PITTSBURGH -- After a disappointing season that ended weeks earlier than they would have liked, can the Pirates find their way back into the postseason in 2017?
Pittsburgh's run of three straight playoff appearances came to an end this year, done in by inconsistent play and injuries as well as an ill-equipped early-season rotation. By the end of September, with the playoffs out of the question and several key players shut down, the Bucs began to offer a glimpse into their 2017 plans.
Several rookies got their feet wet this year, and they'll be asked to play bigger roles next season. While the former prospects are a major part of the Pirates' future success, they won't go far without a return to form from their stars. Everyone, young and old, will need to step up to put the Pirates back in the postseason picture.
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Gerrit Cole must be healthy and productive, and Jameson Taillon will be expected to join him atop the rotation. A "normal" season from Andrew McCutchen would go a long way, as would the boost provided by Josh Bell's bat. The Pirates' front office will have to address losses on the bench and in the bullpen. More importantly, they will be tasked with filling out a rotation that spent too much of 2016 in flux.
The Pirates reported to Spring Training earlier this year with their eyes set on the National League Central title. They'll report to Pirate City in February with the same plan. How can they catch the Cubs in 2017?
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"It's doing our best to keep the core where it's at, keep it the same. When someone goes down, someone taking their spot and doing their job," McCutchen said. "We definitely have the pieces for that. We've just got to be consistent with it and consistent with the lineup, consistent with the team. Once you do that, it becomes -- I won't say easier, but almost second nature when you're out there on the field."
Arbitration-eligible: Cole, LHP Tony Watson, LHP Jeff Locke, RHP Juan Nicasio, RHP Drew Hutchison, RHP Jared Hughes, SS Jordy Mercer, LHP Wade LeBlanc, INF Pedro Florimón
Free agents: RHP Ivan Nova, RHP Neftalí Feliz, INF/OF Sean Rodríguez, RHP Ryan Vogelsong, OF Matt Joyce, LHP Phil Coke
Rotation: A strength throughout their three straight trips to the postseason, the starting staff was a weakness this year. How will it fare next season? That depends largely on the health and effectiveness of Cole, their top arm. A year of experience and a full workload should benefit Taillon, a worthy No. 2. Who will fill out the rotation beyond that? They acquired Hutchison with an eye on him starting in 2017. Chad Kuhl seems to have earned a spot. Will top prospect Tyler Glasnow be ready? If not, will they rely on Steven Brault and Trevor Williams? They could use another veteran arm to stabilize the No. 3 spot. Will Nova take the J.A. Happ route into free agency and become The One That Got Away, or will the Pirates explore the trade market to add another proven starter?
Bullpen: Expect Watson to return as the closer, even after a shaky debut in the ninth inning. Felipe Rivero should be his primary setup man after an outstanding second half with the Pirates. Veterans Antonio Bastardo and Nicasio should be back as middle relievers, with Nicasio possibly working higher-leverage situations, and A.J. Schugel will likely factor into the mix. Beyond that, there are questions. Will Hughes be back, and can he return to his 2013-15 form? Will the Bucs slide one of their young starters into the bullpen? Who will join Watson and Rivero at the back end of their bullpen, and would they consider making Rivero the closer if Watson struggles early?
Catcher:Francisco Cervelli will remain the starter after signing a three-year extension in May. After more time to rest his surgically repaired left hand, can he rediscover the power he showed in 2015? Regardless, he is valuable to the Pirates for his defense behind the plate and his patient offensive approach. Who will back up Cervelli? Chris Stewart has another year on his contract, and his surgically repaired left knee should be healthy by Spring Training. Eric Fryer remains an option if Pittsburgh isn't ready for prospect Elias Díaz to come up and fill that role.
First base: If September was any indication, the job belongs to Bell. But with John Jaso and David Freese under contract, the Pirates possess a first-base platoon that could allow Bell to spend more time in the outfield. If Bell becomes the starter, Jaso's role is unclear. Jaso made an excellent transition to first base in his first year there; perhaps he could maintain a spot on the bench as a left-handed bat and late-inning first baseman. Bell still shows signs of inexperience at first base, but it will be difficult for the Bucs to take his switch-hitting bat out of the lineup.
Second base:Josh Harrison took another step backward offensively, but he remains an excellent defensive second baseman -- one of the best in the league, in fact. He should get most of the Pirates' reps at second base, with a host of young utility infielders -- namely Adam Frazier, perhaps also Alen Hanson or Max Moroff -- capable of fielding the position as well. Hanson will be out of Minor League options, so it will be interesting to see whether the Pirates hang on to him or deal him. Hanson didn't play much in September, and Moroff wasn't recalled after rosters expanded.
Shortstop: Mercer bounced back from a disappointing 2015 season, improving across the board offensively while playing his usual brand of reliable and at times spectacular defense. He'll return as the starter, though it will be interesting to see if Jung Ho Kang -- more than a year removed from knee surgery -- can occasionally spot him. Frazier, Hanson and Moroff may factor into the mix as backups as well. Keep an eye on prospect Kevin Newman, who's soaring through the Minor Leagues and will likely make the jump to Triple-A at some point next season.
Third base: Kang's successful return was one of the more encouraging aspects of the Pirates' overall disappointing season. He looks like a potential 30-homer bat and a solid defender at third. With little Minor League depth at the position, the Pirates locked up Freese, a capable fill-in starter if Kang misses any significant time. Freese will also take over as a more prominent leader in the clubhouse, given his experience and the fact that he will be around a few more years.
Outfield: Is this the offseason the Pirates begin to consider trading McCutchen? Will they consider moving him to a corner outfield spot and slide Starling Marte into center field? Both options appear to be on the table, though their clearest path to contention is likely led by a healthy and productive McCutchen. Marte and Gregory Polanco will return, having both taken strides this year. The Bucs may not need a true fourth outfielder, like Joyce, considering Bell's experience there and the versatility of their young utility players, but they would be wise to monitor the market for another value option like Joyce. Could top offensive prospect Austin Meadows, long viewed as McCutchen's successor, reach the Majors next year?