous. It may be a step too far to say the Pirates are a feared team, but they are certainly respected. They feature one of the top 10 players in the game in former MVP Andrew McCutchen, and seem to have the perfect fix for every reclamation project of a pitcher that comes their way. Not to mention the young flamethrower of an ace named Gerrit Cole, whom you should keep on your Cy Young radar. Cole is a budding star, and McCutchen is a bonafide star, but that’s only two players. What about other twenty three roster spots?
The Pirates have always been a low-budget team, and that hasn’t changed despite the recent success. Last season, the team ranked 24 out of 30 teams in terms of salary, meaning the Bucs haven’t been winning by throwing money around. With the help of pitching coach Ray Searage, the Pirates have found a way to induce rebound performances in Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett (twice), Edinson Volquez, and J.A. Happ over the past couple of seasons. In addition, they have managed to turn “damaged goods” relief pitchers such as Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli into bullpen studs, seemingly overnight. Oh, and they have a knack for making the most out of catchers too. Catchers Russell Martin, Francisco Cervelli, and even Chris Stewart, to a lesser extent, have all performed admirably for the Pirates in recent years. This catching trio has also (not so) coincidentally all been acquired from the Yankees, for next to nothing.
For all the Pirates have done, they’re still considered a bit of an underdog. Due to the everlasting success of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Bucs have never been seen as a dominant team. For a while, the Reds seemed like a threat to be the new face of the NL Central, but that has since fizzled out, as they are currently rebuilding in Cincinnati. The Pirates, on the other hand, have never given off that vibe. Maybe it’s because of the fact that outside of McCutchen, their lineup isn’t very intimidating.
For a time, McCutchen had a supporting cast of Garrett Jones and Neil Walker. Now he must rely on the young and already-committed-to duo of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Don’t get me wrong, Marte and Polanco have already shown that they can hold their own in the batter’s box, but they aren’t intimidating hitters yet. If not for Josh Harrison’s streaky tendencies and habit of getting injured, this lineup would be in much better condition. Unfortunately for the Pirates, Harrison has been both streaky and fragile as of late. All in all, it’s a known fact that the Pirates lineup could use reinforcements.
Another underdog trait the Pirates possess is a lack of dominant pitching. The aforementioned “reclamation pitchers” have all been great additions, but none of them have pitched at an elite level. If Gerrit Cole continues to develop, the Pirates will have one full-fledged ace in their rotation. Should prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon prove to be more than just top farm hands, Cole has reinforcements on the way.
This team isn’t expected to break the bank to make free agent signings, and has instead developed a habit of securing young talent at a discounted cost. This has worked out so far for the Pirates, but betting on players with very little Major League experience comes with a decent level of risk. Just a few weeks ago (April 5th), the Bucs signed Gregory Polanco to a 5 year/$35 million extension, with two options that could bring the value of the contract up to $60 million. This is the most recent in a string of extensions we’ve seen the Pirates give to their core of young players, starting with Andrew McCutchen back in 2012 (6 year/$51.5 million), followed by Starling Marte in March of 2014 (6 years/$31 million) and Josh Harrison in April of 2015 (4 years/27.3 million).
So far, these signings have worked out very well for Pittsburgh, and the players seem to be pleased with the team’s level of commitment to them. The Bucs will have to be careful with this tactic, as they could end up losing much-needed money to an unproven player that does not pan out. Teams like the Red Sox or Dodgers have the luxury of paying minor leaguers and bench players Major League salaries (i.e. Allen Craig, Rusney Castillo, Yaisel Sierra, Alex Guerrero, Pablo Sandoval) but the Pirates cannot afford to do this.
The inner-division competition has proven to be quite a challenge for the Pirates as of late, which is obvious due to their Postseason elimination at the hands of the Cubs last year. The NL Central standings were essentially neck-and-neck-and-neck last year, with the Cardinals winning 100 games last year, the Pirates winning 98, and the Cubs finishing with 97. The 2016 NL Wild Card is projected by most to be another NL Central party, as the Cubs are looking to improve on last year’s win total, and the Cardinals are seemingly invincible.
Once again, it’s a safe bet to pencil the Pirates into one of those spots. McCutchen is a star. Cole will soon be a star. Harrison, Marte, and Polanco could all take a step forward this year, and top prospect Josh Bell is knocking at the door. For the last three years, whoever has made it to the National League Wild Card has been facing Black and Gold. Expect that trend to continue.