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Know Your Enemy: Pittsburgh Pirates

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Are the Bucs headed up or down?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Pirates won 98 games in 2015 and hosted the Cubs in the wild-card game, from which they were promptly dispatched.

Many of us thought the Bucs would be a strong contender again in 2016, but after a good start, a terrible June put them out of contention and a bad September left them under .500 for the season.

Their biggest reaction to this? They’ve swapped around their three outfielders. Gregory Polanco, who played right field in 2016, will move to left. Starling Marte moves to center, replacing longtime center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who shifts to right.

I... I mean... I don’t see how this is going to make one bit of difference. All three of these players are pretty good defensively, and McCutchen has always been excellent in center (Gold Glove in 2012).

The Pirates should be more worried about McCutchen’s hitting. He had the worst offensive season of his career in 2016, hitting just .255/.336/.430. That would be good for many, but not for McCutchen, who has slipped over the last four years in bWAR: 8.1, 6.3, 4.9, and -0.7. Yes, negative bWAR for him, and the Pirates were supposedly shopping him around all winter.

So that’s one of the big questions for the Bucs. Another is the availability of Jung Ho Kang, who is about to stand trial in his native Korea for DUI. The Pirates don’t know when he’ll report to spring training, though they hope they can help him through this and rehab. They have David Freese to play third base in his stead.

Josh Bell, a top Pirates prospect who hit .273/.368/.406 in 128 at-bats last year, will take over at first base. How he does will likely tell you how well the Pirates will do offensively as a team.

Gerrit Cole, who famously claimed last May that the Cubs weren’t the best team in baseball (want to reconsider, Gerrit?), had a bad year in 2016 and the Pirates hope he rebounds. They have two top young pitching prospects in Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. If those guys are anywhere near what they’re supposed to be, the Pirates starting rotation will be very good.

Tony Watson took over for the traded Mark Melancon at closer last summer. Watson posted 15 saves with only one blown save over the last two months of 2016, but the question for the Pirates is whether they can fill in the setup depth lost when Watson had to move up.

The Pirates look like a .500 team to me, but if they can get some offense from McCutchen the way he used to be, that could push them into wild-card contention.

The Cubs and Pirates will play 19 times in 2017, as follows:

April 14-15-16 at Wrigley
April 24-25-26 at Pittsburgh
June 16-17-18 at Pittsburgh
July 7-8-9 at Wrigley
August 28-29-30 at Wrigley
September 4-5-6-7 at Pittsburgh