Well-balanced roster fuels Pirates’ division crown hopes

As the baseball season starts next week, the Pirates have the opportunity to build on a recent run of success that resulted in two straight postseason appearances after a torturous multi-decade stretch without seeing postseason baseball. The Cardinals look weakened, the Cubs are relying on a lot to go right, and the Pirates are in a great position to win the National League (NL) Central for the first time ever.

This Pirates team’s ability to win a ton of games this year will start with a very talented assortment of position players. From the outfield in, the Pirates sport a lot of strengths in the field with very few standout weaknesses. In a competitive NL Central, this combination of depth and top-shelf talent could be the difference over the course of a long season.

The most striking concentration of talent on the Pirates is in the outfield. Pittsburgh is the only team in the league that can rival the Miami Marlins consensus top trio outside the diamond. While the most obvious name in the outfield is center fielder and 2013 MVP Andrew McCutchen, the corner outfielders should not be forgotten.
Left fielder Starling Marte is a very toolsy player, near the top of the league in his ability to get on base, cover lots of territory, run the bases, throw from the outfield and, when he gets hot, absolutely crush the baseball. He is criminally underrated every year and has given the Pirates a massive boost in his time with the team.

In the other corner, right fielder Gregory Polanco should begin to deliver on his promise as a prospect after a lukewarm rookie season. Once a common mention among Baseball America top prospects, Polanco did not mash as many expected him to, when he came into the league. He struggled to get on base and hit for power, which put some giant gashes in his numbers. However, the jump from the minor leagues to the majors is a tough one, and the spring training results have been encouraging.

Some ground balls have been turning into line drives and fly balls, which are more likely to turn into hits, and Polanco is a prime breakout candidate in 2015.

The infield outlook is a bit less rosy, but not much of a weakness. The corners of the infield are well taken care of. After a down season, first baseman Pedro Alvarez’s power numbers should bounce back to somewhere close to his 2013 heights, and his ability to get on base and get extra base hits were improvements over previous season’s results. Alvarez is absolutely destroying spring training, and the power is showing again. He may not hit 36 home runs this year, but he could reach 25–30 and be a huge boon for the Pirates offense.

At the hot corner, third baseman Josh Harrelson looks to build on a breakout year where his versatility and range of skills both offensively and defensively made him extremely valuable wherever manager Clint Hurdle needed him on the field. There was nothing in his peripherals to imply that his season was a fluke, and he should continue both hitting well and closing off the foul line at third base. The middle infield will be held down by Neil Walker, possibly the league’s best offensive second baseman after the Mariners’ second baseman Robinson Cano, and Jordy Mercer, a satisfactory but uninspiring option at shortstop. The two are a decent defensive double play combination, and Neil Walker can hit well enough for the both of them. The Pirates’ infield should be above average, even if it isn’t spectacular.

The Pirates’ rotation might scare off those who support them, with starters Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole being the only players set to have above average seasons. Both of them are high variance pitchers, however, and the rotation will certainly be a weakness. The return of starter A.J. Burnett does little to move the needle. If anything will undo the Pirates, it is the rotation. However, an excellent defensive team and decent starters should not cause too much of a leak, and this should not overwhelm the Pirates’ excellent offense. The bullpen, including closer Mark Melancon, also goes deep and can help ease the difficulties of the rotation.

Finally, the competition is not as good as everyone thinks. The Brewer’s first-half fluky success is not replicable, and they should not be a factor.

With first baseman Joey Votto not returning to his former self, the Reds could potentially be one of the worst teams in the league and will probably deal starter Johnny Cueto by the trade deadline.

The Cubs will be very good in the near future, but it is silly to expect all of their prospects to turn into stars overnight, and players like starter Jake Arietta might regress. The addition of starter Jon Lester should not flip the script for the Cubs overnight.

Finally, the mighty Cardinals were not better than the Pirates last year, and would not have won the division without several absences from McCutchen. With many of their best players beginning to age, the Cardinals are more susceptible to bad injury luck than the Pirates, and the Cardinals offense is not very deep, with only a few players providing more than average offense. Right fielder Jason Heyward, the Cardinals’ big off-season acquisition, does not offer much in the way of offense, and left fielder Matt Holiday is set for a major decline.

The door is open for the Pirates. With the Cubs on the rise and the Cardinals trending down, it is the perfect time. It could be now or never to grab an NL Central title with this core.