St. Louis Cardinals: National League Central Division Preview

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are better than we think.

After three straight seasons as the St. Louis Cardinals top competition in the NL Central, the Pittsburgh Pirates struggled to a sub-.500 record in 2016.

Pittsburgh Pirates, key additions: Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon

Pittsburgh Pirates, key losses: Matt Joyce

Interestingly, the Pirates will enter the 2017 season with essentially the same roster as 2016. Pittsburgh is banking on rebound seasons from their core players, including Gerrit Cole, Andrew McCutchen, and Josh Harrison. While the Pirates were rumored to be in multiple discussions to trade franchise icon Andrew McCutchen, it is unlikely that they will make a major move at this point.

Gerrit Cole, after emerging as an ace in 2015, struggled last season. Cole fought with triceps tightness after leaving a June contest with the St. Louis Cardinals and accumulated only 116 innings over 21 starts. His ERA jumped to 3.88, while his strikeout rate dropped approximately 20%.

Andrew McCutchen’s struggles at the plate largely resulted from a decline in batted ball success. His .297 BABIP was far below his career mark of .331, and his worst since a .291 mark in 2011. While McCutchen’s average exit velocity dropped from 91.3 MPH in 2015 to 90.3 MPH in 2016, he may still have suffered poor batted ball luck last year.

McCutchen saw a decrease in line drive and ground ball percentages, which would support a fall in BABIP. Additionally, his Hard% fell nearly 4%, while his Soft% rose more than 6%, which also supports a lower BABIP. McCutchen did turn 30 years old in 2016, and if he continues to trend in this direction, it is unlikely he will rebound in 2017.

The Pirates overhauled their rotation last year, and a key to their 2017 will be how this new rotation performs over a full season. Ivan Nova posted a 3.06 ERA in 11 starts with the Pirates after turning in a 4.90 ERA in 21 games with the New York Yankees.

Jameson Taillon, the Pirates 2010 first round pick and five time Baseball America Top 100 prospect, broke out in the second half of 2016. Over his first 18 MLB starts, Taillon posted a 3.38 ERA while walking less than 5% of batters faced.

Tyler Glasnow, ranked the 6th best prospect by Baseball America in July of 2016, earned his first taste of big league action last season. In 103 minor league appearances, Glasnow owns an impressive 2.03 ERA. He is expected to be another major contributor in the Pirates rotation next season. If these X-factors continue their strong performance, the rotation will be a major strength for Pittsburgh.

Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang made headlines in December after being arrested for his involvement in a DUI in South Korea. While the MLB needs no more reminders of the tragedies that can result from this behavior, it also leaves a cloud over his status in 2017.