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Pirates 2017 season preview - The Pitt News

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Pirates 2017 season preview

Andrew+McCutchen+will+not+be+patrolling+center+field+for+the+Pirates+this+season%2C+with+the+duties+instead+going+to+Gold+Glove-winner+Starling+Marte.+Matt+Hawley+%7C+Staff+Photographer
Andrew McCutchen will not be patrolling center field for the Pirates this season, with the duties instead going to Gold Glove-winner Starling Marte. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Andrew McCutchen will not be patrolling center field for the Pirates this season, with the duties instead going to Gold Glove-winner Starling Marte. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Andrew McCutchen will not be patrolling center field for the Pirates this season, with the duties instead going to Gold Glove-winner Starling Marte. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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As spring training winds down and the calendar flips to April, sports fans across the country are coming to a welcome realization.

Opening Day is almost upon us.

The 2017 Major League Baseball season kicks off Sunday, April 2, with a three-game slate featuring the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs taking on the National League Central Division rival St. Louis Cardinals at 8:35 p.m. The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays will start things off at 1:10 p.m., while the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks clash at 4:10 p.m.

The other 24 major-league teams will have to wait one more day to break out the lumber and rosin bags, as Opening Day rolls on into Monday with 12 more season-opening showdowns.

Among those Monday tilts will be a battle between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the American League’s Boston Red Sox at historic Fenway Park, marking the Pirates’ first time ever opening the season against an American League opponent.

After 20 straight losing seasons from 1993-2012 — the longest streak of ineptitude in the history of the four major American professional sports — the Pirates broke out of their seemingly endless slump with 94 wins in 2013. They capped it off with an unforgettable win over the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Wild-Card Game before losing a drag-out five-game series to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series.

The Pirates made it back to the playoffs again in 2014 and 2015 but failed to make it past the Wild-Card game. Then, in 2016, the team ended a three-year streak of playoff contention and slipped back below .500, finishing with a record of 78-83 and missing out on the playoffs.

Now, after another quiet offseason lacking any substantial upgrades to the roster and including multiple departures, there’s one question facing the team: Do the Pirates have what it takes to make it back to the playoffs, or are we looking at the beginning of another extended period of failure?

Let’s take a look around the diamond and see how the 2017 team stacks up:

Infield

One thing you can’t say about the Pirates’ 2017 infield is that it lacks versatility.

At first base, rookie Josh Bell is likely to see the most playing time after a brief but explosive debut at the end of the Pirates’ 2016 season. Bell provides a bat with power that only few human beings can match, but his defense has been a liability.

Along with Bell, John Jaso and David Freese will likely see some spot starts at first base. Freese is a lifelong third baseman, but he successfully converted to first toward the end of last season. Jaso isn’t particularly spectacular in any area but will provide a veteran bat off the bench.

Josh Harrison has the versatility to play anywhere, but he should slot in as the primary second baseman on this year’s team. The 2014 All-Star has been affected by injuries the past two seasons and seen his production take a slight dip, but he is still an above-average defender and base stealer who has batted at least .280 in three straight seasons.

Freese is slated to start the season at third base with Jung-Ho Kang still on the restricted list after his December DUI arrest in South Korea. The U.S. denied Kang’s visa to return to the states last week as he awaits sentencing, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports Pirates President Frank Coonelly thinks the team can help him secure one.

Some think the Pirates need Kang to succeed, but the reality is that Freese is just as reliable an option. The former World Series MVP is about as steady as big leaguers come, both at the plate and in the field.

Jordy Mercer will resume his everyday role at shortstop, where he’s been an under-the-radar yet consistent contributor.

With ultra-utilityman Sean Rodriguez now on the Atlanta Braves, Adam Frazier will take over as the do-it-all man. With less than one full year of big-league action to his credit, Frazier has already proven that he can play any position on the field and play it well.

Injuries to starting catcher Francisco Cervelli and top backup Chris Stewart had a lot to do with the Pirates’ demise last season, but both seem ready to go for Opening Day. Keeping these players healthy all year at the sport’s most grueling position will go a long way in deciding the Pirates’ fate in 2017.

Outfield

The drama-filled offseason was rife with nonstop rumors that the face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen, would be traded. The 2013 NL MVP is back with the Pirates for at least one more year — but not at his familiar position.

The Pirates decided that with McCutchen’s declining play in center field, it was time to shift him over to right field and move two-time Gold Glove left fielder Starling Marte over to center. Gregory Polanco shifts over to left field, meaning all three players will have to learn a new position on the fly in 2017.

No matter where they’re playing in the field, McCutchen, Marte and Polanco should provide the Pirates with the best outfield in baseball.

Starting pitching

Former No. 1 overall draft pick Gerrit Cole and No. 2 pick Jameson Taillon will man the top of the Pirates’ staff while veteran Ivan Nova returns to fill the middle of the rotation. Chad Kuhl appears locked in to the No. 4 spot after a strong debut in the second half of 2016, and top prospect Tyler Glasnow should get the first crack at the No. 5 spot.

Cole is a good bet to return to the role of staff ace, while Taillon should be a dependable No. 2 option. The x-factor on this team is Glasnow. The 6-foot-8 fireballer is a former blue-chip prospect who was plagued by inability to command his pitches as a rookie in 2016. If he can get his pitches under control, he has the potential to develop from the No. 5 starter all the way to No. 1.

Bullpen

The backbone of the Pirates’ three straight postseason runs has now dissolved into the team’s one glaring weakness.

From 2013-2015, the team’s bullpen was known as the “Shark Tank,” led by closer Mark “The Shark” Melancon. The Pirates traded him to the Nationals in the middle of last season though, and longtime setup man Tony Watson fizzled in his first year as the closer.

Hurdle and his staff are giving Watson a second chance at the role this season, but if he can’t return to his prior form, the Pirates may have to try someone else in the ninth-inning role. Lefty flamethrower Felipe Rivero, acquired in the Melancon deal, is primed to take over if Watson falters again.

Summary

While the Pirates clearly have the talent and experience to improve on last-year’s sub-.500 performance, they remain in baseball’s most loaded division, still looking up at the Cubs and the Cardinals in the race for the Central Division title.

But if McCutchen and Cole can return to MVP and Cy Young-caliber players, and young prospects like Bell and Glasnow can take the next step in their second seasons, this team has the tools necessary to get back to the playoffs and make a serious run at the World Series.

Predicted record: 89-73

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Pirates 2017 season preview