(SportsNetwork.com) - It was a nice story two years ago when the Pittsburgh Pirates returned to the postseason after 20 straight losing seasons. It was even better last season when they followed that up with another playoff appearance.
Winning has again become the norm in Pittsburgh, but now is the time for this team to start winning some of these series in October. Their road back to the playoffs starts on Monday when they visit the Cincinnati Reds.
Pittsburgh once again should be right in the thick of the National League playoff race thanks to maybe the best outfield in the game which is anchored by all-world talent Andrew McCutchen, who has finished top three in the NL MVP voting each of the last three seasons.
McCutchen is flanked by Starling Marte in left field and promising right fielder Gregory Polanco in right. Marte has gotten better every year and is under team control through 2019, while Polanco is one of the better prospects in the game, but struggled at the big league level last season.
Third baseman Josh Harrison broke out for the Pirates and was an All-Star, as he hit .315/.347/.490 with 13 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 143 games. Harrison became the everyday third baseman, as Pedro Alvarez's struggles in the field became a problem. Alvarez, the NL HR champ in 2013, is now the team's first baseman.
From a pitching standpoint the hope is that Gerrit Cole continues to blossom into an ace. Cole was limited because of a lat injury last season, but owns a 3.45 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 8.4 K/9 through his first 255 1/3 career major league innings. And he's only 24.
Heading to the hill on Monday, though, will be lefty Francisco Liriano, who re-signed with the Bucs for three years and $39 million this offseason. He is coming off a year in which he dealt with injuries early in the season, going 7-10 with a 3.38 ERA in 29 starts.
Liriano, who opened the season for the Pirates last season, has yet to beat the Reds in 10 starts.
As for the Cincinnati, it regressed by 14 games last season to 76-86 after going to the playoffs in three of the four previous seasons.
And well, the best thing you can say about the Reds this season is that they are hosting the All-Star Game. Actually, it's hard to make a strong case for them to get back into the postseason running, as they return essentially the same team from a year ago and still have the same questions.
Perhaps the biggest question this team will face all season will be what ace Johnny Cueto will do after the season. Slated to be a free agent, Cueto was one of the few bright spots last season, as he put forth the best year of his career, winning 20 games to go along with a 2.25 ERA and finished second to Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw in NL Cy Young voting.
Cueto will be making his fourth straight Opening Day start for the Reds. In his three other openers, he is 1-1 with a 0.86 ERA (two earned runs and nine hits over 21 innings).
After Cueto, though, the rotation is questionable at best and downright awful until Homer Bailey returns from elbow surgery hopefully sometime before the end of the first month. It doesn't matter how good manager Bryan Price is with pitchers, he's going to have to be a magician to get anything from this staff.
Cueto excluded, of course.
If you want to make a case for the Reds you can point to the potential power numbers the lineup may put forth. The group of Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce and newly acquired Marlon Byrd are going to hit some home runs. In fact, don't be surprised if the Reds lead the league in home runs.
That also means if speedy Billy Hamilton does what he is supposed to, he should be able to score a lot of runs.
And, of course, there is Aroldis Chapman, who is one of the better closers in the game and showed no ill effects from getting hit in the head with a line drive. In fact, he struck out the side in his first appearance back after the ugly incident and actually posted a major league-record 17.67 strikeout per nine inning mark.
The bridge to get to him may be shaky, but the hope is that converted starter Tony Cingrani could slide into that role.