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Recent success has Pirates poised for playoff push

Pirates+pitcher+Gerrit+Cole+went+the+distance+for+his+first+complete+game+victory+against+the+Mariners+Wednesday+night.+%28TNS%29
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole went the distance for his first complete game victory against the Mariners Wednesday night. (TNS)

Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole went the distance for his first complete game victory against the Mariners Wednesday night. (TNS)

Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole went the distance for his first complete game victory against the Mariners Wednesday night. (TNS)

By Jeremy Tepper / Staff Writer

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For what felt like an endless time, it seemed that the Pirates would never find their buried treasure.

But after 20 years of losing, Pittsburgh’s local ball club has compiled consecutive winning seasons. After making the playoffs two years straight, the Pirates have turned themselves into a World Series contender, as hopes for a parade Downtown sit at an all-time high.

There’s considerable hype surrounding the Pittsburgh baseball club, as national media begins to expect postseason success. Buster Olney, a predominant baseball writer for ESPN, picked the Pirates to win the World Series, among others.

The hype is for good reason, though.

Spearheading the Pirates is centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, who is fresh off placing third for National League MVP after winning it the previous year.

Simply put, McCutchen excels on the baseball diamond. He can hit, run and field — he’s blossomed into one of the game’s best players.

To the left and right of McCutchen are two young, highly talented outfielders in Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco.

Marte, 26, finished the season scorching at the plate, hitting .348 with a .975 OPS after the All-Star break. Marte plays some of the game’s best defense in left field and stole 30 and 41 bases the past two seasons, respectively.

Polanco is the wild card, and he is the key cog that can transform the Pirates outfield into the best in the MLB. The young Dominican Republic native is one of the MLB’s true five-tool players and is ranked accordingly by Baseball America as a prospect, earning a top-five rating from the publication before meriting a midseason call-up.

The 23-year-old got off to a singing start to his career upon his call-up before falling into a deep slump, and he eventually found himself back down in the minors. The Pirates, though, placed their faith in Polanco, as they’ve supplied him with slim competition in right field.

These three will largely dictate the Pirates’ success on offense, which scored the 10th-most runs in the MLB, while posting the third-highest on-base percentage.

At second and third base are two players who the Pirates hope can repeat their 2014 performances.

Second baseman Neil Walker hit 23 home runs and accumulated a .809 OPS, good for first and third among those at his position. Walker had a peak season for power, though it came with little surprise, given he’s shown semi-sustained flashes of excellence in years past.

Even the most tuned-in of experts could not have prognosticated Josh Harrison’s season, though. After functioning as an average utility man in previous seasons, Harrison took hold of the third base position after posting a .315 average and .837 OPS. Combined with steady defense, Harrison cobbled together a 5.3 WAR, fifth best at his position.

Though Pittsburgh’s strength lies on offense, the starting pitching will largely determine its success this season.

The team lacked an ace last year, a void which they hope 24-year-old Gerrit Cole can fill. This will be Cole’s third season and is fresh off posting a 3.65 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 138 innings. The numbers, though, don’t match the stuff, as Cole was the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, partly because of his high-90s fastball, biting slider and sinking changeup.

If Cole can develop into the ace that the Pirates’ front office thinks he can become, the Pirates should be in a good spot to make a playoff run.

Of course, they’ll also need production from Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. 

In his third season with the Pirates, southpaw Liriano has been the Pirates’ most consistent starting pitcher the past two seasons with a 3.38 and 3.02 ERA in 2014 and 2013, respectively. 

Burnett is a familiar face — he played with the Pirates in 2012 and 2013, then signed with the Phillies for the 2014 season. 

Burnett’s back after that one season away, and he’ll hope to regain his No. 2 or 3 starter production after a 4.59 ERA last year.

Rounding out the team is the bullpen, which combined for a 3.28 ERA, ninth in the MLB. Led by closer Mark Melancon, the bullpen also features Tony Watson, who broke out with a 1.63 ERA last season. 

Though bullpens’ performances are often sporadic from year to year, the Pirates’ bullpen is unlikely to determine their fate this season. If the Pirates hope to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy in October, they will need continued dominance from their lineup, as well as improved performances from their pitching staff to do so.

 

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Recent success has Pirates poised for playoff push