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MLB Opening Day 2016: Pittsburgh Pirates Preview

This Pittsburgh Pirates preview will prepare people with a practical picture of the players playing in west Pennsylvania.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Projected Starting Lineup

Projection is from MLB Daily Dish. Stats are from 2015.

Player Position Batting Line HR RBI R SB fWAR
Gregory Polanco RF .256/.320/.381 9 52 83 27 2.3
Josh Harrison 2B .287/.327/.390 4 28 57 10 1.3
Andrew McCutchen CF .292/.401/.488 23 96 91 11 5.8
Starling Marte LF .287/.337/.444 19 81 84 30 3.6
John Jaso 1B .286/.380/.459 5 22 23 1 0.7
Francisco Cervelli C .295/.370/.401 7 43 56 1 3.8
David Freese 3B .257/.323/.420 14 56 53 1 2.2
Jordy Mercer SS .244/.293/.320 3 34 34 3 0.5
Projected Rotation/Closing Pitchers

Starting rotation projection is from MLB Daily Dish. Stats are from 2015.

Player Role IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 SV fWAR
Francisco Liriano Starter #1 186.2 3.38 3.19 9.88 3.38 - 3.6
Gerrit Cole Starter #2 208.0 2.60 2.66 8.74 1.90 - 5.4
Jon Niese Starter #3 176.2 4.13 4.41 5.76 2.80 - 0.9
Juan Nicasio Starter #4* 58.1 3.86 2.83 10.03 4.94 1 0.9
Ryan Vogelsong Starter #5* 135.0 4.67 4.53 7.20 3.87 - 0.0
Jeff Locke Starter #6* 168.1 4.49 3.95 6.90 3.21 - 1.6
Tony Watson Setup 75.1 1.91 2.84 7.41 2.03 1 1.4
Mark Melancon Closer 76.2 2.23 2.82 7.28 1.64 51 1.5
Key Additions

Neftali Feliz (Free Agency)
David Freese (Free Agency)
John Jaso (Free Agency)
Juan Nicasio (Free Agency)
Ryan Vogelsong (Free Agency)
Kyle Lobstein (Acquired from Tigers)
Jon Niese (Acquired from Mets)
Jason Rogers (Acquired from Brewers)
Trevor Williams (Acquired from Marlins)

Key Losses

Pedro Alvarez (Free Agency, signed with Orioles)
Joe Blanton (Free Agency, signed with Dodgers)
J.A. Happ (Free Agency, signed with Blue Jays)
Joakim Soria (Free Agency, signed with Royals)
Vance Worley (Free Agency, signed with Orioles)
Charlie Morton (Traded to Phillies)
Neil Walker (Traded to Mets)
A.J. Burnett (Retired)
Aramis Ramirez (Retired)

Initial Reaction

When I look at the Pirates offseason losses, I'm left wondering if they lost too much. There was a significant amount of talent that left the team this offseason, and the planned replacements are a little less than impressive. If you look at that list of free agent additions, almost all of them signed on one-year deals. Many will just be placeholders while the Pirates prospects develop. This is a very different team from the one that won 98 games in 2015. While they should still put together a winning season, a playoff run will be difficult.

The Position Players

When you mention Pirates position players, the first name that always comes up is Andrew McCutchen. He is the superstar center fielder for the team, and is always their #1 threat. That being said, McCutchen has taken some small steps back in the last few years. His fWAR has dropped from a high of 8.4 in 2013 (the year he won MVP), to 5.8 last year. That's still an impressive number, but it's not what he has been capable of. Despite that, he's still a workhorse that has played at least 146 games every year since 2010, and can always be counted on for production. The only question is if the recent dip is evidence of a downward trend, or if he can reverse it and get back to the MVP level he was at in 2013.

After McCutchen, the rest of the starting lineup doesn't look as formidable. There's still strong starters there in Starling Marte and Francisco Cervelli, but after that, it's not as impressive. John Jaso, one of the free agent acquisitions, looks like a placeholder for their prospects, and Jordy Mercer is a nice defensive piece, but isn't going to provide much with the bat. The late acquisition of David Freese may pay off for them, but that lineup is missing a punch that is desperately needed. Jung-ho Kang could provide that when he returns from the disabled list, and there's a prospect or two who could also make an impact. We'll talk more about that a little later.

Looking at the bench, there are a few names to watch. Sean Rodriguez will provide a lot of utility on the bench, but mostly as a defensive player. That being said, having a player like Rodriguez will give the Pirates some flexibility in their decisions. Meanwhile, competing for bench spots are utility players Cole Figuero and Pedro Florimon, outfielder Matt Joyce, and first baseman/outfielder Michael Morse. Former Brewer Jason Rogers is also in the mix, but with an option available, he could be heading to Triple-A to start the season.

The Pitchers

The Pirates rotation has seen quite a bit of turnover this offseason, but their top two pitchers are back in 2016. Francisco Liriano will head the rotation this year as he has earned the Opening Day assignment. Liriano is a guy that can drive people crazy at times, but he gets results. The walk rate will give teams opportunities, but the strikeout rate means he can take them right back. Of course, the better of the two may be Gerrit Cole, who has been limited this spring with a right rib injury, but is on track to be ready for the regular season. Cole's numbers were better than Liriano's last year, and he should be considered the "ace" of the staff. Now in his fourth year with the Pirates, Cole is in position to take another step forward and become a force in the National League.

Heading to the middle of the rotation, there's not much that's impressive about Jon Niese, but he's a solid pitcher to put in that #3 spot. He has pitched at least 143 innings a year every season for the past six seasons, and his ERA & FIP have always been between around 3.40 and 4.40. The strikeout numbers, walk numbers, all of it isn't that impressive. However, he's a solid pitcher that will provide quality innings for a rotation that needs them.

The reason I have stars next to Nicasio, Vogelsong, and Locke is because they are competing for the final two spots in the rotation. Entering Spring Training, the assumption was that it would be Vogelsong and Locke in the rotation with Nicasio in the bullpen. However, if you go by spring training stats, Nicasio is making a strong case for a rotation spot (0.00 ERA, 24 K in 15 IP). He has vastly outperformed both Vogelsong (6.08 ERA, 4 K in 13.1 IP) and Locke (6.63 ERA, 11 K in 19 IP). Normally, most people would say that Spring Training stats are meaningless, and they are mostly right. However, you can't ignore a gap that big between the three players. With the Pirates hoping to make a playoff push this year, Nicasio's success may get him a rotation spot.

Moving to the bullpen, it will be the same one-two punch closing out games for the Pirates. Mark Melancon will be closing again for the Pirates, and will have the job all to himself. He's posted 100 saves for the Pirates over the last three seasons, including 51 last year. Say what you want about saves, but it's hard to ignore a guy who can consistently close out games. It doesn't get any easier ahead of him, as Tony Watson is just as impressive. Watson has recorded an ERA under 2.50 in each of the last three seasons, and paired with Melancon, those two formed a closing duo that few teams can beat.

Wild Cards

Jung-ho Kang will be a name to watch this season. In his first season in the majors last year, he put up some impressive numbers, recording a 3.9 fWAR with a batting line of .287/.355/.461 with 15 HR and 58 RBI. However, his season ended early when he sustained a fractured leg and injured left knee when Cubs player Chris Coghlan slid into him. He is expected to miss at least the first few weeks of the season as he gets back to full strength. Once he does, he should slide into the lineup in place of David Freese or at shortstop in place of Jordy Mercer. While his return will benefit the Pirates lineup, there will also be a few questions as he returns. Will he be able to replicate his success in his second full season in MLB? Will the knee/leg injury have any lingering effects once he returns? Getting Kang back at full strength will be critical for this Pirates team.

Another name to watch will be catcher Francisco Cervelli. In his first year with the Pirates, he had the best year of his career, recording a 3.8 fWAR in 130 games, posting a .295/.370/.401 batting line. There were glimpses of this talent during his time with the Yankees, but 2015 was the first time he put it together over a full season. Now, Cervelli enters 2016 in the final year of arbitration, with free agency waiting once the season is over. If he can also replicate his success, it will be another position of strength for the Pirates.

On the pitching side, Juan Nicasio has turned into a wild card for the Pirates. As I mentioned earlier, Nicasio has put together a very strong spring, and may force his way into the Pirates rotation. Beyond the top two pitchers in that rotation (Liriano and Cole), it's a bit lackluster in talent. There are minor-league arms that could help the Pirates as early as this year, but they won't be enough on their own. A player like Nicasio having a breakout year would greatly benefit the Pirates pitching staff.

Prospects to Watch

If the Pirates are going to get back to the playoffs in 2016, it will have to be through some of their prospects. That shouldn't be a problem for them, as they have the system to pull some strong prospects from.

Their top prospect, who should be making his MLB debut in 2016, is RHP Tyler Glasnow. Ranked #10 overall on and given an A grade by John Sickels, he posted a 2.39 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A in 2015. He boasts and impressive 11.8 K/9 in the minors, though still has some control issues, posting a 4.2 BB/9 walk rate. He has a fastball that can reach 99 MPH, and strong secondary pitches in his curveball and change-up. He will be in the majors at some point in 2016, it's just a matter of when it happens.

On the position player side, Josh Bell should also make his debut at some point in 2016. He earned a rank of #49 on and John Sickels gave him a B+ in his evaluations.  Between Double-A and Triple-A last year, he posted a .317/.393/.446 batting line with 7 HR, 78 RBI, and 9 SB. Bell is a switch-hitting first baseman,  but doesn't have the same power that would be expected from a first baseman.

One other major prospect who could see time in the majors in 2016 is RHP Jamesone Taillon. He is the most interesting of the prospects, mainly because he hasn't pitched in two years. He had Tommy John surgery in 2014, and then underwent hernia surgery that kept him out of 2015. Despite that, he has remained high on prospect lists, coming in at #54 on's rankings, and rated as John Sickels 4th best Pirates prospect with a B grade. Before his Tommy John surgery, he was a top-20 overall prospect in several publications. While he will also start the season in Triple-A, if he can prove that his arsenal is still there, he could also make an impact on the Pirates.

Games Against the Brewers

As NL Central rivals, the Brewers and Pirates will meet 19 times in 2016. Their first series will happen in the second week of April, when the Brewers head to Pittsburgh for a three-game series. That is their only series prior to the All-Star Break. The Brewers and Pirates won't meet again until July 19, and they will play 16 times in the Brewers last 71 games. Pirates fans will be happy to have a chance to pad their win total in the last few months.

Prediction for the Season

It's tough to get a full understanding of what the Pirates could do in 2016. The initial look suggests that they have an uphill battle ahead of them this season, and a playoff push could be tough. With the Cubs ahead of them, a division push will be extremely hard without some luck on their side. A wild card push is more likely, and considering the state of the National League, is within the realm of possibility. FanGraphs projected an 83 win season for the Pirates, with a 29% chance of making the playoffs. That's where the Pirates are right now. They're not a playoff team yet, but with some help from their prospects and a few other factors flipping in their favor, another playoff appearance could be in their future.

John Sickels Top 20 Prospects