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Bucs plan to rely on pitching in tough Central

January 26, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' division is getting tougher, while their payroll is getting lower, but there was some optimism along with a chill in the air during PiratesFest on Saturday at PNC Park.Pittsburgh likely won't be anyone's favorite to land a big free agent, finish atop the loaded National League

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' division is getting tougher, while their payroll is getting lower, but there was some optimism along with a chill in the air during PiratesFest on Saturday at PNC Park.
Pittsburgh likely won't be anyone's favorite to land a big free agent, finish atop the loaded National League Central or reach the World Series. But after putting together an 82-win season, when some accused them of tanking, Pirates players and management believe their pitching staff can be the foundation of a legitimate contender this year.
"Honestly, I think the pitching staff is scary," left-hander Steven Brault said. "I don't think any other team, especially in the division, is going to look at us and say, 'Oh, that's a pitching staff we're going to be able to roll over.' We're not going to be. … I wouldn't put it past us to be one of the better pitching staffs in the league, for sure, as long as everyone can put it together."
Even then, it won't be easy for the Pirates. They watched the Brewers swoop in to sign catcher Yasmani Grandal after reaching the NL Championship Series last year, and they saw the Cardinals pick up Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. They know the Reds will be tougher after adding Yasiel Puig and three quality starters this offseason, and they've faced the Cubs' core at its best.
Meanwhile, the Pirates have seen their projected payroll drop below $75 million -- and players aren't holding out hope for a marquee addition before they report to Pirate City in two weeks.
"I'd love it if we were in on [Bryce] Harper and [Manny] Machado, just like everyone else. That's just not realistic for us," starter Jameson Taillon said. "I don't want to slight anybody on our team. I think we've got a great group of guys."
Taillon and team president Frank Coonelly both noted that Pittsburgh's payroll is a reflection of its roster. Many core players are not yet eligible for salary arbitration and thus will earn the league-minimum salary (or close to it) this season. But Coonelly said Pittsburgh's payroll "will need to grow," like it did from 2011-16, as those players continue to mature and enter their arbitration-eligible years.
"Trust me, nobody is pleased, satisfied or happy with 82 wins last year. It does, in my view, represent a move in the right direction. But it's not nearly enough," Coonelly said during the annual Ask Pirates Management session at PiratesFest. "Nobody is satisfied with 82 wins in this organization. Everybody is committed to doing what we can to put a World Series championship team on the field."
The Pirates believe they can take a step forward thanks in part to last year's Trade Deadline additions: starter Chris Archer and setup man Keone Kela. Archer will rejoin Taillon, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove in the rotation, and Kela will pitch alongside right-handers Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez in front of closer Felipe Vazquez.
"That's always been the story: Good pitching beats good hitting. If we pitch well, we're going to be in every single game," Taillon said. "You don't want to put pressure on yourself and say it all depends on us. We do have a good supporting cast. I think we have some guys that are going to take some steps forward."
That's what the Pirates are banking on, too. Rather than making high-profile moves to address their lineup, they've brought in bounce-back candidates Jungho Kang and Lonnie Chisenhall, while acquiring glove-first infielder Erik Gonzalez from the Indians. But they think their offense can improve the most from within, by getting more production from their returning players under new hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz.
"We have an opportunity for every man that takes the field to have an improvement in their offensive season, and I don't just mean getting on base," manager Clint Hurdle said. "One of our biggest focus points over the winter and going into Spring Training is the process of driving the baseball -- not lifting the baseball, driving the baseball."

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