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2016 Pirates preview: Talented Bucs to test off-brand winter acquisitions

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David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

In the past two decades, offseasons have rarely been much fun for Pirates fans. 10 or 15 years ago, we spent the winters pretending to get excited about the signings of Pat Meares or Jeromy Burnitz, or trying to convince our delusional friends there was no way those players were actually going to be good. These days, we fret that our team is Wasting The Best Years Of Andrew McCutchen's Career by building its offseasons around players who were clearly much more skillfully chosen than Meares or Burnitz were, but who came from the same nowhere-near-eye-level shelf at the store. Either way, winters aren't that much fun.

Fortunately, in the past few years, when the Pirates have gotten on the field, they've shown bargain hunting can actually be an incredibly effective way of augmenting a team, particularly if you're better or luckier at it than any other team in baseball.

This offseason, the Pirates took their frugality even further than usual. Last offseason, they spent $39 million on Francisco Liriano, plus $16 million on Jung Ho Kang; in 2013-14, they skimped on free agents but extended Charlie Morton for $21 million; the offseason before that, they signed Russell Martin for $17 million; the offseason before that, they extended McCutchen and traded for A.J. Burnett. This offseason, there wasn't a single big-ticket item. Their biggest signing was John Jaso, who at $8 million got twice as much as any of their other signees. More than any winter since the Pirates became competitive, this offseason puts their thriftiness to the test. Are the store-brand Cheerios really just as good as the real thing? Can we really trust those day-old bagels? Do we really want to buy those 99-cent bags of vegetables that expire tomorrow?

I don't know, but the answer isn't automatically "no," because if there's anyone we want walking through that sketchy Shop N Save with us, it's Neal Huntington. In Spring Training -- and you can take all this with a grain of salt if you like, because Spring Training Stats Don't Mean Anything -- there have already been some positive developments from the Pirates' bargain-bin acquisitions, particularly with regard to Juan Nicasio and Cory Luebke. If the Bucs can continue to get great results from bargain players, and especially pitchers, they can make us forget we ever worried about their spending. Well, until next winter.

Position Players

C Francisco Cervelli
1B John Jaso / Michael Morse / David Freese
2B Josh Harrison
SS Jordy Mercer
3B Jung Ho Kang / Freese
LF Starling Marte
CF Andrew McCutchen
RF Gregory Polanco

The Bucs' position players finished fourth in the NL in runs scored last year and figure to be a good group yet again. As with last season, the Bucs figure to be led by perennial MVP candidate McCutchen, with Starling Marte (now in his age-27 season), Kang and Francisco Cervelli also making significant contributions. That's a quartet most teams would envy.

Gone is Pedro Alvarez, who had thunderous power but was, when considering all aspects of his game, a bad baseball player. Replacing him is Jaso, who has just 37 home runs in a seven-year career and who's played all of five regular-season innings at first base but still figures to be more valuable than Alvarez was last season, thanks to his walk- and OBP-heavy approach at the plate.

Replacing Neil Walker, who headed to the Mets, will be tougher, but the Pirates wound up with a halfway-reasonable approximation of him when David Freese fell into their laps late in the offseason. Freese will play third until Kang returns from last season's knee injury, then bounce between first (where he'll play while Jaso sits against lefties) and third. Okay, Freese isn't quite as good as Walker, is older, bears greater risk of collapse, and doesn't play the same position. But he replaces the infield depth lost when Walker departed.

Elsewhere, the Pirates should get a bit less this season from Cervelli in particular, but could make up for that with better seasons from Jordy Mercer (who quietly had an uninspiring 2015) and Gregory Polanco (a potential star who seemed to improve as the season progressed). The Bucs also have solid depth, particularly given the eventual additions of top prospects Josh Bell and Alen Hanson.

Rotation

(In confident voice)
Gerrit Cole!
Francisco Liriano!

(more quietly)
Jon Niese.

(random coughing)

Here's where the Bucs' off-brand-Cheerios approach to the offseason will be tested. They'll be hard-pressed to get much more out of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano than they got last year, and they didn't get any of the dozen or so obviously-pretty-good starting pitchers available on the free-agent market this offseason. Instead, they dealt Walker for Niese, who looks, on paper, like a middle- to back-of-the-rotation starter. Of course, one Pirates starter after another in recent years has shown you what you can do with your on-paper projections. Here's hoping Niese -- a groundballing lefty with underwhelming velocity -- can do the same.

The real potential wild card in the Pirates rotation could be Nicasio, who's still technically competing for a job. Nicasio's appeal is easy to see -- at 29, he's still fairly young and has good velocity and the makings of two very good pitches. So far this spring (and again, Spring Training Stats Don't Mean Anything, but stop being so reasonable about that for a second), Nicasio has 24 strikeouts in 15 innings. It remains to be seen if he'll be able to have sustained success in the rotation, given his sketchy previous track record and the fact that he doesn't throw his changeup much, but since Ray Searage exists, I wouldn't bet against him.

If Nicasio doesn't win a rotation spot (I think he will, but let's leave that aside), that's bad news for the Pirates, because the other two candidates for the last two spots are Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong. Much has been made of Locke's new delivery, but he's now had 93 career big-league starts and hasn't become much more than a back-ender. Vogelsong's signing this offseason, even for a modest $2 million, remains baffling. Maybe the Pirates see upside in him that's very difficult for an outsider to see, but I'd bet a lot harder on them making good on a gamble like Nicasio. Either way, the Pirates' lack of rotation depth, at least at the start of the season, is almost enough to make a fan miss Morton, who the Bucs dumped on the Phillies in December in what appeared to be a cost-cutting move.

By June or July, of course, the Pirates' rotation picture gets considerably clearer, with Tyler Glasnow and possibly Jameson Taillon entering the picture. The Bucs will hold both pitchers back to start the year, then perhaps conveniently deem Glasnow, at least, ready right after the Super Two threshold passes. He's still a work in progress who could stand to improve his consistency and command, but he has the potential to dominate once he arrives.

Bullpen

Mark Melancon
Tony Watson
Jared Hughes
Arquimedes Caminero
Neftali Feliz

The Bucs will return Mark Melancon to the closer's role after an offseason in which it looked pretty likely that they'd trade him rather than pay him close to $10 million in his last year before free agency. I'm sick of worrying about Melancon and being wrong, but let's just say this -- he and Tony Watson added almost 10 Win Probability Added between them last year, which is ridiculous and won't happen again. It wouldn't happen even if Melancon and Watson were Wade Davis and Aroldis Chapman or something, which they aren't. Melancon's strikeout rate faded last year, and he's heading into his age-31 season. He's still terrific, but the Pirates will be hard-pressed to do nearly as well in the eighth and ninth innings as they did last year. That says far more about how much the Bucs got out of Melancon and Watson last year than about who Melancon and Watson are now, but it's still worth watching.

The rest of the Pirates' bullpen will be Jared Hughes (assuming he's ready to go -- he's currently dealing with a lat issue), the hard-throwing Arquimedes Caminero, reclamation project Neftali Feliz, and then a couple arms to be determined, possibly including Luebke, or Rob Scahill, or whoever doesn't win the rotation battle. I assume we're all okay with this, even though the Feliz signing was a bit of a head-scratcher. Caminero still hasn't quite turned his dominant stuff into dominant results, and Feliz's track record is spotty as all get out, and it's hard to know what the Pirates might get out of someone like Luebke. But if Searage and the rest of the Bucs' coaches can work miracles in the rotation, it's reasonable to hope they can work one or two in the bullpen too. This should be a strong group.

Divisional Competition

It will be very hard for the Pirates to top the Cubs. FanGraphs projects the Cubs to win 95 games. That's two fewer than they won last year and three fewer than the Pirates won, but preseason progressions tend to regress to the mean, and it's very rare that a good computer projection system will forecast any one team to win 95 games. That FanGraphs did so for the Cubs is a function of both the Cubs' star power (Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, etc.) and their depth at virtually every position. Maybe the Cubs will suffer a massive number of injuries. Maybe their bullpen will be a huge disappointment. Maybe their young hitters won't be as good as anticipated. They aren't unstoppable. But they'll be very tough.

From the perspective of the number of games the Pirates will win, the Cubs' offseason was a mixed bag, in that two of their main offseason acquisitions, Heyward and Lackey, came from another one of the Pirates' division rivals. But the Bucs face an uphill climb to a division win. That might mean they end up in the Wild Card game yet again, which would mean more gnashing of teeth as they face the possibility of a one-and-done playoff exit for a fourth consecutive year. But whatever. There isn't a division in baseball in which the Cubs wouldn't project as clear front-runners. The Pirates could have done more to make themselves better this winter, but they can't control how good the Cubs are. All they can do is grind out the season and hope to get as far as they can with the talent they have on hand.

And let's not lose track of the fact that the Pirates' talent is considerable. This is a fun team. The Pirates have two athletic and exciting young outfielders flanking the franchise's best player since Barry Bonds. They have a third baseman who could, by the end of his contract, do more to bolster Americans' impressions of baseball in Korea than any player ever. They have a fiery young ace who's beginning to come into his own, and another starting pitcher who might have the best slider in baseball. They have the reigning NL Reliever of the Year winner. And they have a front office and manager who are developing strategies for winning that we don't even know exist yet. The Cubs are going to be great. The Pirates might not be able to keep up with them. But even if they don't, they should still be very entertaining, and they might also be very good.

Highly Unscientific NL Central Prediction

1. Cubs 96-66
2. Pirates 87-75
3. Cardinals 85-77
4. Reds 74-88
5. Brewers 69-93