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Know Your Enemy: Pittsburgh Pirates

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The Bucs made the postseason in 2014 for the second straight year, but will have new challenges this season.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates lost their final two regular-season games to a pretty bad Reds team. Had they won those games, they would have forced a tiebreaker game with the Cardinals to see who would go to the wild-card game.

Since that didn't happen, the Bucs went to the wild-card game and got summarily dismissed by Madison Bumgarner and the Giants.

They spent the offseason doing... well, not much. After losing Russell Martin via free agency, they acquired Francisco Cervelli in a trade with the Yankees to replace him. That's like replacing a Ferrari with a Yugo. No personal offense meant to Cervelli, but he's never played more than 93 games in his seven years with the Yankees and Martin was widely regarded as being a stabilizing influence on the Pittsburgh pitching staff. Will they still be as good as they've been the last two years without Martin?

The comparison will be obvious, not only due to the change behind the plate but because the Pirates have pretty much stood pat from a year ago otherwise. Top prospect Gregory Polanco, who struggled at times in his first big-league time, is expected to be the starting right fielder. Andrew McCutchen should be in his prime years and finished third in MVP voting last year. The rest of the Pittsburgh offense, which finished fourth in the league in runs, returns intact.

After a year's exile in Philadelphia -- where he did not pitch well -- A.J. Burnett returns to the Pirates rotation for what is likely his final major-league season. Burnett's fellow Phillie refugee Antonio Bastardo will join a strong bullpen anchored by closer Mark Melancon, who posted 33 saves with a fine 1.90 ERA, an excellent 0.873 WHIP and just two home runs allowed in 71 innings.

The Pirates are still a good team, no doubt about it, but I think they'll miss Russell Martin big-time. The Cubs and Pirates will meet seven times in April -- four in Pittsburgh April 20-21-22-23, then three the following week at Wrigley Field. They'll have three more in mid-May at Wrigley and then not meet again till August. Thanks, schedule-makers.