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Saturday, March 4, 2017

2017 FANTASY BASEBALL SPRING TRAINING REPORT: PITTSBURGH PIRATES

By Michael Wong

Bradenton, Fla.--The Pittsburgh Pirates took a step back in 2016 as their MVP outfielder had a disturbingly poor season and their ace pitcher was taken down by some scary elbow injuries.  The new season brings a fresh start however and the Pirates maintain arguably one of the most skilled outfields in the game and also have some key prospects who are ready to contribute.  So as always, let's get to the pressing fantasy baseball issues surrounding the team.

1.  The most obvious place to start is with Andrew McCutchen and the very difficult 2016 season he endured.  Are we seeing an aging striped-down version of Cutch or is he primed for a comeback?  There is no denying the fact that McCutchen was a sizable letdown last season as he batted a career-worst .256 and saw his K/9 rate go past the 20.0 mark for the first time in his career at 21.2.  As if that wasn't bad enough, McCutchen was a firm liability on the bases as he swiped just 6 bags in 13 attempts.  Now at the age of 30, it is fair to wonder if the wheels are gone for good and the overall offensive package is a shell of its former MVP self.

Taking apart the numbers a bit more, the loss of steals is no shock as players tend to erode there as they approach 30 and McCutchen had been showing leaking there for three straight seasons anyways.  While a small uptick is possible, the best course of action is to grade McCutchen without that statistic.  As far as the hitting numbers overall, McCutchen played through more than a few injuries last season which is likely directly responsible for the average dip.  A fully healthy McCutchen should be able to hit .280-plus again and keep in mind though all his struggles, he still cracked 24 home runs last season.  There is still a lot to work with here but McCutchen can now be downgraded into clear OF 2 status.

2.  As McCutchen loses some of his luster, the opposite can be said of Gregory Polanco yes?  Absolutely!  We are at the point now with Polanco that he is ready to ascend into top tier OF 1 status and this is likely the last chance you can get him at his current 64.0.  In fact it is ridiculous that Polanco is coming that cheap as he hit 22 home runs and stole 17 bases last season in 587 at-bats.  Polanco's 2016 reminds me of Starling Marte right before he himself became an OF 1 and if he can cut into the 20.3 K/9 rate to raise the average, that could be his destiny as well.

3.  Does Josh Bell deserve our sleeper attention?  Bell is a very good hitter for his young age (24) as he batted a scorching .347 at Triple-A in 2015 and ..295 there last season before his promotion to the Pirates.  A tremendous contact hitter who draws a very high number of walks, Bell is a very good buy in those leagues that count OBP.  However his power ceiling doesn't go very high and I draw the comparison to James Loney as a high average guy who helps the counting numbers outside of home runs.  This is a backup first baseman for 2017 fantasy baseball and nothing more at this juncture.

4.  Are the Pirates set to go with Tony Watson as the closer?  This is interesting as Watson did not pitch well when he moved into the closer role last season and he gave up 10 home runs which is trouble in the ninth inning.  We all know that managers prefer to use their top lefty in setup but the Pirates really don't have another closing option yet.  Adding to the angst, Watson only struck out 58 batters in his 67.2 innings last season which is not an ideal stopper ratio.  We wouldn't chase Watson by any means when it comes to drafts this spring and it wouldn't shock us in the least if he was back in setup by June.

5.  Can Gerrit Cole be trusted after last year's elbow scares?  I throw Cole into the same grouping of Danny Salazar, Noah Syndegaard, and other young and very hard-throwing pitchers who are prime Tommy John risks.  It looked like that was where Cole was heading last season as he hit the DL with ongoing elbow trouble.  Perhaps a sign of trouble was the fact Cole's K/9 rate sank badly (just 7.6 in 2016) which again adds to the Tommy John threat.  While the draft price has come down here, Cole is a major risk no matter where you might be able to snag him this spring.


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