The Pittsburgh Pirates reached the MLB postseason in three straight seasons from 2013-15. But last year the club finished five games below the .500 mark in third place in the NL Central Division.
There were any number of factors that contributed to the downfall of the Bucs a year ago. But despite missing the playoffs and finishing with a losing record, a bounce-back is possible in the coming 2017 season.
Catching the young and multi-talented Chicago Cubs in the division race is probably not within reach this year. But winning the division is not the only route to the postseason.
Pittsburgh finished just 8.5 games in back of an NL Wildcard berth, even though nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
“I think he’s going through an absolute metamorphosis in terms of his physical understanding, how to really manage his body over the course of a 162-game season, what the greatest red flags are for him that could sideline him or take him down,” said Ben Fairchild, the owner of Fairchild Sports Performance near Taillon’s hometown of Houston, Texas per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bill Brink.
“I don’t know that I’ve seen a pitcher of his prospectus at his young age that had endured so much severe injury, frankly,” Fairchild said.
Despite a significant slippage in performance from Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates offense was not the biggest problem last year. The club’s hitters finished 5th in OPS and 6th in Runs scored in the 2016 season.
But the team’s pitching staff simply didn’t get the job done. The Pittsburgh pitchers finished 9th in Quality Starts, 11th in Strikeouts, and 13th in Batting Average Against.
In the 2017 season, the Pirates would go a long way towards bouncing right back to contention if they receive strong, healthy seasons from their two most talented starting pitchers, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.
Cole was the first overall pick in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft. In 2015, the righty finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting after a tremendous season. At age 24, Cole allowed 183 hits over 208 innings with a 202/44 K:BB ratio.
But a year later, Cole battled injuries and ineffectiveness. He yielded 131 hits over just 116 innings in the 2016 season, with a 98/36 K:BB.
Taillon had been the second overall pick in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft, a year before Cole came out. He was on his way to the big leagues when injuries derailed his career. The righty missed the entirety of the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Many had given up on him. But still at just age 24, Taillon returned to the hill a year ago to make 18 big league starts. He looked every bit the top pick that he had been a few years earlier, allowing 99 hits over 104 innings with an 85/17 K:BB ratio.
Over at Baseball Prospectus, their Zach Crizer tried to dissect what went wrong with Cole last season. In the end, he came up with the following: “Two suspects immediately crowd our field of vision: injury and a very high BABIP.”
Cole simply must show that he is healthy. And then he must show that he can once again leave hitters frustrated, consistently flailing away at his slider.
For Taillon, it would appear that he simply needs to stay healthy. Now that he is finally back, he needs to stay back. To that end the pitcher has undertaken a newfound appreciation for taking care of himself physically.
It’s only the first week of spring training down in Bradenton, Florida. But it’s been so far, so good for the two talented Bucs right-handers.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t get healthy seasons from both Cole and Taillon, it is not likely to matter much what anyone else does. But if they do receive a full season worth of performances from both, there is no reason that Pittsburgh cannot again contend for an NL playoff spot.