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Losers No Longer - A Pittsburgh Pirates preview

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A look ahead at our next interleague opponent

Do you think this side-five was awesome? I bet it was.
Do you think this side-five was awesome? I bet it was.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On September 25, 2007, Neal Huntington was named general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He didn't inherit much from the organization to work with, in great part due to the failures of his predecessor, Dave Littlefield. Sure, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Steve Pearce were chugging along through the minor league system, but there was little in the way of pitching prospects, payroll space was limited, and oh, the major league team had just capped off a 68-94 season.

Now, you might say that every franchise would be dying to have a McCutchen coming up through their system, but no one could say with certainty that he'd pan out, let alone become one of the greatest players in the game. It was going to be a long process turning around a franchise that hadn't experienced a winning record since Barry Bonds' neck was of standard human proportions.

It took five more seasons of losing, bringing the streak to an even 20, before the Pirates finally broke through and fully turned around that 2007 record by finishing 94-68 in 2013. McCutchen won the National League MVP award, the Pirates comfortably punched a postseason ticket, and, after defeating the Reds in the Wild Card game, got to experience their first real postseason series since 1992. Like Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay and Dayton Moore in Kansas City, Huntington had succeeded in taking a tradition of losing and fighting his way out of it by building from within.

The Pirates would again make it to the postseason in 2014 via the Wild Card and stand a good chance to do so again this year. Their 2015 season sagged in the early going, but a 14-5 run righted the Pirates', ahem, ship. Much like the rest of the franchise's recent success, the surge has a lot to do with McCutchen, who rebounded from a LaRochian April (.194/.302/.333) in a big way.  Since May 7, he's hit .357/.436/.619 to carry the Pirates' occasionally sagging offense. Cleanup man Neil Walker is the other of that top trio of 2008 prospects still with the organization. He's still hitting well enough for a second baseman, but the Pirates have missed his usual power output, as he's hit just four home runs after setting a career best with 23 last season.

Though Huntington inherited both of those players, most of the remainder of the Pittsburgh lineup is a testament to Huntington's drive to build up the minor league system. Of the eight most frequently-used hitters on the Pittsburgh roster, all except hot-hitting catcher Francisco Cervelli were first brought to the major leagues in a Pirates uniform. Most of them came with plenty of prospect buzz, particularly corner outfielders Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte. Polanco is a speed-and-defense player, while Marte brings it in the power department, as he leads Pittsburgh in home runs with 12. Marte is scorching hot right now, coming off a trio of three-hit games.

The Pirates have also taken a dip in the international market to find players. This offseason, they spent $11 million to bring in 2014 Korean Baseball Organization MVP Jung Ho Kang for four seasons with an option year. That's looking like the steal of the winter, as he's already pushed the struggling Josh Harrison into a smaller role by snagging the majority of starts at third base. Kang can, and occasionally does, play shortstop for the Pirates, so he provides an alternative to the light-hitting Jordy Mercer.

On the pitching side of things, the Pirates are led by homegrown ace Gerrit Cole. Cole more or less ditched his mediocre curveball this season in favor of relying more on his slider to complement his hard mid-90s fastball and sinker. He leads the National League in ERA and has evolved into one of baseball's best pitchers.

Cole has certainly had some help. After a one-year tour of duty in Philadelphia, A.J. Burnett returned to Pittsburgh in part because he enjoyed his previous stint with the club. He immediately resumed pitching well upon return, and has been one of baseball's 15 or so best pitchers at age 38. The Pirates have also benefited from the services of Francisco Liriano, who has revitalized his career since departing the White Sox at the end of 2012. Liriano continues to be tough to hit, as evidenced by leading the major leagues in inducing soft batted balls per FanGraphs.  He used to give out so many free passes that it barely mattered, but he's cut back on that nasty habit a bit since joining Pittsburgh, and the results have been kind.

Results have been less kind to Jeff Locke, who's been smacked around a bit this year. This particular lefty throws harder than 90 mph, so maybe the White Sox will be able to continue the trend. He hasn't pitched quite as poorly as his ERA would suggest, and profiles as an adequate number five starter. Oft-injured Charlie Morton has been decent over the past few seasons when he's been able to take the mound. The groundballer does a great job of keeping the ball in the park and is only limited by his relative inability to miss bats. Hitters beware: Morton has led the National League in beanballs in each of the last two seasons despite only making a total of 46 starts.

The resurgence of the Pittsburgh Pirates has been a great deal of fun. They'd be in even better shape if they could figure out a solution to their annual Cardinals problem, as St. Louis has won the NL Central during each of the past two seasons and has a firm grip on the division crown again this year. If the Pirates are to reach the World Series this year for the first time since 1979, they'll likely have to do it via the Wild Card. However, with McCutchen around for a few more seasons and the young talent around him, it should surprise no one if Pittsburgh wins the NL Central sometime in the next few years.

Predicted Record and Finish: 84-78, third place, NL Central

Probable Pitching Matchups

  • Monday, June 15: Carlos Rodon vs. Francisco Liriano
  • Tuesday, June 16: Jose Quintana vs. Charlie Morton
  • Wednesday, June 17: Jeff Locke vs. John Danks

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Gregory Polanco - RF

SP1. Gerrit Cole - RHP

2. Starling Marte - LF

SP2. A.J. Burnett - RHP

3. Andrew McCutchen - CF

SP3. Francisco Liriano - LHP

4. Neil Walker - 2B

SP4. Jeff Locke - LHP

5. Jung Ho Kang - 3B

SP5. Charlie Morton - RHP

6. Pedro Alvarez - 1B

CL. Mark Melancon - RHP

7. Francisco Cervelli - C

RP1. Tony Watson - LHP

8. Jordy Mercer - SS

RP2. Antonio Bastardo - LHP

RP3. Arquimedes Caminero - RHP