We’re all over Spring Training here at INSC, highlighting the big story lines for each team. Today, we take a closer look at the Pittsburgh Pirates. After three consecutive fantastic seasons, the Bucs went 78-83 and missed the playoffs in 2016. This came as a shock, as the Pirates had a very similar team heading into last season, but underperformed as a unit.
2016 can be written off as just an off year for the team, and the Pirates should be contenders once again when the regular season begins. They’ll need help from their stars, who will be in the spotlight as soon as Spring Training games begin. Here are three guys that I will be keeping an eye on this Spring.
1. Andrew McCutchen – The 2013 NL MVP has been in the spotlight pretty much since last season ended. He was seemingly on the verge of being traded multiple times, but February is almost over and Cutch is still wearing black and gold.
It’s no secret that the 30-year-old put together the worst season of his career in 2016. That’s not to say it was bad, but by Cutch’s standards, it left the Pirates and their fans wanting much more. He slashed .256/.336/.430, all career lows. His six stolen bases, 143 strikeouts, and 81 runs scored were also all career-worsts. Fortunately for Cutch, these numbers came out of nowhere, as he didn’t show much of a decline before last season.
Despite being against his will, McCutchen will be moving to right field this season, a position he hasn’t been overly comfortable with in the past. Spring Training is the start of a chance to prove that last year was a fluke, and all eyes will be on the star when games begin.
2. Josh Bell – Despite undergoing knee surgery earlier this year, the 24-year-old still figures to have an active Spring and is expected to be ready for Opening Day. Drafted as an outfielder, Bell looks poised to take the starting first base job for the Pirates. The switch-hitter has already taken live batting practice, but is still working on getting his timing back to par.
Bell slashed .273/.368/.406 in 152 plate appearances last year and posted an impressive 1.1 BB/K ratio. His strike zone control is a huge plus for his age, and if he can add power to his swing he could emerge as one of the top first basemen in the league. He won’t be battling for first base in Spring, as the position is his to lose. But his recovery from knee surgery and undeniable talent makes him a guy to watch at the Pirates’ camp.
3. Gerrit Cole – The Pirates’ struggle were team-wide in 2016. A down season by their star, Andrew McCutchen, played a role. But the same goes for their ace, Gerrit Cole. Coming off a near-Cy Young Award-winning season in 2015, Cole put together a disappointing encore performance in 2016.
In 2015, he went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and a 1.091 WHIP. Saying he regressed would be an understatement, as he went 7-10 with a 3.88 ERA and a 1.440 WHIP in 21 starts in 2016. His 10.2 H/9, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.6 K/9 were all career worsts and could be contributed to poor control of his dominating fastball.
Now healthy, Cole should be able to bounce back and lead the Pirates once again. Like McCutchen, the need for a bounceback season will put eyes on the ace throughout Spring Training.
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ first Spring Training game is on Saturday, February 25th. They enter the season with a ton of question marks, but they’re not far off from competing in the tough NL Central once again.