I look at the Pirates the same was I did prior to the 2013 or 2014 seasons. They have the ability to be good now, but they are well equipped to be even better in the future. The Pirates off season was centered around the outfield position switch and of course, whether franchise icon McCutchen would be traded. They did re-sign right handed pitcher Ivan Nova to a three deal after he pitched three complete games and won five of his 11 Pirates starts last season. The Pirates also signed relief pitcher Daniel Hudson to a two year contract to serve as the team's set up man to closer Tony Watson.
The Pirates are expecting to get a full season out of 24 year-old first baseman Josh Bell. Bell expects to hit for some power, while possessing pretty good plate discipline. McCutchen did have a down offensive season overall but he had a very solid second half of 2016. I would bet on McCutchen to have another top season left in the tank. New left fielder Polanco hit 22 home runs last season and Marte hit .311 and OPS'ed .818 in 129 games. Harrison did not reach his 2014 All Star form in his first season as the team's starting second baseman last year, but still hit .283 in 2016 and third baseman Jung Ho Kang hit 21 home runs in just 103 games last season. World Series MVP David Freese is still around to play third if Kang starts the season in jail. At the very least, the former Korean star should never be allowed to drive a car again. Freese and John Jaso will back up Bell if he has to miss any time to start the season as he recovers from the removal of a loose "body." Jaso will also get some work in the outfield to increase his versatility.
Shortstop Jordy Mercer is just there for his defense and will remain the starter as long as he can continue to hit about .250 with a little bit of pop. Catcher Francisco Cervelli also had a down 2016 where he saw his batting average drop over 30 points and his slugging percentage fall almost 80. Assuming Kang and Bell are in the lineup opening day, I would line the Pirates up like this Marte CF, Harrison 2B, Polanco LF, McCutchen RF, Kang 3B, Bell 1B, Cervelli C, Mercer SS. Jaso and Freese lead the bench, with Adam Frazier, Phil Gosselin and backup catcher Chris Stewart rounding out the team's projected position players. Jason Rogers and Joey Terdoslavich are in camp to battle for spots.
The Pirates have moved on from pitchers such as AJ Burnett, Charlie Morton, JA Happ, Francisco Liriano and Ryan Vogelsong over the past couple of seasons. This has opened the door for Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, two of the more talented young pitchers in the game. They will team with Garrett Cole, who is clearly their ace but is coming off a disappointing 2016 season. Nova will follow Cole with the fifth spot coming down to pitchers Chad Kuhl, Hutchison and Steven Brault.
Watson is ready for his first full season as the team's closer. Hudson will grab the eight inning with Rivero, Juan Nicasio, Jared Hughes and Bastardo giving them some depth. Nicasio looks to have found himself as a reliever and maybe he can get some closer swings if Watson struggles. That is part of the reason Hudson was signed.
Austin Meadows is on his way to becoming a future MLB regular in the outfield. The only problem is the Pirates have three starting outfielder, all of whom are all star caliber. Glasnow and Bell are already in the major leagues and both have very high ceilings. Right hander Mitch Keller comes with a ton of strikeout potential, but may not be ready until the 2018 season. Infielder Ke'Bryan Hayes, son of former Major Leaguer Charlie, is probably a couple years away, though catcher Elias Diaz could be ready this season.
I think the Pirates are better than any team in the National League Central division, outside of the Cubs. However, I can see them get beat by a series of teams outside of their division. The Pirates will stay in contention for a Wild Card spot, just like they did last season. They have the ability to score runs, and will be solid if Cutch bounces back and Kang and Bell contribute like they are capable of. If Cole pitches like he did in 2015 and Glasnow and Taillon add to the rotation depth, they can be a possibility for a Wild Card spot. Vegas put the Pirates at 85.5, which is pretty accurate. I take the under though, and have the Pirates at 80-82, second place in the National League Central division.