PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Pirates bet on themselves a year ago when they traded away stars Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, believing the return they received plus the pieces already in place would help them make inroads in the hypercompetitive National League Central.
The results were promising. The Pirates put together just the franchise’s fourth winning season in the last quarter century, finishing 82-79 thanks in large part to the rapid development of a young starting rotation led by Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams that quickly found its footing. While many of their rivals retooled over the winter, Pittsburgh instead doubled down on its largely homegrown approach.
“I think that a seven-game improvement last year was a meaningful step forward, and we are absolutely positioned to take another meaningful step forward and get us back into that range where we have a very good shot at playoffs,” owner Bob Nutting said.
To get there, the Pirates needs the core of the rotation of Taillon, Williams, Chris Archer — acquired in an aggressive move at last summer’s trade deadline — and Joe Musgrove to build off a solid 2018 while hoping the offense can become more potent under new hitting coach Rick Eckstein. While the Pirates were a respectable 10th in batting average in 2018 (.254), they ranked in the bottom half of the majors in runs, home runs and slugging.
The return of third baseman Jung Ho Kang — who hit 36 homers in 2015 and 2016 before his career was derailed after being arrested on a DUI charge in his native South Korea in late 2016 — should help. First baseman Josh Bell spent a significant portion of his offseason working on regaining the stroke that allowed him to hit 26 home runs as a rookie in 2017, a total that dipped to 12 a season ago.
Pittsburgh brought in veteran Lonnie Chisenhall to help out in right field until Gregory Polanco returns from shoulder surgery and shortstop Erik Gonzalez beat out Kevin Newman for the starting shortstop gig. Otherwise Pittsburgh’s lineup will look much as it did in 2018. The Pirates hardly see that as a negative.
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“Everybody is committed to doing what we can to putting a World Series championship team on the field,” team President Frank Coonelly said over the winter. “And we do know that we can do it.”
Some things to look for as Pittsburgh vies for a return to the postseason for the first time since 2015.
FIFTH AMENDMENT: The only real question mark on the pitching staff is at the back end of the rotation, where Nick Kingham and Jordan Lyles have spent the spring trying to lock down a roster spot. Kingham endured an up-and-down rookie season in 2018 while Lyles has worked primarily out of the bullpen since 2015.
GOLDEN GUN: Leftfielder Corey Dickerson put together the finest season of his career in 2018 after being acquired from Tampa Bay late in spring training. He hit .300 and was a revelation on defense, where he won his first career Gold Glove while patrolling spacious PNC Park. He earned a raise to $8.5 million in 2019, the final year of his contract. The 29-year-old Dickerson would like to stay in Pittsburgh long term but the Pirates have been hesitant to re-sign players in their 30s.
FIRING FELIPE: While specific roles for the middle relievers remain in a bit of flux, the back end of the bullpen is set. Felipe Vazquez was the team’s only All-Star in 2018 while he converted 37 of 42 save opportunities. Keone Kela, brought over from Texas at the trade deadline, will work in the eighth inning with Kyle Crick getting a shot in the seventh. Their reliability will help shorten the game for Pittsburgh’s starting rotation.
HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE: Pittsburgh’s improved play in 2018 didn’t exactly galvanize the fan base. The Pirates posted their lowest average attendance at PNC Park since it opened in 2001 and its lowest overall since 1996. General manager Neal Huntington has spoken at length about the need to put a compelling product on the field, but that message hasn’t quite resonated.
FOR OPENERS: The Pirates begin 2019 on the road at Cincinnati on March 28. Their home opener is on April 1 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
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