We’re still days away from the official opening of Spring Training, but there are already a few snapshots that have become lasting impressions.
A healthy, smiling Andrew McCutchen taking batting practice and telling the Trib’s Rob Biertempfel “I’m 29 yrs old but I feel like I’m 22.”
That’s good. He needs to be at his best early and often.
What about Jung Ho Kang fielding grounders at third base, making throws to first and taking soft toss?
That’s important. The sooner he’s in the lineup, the better for both the offense and infield defense’s sake.
Then there’s the triumvirate of Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes and Tony Watson, the three returning elder statesmen of the Pirate bullpen.
That’s crucial. That unit will need to have just as big an impact on winning games as the starting rotation.
Why are all of these things tied together? Because the offense, defense and bullpen will have to be better at the start of the season, just in case the starting rotation is not.
Last April, the staff quintet of Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley allowed only 41 earned runs in 126.2 innings, the second-best rotation in all of baseball behind (who else?) the St. Louis Cardinals.
Burnett has since retired and Worley was placed on waivers after the end of last season, and now the task will most likely be left to Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong. Niese actually pitched well in the first month of last season with a 2.74 ERA and a 2.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB).
Vogelsong? Not so good. In three April starts Vogelsong gave up eight home runs and only pitched a total of 13.2 innings.
Niese’s career 3.21 ERA and 2.02 K/BB in the first month of the season fits much better than Vogelsong’s 6.55 ERA and 1.91 K/BB.
Meanwhile, the offense will also have to be better in April. Much better.
Their 89 runs scored during the first month of last season ranked 17th in the majors. They had the game’s worst walk rate at 5.2 percent, the third-worst strikeout rate at 23.3 percent and fifth-worst batting average (.230).
This time around, Josh Harrison hitting .213 in April won’t work. Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco combining for 49 strikeouts will not be acceptable. Andrew McCutchen will likely need to be sick of going “oh-for-freaking-four” on April 6 this year instead of May 6.
John Jaso likely won’t replace Pedro Alvarez’s home run production at first base, but Jaso’s .380 on-base percentage and 13% walk rate from last April would be at least a step forward from Alvarez’s .264 on-base percentage and 5.6% walk rate.
All of that, plus the possibility of a healthy Kang on Opening Day (even though he says he’s still not sure if that will happen) could put them in a better situation offensively than a year ago.
Looking at that list of variables makes the thought of a strong April for the Pirates sound questionable if not impossible, but if they hope to keep pace with the Cardinals, Chicago Cubs or any other team expected to contend for the National League pennant; they will have no choice but to check off as many items on that list as possible.
The Pirates will have only one chance to make a good first impression for the 2016 season, and this time, they can’t afford to miss it.