It wasn’t long ago that the Pittsburgh Pirates were the laughingstocks of baseball. They had 20 consecutive losing seasons prior to the 2013 campaign, which was the longest such streak in North American professional sports history at the time. But back-to-back playoff appearances and an average of 91 wins over the past two seasons, the Pirates are the butt of the joke no longer.

They have made the wild-card game each of the past two seasons. Now, they want to reach their first World Series since 1979. That is a realistic goal considering they have a plethora of talented players in the major leagues as well as the farm system. Let’s see if the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates can take that next step.

Projected Lineup

Josh Harrison (3B) – After thriving as a utility player last season, Harrison has earned the starting job at third base. He hit .315 with 13 homers, 52 RBIs, 77 runs scored, and 18 stolen bases last season.

Gregory Polanco (RF) – He may be the most talented player in the lineup, but he’s going to need some polish. Polanco hit .235 with seven homers, 33 RBIs, 50 runs scored and 14 stolen bases in only 277 at-bats last year with the big league team.

Andrew McCutchen (CF) – The perennial MVP candidate is coming off another monster season. He hit .314 with 25 homers, 83 RBIs and 18 stolen bases in 2014 to back up his MVP campaign in 2013.

Neil Walker (2B) – You won’t find many better run producers than Walker among middle infielders. He hit .271 with 23 homers and 76 RBIs last year for the Pirates.

Starling Marte (LF) – After two solid seasons to begin his big-league career, Marte may be a prime breakout candidate in 2015. He hit .291 with 13 homers, 56 RBIs and 30 stolen bases last year.

Pedro Alvarez (1B) – He’ll be making the switch from third base to first base, where he is better suited. Alvarez only hit .231 last year, but he did bop 18 homers in just 398 at-bats.

Jordy Mercer (SS) – He won’t wow anyone in the field, but he’s a steady glove who can also hit. Mercer finished 2014 hitting .255 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs.

Francisco Cervelli (C) – Comes over from the Yankees after hitting .301 in only 146 at-bats last year. He’ll be battling Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez for playing time behind the plate.

Lineup Analysis

The Pirates do not have many big names in their lineup aside from McCutchen, but he’s even underrated for how big of a star he is. This team just doesn’t get the media exposure, otherwise you would hear a lot more about these guys. Harrison, Polanco, McCutchen, Walker and Marte are absolute studs. Alvarez provides the power, and Mercer can hold his own. The only concern I have is the loss of Russell Martin, who handles a pitching staff as well as anyone in baseball outside of Yadier Molina. The lineup will miss Martin’s bat, but the staff will miss him even more.

Projected Rotation

Gerrit Cole (RHP) – The former No. 1 pick no longer has to wait to be the ace of this staff. The time is now. Cole went 11-5 with a 3.65 ERA and 138 strikeouts over 138 innings last year. Look for him to approach 200 innings and 200 strikeouts in 2015.

A.J. Burnett (RHP) – He had a resurrection in 2013 with the Pirates, but after a lost season last year in Philadelphia, Burnett will be looking for one more magical season in 2015. He went 8-18 with a 4.59 ERA last year in hitter-friendly Philadelphia, and should be much better off now back inside PNC Park.

Francisco Liriano (LHP) – After testing the free-agent market, Liriano decided to re-sign in Pittsburgh. The lefthander went 7-10 with a 3.38 ERA in 2014. He registered 175 strikeouts over 162.1 innings, too.

Jeff Locke (LHP) – The former second-round pick of the Braves has shown he is a capable major league starter when he throws strikes. Locke went 7-6 with a 3.91 ERA over 21 starts last season for the Pirates.

Vance Worley (RHP) – The Pirates just have a way of bringing pitchers back to life. Worley was no exception as he won eight games to go along with a 2.85 ERA over 17 starts for the Pirates last season.

Rotation Analysis

The NL Central is just loaded with pitching staffs that lack the big names, but simply get the job done. The Pirates are one of those staffs this year as well. You have to like Cole as the future ace of the franchise, while Lirano, Locke and Worley are all coming off fine seasons. Burnett worries me after struggling in Philadelphia last year, but he had to have a hard time being motivated to show up every day. Motivation won’t be a problem for him as this will be his final season, and he’s looking for a World Series ring.

Bullpen

General manager Neal Huntington has made a living of building first-rate bullpens on a tight budget. Closer Mark Melancon is back to anchor the pen. In two seasons in Pittsburgh, he has posted a 1.65 ERA in 144 games while allowing 1.2 walks and 0.2 home runs per nine innings. Lefthander Tom Watson is a dominant setup man who made his first All-Star Game last season. He has posted a 2.63 ERA in his four seasons in the big leagues.

John Holdzkom came out of nowhere to post a 2.00 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 9.0 innings down the stretch while featuring a 100-mph fastball. Jared Hughes sports a 2.95 ERA in his four seasons in the majors. Lefthander Antonio Bastardo comes over from Philadelphia, and he has held opponents to a .201 batting average in his six seasons with the Phillies. Stolmy Pimentel figures to make the team as a long reliever.

Betting Odds (Bovada)

  • To Win World Series: 33/1
  • To Win NL Pennant: 14/1
  • To Win NL Central: 3/1
  • 2015 Season Win Total: 84.5

Prediction: 3rd Place NL Central (83-79 – UNDER 84.5)

What amazes me about the Pirates is that they have so many no-name players who are absolute studs. They are set up to be contenders for years to come off back-to-back trips to the wild-card. That’s because they have a young core of talent in McCutchen, Harrison, Polanco, Walker, Marte and Cole to build around.

Without question, the Pirates have one of the best lineups in the National League. They have an excellent mix of speed and power, which allows manager Clint Hurdle to manufacture runs. The bullpen is routinely dominant, and it will be again. What has me picking the Pirates 3rd instead of 1st in the Central is a rotation that has a lot of question marks. Cole and Liriano are solid, but I’m not sold on Burnett, Locke and Worley.

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