Mark it down. This is the year. Raise the Jolly Roger!
The Bucs ran into a lot of bad luck last year in the form of injuries losing Starling Marte, Francisco Cervelli, and Jung-Ho Kang for long stretches of time. They had key star players underperform: Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano. They had some young players who’ve shown promise, but haven’t put it all together: Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell. Jordy Mercer regressed, range has dropped, and he can’t hit righties. Josh Harrison wasn’t the same until healthy late in the year. If it wasn’t for Sean Rodriguez and Matt Joyce over performing who knows how poorly the season would have fared.
I think we as fans realized before the season started that 2016 was going to be a challenging year with the Cubs and Cards looking great and the Bucs still waiting on all the youth to arrive. But now that youth has started to arrive. Jameson Taillon, Polanco, Bell, Marte, and Adam Frazier all show their capable of producing in the Major Leagues and collectively should perform better this year than last.
Here’s our prediction of the opening day batting order assuming Kang isn’t ready. We expect the Red Sox to roll out LHP Chris Sale:
- Josh Harrison, 2b
- Largely due to how he performed here last season with an OBP of .347 batting first and .344 for the season versus LHP.
- David Freese, 3b
- Freese’s OBP versus LHP was .419 last year. The Bucs want an RBI hitter with good OBP in this slot. Polanco likely lands here versus RHP and perhaps by the time Kang returns if he’s improved versus LHP.
- Andrew McCutchen, RF
- This seems to be the slot Cutch is most comfortable in. His OBP while batting 3rd last year was .349 with 15 HR’s. Slotting Cutch in the three-hole gives him the best shot to bounce back.
- Starling Marte, CF
- Marte’s OPS in the clean-up spot was .915 last year.
- Josh Bell, DH (1b)
- This is mainly due to Bell being a switch hitter and the team likely facing a LHP. Kang will land here when he returns.
- Gregory Polanco, LF
- Bell will move here when Kang returns.
- Francisco Cervelli, CA
- Phil Gosselin, 1b (I admit, there is a chance Jose Osuna is active the first two games for this role. We may go short a starter to make room on the roster.)
- Jordy Mercer, SS (Obviously pitcher’s slot in NL games: Gerrit Cole, RHP)
This lineup has so much potential to be explosive. When Kang returns they’ll have four players capable of hitting 25 HR’s each (Kang, Cutch, Bell, and Polanco) with three others likely to hit double digit HR’s (Marte, Freese, and Mercer.)
We feel the bench will consist of Chris Stewart, Phil Gosselin, John Jaso, Adam Frazier, and Alen Hanson. The reason we think Hanson over Jose Osuna is simply due to his being out of options. The Bucs have given up on former high prospects too early before (see Jose Bautista) so they might as well give Hanson a chance to earn more. He’s only 24 years old, perhaps can play SS, and he has wheels.
The starting rotation is in much better shape than a year ago (which isn’t saying much we know.)
- Gerrit Cole, RHP
- Jameson Taillon, RHP
- Ivan Nova, RHP
- Drew Hutchinson, RHP
- (We know. Outrage! Listen, the NL had figured out not to swing at Liriano’s sliders outside the zone. It was a salary dump. But, the Bucs deserve credit on taking pitchers who weren’t performing before arriving to the team and become solid middle-of-the-rotation starters. Jonathan Niese didn’t, but most have – A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Vance Worley, Edinson Volquez, and Liriano)
- Chad Kuhl, RHP
They’ve depth in AAA as well in Tyler Glasnow, Trevor Williams, Nick Kingman, and Steven Brault.)
The bullpen gives us reason to believe again too. Tony Watson should perform better this year than last and has a lot of set-up men who can step in and assist with closing: Juan Nicasio, Daniel Hudson, and Felipe Rivero. The pen is rounded out with Antonio Bastardo, Jared Hughes, and A.J. Schugel.
This is a recipe for the success the Buccos had two years ago. Solid starts getting them to an even strong pen. The games will be shortened. Their focus on hitters getting on base and hitting for power will lead to some crooked scores. I anticipate they won’t equal the Cubs scoring differential, but they will match the Cards. The Bucs face the Cubs six times and Cards three times in the month of April. Even though it is a long season, the month of April will be critical in displaying whether the Pirates have improved enough to be taken seriously.
They’ll be up to the challenge.