In the not so distant past, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the laughingstocks of not only the National League, but of baseball. From 1993-2012, the Pirates not only failed to qualify for the postseason, they barely sniffed the playoffs, placingÃ‚Â second in the NL East/NL Central just once and never crackingÃ‚Â 80 wins. Most recently, the Pirates failed to win 70 games from 2005-10. That, folks, is ineptitude personified.
Things have changed. Led by 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, manager Clint Hurdle and a front office that seems to struck a righteous balanceÃ‚Â between sabermetrics and old-school player evaluation, Pittsburgh has wonÃ‚Â 94 and 88 games the past two seasons, giving way toÃ‚Â back-to-back NL Wild Card play-in appearances. The farm system remains strong after birthing numerous stars on the current squad, and more studs are waiting in the wings.
During the offseason, Pittsburgh notched a handful of notable additions and subtractions. As far as the newcomers, the biggest splash was the signing of South Korean infielder Jung Ho Kang, who clubbed 40 home runs in 117 games last season in the Korea Baseball Organization. Kang, who signed for $16 million over four years — plus a posting fee of $5 million — is the first position player to to make the jump from South KoreaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s KBO to Major League Baseball.
On the pitching side of things, 38-year-old A.J. Burnett turned down a $12.75 million option with the Phillies to come back to the Pirates and reap the benefits of their ground ball-oriented defensive approach. Burnett pitched for the Pirates from 2012-13, logging a combined FIP of 3.16.
The major defectionÃ‚Â was catcher Russell Martin, who established himself as one of the gameÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s premier catchers over the past two seasons. In 2014, Martin hit .290 with an on-base percentage of .402. The Bucs acquired Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees to replace Martin.
There are questions to be answered. Can former No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole fulfill his elite potential? Can Francisco Liriano continue his career renaissance? Can McCutchen be the best position player in the National league…again? Is the back end of the rotation strong enough? Can Kang and/or Gregory Polanco push Pittsburgh to new heights offensively?
The Pirates, chasing a third consecutive winning campaign for the first time since 1990-92, face a clear set of expectations (playoffs or bust) since the days of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Doug Drabek. How will the Fighting Jolly Rogers handle it?