BRADENTON, Fla. -- Coming off three straight trips to the postseason and a 98-win season in 2015, the Pirates won 78 games in '16 and 75 last season. In January, they traded No. 1 starter Gerrit Cole and franchise icon Andrew McCutchen. In February, David Freese criticized their 2016-17 clubhouse
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Coming off three straight trips to the postseason and a 98-win season in 2015, the Pirates won 78 games in '16 and 75 last season. In January, they traded No. 1 starter Gerrit Cole and franchise icon Andrew McCutchen. In February, David Freese criticized their 2016-17 clubhouse culture and Josh Harrison openly questioned their commitment and communication.
Through it all, there was one theme: The last two years were not good enough.
Pittsburgh broke up its previous core, sending Cole to Houston and McCutchen to San Francisco, and supplemented a younger roster with starter Joe Musgrove, third baseman Colin Moran, relievers Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick and upper-level outfield prospects Bryan Reynolds and Jason Martin.
The Pirates did not sign a Major League free agent over the offseason, deciding instead to lean on their returning players, but they insist this is more of a reload than a rebuild. The odds may be against them in a stacked National League Central division, but the Pirates believe they are closer to contending than most might expect.
What's the goal?
Put simply, their goal is to surprise people and contend this year. At the start of Spring Training, manager Clint Hurdle struck an optimistic tone and veteran super-utility man Sean Rodriguez drew parallels between the 2018 Pirates and 2011 Rays, who overcame significant offseason losses to reach the playoffs.
Is that realistic? Most preseason projections don't think so. They lack proven stars, and they're banking on the potential of their young arms to carry them. After a few years where seemingly everything went wrong -- moves that didn't pan out, significant slumps and injuries, etc. -- a lot would have to go right to reach that goal.
What's the plan?
Hurdle raves about the depth of their lineup, even if there are fewer sure things without McCutchen. They need steps forward from Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell. They need Harrison to do what he does atop the order. They need Starling Marte to bounce back after last year's suspension. Another All-Star showing from new left fielder Corey Dickerson wouldn't hurt, either. They need Moran to prove his revamped swing will work in the Majors. They need good health, first and foremost, from Francisco Cervelli.
They're counting on Ivan Nova to lead a talented young rotation that includes Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams and Musgrove. They're banking on closer Felipe Rivero, setup man George Kontos and Feliz at the back end of the bullpen with a number of young, hard-throwing relievers in front of them.
What could go wrong?
Start with everything that went wrong the past two years. Marte could struggle or miss time. Polanco could be hampered by injuries. In either case, their outfield depth would quickly be tested, especially if prospect Austin Meadows isn't ready. Bell could start slowly and struggle late, as he did last year. Harrison's hit-by-pitch habit could knock him off the field. The injury bug could bite Cervelli again.
Taillon seems bound to bounce back, but what if the rotation doesn't yield something close to a 200-inning arm? What if Nova repeats his second-half form instead of his first-half success? What if their depth isn't as Major League-ready as they believe? Their bullpen would be stretched thin, and even that group is light on experience.
Who might surprise?
Moran is no longer a top 100 prospect, but the Pirates believe he'll thrive as their everyday third baseman after tweaking his swing and approach last offseason. He is deeply dedicated to the craft of hitting, finding a bond with Bell in that regard, and his left-handed power could play at PNC Park.
Keep an eye on Kuhl, too. Last season, Kuhl added a high-octane four-seam fastball and introduced a curveball with a spin rate nearly identical to that of Astros World Series stars Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Pitching coach Ray Searage says the right-hander doesn't even know how good he can be, and he'll get another chance to show it in the rotation this season.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.