In 2015, the National League Central was the class of baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago Cubs combined for 295 victories between them, by far the most from any trio in any division in baseball. At the end of the year, the three best teams in baseball all resided in the Central. Even taking into account the terrible seasons of the Brewers and Reds, the National League Central was by far the most talented division in baseball because of the strength at the top.
But that was last year, and now the 2016 season is just around the corner. While the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are still the Reds and Brewers, mired in mediocrity at least for the time being, the picture at the top of the division appears to be largely different.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Cardinals don’t appear to be the team in charge of the National League Central anymore. At present, that team appears to be the Cubs. Even after making a deep playoff run, and beating those same Cardinals prior to losing in the National League Championship Series to the New York Mets, the Cubs still went into the offseason with a chip on their shoulder.
While both the Cardinals and Pirates stood back and didn’t make too many significant moves, the Cubs went out and made their 97-win team even better, if that’s even possible. Not only did they steal away two of the Cardinals’ best players in John Lackey and Jason Heyward, but they also added Ben Zobrist among a few others, solidifying their new position as the team to beat in the NL Central.
However, with that being said, they aren’t the focus of this discussion. In a way, the Cardinals aren’t either. This is all about the Pittsburgh Pirates, and their quietly descending position in the NL Central.
Here at Baseball Essential we all have our own team allegiances. I am one of the Padre guys, while there are plenty of fans of both the Cubs and Cardinals, and the Pirates as well, that write for this site. With those allegiances come some disagreements, and a recent disagreement got me thinking.
One of the writers/editors for our site, David Wilson, has been a Cubs fan for the better part of the last half century. He has been with the team through all the failure and disappointment, and is finally seeing his team in a winning position. It’s pretty obvious that he thinks his own team is the class of the Central, and could even be on their way to a World Series crown. I agree with him on that sentiment, and more importantly on that possibility. However, who sits directly behind the Cardinals brought about some disagreement.
Over the weekend, David wrote an article entitled “Chicago Cubs: Pittsburgh Pirates are the Rivals; Cardinals in Third”. As is fairly evident just from the title of the article, his position is that the Pittsburgh Pirates, and not the St. Louis Cardinals, are the Cubs biggest competition now in the division.
While this may not seem like too controversial of an opinion, I am going to come right out and say that I wholeheartedly disagree with the view that the Pirates are going to be the better team this season. The Cubs are most clearly the most talented team and the obvious favorite in the NL Central, but it seems too many people are sleeping on the Cardinals while not enough people are doubting the Pirates.
I understand why, I really do. The Pirates have gone from being one of the laughingstocks of the league to being a perennial contender, all because of one of the most revolutionary changes in front office philosophy in baseball history. The Pirates are, as they have been for the better part of the last four or five years, a true feel good story. With that being said, this year’s team is fraught with weaknesses and concerns that could dampen some of that magic.
Once again the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have one of the best outfields in baseball. Andrew McCutchen is in the MVP conversation each and every year, while Starling Marte is just coming into his own as a star in his own right (no pun intended). The question mark has been Gregory Polanco the last couple of years, but he appears to finally be poised for a true breakout season. If he can achieve star form, the Pirates certainly have the most formidable outfield in all of baseball.
Add to that outfield the emergence of Francisco Cervelli last season, and the Pirates certainly have quite a few significant offensive threats up and down their lineup. However, that is where the question marks start.
In the infield, question marks abound. Gone is Pedro Alvarez, gone is Neil Walker, and gone is Aramis Ramirez, three players who played a majority of the second half of last season in the infield for the Pirates. In their place the Pirates infield looks to be a combination of Jung Ho Kang, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, and a Michael Morse/John Jaso/Jason Rogers platoon of some sort at first base, depending on who earns jobs in Spring Training. Sean Rodriguez also figures to be in the mix, as his versatility allows him to play multiple positions.
While there is some obvious talent there, significant question marks follow. With Kang likely unable to be available on opening day, the Pirates will have to likely use Sean Rodriguez as a regular for the time being. On top of that, Jordy Mercer has drawn questions about whether he is a good enough hitter to be a full-time player, and Josh Harrison has yet to prove he can perform in a full-time role. Add to that the uncertainty of the first base platoon, and the Pirates aren’t without their questions in the field.
With all that being said, the Pirates will likely still be able to score enough runs. With one or two elite level players, and two or three solid above-average players, the Pirates’ offense/defense should be enough to get by. However, the real concern for 2016 appears to be the team’s pitching staff.
Let me preface this by saying the Pirates are set at the top of the rotation. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano are as good as any other front two starters in all of baseball. The issue comes with the players set to follow them.
In recent years, the Pirates have had some thrown together rotations due to money constraints. Just last year the team gave significant innings to J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton, Charlie Morton and a few others. Even so, this year could be even more questionable in that regard.
In giving up Neil Walker, the Pirates did acquire Jon Niese, who will likely slot in as the third starter. While on most teams he would more likely be a fourth or even fifth starter, this is good enough. Behind him currently sit Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong, two players that don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence. The team has two notable #1/2 starters, but really has three number-five starters to follow.
Finally, the bullpen for the Pirates may end up being slightly worse than last year as well. While the team still has Mark Melancon closing games with Tony Watson setting him up, the loss of Antonio Bastardo could end up being big. The team did add a few arms in Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio, and Kyle Lobstein, but none of those three are household names. The Pirates bullpen should still be above average, but perhaps not the strength it was in 2015.
The way I see it, the Pirates may not be good enough this year. With the Cubs looking like the favorites to win the National League Central, I am unsure if I feel confident in saying the Pirates have a great chance at either of the two wild card spots. Obviously they will be in the race all year, but with the Cardinals looming, and the Giants, Nationals, D’backs and others improving their positions in the Wild Card race for next season, the Pirates could be do for a fall. I’m not projecting the Pirates to win just 83 games as the PECOTA projections did, but this could very well be a non-playoff, third place team in a very good National League Central. The Cubs are certainly the class of the Central, with the Cardinals and Pirates falling behind them in that order.