This is part of an occasional series comprising MLB season previews.
It was just like the goddamn Pirates, wasn’t it? After 20 seasons as MLB’s tattered bathroom rug, they finally quit with the jagoffery and got good... just in time for the Cubs (the Cubs!) to become a juggernaut. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged my spleen in these parts about the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, and I realize the Buccos have played some awfully swell baseball in recent years, but with the Cubs! set up to own the NL Central for the foreseeable future, it’s hard not to feel like the anvil I know is falling from the sky will soon be right above my face again the moment I look up. By which I mean to say: All is right with the world. Beat ’em Bucs.
The Pirates are coming off a 78-83 finish in 2016, bad enough for third place behind the Cubs! and Cardinals, who at least did us all the favor of missing the playoffs for what felt like the first time since Leitch first heard a city slicker utter a curse word. (Hi, Will.) Yep. 2016 was that kind of summer. 2017 really does have a chance to be better. Which probably means it won’t happen.
It has to start with Andrew McCutchen. Last season might have been lowlighted by McCutchen’s sudden, mystifying regression into a trade chip no one wanted. McCutchen is now 30, he’s entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, and he’ll be playing in right field after a dreadful, sub-replacement-level year in his old spot in center, where it’s safe to say his defense had become a liability. But no matter what happens this year, he’ll always be the dude who reminded Pittsburghers (and jagoff ex-pats like me) that baseball wasn’t just a game for people in other cities to enjoy.
These awesome kids were so excited when McCutchen handed him his batting gloves a couple of years back, but that kind of joy comes from a place much deeper than what can be observed in this video:
The Buccos have a terrific outfield prospect in Austin Meadows waiting in the wings, but dammit Pirate fans ought to appreciate and savor McCutchen while we still can. Or at least until he starts consistently swinging through fastballs with runners in scoring position and throwing to the wrong base. Just kidding. Maybe. Love you, Cutch.
The Pirates look like they’ll be without Jung-Ho Kang for the duration of the season, which means David Freese will be manning third base, and it will never not be weird to have root for David Freese, who will forever be contaminated for not only having been a Cardinal, but that fucking Cardinal. Stupid David Freese. Can’t you do stuff like that every night now? Is that really too much to ask?
Gerrit Cole is still atop the rotation, and if the Pirates are going to contend again, it will be because Cole turns out to be more like his 2015 self than his 2016 self, which is another way of saying Cole has to stay healthy, which is another way of saying Cole needs to bust out his slider more often. Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon, and Chad Kuhl are the staff’s other locks, with the never-ending fight to find a capable fifth starter likely to make life hell. Tony Watson’s the closer now that Mark Melancon’s out in San Francisco, and the Pirates added Daniel Hudson to set Watson up (and to serve as Watson Insurance). And holy crap have you seen how up and down Hudson was last season with the Diamondbacks? He ought to fit right in.
It me, basically, on the night this happened.
That’s Jameson Taillon, lookin’ like a true ballplayer.
If Cole and Nova can anchor the top of the rotation, and if McCutchen can put up the kind of production he did in the second half of last year, this team might have a chance to finish within 10 games of the Cubs!. FranGraphs projects the Pirates to win 79 games, but there are a few smart baseball people out there who think this team can earn a wild card spot. So there’s hope. I guess.
The other outfielders, Gregory Polanco (now in left field) and Starling Marte (now in center), should again be tons of fun to watch. Have I mentioned Andrew McCutchen? And why do you keep telling me to look up?