Continuing our series of season previews written by UK-based baseball fans, here is David Wyatt (@davidwyatt_), with his second contribution to the series, on the Pittsburgh Pirates. Comment below and catch David on Twitter, and follow these links to catch up on the rest of the series so far – Cubs, Brewers, Dodgers, Indians, White Sox, Mets, Rays, Phillies – and if you’re interested in writing about your favourite team, give me a shout.
2017 was one to forget for the Pittsburgh Pirates, finishing the NL Central in 4th position, 17 games back of the division-winning Chicago Cubs. The outfield trio of McCutchen, Marte and Polanco were supposed to drive fear into opposition pitchers, but instead, Polanco failed to stay healthy and Marte was slapped with an 80 game suspension for PED use. Jung Ho Kang missed the year due to legal trouble in South Korea and the average pitching staff wasn’t enough to lift the below average lineup into contention. Not only did they struggle on the field, but the Pirates fans stayed away from the park too. Pittsburgh recorded its lowest attendance for home games since 2010. If you’re looking for a positive for the Pirates it was reliever Felipe Rivero who finished with 21 saves after taking the job from Tony Watson.
It’s hard to look at the Pirates and consider them contenders in what will be a very competitive NL Central race. Despite a number of moves around minor league contracts and spring training invitations, the Pirates have done little to improve the quality of play on the field. Losing Gerrit Cole will hurt a lot, and although the acquisition of Joe Musgrove may help limit the damage, you can’t say that the team improved its 2018 chances with the deal.
Andrew McCutchen’s bat has steadily declined over the last few years, but after a decent showing in 2017, the time was right to trade the face of the franchise. The pickup of Corey Dickerson will help plug the gap left by McCutchen, and despite fading down the home straight last year in Tampa Bay, the pickup of Dickerson was the best move the Pirates made all off-season.
A lot will rest on the performance of the outfielders. Can Marte bounce back after missing 80 games and then looking like he was constantly trying to catch-up? Can Polanco stay healthy and avoid any more shoulder problems that evidently sapped his power in 2017? Can the likes of Taillon, Nova and Kuhl give the Pirates the innings to challenge in the Central? The Pirates have so many questions and are a team that could either really surprise in 2018, or fall flat and keep the Reds company in the basement of the NL Central.
The Pirates aren’t in a full blown re-build just yet, but the likes of David Freese and Josh Harrison aren’t exactly happy about the state of the franchise and the commitment to winning, having stated this publically when reporting to spring training. It was stated that the desire to win “wasn’t in the air”, which doesn’t lead me to believe the Pirates will be toppling the Cubs anytime soon.
75-87 – I’m going with the exact same record as 2017. I think the lineup has the potential to bounce back, but the Pirates lost two big personalities in Cole and McCutchen and I just don’t think they’re pitching will allow them to compete in a very competitive NL Central.
Starling Marte – We’ve seen what he can do over the course of a full season, hitting .287 with 19 homers and 81 RBI’s back in 2015. He looked out of sorts after returning from his suspension in 2017, but if he can get back on track, he could be the best player on this team.
One to watch
Felipe Rivero – He may have started the year as a set-up man, but he finished it as the unquestionable closer. He struck out 88 batters in 75.1 innings and clocked up 21 save opportunities along the way. As long as the Pirates give him the opportunities, I think he’ll be one to watch this year. Although I’m not sure he’ll be able to replicate his 1.67 ERA from 2017.
David Wyatt – @davidwyatt_