Comparing the Pittsburgh Pirates to the National League’s best teams (Part 1)

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The Pittsburgh Pirates, as most fans saw, were recently picked to win the World Series by Buster Olney, a baseball columnist for ESPN.com. This came as exciting news to Pirates fans everywhere, as it meant that the Pirates were considered to be a true World Series contender at the national level, and not just in Pittsburgh. But as high as the potential for this team is, there are still some question marks surrounding it: the possible lack of a true ace in the rotation, whether Josh Harrison will repeat his success from last season, will Gregory Polanco blossom into the talent he’s predicted to be, etc.

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But other National League contenders have their own question marks as well. On paper, are the Pirates truly as good as the National League’s best? Let’s compare the Pirates to some of the other great teams in the NL: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Washington Nationals, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Outfield

The Pirates’ outfield will consist of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, and Gregory Polanco this season, and they are expected to be among the league’s best in 2015.

The Dodgers’ outfield was cluttered after the 2014 season, but with the team shipping out Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres, and Andre Ethier wanting to be traded, that confusion may clear up in 2015. The team’s outfield will consist of Carl Crawford, highly-touted prospect Joc Pederson, and Yasiel Puig. The National’s outfield of Jayson Werth, Denard Span, and Bryce Harper will be just as formidable as the Dodgers’, while the Cardinals added 5-tool talent Jason Heyward to compliment Matt Holliday and Jon Jay.

On paper, are the Pirates truly as good as the National League’s best?

The best teams in the National League clearly have some of the best outfields in all of baseball. Based on Fangraphs’ 2015 Steamer projections, the Pirates total outfield WAR is projected to be 10.2, while the Nationals is projected to be 9.1, the Cardinals, 8.9, and the Dodgers, 8.0. The Pirates lead these projections, and I agree with them. McCutchen is proven, while the Nats want to see Harper stay on the field, the Cardinals have an average center fielder in Jay, and the Dodgers have yet to see Pederson prove anything at the major league level (a lot like Polanco).

Verdict: Pirates

Infield

The Pirates’ infield will see Josh Harrison at third, Jordy Mercer at shortstop, Neil Walker at second, and mostly Pedro Alvarez at first, and is projected to have a WAR of 8.5. The Dodgers’ infield includes two offseason acquisitions and will see Juan Uribe at third, Jimmy Rollins at short, Howie Kendrick at second, and Adrian Gonzalez at first, and is projected to have a WAR of 9.7. The Nats’ infield will most likely consist of 2014 breakout star Anthony Rendon at third, Ian Desmond at short, offseason acquisition Yunel Escobar at second, and Ryan Zimmerman at first, with a projected WAR of 12.6. The Cardinals infield will include Matt Carpenter at third, Jhonny Peralta at short, Kolten Wong at second, and Matt Adams at first, with a projected WAR of 9.8.

Based on WAR alone, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in the back of the pack. This makes sense, as the team has a big question mark regarding Alvarez’s production and whether Harrison can carry his 2014 success into 2015. If Alvarez can rebound, the whole dynamic of the Pirate lineup will change. There are good infields across the board here, but with the Dodgers’ infield getting older and with questions regarding the potential of Wong in the Cardinal infield, the Nats may run away in this area.

Verdict: Nationals

Catcher

Pirate catcher Francisco Cervelli is projected to have a 1.0 WAR, the Dodgers’ Yasmany Grandal, a 2.2 WAR, the Nationals’ Wilson Ramos, a 2.3 WAR, and the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, a 4.1 WAR.

Molina runs away with this one and it isn’t really close. Cervelli is a big drop off from Russell Martin, but expect him to hold his own this season.

Verdict: Cardinals

Starting Rotation

When evaluating a pitching staff, WAR doesn’t begin to tell the story. ERA is more helpful in this regard, but even that might not be necessary when looking at these starting staffs. The Pirates will have Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, most likely Vance Worley, and Charlie Morton, which should be an above average staff in 2015. The Cardinals staff of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez has an ace, but may lack behind the Pirates in one through five depth. The Dodgers’ have a pair of aces at the top with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, to go along with Hyun-jin Ryu, Brandon McCarthy, and Brett Anderson.

However, the Nationals’ rotation blows the rest away, with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez. This race isn’t close. However, it is important to keep in mind that Strasburg has had Tommy John surgery and that Scherzer is only getting older from here on out. But that’s just nitpicking an otherwise utterly dominant rotation.

Verdict: Nationals

The Pirates will have some stiff competition heading into the 2015 season if they want to rise to the top and take home a World Series. Their outfield may be the best of the bunch and potentially the best in all of baseball, but they still have some work to do, on paper, if they want to trump the Dodgers, the Nationals, and the Cardinals, all favorites in the National League. They may need Gerrit Cole to become a true ace of the rotation, Pedro to rebound to his 2013 form (or better), and Cervelli to handle the staff as well as he possibly can.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we see how the Pirates compare to the National League’s elite in terms of their bullpens, defense, and coaching!

Next: Pirates' starting rotation strong as any in the National League

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