Pirates Could Make NL Central Race Interesting

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BRADENTON, FL - MARCH 19: Pitcher Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches during a spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays at LECOM Park on March 19, 2017 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

Last season, the Chicago Cubs owned the MLB. The St. Louis Cardinals were their top competitor in the division and still finished 17.5 games back of the eventual World Series champions in the NL Central race.

Most seasons, the same results come about. This season, look for the Pirates to shock some people around the baseball world. This isn’t a suggestion that they are going to be a World Series contender, but they are primed to do make a run from Opening Day clear through to October.

Pirates Could Make NL Central Race Interesting

After their steady increase from 2013 on, the Pirates shaved 20 wins off of their total from the previous year in 2016. The roster, as many could tell, was not built to be a contender after losing guys like Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, and following A.J. Burnett‘s retirement.

Many people seem to be on the fence about the Buccos in 2017, but they could make some noise this season for a few reasons that many fail to recognize.

Improved Pitching Staff

The Pirates went into Opening Day last season with a below-average rotation. Ace Gerrit Cole had troubles staying healthy last year. When healthy in the past, Cole has shown Cy Young potential. The rotation rounded out thusly: Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Ryan Vogelsong. Liriano was gone by the deadline due to his terrible performance and Pittsburgh’s desperate need to dump his salary.

The hope is that this much younger rotation, which includes only one player from last season (Cole), can keep the Pirates afloat.

The top three of Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Ivan Nova represent a significant upgrade over last season’s 1-2-3. Taillon showed a ton of promise in his rookie season, carrying a sub-three ERA through most of it. Nova, who had tons of success last season, could regress a bit in 2016. He has always been an average pitcher at best. Moving from the American League to the National League helped him pick up a pay check this offseason. Hitters will have adjusted to him, but with the pitcher-friendly PNC Park as his home ball park, the Pirates should still get good numbers out of Nova. Chad Kuhl is expected to be the number four, and the five remains undetermined.

Tons of Young Talent

People seem to forget that 20-straight years of missing the playoffs brought top picks galore. The Pirates were always one of the first to pick in June’s draft, and have really stocked their system because of it. Last season, these players finally started making an impact on the team.

Taillon, at long-last, threw a pitch for the Pirates. He had been through multiple different long-term complications that cost him two years of his minor league development. When he arrived last season, he didn’t miss a beat.

The Pirates finally also got to use Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow. Kuhl was never a big-name prospect and may not be much more than a back-end starter. His minor league numbers were solid enough to be one of the first pitchers the team called upon. His MLB debut came against Clayton Kershaw on Sunday Night Baseball, and he out dueled him en route to a great start to his young career. He will be back in the rotation this season.

Glasnow is a bit of a whirlwind. He is considered the Pirates top prospect and made a handful of starts and appearances for Pittsburgh last year. He struggled to locate the strike zone and now finds himself locked in a battle with a few other pitchers for the fifth job.

Guys like Josh Bell and Adam Frazier made impacts on the team last year and could see significant playing time in 2017. With Jung-Ho Kang unavailable for Opening Day, and possibly the entire season, because of a problem with his work visa, there is a good chance that Frazier will be the full-time starter at second base, with Josh Harrison moving to third.

Overview

These Pirates may be primed for a better season than many expect. Ninety wins is not out of the realm of possibility. With a healthy rotation and many young, rejuvenated stars, the Pirates could surprise some teams and be the runner-up to Chicago instead of St. Louis.

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