The Pittsburgh Pirates have become a team that is no longer in the group of lovable losers. The Pirates nearly had a winning season in 2012 before collapsing down the stretch. They won 94 games in 2013, winning the Wild Card play-in game and taking the eventual NL Champion St Louis Cardinals to a deciding fifth game of the NLDS. Last year, the Pirates made it into the postseason and lost their Wild Card Game to the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, who won behind the dominance of Madison Bumgarner.

The Pirates return a group of OFs the city has been waiting to see play together for a full calendar year now. Led by their star CF Andrew McCutchen (.314, 25, 83), the hope is that he will be flanked by Starling Marte (.291, 13, 56) and Gregory Polanco (.235, 7, 33). Marte was hurt for a part of last season and Polanco needed a little more seasoning in the minor leagues. McCutchen missed a couple weeks late in the season as well. All three are center fielders which makes the Pirates OF defense the best in the game. McCutchen is the premier hitter, Polanco is the straight power hitter and Marte is the five-tool guy. If the Pirates made no other moves, this would be addition without addition.

A huge loss to the Pirates was Russell Martin (.290, 11, 67) going to the Toronto Blue Jays. Word was Pittsburgh really wanted to bring him back but simply wasn’t going to go to the lengths Toronto did (5 years, $82 million). RHP Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.04, 31 starts) also is not coming back, signing a deal with the Kansas City Royals. One thing I like that the Pirates did this off season was to get rid of some marginal players they had on their roster. The DFAing of Gaby Sanchez, Ike Davis, Jose Tabata and Clint Barmes (left as a free agent) as well as the trade of Travis Snider sent a good message to the rest of the Pirates players.

The Pirates did sign Korean SS/ 3B Jeong-ho Kang, who hit 40 HR last season and has managed 87 HR over the past three seasons. The question will be exactly how much of Kang’s power will translate to this game. You figure half of it will be light years ahead of what the Pirates were getting from their SS position in the past. However, Jordy Mercer (.255, 12, 55) was decent and much of an upgrade over Barmes. With Volquez gone, the Pirates brought back RHP A.J. Burnett (8-18, 4.59) from the Phillies as a free agent.

Hope is that Kang can play everyday at SS. That will allow for utility player Josh Harrison (.315, 13, 52) to be the everyday 3B. If Kang hits well enough to be an everyday regular but cannot play the field, that will cut into Harrison’s time at third and even some of Marte and Polanco’s time in the OF. Mercer is a capable SS, but Kang may give the team a little more punch. Pedro Alvarez (.231, 18, 56) is moving across the diamond to 1B where he should feel more comfortable as his body starts to betray him. I expect a big bounce back season from him as well. 2B Neil Walker (.271, 23, 76), in spite of playing in 137 games himself, had a very good season winning a silver slugger award. The lineup I would go with would be Harrison 3B, Walker 2B, McCutchen CF, Alvarez 3B, Marte LF, Polanco RF, Kang SS, Francisco Cervelli C (.301, 2, 13 for Yankees).

The Pirates were able to improve their bench which starts with either Mercer, Kang or Harrison. They also brought in versatile Sean Rodriguez (.211, 12, 41) from the Tampa Bay Rays as part of their fire sale.

Then then signed FA OF Corey Hart (.203, 6, 21) from the Seattle Mariners. They also have utility infielder Justin Sellers, most recently of Cleveland, and OF Jaff Decker, who came over last spring from San Diego. They also retained backup catcher Chris Stewart, who used to play with Cervelli with the Yankees.

Francisco Liriano (7-10, 3.38, 29 starts) and Gerrit Cole (11-5, 3.21, 22 starts) lead the projected pitching staff which also includes Burnett. The final two spots will include two of the following three: RHP Charlie Morton (6-12, 3.22, 26 starts), LHP Jeff Locke (7-6, 3.91, 21 starts) and Vance Worley (8-4, 2.85, 17 starts). I expect to see Cole take his game up to the next level and be the team’s ace by the middle of the season. Burnett may see his results improve pitching on a better team this season.

The Pirates’ bullpen is led by their closer Mark Melancon (3-5, 1.90, 33 saves), who has found himself as a legitimate MLB ninth-inning option. LHP Antonio Bastardo (5-7, 3.94, 67 games, 81 Ks in 64 IP) comes over from the Phillies to join LHP Tony Watson (10-2, 1.63, 78 games, 81 Ks in just over 77 IP) as the top Pirates set up men. Jared Hughes (7-5, 1.96, 63 games) gets the look from the right side, along with reclamation project John Holdzkom and former Red Sox pitching prospect Stolmy Pimentel. LHP Bobby LaFromboise pitched in the postseason game last year for the Pirates and will get a look to break the pen.

RHP Jameson Taillon had Tommy John surgery at the beginning of the 2014 season. He is expected to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and hopefully will be up there alongside Cole before the season is over. Another pitcher I’d keep an eye on is RHP Tyler Glasnow, who tore up the Florida State League (12-5, 1.74, 157 Ks, just over 124 IP). 2013 first-round draft pick Reese McGuire may be another full season away from being able to catch in the bigs everyday. He has a Joe Mauer-like left handed swing and his frame suggests that he will become more of a power hitter.

I see some flaws in the NL Central this year, with St. Louis not being as strong and the Cubs maybe not completely ready to take this division. This year, the NL Central belongs to the Pirates, or at least it is theirs for the taking. Vegas has the Pirates at 83 1/2 for the O/U, which I think is selling them short considering what the outfield will be like if McCutchen, Marte and Polanco can all stay healthy. I think this team has the right amount of balance and is led by a solid manager in Clint Hurdle. I got the Pirates at 88-74, 1st place in the NL Central, their first ever NL Central title and first division title since they were in the NL East in 1992.

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