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How the 2016 Pirates can win the NL Central: 5 stories to watch

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It's March, and we're supposed to be hopeful. Perhaps we should start there. If there's one time in the season where you're supposed to have hope, it's now.

Only there's this. The Pirates, after winning 98 games in 2015, had a sleepy offseason in which they lost A.J. Burnett, Neil Walker, J.A. Happ, Antonio Bastardo and several other players, and replaced them with ... Jon Niese, John Jaso, Juan Nicasio, Neftali Feliz, David Freese, Ryan Vogelsong and other guys who look, on paper, like ciphers or outright riffraff. And now they're projected (by FanGraphs, at least) to win 83 games and miss the playoffs.

As we discussed in January, though, projections aren't everything, and much of the Pirates' success in the past three seasons has been built on getting previously mediocre-looking players to play well or downright brilliantly. In 2016, we'll see if the Bucs can outperform their projections yet again.

The Pirates have any number of paths to a successful season, but if we're trying to assess their chances of, say, winning the NL Central on their way to a World Series victory, here are five story lines I'd look out for.

1. The Cubs need to underachieve. I hate to begin here by discussing another team, but we can't really get around this. The Cubs look monstrous. They have tons of young talent, they have tremendous depth at a number of key positions, and they added Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey to a team that was already very, very good. Fortunately, good-looking teams flop all the time, which is why it's now amusing that this exists.


2. The rotation must hold. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano pack a strong one-two punch, and Jon Niese, after a dusting of Ray Searage magic, ought to be an acceptable No. 3. But Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong at the end of the rotation doesn't look particularly inspiring ... unless we're all underestimating Searage and Neal Huntington again, which certainly is possible. Nicasio's emergence as a legitimate-looking rotation candidate is one of the best developments of the spring so far, and of course there's Tyler Glasnow, whose upside is stratospheric and will likely join the rotation by June. In any case, the Pirates can't let Locke and Vogelsong hurt them. Perhaps Locke's new-look delivery will turn him into something better than he's been so far.

3. The Bucs need to stay healthy. You could say this about any team, of course. The Pirates need Andrew McCutchen to be healthy and productive! Well, duh. But the point seems worth making here, especially since Jung Ho Kang, one of the Pirates' best position players last year, will start this season on the DL. As Anthony Castrovince pointed out this weekend, the Bucs were the only team that had five players appear in at least 150 games last year (Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Walker and Pedro Alvarez, in case you're wondering). If they can do that again, they'll likely be very well-positioned to contend, at least. The first task, of course, will be getting Kang back as soon as possible.

4. A step forward from Gregory Polanco. The Pirates have gotten unexpectedly great performances from so many players in recent years that looking for upside in a conventionally high-upside player like Polanco seems way too obvious, but here we are. Polanco produced 2.3 wins above replacement last year -- not a bad total, but one that would have been higher had he not produced only a .653 OPS in the first half of the season. Polanco was then a huge part of the Pirates' 17-9 July and 19-8 August. Adding a bit more power in 2016 might help him produce more consistently. He had nine home runs last year; it's not ridiculous to dream he could hit 10 or so more this season.

5. Another shutdown bullpen. One of the trickiest aspects of the Bucs' 98-win season to replicate will be the dominance of Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, who produced an absurd 9.32 Win Probability Added last year, ranking first (Melancon) and fifth (Watson) in baseball in that category. The problem, for 2016, is that Melancon looks like a closer who really should be very good rather than great, particularly after his strikeout rate dropped and his walk rate climbed last year. Then again, I spent too many weeks of the season waiting for him to come back to earth last year, and he never did. If Watson and Melancon can turn games the Pirates are leading into seven-inning contests yet again, the Pirates will have a much easier time nearing their 2015 win total.