Pittsburgh Pirates 2017 Season Preview

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BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 28: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates heads to the clubhouse after finishing up his playing time during a Grapefruit League spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays at McKechnie Field on February 28, 2017 in Bradenton, Florida. The Blue Jays defeated the Pirates 12-0. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Pirates will embark upon another season in a few weeks, hoping to return to the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. After chasing the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs for all of last season, the Pirates will look to close the gap between themselves and their NL Central rival.

Pittsburgh Pirates 2017 Season Preview

Three questions must be answered before the Pirates have even the slightest shot at contending.

Can The Stars Be Stars Again?

The Pirates fell short last season for a few reasons, but none bigger than the shortcomings of the team’s stars. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen and pitcher Gerrit Cole struggled mightily in their own ways during the 2016 season.

For the first time since 2010, McCutchen did not participate in the All-Star Game, as he was not voted in. There was good reason for that. McCutchen put up the worst numbers of his career in the 2016 season. His slash line was a mediocre .256/.336/.430. He grounded into a career-high 15 double plays and notched 79 RBI, his lowest number since 2010.

Cole wasn’t much better. After injuries derailed most of his season, he finished 7-10 with a 3.88 ERA. He gave up 10.2 H/9, a career-high. He also tossed his fewest total innings as a major leaguer. His arm will be fresh for 2017. It’s a matter of keeping the rest of his body intact and healthy.

Can The Young Pitching Staff Hold Up?

The Pirates Opening Day rotation projects to look something like this: Cole, Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and either Tyler Glasnow or Drew Hutchison.

The elder statesmen of this rotation would be Nova, at 30.

Cole was a Cy Young candidate in 2015 thanks to some stellar numbers, which is proof he can preform. Nova took flight when he got to Pittsburgh and began working with pitching coach Ray Searage. Taillon showed glimpses of being a staff ace and may only get better with age.

The real question marks lie with Kuhl, Glasnow, and Hutchison.

Kuhl had his ups and downs last season, but emerged as a solid candidate for the fourth spot. Glasnow had trouble with his command, although his curveball shows elite bend. Hutchison may win the job so that the Pirates don’t look as bad for dumping Francisco Liriano‘s contract off to the Toronto Blue Jays.

What Is Andrew McCutchen’s Future?

Rumors swirled this offseason about the potential departure of McCutchen, due to the Pirates belief that he may have reached his peak. No one, not even management, is really sure of what will happen with “Cutch” over the next few months.

What they do know, however, is that top prospect Austin Meadows is waiting in the wings for his chance to show his talent at the MLB level.

Meadows has been working his way through the ranks, and 2017 could be his first opportunity to play in the major leagues. He’s been approaching the plate with confidence and had a stellar season in 2016, which could complicate this decision.

McCutchen will absolutely be moved at the deadline if he’s having a good season and the Pirates aren’t living up to expectations. He could be moved regardless. Time will tell McCutchen’s future with Pittsburgh.

The Pirates will look to get back into the Wild Card race this season and will have obstacles to get there. Manager Clint Hurdle has the young pitching staff and stars to make a run. Injuries and overall production will decide how the organization handles 2017.

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