BRADENTON, Florida (93-7 The Fan) – For the clubhouse of a team that just traded it's two biggest talents and the faces of the franchise, the room at Pirate City on reporting day for pitchers and catchers had a quiet poise about it.
Perhaps the month that's passed since the trades of Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole has given them perspective.
"There's no time to look back," said starting pitcher Ivan Nova. "We have good enough talent here to go out there and compete at the highest level. So I'm excited with what the team is bringing this year."
Or perhaps hearing about the eventual departures of their teammates for such a long time numbed them to the finality of the moves when they did happen, as Josh Bell indicated.
"I guess it was talked about before, so when you hear rumors like that and they finally come through, I was kind of prepared for it."
The question now is how do you as a fan prepare to watch the first iteration of Pirates baseball in a decade without McCutchen or Cole on the roster? As a team statistically projected to win 77 games and finish 4th in the National League Central, what should you keep an eye out for that could swing the 2018 Pirates down into a sub-75 win death spiral, or vault them up above 80 wins and possibly keep them from a 3rd consecutive losing season?
Here are 5 keys to watch for:
1) A young, deep, effective starting rotation could materialize fairly quickly. If Jameson Taillon stays healthy, Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl continue to improve, Joe Musgrove looks like the guy who was figuring some things out in September of 2016, and Ivan Nova keeps his walks down again, this will be one of the better rotations in the National League. If Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault are called upon and also continue to move in a positive direction, then the rotation's depth will match its ability to work efficiently and get outs.
The catch here is that if more than one of those aforementioned seven arms goes sideways, it's a starting staff whose lack of experience outside of Nova could be exposed very quickly.
Early in the season, if Pirates' starters are pitching like they did last April (their 3.63 ERA was 3rd in the NL, and their 0.74 HR/9 was 1st in the NL), they'll have a chance to remain competitive.
If they're struggling early, 2018 could get ugly.
2) Josh Bell has the potential to throw this team on his back offensively. And that's not just because he looks like he's been in a gym working on getting jacked. (Although he admitted that while his weight is the same as this time last year, his body fat percentage is down. Which means one thing: He's added muscle.) His 26 home runs in 2017 are the 2nd highest single-season total in the Clint Hurdle era by a Pirate not named Andrew or Pedro. While they came in a juiced ball season, it was also Bell's first full season in the majors, and his ability to adjust to MLB pitching was impressive. No one expects the balls to be any less juiced this year, but it should be expected that Bell is going to be better than his .255/.334/.466/.800 slash line last season.
If Bell is driving balls out of the park at an even greater rate in 2018 – think 30+ HRs – then it will help bolster an otherwise anemic offense.
If the league "punches back" on Bell and his K rate goes up and his OBP drops, there's a chance he'll have to tinker with his approach to coax more contact out of his bat, which could sap power and leave the Bucs' utterly punchless in the middle of the order.
3) Gregory Polanco likewise has the ability to breakout offensively this year, but the question will be about his approach at the plate. Long criticized for his big, looping swing that at times made him look awful against breaking balls from lefties, Polanco has shortened his swing, and it showed in 2017 with more contact. Unfortunately, between that power-sapping swing adjustment and injuries, Polanco never got on track last season. If Polanco's offseason workouts have been effective, and he can marry the more efficient mechanics of last year with the more powerful explosiveness of a more modern day power swing – driven by hip and core torque rather than arm extension – then he could put up the 25 home runs that should be his average and help drive in runs in the middle of the order alongside Bell.
If his timing remains off though, or health issues persist, and Bell is the only bat in the order driving in 80+ runs, the anemic Pirates' offense could become the comatose Pirates' offense.
4) A bullpen capable of putting up 3-4 shutout innings nearly every day is not a regular occurrence, but the Pirates have a bullpen that – if they're willing to go eight arms deep – could meet that expectation. Felipe Rivero is one of the game's great closers right now, but it does the team no good to have him down in the 'pen if there's no lead to protect in the 9th Michael Feliz, Dovydas Neverauskas, and Kyle Crick have the kind of stuff that can miss bats. Combined with the ability to get outs on the ground that George Kontos and A.J. Schugel provide, with a rejuvenated Josh Smoker slider from the left side, and suddenly you can eat up the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings relatively quickly.
On the other hand, we saw last season what can happen when one key piece in the 'pen falls apart, and it's personified in the one name not mentioned above: Daniel Hudson. If Hudson pitches all season as he did in small stretches last year, he'll be an effective late inning arm. If he – or anyone else on this list, for that matter – goes all Tony Watson-in-Baltimore, it won't matter how cool Rivero's entrance music is, because he won't be entering the game with anything to protect.
5) Management and ownership, from Clint Hurdle up through Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly to Bob Nutting, need to address and admit to two things: 1) This, as currently constituted, is NOT a playoff team. If everything goes right, they could maybe be on the outside of the Wild Card race in late July. It's more likely that the rosy portrait painted above will be a bit muddier and they will be more than 5 games back of a Wild Card spot come Trade Deadline time. Fans would appreciate a heaping dose of that honesty from the organization's leadership. 2) If somehow everything does go right, and they're in contention, they need to attack the opportunity in front of them, much like the Minnesota Twins attempted to do last year, and add at the Deadline, not subtract.
The Pirates, as an organization, are in a position of once again straddling the middle, and not committing to either blowing things up or going 'all in,' as they say. If given a chance to go one direction or the other come July, they need to do so.
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