Kirby Puckett

Kirby Puckett

Monday, January 25, 2016

Bold Prediction: The Pirates win the NL Central

     The MLB wild-card game is exciting. I'm not going to deny that. It guarantees frantic intensity of a game seven in what could be an ultimately dull playoffs. It isn't, however fair. The Pittsburgh Pirates have averaged 93 wins a year since 2013 and have been rewarded with three crapshoots, two of them against Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta respectively. I could go off on a rant about how stupid this is, but I already did that last October. Instead, I'm predicting I won't be sympathizing with Pirates fans next year, because they will have won their division. Here's why.
     Any case for the Pirates begins at Andrew McCutchen and the rest of the outfield. McCutchen's been their best player, leader, and the key to anything going well in Pittsburgh. Despite this, he was arguably only the second best outfielder in Pittsburgh last year, behind Starling Marte. The 26-year-old hit .287/.337/.444 last year while saving 24 runs with his glove. Rounding out the outfield in Gregory Polanco. Polanco was the Bucs' leadoff hitter last year where he hit .256/.320/.381 and swiped 27 bases. He's only 24 years old, so he can only get better from here.
     The outfield's the best aspect of this team, but that's the same as last year, the biggest changes have come in the infield. Early in the offseason, the Pirates traded Neil Walker to the Mets for Jon Niese, while it was disappointing for fans to see the Pittsburgh-native Walker go, the move made sense. Utility player Josh Harrison missed a good chunk of last year with a UCL tear. While he typically plays third and left field, he's a capable of playing second, so he'll replace Walker there. Korean import Jung Ho Kang, who had a terrific rookie season hitting .287/.355/.461 will take over third base full time.
     The biggest issue for the Bucs' for a long time has been first base. Last year the five guys who played first base collectively hit .245 with 73 walks and 251 strikeouts. Enter Josh Bell. For all the attention all the prospects in the Cubs system have been receiving, Bell is right up there with all of them. While splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A last year, the former second rounder hit .317/.393/.446. Given the situation at first base and his production, it's almost a sure thing he'll be in the big leagues some time in 2016. If he can have a Miguel Sano-like impact, he'll make a very good team great.
     The rotation is led by a Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano but also features Jeff Locke looking for a bounce back season and a resurgent J.A. Happ, who really came around in the second half of 2015, posting an ERA of 1.85 in the second half, partially by getting his strikeout rate up to 9.8 per nine innings.
     Right now the Cubs are favored to win the Central for good reason, but there are reasons to expect some regression. The biggest is Jake Arrieta. Arrieta is a solid pitcher, but his second half stretch when he went 12-1 with a 0.75 ERA is unrepeatable. That's no knock against him as a pitcher, I'm sure he'll have a solid season, it's just impossible to be that good twice. Also, they're the Cubs. The Cubs were put on this earth to disappoint people. Right now there's just too much hype, too many expectations, something will go wrong. It always does.
     The Cubs have gotten so much attention it's easy to forget that they didn't win the division last year. The St. Louis Cardinals did that, going 100-62. But they lost one of their most consistent pitchers in John Lackey. On top of that, Wainwright's going to be 34, Holliday will be 36, Molina's slowing down. It doesn't feel like the Cards' year.
     The wild card system is unfair and the Pirates have been the biggest victims of that, but this year it won't matter, they'll be division champs.

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