MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

5 reasons you can't count out the Pirates

Despite big offseason moves by NL Central rivals, Bucs still very much in mix

5 reasons you can't count out the Pirates

Quickly. Who are the two best teams in the National League? The three best? The four best?

You better have mentioned the Pirates in there somewhere. They've earned it.

Over the past three seasons, only one team in the Major Leagues has had more wins than the Pirates, who have averaged 93 wins but haven't translated that regular-season success into much postseason shelf life.

For that, they can blame a string of elimination losses at the hands of Adam Wainwright, Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta. Also geography, as they've been relegated to the NL Wild Card Game each of the past three years because they're assigned to the NL Central, which has been won by the Cardinals seven of the past 12 seasons.

The Cards, of course, are the one team that has been a bigger winner than the Bucs during the run that started in 2013. But these days, St. Louis is hardly the only problem that is central to the nervous system of Pittsburgh fans.

Enter the Cubs, with their 97-win breakthrough in 2015, core of young talent and ability to sign top-of-the-charts free agents like Jason Heyward and Jon Lester.

Look beyond the NL Central, and you'll see strong Senior Circuit teams in the Mets, Nationals, Dodgers, Giants and upwardly mobile D-backs.

You can argue that the Pirates are on their way to being a middle-of-the-pack club in the NL. But you'd be wrong. This is a very talented, very focused team that we could be talking about in late October. Here're five reasons why the Bucs matter just as much in 2016 as they have over the past three years:

1. The M & M men
There are a handful of NL tandems as productive as Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, but none that work as well together -- both in the field and the lineup. McCutchen, the 2013 NL Most Valuable Player Award winner, has finished in the top five in NL MVP Award voting four years in a row -- and Marte might have outplayed him last season.

Marte played through injuries to appear in a career-high 153 games last year. He won his first Gold Glove Award, delivered 19 home runs, stole 30 bases and finished with a .780 OPS. If Marte gets out of the gate fast, he could generate 30/30 discussion. And we know what we're going to get from McCutchen.

Outlook: Marte, LF, PIT

Nobody is more consistent than McCutchen. His OBP has been between .400 and .410 each of the past four years; his OPS-plus in the 153-166 range. Together, McCutchen and Marte have the talent to carry a team a long way.

2. More two-out innings than four-out innings
With the underrated Jordy Mercer at shortstop and bench coach Dave Jauss instituting the intel he gets from a well-run baseball operations staff, the Pirates frustrate opposing lineups more than any other team. The pitching plays a role, for sure (especially an always-deep bullpen), but pitchers love playing in front of an outfield that takes away hits and infielders who always seem well-positioned.

Mercer's great jump-throw

Pittsburgh has accounted for 149 Defensive Runs Saved the past three years; the only NL team to do better is Arizona (187). Mercer's average range hurts him when we rate the best shortstops, but there's probably not a more sure fielder in baseball. Every throw seems to go exactly where he wants it to end up.

3. A right, then a left
Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano form one of the best combinations at the front of a rotation. They were 25th and 24th, respectively, in Baseball Info Solutions' Starting Pitcher Rankings at the end of 2015. The Cubs have three of the top 25; the Nationals, Giants, White Sox and Padres have two each.

(Where are the Mets, you ask? Tenure counts in the rankings, so check back at the end of 2016, please.)

Cole, who is in his age-25 season, is coming off his first 200-innings season. He was brilliant last year, but he'll be more driven than ever after being overshadowed by Arrieta in the NL Wild Card Game.

Liriano remains the ultimate reclamation project for pitching coach Ray Searage, and the lefty might be getting nastier. Witness his career-best 1.205 WHIP and a 9.9 K/9 ratios last season.

Outlook: Liriano, SP, PIT

4. A manager and coaches who matter
Clint Hurdle has been everything except lucky in his five seasons in Pittsburgh. He is as prepared as he is open-minded, as optimistic as he is dedicated. Hurdle hasn't wasted five minutes wondering what would happen if the Bucs had the same resources as teams like the Cardinals and Cubs. Instead, he's focused on how to win the NL Central and advance to the World Series.

Hurdle on Scouting for Diamonds

Searage has had so much success rebuilding pitchers mid-career that Pittsburgh has become a destination. It'll be fun to see what he gets out of Ryan Vogelsong and Neftali Feliz this year. Bullpen coach Euclides Rojas also merits some credit for the organization's success with pitchers.

5. A scouting system that works
Neal Huntington built this organization from the ground floor up, with the understanding that the construction would never end. The Pirates would love to see increased revenue sharing or tougher spending limits in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, but they seem to have created a system for acquiring and developing talent that is capable of repeating itself.

They have impact prospects in the pipeline in right-hander Tyler Glasnow, first baseman Josh Bell (who is behind John Jaso and Michael Morse on the organization depth chart, but could force his way into the picture quickly this season) and center fielder Austin Meadows.

Top Prospects: Bell, PIT

McCutchen and Marte agreed to extensions that bought out three free-agent seasons apiece, so the core isn't going anywhere for awhile. The guys coming look polished, intelligent and advanced in their understanding of the strike zone.

It's easy to overlook the Pirates, but don't make that mistake. They've got the pieces and the process to keep the postseason window open longer than you might think.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.