Pirates fans have no reason to lessen expectations


Pirates fans pose for a picture. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

By Chad Cameron / Staff Writer

Snow isn’t typically associated with Major League Baseball’s Opening Day.

But as a sellout crowd of 39,500 people prepared to pack PNC Park on Sunday, crews on the inside rushed to shovel away the last traces of a blizzard that hit Pittsburgh late Saturday night.

Baseball season was here, and no matter what Twitter users and talk radio say, there is still reason for Bucs Nation to be amped for this current Pirates squad.

That deserved buzz is the product of unexpected success that began in 2013, reborn from the ashes of 20 consecutive losing campaigns. And despite numerous personnel changes, Pirates fans have no reason to toss their new-found optimism overboard.

The 2016 Pirates differ substantiallyfrom past seasons, including the 2013 and 2015 teams that burst onto the scene with over 90 wins each, and a 2014 team that narrowly missed the 90-win mark.

Gone is beloved hometown son and second baseman Neil Walker, a Pine-Richland High School graduate, who was traded to the New York Mets in the offseason for starting pitcher Jon Niese.

Gone too is fan favorite and veteran starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, and Pirates supporters won’t soon forget his fiery personality in his retirement.

The polarizing presence of Pedro Alvarez also won’t return this season, as the team did not tender an offer to the man affectionately nicknamed “El Toro” in the offseason. He opted to sign with the Baltimore Orioles instead.

The 2016 Pirates also opened the season without starting pitchers Charlie Morton, J.A. Happ and Vance Worley, relief pitchers Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton, and infielders Aramis Ramirez and Michael Morse — all of whom contributed to the success of previous years and have gone separate ways.

But even with all of those losses, the Pirates still have a chance to be great.

The loss of first baseman Alvarez is certainly a loss of power. But it’s also the removal of a combined 75 errors over the past three seasons.

Former Tampa Bay Ray John Jaso’s Pirates debut numbs the loss of Alvarez at the plate and in the field.

Jaso, who thrived throughspring training, boasts a career batting average of .263 and has proved more dependable defensively at first base than Alvarez was.

The Pirates also return with arguably the best outfield in baseball with golden glover Starling Marte in left, perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen in center and rangy phenom Gregory Polanco in right. If all three hit comparable to or better than last season, the Pirates won’t be wanting for offense at all.

Also on the offensive side, the Buccos signed free agent infielder David Freese late in spring training. Freese is a veteran player with a strong glove throughout the infield, but he is known best for his bat, being a former National League Chamionship Series and World Series MVP.

The Pirates will also look forward to the return of infielder Jung-ho Kang, who ended the season third in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2015. The team projects to have him back at the end of April after his knee surgery last year.

Starting pitching is always imperative, but the Pirates still boast two bona fide aces in Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, the former working his way back from injury while the Pirates slated the latter as the Opening Day starter, going 6 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts.

To fill out the rest of the rotation, the Pirates will rely on Jon Niese, Jeff Locke and newcomer Juan Nicasio, who had a stellar spring training as well, cementing himself into the starting five. Niese and Nicasio are fairly unknown quantities, but the Pirates have made a habit of turning those question marks into plus signs.

With pitching coach Ray Searage still at the helm for the Pirates, fans must trust in the process and look at how Searage resurrected the careers of former Pirates Edison Volquez and Happ, and current ace Liriano, to quell any immediate concerns.

Stud setup man and 2015 All-Star Tony Watson also looks to have another impressive year, along with closer Mark Melancon who, after a slow start last season, ended the year with a club record and league-leading 51 saves.

Yes, the Pirates have some new faces, but don’t jump ship just yet. They are arguably more offensively capable this year than the last few, and they certainly won’t hurt for defensive help.

So as yet another season of Pittsburgh Pirates baseball sails into town, there should be more than just a breeze of hope. It should be bursting from the seams.

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