The Pirates are used to not being the center of attention. They’re second-class sports citizens until the Penguins’ season ends (generally in late May/early June) and then again once the Steelers’ season begins in early September. The Buccos have won at least 88 games in three of the last four seasons, including a 98-win year in 2015 and a 94-win season in 2013. Still, they played second fiddle to the Cardinals, as they won exactly zero division titles, finishing in second place in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
Last season, Pittsburgh looked like the pre-2012 squad: a below-.500 team that never generated much excitement and never felt like it was much of a National League threat. Not only did the Pirates have the Cardinals to contend with, the Cubs’s rebuilding phase rapidly ended. The Chicago juggernaut blew through the division, finishing 17.5 games ahead of St. Louis and 25 games in front of the Pirates.
Did the Pirates blow their window of opportunity? Can this team stack up with the Cardinals, let alone a Cubs team that is again projected to be one of the best teams in baseball?
In 2013, the Pirates bucked a 20-year trend of losing baseball behind a 26-year old Andrew McCutchen. Pittsburgh also called up 24-year-old Starling Marte (who was in his first full season in the bigs). Cutch posted his most valuable season that year, finishing the campaign with 8.4 wins and a trophy to show for it. In 135 games Marte was second most valuable 4.8 wins. The outfield trio also includes speedster Gregory Polanco.
The 2013 Pirates rostered several veteran pitchers and cemented the back end of the rotation with No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole. Since then, A.J. Burnett retired, and Francisco Liriano moved on to Toronto, but Cole remains a key part of the rotation.
In many ways, 2017 is a make-or-break season for the Pirates. It’s a chance for Pittsburgh to demonstrate they are actually an improved franchise, and one that will compete in the NL. It’s also possible that a second straight season of below-.500 ball will make their three-year run a fun ride that ultimately did not change the trajectory of a franchise generally mired in the middle of the non-playoff pack.
So what has to go right for the Pirates to become the toast of the town again? First of all, Andrew McCutchen must show that he’s the player he was in 2015. He’s coming off his worst season by a huge margin — his 0.7 fWAR is a shadow of even his previously worst season of 3.4 wins. For the Pirates to prosper, they’ll need Cutch to return to his former self, even they end up trading him for younger talent (a constant rumor earlier this offseason).
The Pirates success also largely depends on how their young players develop. Rookie Josh Bell is slated as the team’s Opening Day first baseman. In only 152 plate appearances last season he posted a .273/.368/.406 slash line, good for a decent, but not great, 113 wRC+. Having struggling second baseman Josh Harrison bounce back couldn’t hurt, either.
In the rotation, the Pirates are relying on youth throughout the rotation. Four of PIttsburgh’s five starters are under 26, including Cole (26 years old), Jameson Taillon (25), Chad Kuhl (24) and Tyler Glasnow (23). That’s a lot of inexperience, but it’s also a lot of talent ceiling. Ivan Nova rounds out the rotation, and at 30 years old should still provide between two and three wins.
Both FanGraphs’ Depth Charts and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection systems project the Pirates to hover around .500. That means with a few breakouts, they can easily be in the playoff hunt...or with a few key injuries or underperformers, they could be irrelevant by mid-summer. Both systems also agree that the Cardinals are likely to take a step back, but that the Cubs run away with the division title.
For fans in Pittsburgh, a Wild Card berth would be a welcome sign that this team can compete for a pennant in 2017 and beyond, and that their three-year playoff run was not just a fluke The Pirates were unlucky enough to run into human buzzsaw Madison Bumgarner not once but twice in the Wild Card game, and they’ll likely have to rely on a little bit of luck if they are to make it to another LDS. With the Cubs dominating the division, the window for a division title is less open than it once was; in the current playoff format, though, their window for contention is still open.