First Pitch: Why This Could Be the Best Pirates Team of the Last Three Years

I’ve talked a lot this off-season about the depth that the Pittsburgh Pirates have put together. I’ve talked in previous years about the high upside guys they seem to acquire each year, which has helped them reach the playoffs the last two years. But there is something about covering Spring Training that makes the depth and the high upside guys even more noticeable. Maybe it’s the fact that Spring Training is a time for optimism, when new glasses could lead to batting titles, players show up in the best shape of their lives, and you hope for a big breakout from that top prospect or young player in the majors. Or maybe it’s just that the Pirates have some really impressive depth, and a lot of breakout candidates.

This week I started a new feature on the site, presenting video interviews, along with analysis and highlights of certain players. On Friday I talked with Francisco Cervelli. On Saturday it was Gregory Polanco. Today’s interview was Corey Hart.

While doing the Cervelli feature, I couldn’t help but label him a potential sleeper. He’s a guy who has had strong defense, and put up good offensive numbers the last two years in a small sample size. He looked great in batting practice, which isn’t necessarily what makes a player. However, the encouraging thing I saw was his tendency to hit to the opposite field, and the ease in which he pulled this off. Here is a look at his hit chart from last year, courtesy MLB Farm.

Francisco Cervelli hit chart

The chart shows all doubles, triples, home runs, lineouts, and flyouts. Basically it’s a rough way to judge what could be hard hit balls. Cervelli is pretty spread out, but definitely goes opposite field a lot, and it looks like he has a tendency to go center field to right field more often than he goes to left field. That’s a good approach for a right-hander in PNC Park.

Cervelli is expected to carry his defense over to the Pirates. The big questions are whether he can stay healthy, and whether he can carry the offense over from last year. If he can do both, then the Pirates will have a good starting catcher to replace Russell Martin, at a fraction of the price.

Then there’s Polanco, who was the top prospect in the system last year, came up mid-season, and never really successfully made the jump to the majors. He worked this off-season to add muscle, and the Pirates and Polanco feel he did so without sacrificing speed. That’s something which can only help him going forward.

The Pirates had one of the best offenses in baseball last year, and they didn’t need Polanco to do that. There is a ton of upside with Polanco, especially if he can tap into his power potential, which the extra muscle should help. If he is able to make the successful transition to the majors this year, and hit for some power, that would be a massive boost to the lineup.

Finally, there is Hart, who had some of the best numbers in the game a few years ago, but has struggled and missed time the last two years with knee injuries. When I talked with Hart, he said that his knees feel better this year, after having a chance to work out over the off-season to get them stronger. It remains to be seen whether he can bounce back, and whether his knees will hold up, but I don’t need to tell you what type of boost he can provide if he gets close to his former stats.

That’s a lot of “ifs,” and there’s no way that all of them work out. There are a lot of other “ifs” on this team, with plenty of other high upside guys who have question marks that prevent them from being guarantees. Can A.J. Burnett bounce back one more time? Will Charlie Morton stay healthy and post his strong numbers from the last few years over a longer stretch? Is Jordy Mercer the shortstop that we saw in 2013 and the last four months of 2014, or is he a guy who can be inconsistent, like we saw in the first two months of 2014? Will Jung-ho Kang make a successful jump to the US? Will Sean Rodriguez revert to where he was a few years ago, when he looked like a starter, rather than a bench player? Can Josh Harrison repeat his 2014 success? How many of the hard throwing, high-upside bullpen arms will work out, and can they provide the Pirates with a lights out bullpen? Was Vance Worley for real last year? Can the pitching prospects in Triple-A make the jump to the majors and help out when needed?

As I said, there are a lot of high upside guys, and a lot of variables here. The good thing is that the Pirates don’t need many of them to hit in order to be contenders. And they’ve got so many candidates that you know some of them will work out as expected, or better.

They’ve made the playoffs the last two years because more of these guys have worked out than guys who haven’t worked out. Clint Hurdle said today that this club is the strongest that the Pirates have had going into Spring Training while he has been here. And looking at the depth on the bench, and all of the high upside options, I’d have to say they have a chance to be the best Pirates team of the last three years.

**Over the weekend I launched a new video feature on the site, releasing a video each day, along with highlights of the player, and input from Hurdle, coaches, and other players. My goal is to keep these features around five minutes each. The only one that went much longer was Francisco Cervelli, and that was because he was such a great interview that I didn’t want to cut anything. The first few videos are below.

Before you check out the videos, I have one request. We haven’t used the YouTube channel that much, which is evident by the channel address using “buccofans,” which was the initial name of the site six years ago. I can’t change that until we reach 500 subscribers. I haven’t pushed the subscriptions much in the past, but now I’m asking that you take a moment to subscribe to the channel, just because I’d really like to change the channel name. You’d also benefit by subscribing, since you’d get access to the videos we upload before they go up on the site. Go here to visit the channel, and click the “Subscribe” link. I’d appreciate it!

Here are the features. I’m pleased with how they turned out, but that said, Monday’s video is definitely my favorite one so far. And it covers one of the prospects in big league camp.

**On Friday, the Pirates announced that they acquired Steven Brault as the PTBNL in the Travis Snider deal. My guess is that Brault will end up pitching for Bradenton this year. We looked at where he would be ranked in the Pirates’ 2015 top 50.

**Speaking of prospect rankings, John Dreker looked at the average of the top prospect rankings to see where the Pirates prospects ended up in most of the top 100 lists.

**Clint Hurdle meets with the media each day after practice, and we usually have a brief analysis from the meeting. Here are the recaps from this weekend’s meetings.

**The bullpen will be one of the few areas where there will be actual competition this Spring. The Pirates have two pitchers with great results last season, who also have options remaining, which puts their chances of making the team in question. I looked at both pitchers this weekend.

**MLB Announces Pace of Play Changes For 2015 Season

**Q&A: Would the Pirates Have Added Rodriguez if They Knew They Were Getting Kang? One of our new features this year. You can submit questions for next week’s feature using the Q&A form on the right side of the site.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Ian Happ Collects Ten Hits in Two Days

  • i would disagree with Hurdle..Sean R can not come close to replacing Harrison, Martin had a “CAREER Year” will be impossible to replace, hopping Hart will replace Snider pinch hits…otherwise you get Kdro, Kang and ? man that’s a lot of “K’s”

  • and now you are at 531..

  • If you turn the radio or the television on you can not help but hear the purveyors of doom talking about who the keys are for the Pirates to make it all the way, the fact is they don’t have any keys, they have depth, if you don’t have depth, you better have keys, it is real simple, not many teams make it all the way with 15 or 16 players, the Pirates are stocked with somewhere around 30-35 good players, good players will always keep you in the hunt.

  • I agree, on paper this team looks stronger than the last two – even with the big loss of Martin. As with just about every team, a lot of ifs and a lot of things have to break right. IMHO, on offense, the biggest keys are Polanco and Alvarez. Those two could make the Pirates offense scary good. If Alvarez falters, it comes down to a combo of Hart/Lambo in all likelihood. If Polanco continues to struggle, I guess a combination of Kang/Rodriguez/Lambo would spell him some. Pitching wise, I think they keys are Holdzkum and Liz.

    • I agree, “If’s” belong to every team in every sport. Last year the Pirates lost every starting position player at some time or other, not to mention the pitching problems and still managed a wild card berth.

    • I agree on Pedro & Polanco being keys to offense. As for Pitching, keys to me are Liriano and Burnett. Their ability to stay healthy and match up w other teams #2/3 Starters will go a long way in determining this teams ceiling.

      • Scott: Liriano had a bad start of 2014 1-7, 4.72 ERA, but finished strong at 6-3, 2.20 ERA. Burnett was terrible in the NY bandbox, and his return to another bandbox in Philly in 2014 taught him a valuable lesson. He pitched injured and put up 200+ innings, but the number of HR’s went from 11 to 20 and the number of Walks from 67 to 96. Trying to pitch too fine will do that. I watch for him to be aggressive and come after people again in 2015, and his clubhouse presence will be very valuable.

        • Emjay: I expect them to perform well, too. My point was they have to pitch well for this team to reach its ceiling.

  • I hope this IS the best team of the last 3 years.

  • Tim, been reading your site almost daily for 2 years and am finally joining the discussion. You do good work.

  • Neal Huntington goes almost unnoticed in MLB circles, but he has provided an excellent starting point for the 2015 Pirates, and it will be interesting to watch the development of Gregory Polanco, Francisco Cervelli, and Pedro Alvarez and their impact within the starting 8. The other 5 starters are solid, and the supporting cast could be much better than in previous years.

    In the Rotation he added AJ Burnett and brought Francisco Liriano back. In the BP he used an inconsistent LHRP to get Cervelli and then gave up a prospect to get another LHRP (Bastardo) who figures to be much better than Justin Wilson. It is a very nice situation with no artificial barriers blocking guys like Nick Kingham and Jameson Taillon from joining the team later this year. Glasnow? Could be.

  • I really think this is the year of the bucs, all things considered we should be clapping more than cussing this year, looks like it’s going to be a fun summer with a great fall.

    • Sure looks like it should be. It would be nice to get off to a quick start this season and play from ahead as opposed to chasing the competition.

      • I second that. Last year I think the rotation struggled out of the gate. Cole and Liriano were putting up average starts, Volquez struggled in his first few starts and Wandy was terrible. If Cole, Liriano, Burnett and Worley can all start strong plus Morton or Locke, a 14 and 9 April would be great.

  • You’re one closer to hitting 500, Tim. Love all the additions to the site.

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