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Inbox: How do Pirates stack up in NL Central?

Beat reporter Adam Berry answers Bucs fans' questions
January 24, 2019

Do the Pirates have any chance in the division this year? Even the Reds are getting better, and I feel like the Bucs are the same as last year when we finished in fourth place again. -- Jeremy B., PittsburghThe Pirates should have the pitching to be competitive every night,

Do the Pirates have any chance in the division this year? Even the Reds are getting better, and I feel like the Bucs are the same as last year when we finished in fourth place again.
-- Jeremy B., Pittsburgh

The Pirates should have the pitching to be competitive every night, and when that's true, you always have a chance. The 2013 Bucs weren't an incredible offensive club, for instance, but they were an elite run-prevention team. These Pirates have some of the pieces necessary for that kind of foundation.
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Pittsburgh's rotation should be a strength, as my colleague Matt Kelly recently wrote, and the back end of the bullpen might be equally underrated if everyone stays healthy. But the Pirates are going to have to play better defense if they want to be a team built around, you know, pitching and defense.
The Bucs have two solid catchers in Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz. They have a pair of Gold Glove Award-winning outfielders in Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson. But Pittsburgh's infield defense was a glaring weakness last year, and it remains a question heading into this season.
Combine that with a lineup that was slightly below average overall last season, and it's definitely fair to wonder how the Pirates can keep up with the Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals and the revamped Reds in baseball's toughest division. They could win 82 games again and have to fight for fourth place.
The Bucs look like they're betting on a lot of improvement from their returning players -- on Josh Bell and Colin Moran reaching their potential, on Jungho Kang providing the power they've been missing, on getting more offense at second base with Adam Frazier playing more often, on the outfielders consistently driving the lineup like they did during last year's 11-game winning streak, etc.
All of that stuff might happen. Some of it probably will happen, and it could be enough to make things interesting if the Pirates' pitching holds up. But I understand that it's hard to hang your hat on hope, especially when other teams are making moves this offseason.
If you had to guess right now, who would be the Pirates' leadoff man and cleanup hitter? I thought those were weak spots for us last year, and I'm desperate for reasons to be optimistic about this year.
-- Molly D., Pittsburgh

I'm sure Clint Hurdle would love to see us speculating about lineup decisions here in January, a full month before he has to fill out so much as a Grapefruit League lineup card. But I want to address your second point first, because it's a good one.
Last season, Pirates leadoff hitters slashed .257/.301/.400 with a .701 OPS that ranked 22nd in the Majors. Their cleanup hitters slashed .254/.321/.375 with a .695 OPS that ranked 27th in the Majors. Would you believe that their OPS in every other spot in the order ranked in the top half of the league?
(Please do believe it, because I looked it up. Pittsburgh's OPS ranking by lineup spot last season, one through eight: 22nd, 12th, 13th, 27th, 14th, first, fourth, 14th. The lesson, obviously, is that everybody should be told they're batting sixth.)
As for your actual question…
If Kang can recapture his 2015-16 form -- a big "if" -- he might be the Bucs' best cleanup hitter. Dickerson was great atop the order last season, but I'd imagine he'll at least begin the year in the middle of the lineup. So if I had to project an Opening Day lineup today, more than two months out, I would put Frazier in the leadoff spot and Bell batting cleanup.
We've seen the Pirates' preference for Frazier batting first. He's hit leadoff more often than he's hit anywhere else in the Majors. He also likes hitting there, and being comfortable in a spot matters. Bell was their most frequently used cleanup hitter last season, and we've heard the Bucs consistently express their belief in him as a middle-of-the-order run producer.
It seems like the Pirates don't have a fourth outfielder. Who would be called up if someone gets hurt?
-- Tony C., Akron, Ohio

I think Lonnie Chisenhall will settle into that fourth-outfield/super-utility role whenever Gregory Polanco returns. So it might not be a long-term concern if Polanco's recovery continues to go well, but it could be an issue early on if someone misses time.
Frazier is obviously capable of playing the outfield. The Pirates would prefer to let him settle in at second base, but he could move out there in an emergency. Pablo Reyes can play just about anywhere, which gives him a chance to make the Opening Day roster. Jose Osuna could handle a corner spot. Erik Gonzalez has a little experience in the outfield, although he could be the starting shortstop.
I don't think the Bucs would call up a prospect such as Jason Martin or Bryan Reynolds early in the season, but they moved pretty quickly this offseason to sign Patrick Kivlehan, who's played 132 games in the Majors, to a Minor League deal. There are still a lot of unsigned outfielders on the market, too.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.