Pirates Opening Series Preview
By Jim Sutter
The Pirates opening series of the 2016 season, which begins this afternoon, is against the team everybody loves to hate: the St. Louis Cardinals. Our article on Opening Day gives a good rundown of all the personnel changes that the Cardinals experienced this season, so I won’t go into that here. Overall though, despite losing some key pieces the Cardinals will still be a force to contend with as the season goes on and we could be in store for some more classics between these two teams. Additionally, with the Chicago Cubs generally being considered the favorite to win the , once again, incredibly strong National League Central this season, we could be seeing these two teams playing each other in the National League Wild Card Game come October.
Game 1 – April 3, 1:05 P.M. ET
Francisco Liriano (L) vs. Adam Wainwright (R)
Game 2 – April 5, 7:05 P.M. ET
Jon Niese (L) vs. Michael Wacha (R)
Game 3 – April 6, 7:05 P.M. ET
Juan Nicasio (R) vs. Mike Leake (R)
The Pirates have seemingly made somewhat of an interesting choice with the ordering of their pitchers to begin the season. Because of his rib injury, Gerrit Cole got a late start to Spring Training and so was kept in Florida Saturday to
pitch in a Minor League camp game. This lead to Liriano getting the nod for Opening Day and Cole missing this series. As a result Pirates fans won’t have to wait long to see the two new members of the rotation, Jon Niese and Juan Nicasio.
Taking the rubber for the Cardinals on Opening Day will be Adam Wainwright, who will be looking to have a nice bounce back season after missing most of 2015 with a torn Achilles tendon. Michael Wacha, and former Cincinnati Red Mike Leake will be the starters for the second and third games. All of the Cardinals starting pitchers are right-handed for this series which works in their favor as Gregory Polanco and John Jaso will likely be the only non-pitcher left-handed batters in the lineup, at least for Opening Day.
This is of course the first series of 2016 between the Pirates and the Cardinals. In 2015 the Pirates and Cardinals played 19 games with the Pirates going 9-10 in those games. Despite losing one more game, the Pirates overall scored three more runs than the Cardinals finishing with 79 runs to the Cardinals 76 runs. Five of the 19 games went into extra innings with the Pirates going 2-3 in those games.
Probably the most notable of those games for Pirates fans came on July 11th when Andrew McCutchen hit a 2-run Home Run with the Pirates down by one run in the bottom of the 14th inning to win the game. In the last series between these two teams, also held in Pittsburgh, the Pirates came into it trailing the Cardinals by 3 games in the National League Central with 6 games remaining. In the first game, the Pirates offense could not capitalize on an outstanding pitching performance going scoreless for the game. The Cardinals then scored 3 runs in the 9th inning for the only runs of the game. The Pirates rebounded to win the second game two days later after it was postponed due to rain and played as the first game in a day-night doubleheader. However, the Cardinals clinched the division that night by pounding the Pirates 11-1.
Cardinals Player to Watch: Jedd Gyorko
The Cardinals were set to replace Shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who will be forced to miss the first half of the season due to a thumb injury, with Ruben Tejada whom they picked up during Spring Training after the New York Mets released him. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Tejada himself was injured recently and will begin the season on the disabled list. Until Tejada or Peralta returns, it appears that Shortstop duties will primarily be handled by 27-year-old Morgantown, West Virginia native Jedd Gyorko. Gyorko is entering the fourth big league season of a career that he has spent entirely until now in the San Diego Padres organization. The Cardinals received Gyorko and cash from the Padres in return for Jon Jay over the Winter Meetings.
Gyorko will be playing somewhat out of position at Shortstop. During his career thus far he has overwhelmingly played at Second Base with 296 career starts at that position versus only 28 career starts at Shortstop. Gyorko is also
already a below average fielder at best, even when he is at home at Second Base. For his career he has a -12 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) at Second Base. He does not really have enough playing time at Shortstop for advanced fielding metrics to tell us much about his performance there. However, given that Shortstop is generally considered to be the most challenging defensive position I can’t imagine Gyorko would be any better. While he will by no means be in over his head, I’m sure the Cardinals would be much more comfortable with Tejada or Peralta who both have much more experience at the position. Additionally, Gyorko does not exactly set the world on fire from the batter’s box with a career .236/.293/.395 slashline and a strikeout rate close to 25% (23.1%). Unless Gyorko has a breakout season, not impossible given he is only 27 in his fourth season, he will be the weak link in the Cardinals lineup and in the field until Peralta or Tejada return. It will be interesting to see how he responds to being with a new team playing an unfamiliar position and if the Pirates will be able to take advantage of this.
Pirates Keys to Victory
Come out Ready to Play
The Pirates need to avoid the kind of slow start to the season that has killed them the past couple years. Regarding the poor Spring Training results, though as everyone is constantly reminded that, “These games don’t count”, they are not ideal. The Pirates have also been susceptible in recent years to being dominated, to a seemingly higher degree than most teams of their caliber, by Number One Pitchers (see Max Scherzer near-perfect game or pick a game against Jake Arrieta last season). The Cardinals have three great pitchers starting this series in Wainwright, Wacha, and Leake who has had the Pirates number the last few seasons. The Pirates need to not get off to a sluggish start. Getting swept to open the season again could lead to a long April and another season of the Pirates playing catch-up
Make the Cardinals Earn their Runs
In contrast to their pitching, the Cardinals offense is aging with many questions. Emblematic of this has been Yadier Molina, the Cardinals aging former superstar Catcher who is coming off thumb surgery. It has already been mentioned on this site that the Cardinals will likely win a lot of low scoring games due to their stellar pitching, but questionable offense. Because of this the Pirates cannot afford to make any gaffes that lead to easy runs for the Cardinals. Hopefully the Pirates got any silly errors out of their system yesterday in Indianapolis, because they will likely see similar weather during this series.
David Freese Needs to Get Off to a Good Start
Former Cardinal David Freese will be batting third behind John Jaso and Andrew McCutchen in the batting order. If Freese can get going early with a couple of hits on Opening Day, it would provide some lineup protection and force the Cardinals to give McCutchen something he can hit. On the other hand if Freese starts slow, the Cardinals may feel comfortable pitching around McCutchen leading potentially to a lot of walks, but also a lot of easy outs. This is why a strong start from Freese can go a long way towards giving the Pirates a series win and getting them off to a strong start.
I find it a near-pointless endeavor to attempt to predict the outcome of not just one baseball game, but a series of three as well. However, I will do so because it’s fun and I’ve always mentally tried to do it at the beginning of every series anyways. All I can say about this series is that I think it is unlikely that either team sweeps it. The Cardinals will likely be able to steal a game with their pitching, and the Pirates will likely be able to get to at least one of the Cardinals Starters and out slug St. Louis. My gut feeling for this series though is that the Pirates may have another slow start or the Cardinals will be able to take advantage of their beneficial pitching matchups in the second and third games.
Prediction: Cardinals 2-1
*Stats from Fangraphs, Past game information from Baseball Reference