Realistically, the Bucs' best bet to improve on a 78-win campaign rides on healthy, bounceback seasons from outfielder Andrew McCutchen and ace Gerrit Cole. But the club also stands to benefit from full seasons from first baseman Josh Bell and starting pitcher Jameson Taillon.
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The Pirates should feature a higher-upside rotation than last year, particularly if top prospect Tyler Glasnow gets in the mix. Simply having Taillon along with Cole and Nova could give the Bucs a better shot than last year's Opening Day group of Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jonathon Niese, Juan Nicasio and Jeff Locke.
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Granted, Liriano was coming off three strong seasons in Pittsburgh then turned into one of the National League's worst starters before he was traded. Nova, meanwhile, is returning after two excellent months. If his turnaround is real, he and Taillon will take some pressure off Cole.
"That's a solid foundation," general manager Neal Huntington said.
Taillon posted a 3.38 ERA in 18 starts last season, coincidentally the same as Liriano's ERA marks in 2014 and '15. He wasn't called up until June 8, then he missed time in July with shoulder fatigue, partly as a precaution to manage his innings.
Taillon totaled 165 2/3 innings between Triple-A and the Majors, so he figures to be unrestricted and ready for a full season. The former No. 2 overall pick, who made 12 quality starts for the Pirates, should provide a stable presence in the middle of the rotation.
The Pirates also have likely No. 4 Chad Kuhl, a league-average starter as a rookie, along with Drew Hutchison and some young arms -- including Glasnow -- who broke into the Majors last year.
"Glasnow, when his time comes, the ceiling is tremendous," Huntington said. "Chad Kuhl showed very solid Major League abilities in his half-season or so. Hutchison has been a successful Major League pitcher in the past. Then [Steven] Brault and [Trevor] Williams, with [Nick] Kingham on the horizon, give us some quality options in that rotation."
The Pirates had been linked in trade rumors to White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana, an obvious difference-maker atop the rotation. Some analysts have questioned whether they've done enough to improve after an 83-loss season, but Huntington thinks the Pirates have what they need to contend.
"There's been a lot of conversation about how we didn't add to a 78-win team, but we also are essentially the same exact team, with a group of players with another year of experience, than the team [last year] projected to win 80-something games," Huntington said. "If we do what we're capable of, we stay healthy, guys take steps forward, we believe this is a club that can put itself in a position to make the postseason.
"If you put yourself in a position to make the postseason, you're in a position to win it all. As all small markets do, we need some things to go well for us. We may need to make some alterations in-season, but we do like our depth."