Fresh off of a 98-win season -- their best total since 1991 -- the Pittsburgh Pirates finished with the second-best record in all of baseball last season. The problem, however, is that they shared a division with the best team in baseball.
The NL Central appears to be an absolute behemoth going forward, and yielded the maximum amount of playoff teams a division can handle in a season. In fact, the three top teams in the entire major leagues came from the NL Central last season.
There is a conceivable way that this trend continues as well, however, a team from the NL West could definitely compete for one of those wild card spots. So, with the Pirates spending $35 million less than both the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs -- and that's just last season -- they could have an uphill climb.
The Pirates have made their team relevant again by their own means, without relying on spending. As a mid-market team, it's been out of necessity and they've done an admirable job. While we won't know if the moves they made this offseason will be enough to continue their success, let's take a look.
The Free Agents
The newest and most exciting member of the Pirates that came via free agency seems to be Ryan Vogelsong. With the trendiest pitching coach in all of baseball in Ray Searage, it's almost unfairly expected that Vogelsong will return to that 2011-12 form.
The Pirates signed Vogelsong to a one-year, $2 million deal so, even if it doesn't pan out, represents nearly no risk. If it does work out, not only do the Pirates benefit by having a serviceable and inexpensive fifth starter, but Vogelsong could benefit from a J.A. Happ-like pay raise when he hits free agency at the end of the season. That being said, for the 38-year old, this could be one of his last opportunities if it doesn't pan out or he stays at replacement level. However, in Searage, Vogelsong's chances are likely at their best.
The Pirates added two other pitchers as well in Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio. Both Feliz and Nicasio are penciled into bullpen spots. Feliz hasn't started since 2012 and Nicasio only started one game this past season. Nicasio has only pitched 77 innings as a reliever, but has shown an ability to perform better out of the pen. While Nicasio could provide some depth starts if necessary, both he and Feliz seem like low-risk additions to the Pirates bullpen.
Other than pitchers, the Pirates replaced the outgoing free agent Pedro Alvarez with the under-appreciated John Jaso. Since 2012, Jaso has put up the second-best wRC+ of any catcher, only behind Buster Posey. In his 1170 plate appearances, Jaso has hit 30 percent better than league average. And Jaso only cost a two-year, $8 million commitment. Moves like that are what makes Neal Huntington and the Pirates front office field such a competitive team in such a competitive division.
The Pirates made some minor additions via the trade market as well, but one takes precedent.
The New York Mets -- who had Daniel Murphy depart via free agency and depth in their starting rotation -- needed to address their opening at second base. The Pirates made a strength-for-strength trade when they sent Neil Walker to the Mets in exchange for Jon Niese. This trade could work out quite well for both sides.
With Josh Harrison, Jung-ho Kang, and Jordy Mercer on the left-side of the infield, Walker was likely a bench bat for the Pirates anyways. Furthermore, with a starting rotation that includes Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Bartolo Colon, the Mets could afford to part with Niese. Similarly, Zack Wheeler is expected to return from Tommy John surgery by July 1st, and he could fight for some rotation time.
Niese suffered from some home run per flyball rate issues last year, which could regress and bode well for the Pirates. The 29-year old left-hander could definitely return to his two-win form if his longball issue is addressed. And, like Vogelsong, he'll got to work on that under the tutelage of Searage.
Reasons to worry
The NL Central is so, so good. In fact, if the Pirates were in any other division, I'd have no problem expecting a postseason berth out of them. That being said, that hasn't stopped the Pirates from clinching wild card berths the past three seasons.
Kang is still not certain to be fully recovered by Opening Day from the knee injury he suffered. Without Kang, the Pirates will have to lean on Sean Rodriguez who has been below replacement level over the past two seasons.
If the Pirates starting rotation depth is tested -- and whose team isn't? -- that could also spell significant trouble. With Vogelsong as their fifth starter, even if you're optimistic, that doesn't necessarily signal confidence. The Pirates would have benefited from added depth or a more impressive swing-man than Nicasio.
Reasons for hope
With the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds going through transition periods, the Pirates will need to make up room on their competition by beating up on them. 12 of the Pirates April games are against the Brewers, Reds or Colorado Rockies. If the Pirates can start hot, that could go a much longer way to an ambitious year.
A healthy Andrew McCutchen will certainly help that. After reporting to camp last year late, the National League's best centerfielder will need to be a key contributor to the Pirates' success once again.
Furthermore, Gerrit Cole is one of the best up-and-coming young aces in baseball. In 208 innings last season, Cole contributed 5.4 wins to his team by FanGraphs estimations. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, Cole will be counted on quite heavily, and there's not much reason to worry that he can't.
According to Depth Charts, the Pirates are projected to win just one fewer game than the Cardinals and place third in the division. While run scoring seems equal between the teams, the Cardinals are projected to prevent .03 fewer runs per game. That works out to fewer than five runs over the entire season. While this may not fit under the hope territory, the optimist should have no problem imagining a scenario where five runs become awash.
Lastly, PECOTA projects the Pirates to actually best the Cardinals by one game, crediting their catching ability specifically. With Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart behind the plate, pitch framing is an important part of the Pirates' success. It will be a tight race to the finish in the NL Central, and all of baseball will likely be watching it unfold.