Each weekday between now and the end of spring training, we'll analyze one team's keys for success (or keys to avoid complete irrelevance) in the 2016 season. Today, we explain why the Pirates could take a step backward in 2016 after reaching the playoffs the past three seasons.
1. The pitching losses. Gerrit Cole is an ace and Francisco Liriano is a solid No. 2, but then come the rotation questions. Gone are righty A.J. Burnett and lefty J.A. Happ, both of whom pitched brilliantly last season. Happ was the steal of the deadline deals, going 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA and 9.8 K/9 ratio in 11 starts for Pittsburgh (before cashing in this offseason with the Blue Jays). Burnett, who missed time late in the season with an elbow injury, was the veteran leader of the group and posted a 3.18 ERA (before retiring). Taking their places are righty Ryan Vogelsong and lefty Jon Niese, both of whom are downgrades.
The bullpen bids farewell to Antonio Bastardo and Joakim Soria -- two key setup men for closer Mark Melancon. And it could have been worse, as Melancon's name was popular in Hot Stove trade rumors. The good news: Lefty reliever Tony Watson returns.
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2. The first base situation. Pedro Alvarez led the Pirates with 27 homers last season and was third on the team with 77 RBI, but he was non-tendered in November (and remains a free agent) because of concerns about his defense, strikeout rate and salary.
In his place ... well, Pittsburgh is taking a Scott Hatteberg-sized gamble. In late December, the Pirates signed free-agent catcher John Jaso to serve as their primary first baseman. Jaso has played two games (and started neither) at first base in his seven-season major-league career, but the team hopes he can make the transition so it can tap into his strong on-base skills. As insurance, veterans Mike Morse and Gatorade cooler-hating Sean Rodriguez remain on the roster.
3. The competition. It's a basic numbers game: There are five National League playoffs berths and at least seven serious contenders for them. In the NL Central alone, the Pirates will enter the season picked by many to finish behind the Cardinals and Cubs. And then there are the Mets, Dodgers, Giants, Diamondbacks and Nationals -- not to mention a team that could surprise (Marlins).
Working in the Pirates' favor is the fact that they will play 38 games against the rebuilding Reds and Brewers. But the NL East and NL West also figure to have weak competition at the bottom. Andrew McCutchen and Co. will compete all season but could fall just short of the postseason.