When the Pittsburgh Pirates announced the trades of Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, fans had already pronounced this season to be over.
While that assumption may not be all that far from the truth, there are some things to watch for this season that should leave fans with some optimism moving forward. With just under a week until pitchers and catchers report and really get baseball fans excited, let’s take a look at my reason’s to have some optimism for 2018.
1.) The pitching staff is another year older
It’s hard to imagine the Pirates legitimately having a better rotation than last year with Cole pitching for the Houston Astros. But young guys like Jameson Taillon, newly-acquired Joe Musgrove, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams and Steven Brault offer some young options to produce.
Taillon was on his way to a fantastic season last year before cancer slowed him down for five weeks. He had a full offseason to recover fully and rest to regain what he may have lacked through the latter part of 2017. Musgrove brings, at the very least, some intrigue as he has velocity but has struggled to locate it.
He also pitched in the World Series so some experience pitching in big situations isn’t lacking. Kuhl and Williams were very good in the last two months of 2017 and can grow with more starts under their belt. Ivan Nova, the elder statesman of the rotation, returns as the likely number two.
The bullpen has been revitalized with the additions of Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz, two hard-throwing guys that can be effective if they can work out any control issues. They will return guys like Felipe Rivero, AJ Schugel and George Kontos. There is a good chance Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault will be used here in some capacity as well as making some spot starts.
Don’t quite count out this group of pitchers, both starter and bullpen guys. They could form a very formidable unit if most of them can take another step forward on top of what they did last season. The new guys in the bullpen can also make a huge difference.
2.) Clint Hurdle is an optimist
Love him or hate him, Hurdle has one of the most optimistic outlooks on life a manager can have. He took over a hopeless team in 2011 looking to wish upon a star and win games. They did for half a year and then things went really south.
Over the course of 2013-15, no team won more games than the Pirates and Hurdle was the manager of the team.
As far as his decision making and curious lineup choices, Hurdle is a student of the game who always enjoys learning. He has dealt with a lot of young talent in his career and this year will be no exception. A young team and a potentially easily broken morale with the trades of their two stars, Hurdle can provide a buffer and attempt to keep players spirits high despite some inevitable rough patches over the course of the 162 game season.
3.) Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte can’t go down any further
2017 was a year to forget or both of these guys.
Marte was suspended for 80 games after violating the MLB’s substance abuse policy. Polanco dealt with an injury-riddled season and had tons of inconsistencies.
Both guys finished the season with very below-average numbers and both suffered significant power number drops on a team already deprived of some of its power from previous season’s.
On the bright side, they can’t really sink much further. Marte will hopefully be around all season barring injuries and Polanco spent this offseason working on stretching out more muscles in hope of avoiding pesky hamstring injuries. Maybe their hard work will pay off and reward the Pirates who have yet to really see Polanco put together a full, impressive season.
4.) Colin Moran will provide some excitement
When the Pirates were told last year that Jung-Ho Kang would not be allowed back into the United States, it seemed to take them by surprise. They were under the impression he would be back and David Freese would play a significant bench role. They had no backup plan for not having him and it cost them.
The 34-year old showed signs of his age as he was forced to start 119 games and appear in 122 after not having an option to replace Kang. This season, as part of the Cole trade, the Pirates acquired Colin Moran.
Moran hit 19 home runs in the minors this year but scouts wonder if that pop can translate to the majors. The short porch in right field provides him a grand opportunity to do that. In his 34 career major league at-bats, Moran is slashing .206/.270/.382 which is rather uninspiring.
Moran wasn’t necessarily cast off. Alex Bregman, the star third baseman for the Astros, simply was the much better player and the 25-year old Moran was going to sit behind him. The Pirates had a need for a third baseman and filled it with Moran.
Maybe the Pirates found their long-term solution at third base or maybe it was a flop. Only time will tell.
5.) The team has no expectations
Let’s face it, no one expects this team to win more than 75 games. After trading their ace and their franchise player, fans simply just don’t believe the core of Josh Harrison (assuming he isn’t traded), Taillon and first baseman Josh Bell will be enough to carry this team especially with the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers adding to their club.
But what better way to start a season than to have no expectation of winning?
The pitching staff is young, there are some holes in the batting lineup, the team lost it’s two best players. So why not give it your all and attempt to at least stick around into the latter part of the year. It’s not an NL Central championship team.
But if the pitching “grows” this year and their disappointing players even see a slight uptick in production, who’s to discount them a shot at a wildcard?