Why the Pittsburgh Pirates Are Legitimate World Series Contenders
On Thursday, when the numberFire writers filled out their postseason predictions, I had the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. The only strange thing about this is that it's not in any way a bold prediction; there are plenty of people picking the exact same thing.
This is all for a team that hasn't been to the World Series since Jimmy Carter was in office in 1979. numberFire's algorithms say that the Pirates have a 6.9 percent chance of reversing that in 2015.
Is it time for everyone to buy into the Buccos?
We'll try to answer this question by using our projections, which are live and ready for both team power rankings and individual season-long players projections. After investigating these two separate aspects, it should be clear that the Pirates aren't just some preseason hype machine but a legit contender for some post-season bling.
Dissecting the Team Projections
I know this is going to be a shocking revelation, but in order to go to the World Series, a team first must make the playoffs. Please contain your Pat-Fitzgerald-esque confusion.
Thankfully for Pirates fans, numberFire's algorithms don't see that as being a problem. They assign the Pirates a 64.9 percent chance at the postseason, despite leading St. Louis in the power rankings by just one spot. This may seem low, but that's because there's 162 games in a season, and a whole lot of weird stuff can go down. It's the third-highest percentage in the league behind only the Dodgers and the Nationals.
As for the division, the algorithms do love them some Pirate booty, but it's not going to be easy. Pittsburgh enters the season with a 40.6 percent chance of winning the division while St. Louis is at 37.0. But, as we have seen so often the past few years, you don't need to win the division to make a postseason push.
In the aforementioned numberFire writer's poll, all six of us had the Bucs in the playoffs with four predicting an NL Central crown and the other two pegging Pittsburgh as a wild card team. Basically, we're all-in on this team for 2015.
There's no doubt about what these players can do as a team. But up and down the roster, there are individuals that have to get you jacked up about what this team can do.
Depth Around a Superstar
I don't need to tell y'all how gross Andrew McCutchen is... but I'm going to anyway. I can't help myself.
Last year, McCutchen led all batters in numberFire's nERD statistic at 4.07. What this means is that a lineup full of McCutchens (drool) would be expected to produce 4.07 more runs per game than a lineup full of average players. He and Mike Trout were the only two to top 4.00, while Jose Bautista was a distant third at 3.57. Hot momma.
Our projections don't see him slipping too much. He's projected to rank in the top five in the league in batting average, plate appearances, and runs while recording a .311/.406/.525 split with a .400 wOBA. Sure, these numbers are down from last year, but that tends to happen when you have a .412 wOBA the year before.
As we have seen with plenty of players, though, you can't win in baseball with just one superstar. The Pirates don't have to because they have surrounded McCutchen with plenty of quality pieces, and that starts with the guys flanking McCutchen to his left and right.
Although Starling Marte is projected to take a step backward, he should keep a majority of his 2013 and 2014 production. numberFire's algorithms have him at .278/.331/.454, but the value he adds on the basepaths goes beyond that. Marte had 41 steals in 2013 and 30 in 2014. He is projected at 28 this year. That's not a bad side-kick in the outfield grass.
Then we get to Gregory Polanco. Sure, Polanco struggled his first time in the Majors, but homie has stupid breakout potential. Here, he's projected to up his numbers to .262/.343/.401 with 14 home runs and 23 stolen bases. He will only get better. As long as his emergence comes while McCutchen is still at the top of his game, this team will score some runs.
The big problem with the Pirates offensively is that they lost Russell Martin. That is a significant blow, as his .402 on-base percentage brought sick value to the table, but I think they can make up for it.
I know as much about Jeong-ho Kang as y'all do, which is very little. And, yes, the Korean Baseball Organization did see an uptick in offense last year. But brudduh hit .356/.459/.739 with 40 home runs in 501 plate appearances. It probably means nothing, but good golly gosh that's ign'ant. He also has the dopest leg kick in the business and hit an oppo taco to the deepest part of the park in his first spring training game. This guy should help.
If you had to pick one question surrounding the Pirates, though, it'd be their rotation. Do they have the arms to compete with the likes of the Dodgers and Nationals?
If the Pirates are looking for a player to fill that ace role, they've got to be looking right at Gerrit Cole. He's only 24, he already has 41 Major League starts, and he racks up a decent number of strikeouts. Can he put it all together this year?
Considering Cole's 3.23 FIP was a decent chunk below his 3.65 ERA, you'd assume the answer would be yes. Our projections largely agree. They have him posted up at a 3.38 ERA. This, though, comes with a decline in strikeouts to 7.44 per nine along with 2.71 walks per nine. As a young pup, he still certainly has the potential to outperform those numbers, and I wouldn't be shocked if he does.
The rest is the staff is where the true questions lie. In 2014, the Pirates ranked last in starting pitcher fWAR and 24th in the bullpen. They sub in A.J. Burnett for Edinson Volquez, but the rest of the rotation is largely the same. Is this enough to get the job done?
The reason I still believe in Pittsburgh despite their pitching problems is that I think their offense is good enough to overcome that. When you couple one of the best outfields in baseball with an infield that includes Josh Harrison, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez, you're going to score some runs. If they can just duplicate the pitching they had last year, which wasn't really that good, the team will still do a lot of damage.
If they start to see things slip early on, though, then they need to make a move. This offense is too good to waste a guy such as McCutchen because of a lack of pitching. It doesn't even have to be Cole Hamels, either. A mid-to-upper-level starter could make a big impact on this team and help it fulfill its full potential.
For me, this offense is just too good not to contend. If numberFire's projections play out, they will do exactly that. And that arsenal is why I'm cool with taking the Pirates to make it all the way to the World Series, even if there are some serious risks associated with doing so.