The Pittsburgh Pirates have become the most frequent participant in the Wild Card Game since its inception in the 2012 postseason. The Pirates have appeared in the game... three times; the only MLB team to appear in the game more than once. 14 teams have appeared in this game with the other 13 being in the game just once. Seven teams have won their only Wild Card Game while the other six have lost their winner take all playoff game. The Pirates have also hosted their Wild Card Game all three seasons, a feat in itself. But that is what makes it sting a little more. The Pirates finished each of the past two seasons with a better record than the other wild card team, losing first to the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants in 2014, then to the 2015 Chicago Cubs- a team that would then defeat the National League Central Division Champion St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series.
Very quietly, the Pirates have had a very busy off season. The Pirates signed free agent right hand pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (9 wins, 11 losses, 4.67 earned run average, 33 games, 22 starts) from the Giants and righty Neftali Felix (3-4, 6.38, 39 Ks in 48 innings- 48 games pitched) from the Detroit Tigers. The Pirates then traded second baseman Neil Walker (.269 batting average, 16 home runs, 71 runs batted in, .756 on base plus slugging) to the New York Mets in exchange for left handed starting pitcher Jonathon Niese (9-10, 4.13, 33 games, 29 starts, 6 postseason relief appearances). The Pirates then signed free agent first baseman? John Jaso (.286, 5, 32, .839) from the Tampa Bay Rays and third baseman David Freese (.257, 14, 56, .743) from the Los Angeles Angels. They also added right hander Juan Nicasio (1-3, 3.86, 65 strikeouts, just over 58 innings pitched) and lefty Kyle Lobstein (3-8, 5.94, 13 games, 11 starts). Nicasio came over as a free agent from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lobstein was purchased from the Tigers. The additional Pirates losses include first baseman Pedro Alvarez (.243, 27, 77, .787), third baseman Aramis Ramirez (retirement), left handed pitcher JA Happ (11-8, 3.61, 151 Ks, 172 IP), right hander AJ Burnett (retirement), left hander Antonio Bastardo (4-1, 2.98, 64 Ks, just over 57 IP), righty Charlie Morton (9-9, 4.81, 23 starts) and righty Joe Blanton (7-2, 2.84, 79 Ks, 76 IP).
The Pirates are well managed by Clint Hurdle and also possess one of the game's best pitching coaches in Ray Searage. Searage was given a ton of credit for finding a mechanical flaw in Happ's delivery. Happ is expected to have a solid season in Toronto- his new home via free agency. Right hander Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60, 202 Ks, 208 IP) leads the staff, followed by veteran Francisco Liriano (12-7, 3.38, 205 Ks, just less than 187 IP). Cole has become the ace and Liriano has blossomed since joining the Pirates. Left handed pitcher Jeff Locke (8-11, 4.49, 30 starts), Niese and Vogelsong will likely fill out the rotation. Lobstein and former San Diego Padres left hander Cory Luebke could also be in the mix, especially if there is an injury. Both will also be in the mix for a left handed reliever spot.
The back of the Pirates bullpen is as good as any in the National League. Closer Mark Melancon (3-2, 2.23, 51 saves, 62 Ks, just less than 77 IP) was solid last season, though his strikeout rate has decreased drastically from where it has been over the past five seasons. Left hander Tony Watson (4-1, 1.91, 62 Ks, just over 75 IP) has experienced a similar lower Ks rate, though his has fluctuated since 2012 (8.9- 2012, 6.8- 2013, 9.4- 2014, 7.4- 2015). Arquimedes Caminero (5-1, 3.62, 73 Ks, just under 75 IP), Blanton and Nicasio are looking to back up their solid 2015 performances and if they do, the Pirates have quite a bit of depth. Feliz is looking to bounce back off a horrible 2015 season which saw him become a free agent mid season with Texas and stink up the joint after joining Detroit.
The Pirates lineup will be led by their outfield. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen (.292, 23, 96, .889) is the team leader and is the one piece of the Pirates that can put the team on his back for a stretch. Left fielder Starling Marte (.287, 19, 81, .780) is on the verge of breaking out to become a star. He can be the difference in the Pirates making a serious push this season or not. Right fielder Gregory Polanco (.256, 9, 52, .701) is on the same path as Marte, but has been exposed at times. Polanco needs to prove he can hit for a higher batting average on a more consistent basis. The Pirates infield will get stronger once Jung Ho Kang (.287, 15, 58, .816) returns from his injury suffered last season on an attempted double play. Freese comes over to play some third and will likely platoon with Jaso at first once Kang returns. Until Kang returns, it will be up to veteran Michael Morse (.231, 5, 19, .649). Morse needs to return to the player he was in 2014 and earlier or he will not have a job for very long. The middle infield will feature Josh Harrison (.287, 4, 28, .717), the longtime utility player and one time All Star who now has an everyday position at second base. Longtime shortstop Jordy Mercer (.244, 3, 34, .613) remains at SS, an option for Kang when he comes back. However, it will be interesting to see if Kang is to take to the position that nearly ended his career last season. Francisco Cervelli (.295, 7, 43, .771) will be the team's everyday catcher once again.
Ticking time bomb Josh Rodriguez (.246, 4, 17, 139 games) highlights the bench because of his versatility. If he can stop looking to get in a fight every game, perhaps he can become as valuable as Harrison has been for the past couple seasons. Joining Freese (when Kang returns) and Morse on the bench should be infielder Pedro Florimon, who will provide some defensive insurance up the middle and allow for the Pirates to pinch hit for Mercer. Providing the second half of the former Yankees catcher duo is Chris Stewart (.289, 0, 15, .659). Matt Joyce is also an option to make the team as an extra outfielder.
Switch hitting first baseman Josh Bell looks to man the position for years to come. Despite hitting just 7 home runs last season, the former second round pick hit well over .300 and managed a total of 40 extra base hits in 131 games last season. Right hander Tyler Glassnow struck out 136 batters in just over 109 innings last season over three minor league levels. The Pirates are hoping that right hander Jameson Tallion can get back on track after missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery. 2013 ninth overall pick Austin Meadows looks like he is on track to impact the major leagues soon, perhaps to start 2017. Of course, that will impact the Pirates outfield, one of which seems set for years to come.
I like the Pirates, however, I just do not see them winning another 98 games in 2016 and playing in the National League Wild Card Game. They do possess a very deep squad, but I have some concerns over their starting pitching staff, one whom (outside of Cole and Liriano) seems a little weaker than it was a year ago. I also think few have mentioned Melancon and Watson's decreased strikeout rates and the fact that both will be 31 this season. They are well managed and coached, so perhaps this is when that ability comes out. I would not be shocked if the Pirates were good this season, I see the parity of the league kind of biting them this season. Las Vegas puts the Pirates at a solid 87 and I do not think I am that far off. I have Pittsburgh finishing the season at 83-79, second place in the National League Central division.