The Pittsburgh Pirates went 98-64 during the regular season last year, the second-best record in the major leagues, yet enter spring training with much lessened expectations.
The Cubs ended Pittsburgh's 2015 season in the winner-take-all wild-card game and went on an offseason shopping spree that included raiding the three-time defending division champion Cardinals of outfielder Jason Heyward and right-hander John Lackey in free agency.
Meanwhile, on Friday, the Pirates pitchers and catchers will begin spring training workouts at Bradenton, Fla., following a winter more notable for who was lost than gained.
Second baseman Neil Walker was traded to the New York Mets for left-hander Jon Niese. First baseman Pedro Alvarez was not tendered a contract, making him a free agent. Right-hander A.J. Burnett and third baseman Aramis Ramirez retired. Left-hander J.A. Happ left for the Toronto Blue Jays in free agency. Right-hander Charlie Morton was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Though the Pirates seem to have their work cut in trying to reach the playoffs for a fourth straight season, the recent run of success provides optimism going into camp.
"I'm not Miss Cleo, I don't tell the future," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "As much as a lot of people would like to say, 'This is what's going to happen,' how often has that actually happened? A lot of people had us last year not ending up where we did, and we ended up exceeding expectation."
Niese was one of only three notable acquisitions along with right-hander Ryan Vogelsong and first baseman John Jaso, who were signed as free agents. Niese and Vogelsong figure to the Nos. 3 and 4 starters behind ace Gerrit Cole and left-hander Francisco Liriano.
Yet the Pirates' roster seems fairly set, and the most interesting aspect of spring training may be how Jaso transitions to first base after playing just five innings there during his seven-year career. The Pirates have faith the former 32-year-old catcher/outfielder can make the conversation after giving him a two-year, $8-million contract and are most enamored by his .361 career on-base percentage.
Infielder Jung Ho Kang's rehab will also be a source of much interest after his fine rookie season ended abruptly last September when he sustained a broken left leg and torn knee ligaments in a second-base collision.
Kang has been working out in Bradenton since December and is now able to run, field groundballs and take batting practice in the indoors cages. The Pirates are hoping he can be the starting third baseman as Josh Harrison will be needed to shift from the hot corner to second base to replace Walker.
The Pirates are not putting a timetable on Kang's recovery but there is at least some optimism that he could be ready April 3 for the opener against the Cardinals in Pittsburgh.
POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: If 3B Jung Ho Kang is not recovered by Opening Day from the broken leg and torn knee ligaments he sustained last September in a second-base collision, 2B Josh Harrison will be needed at the hot corner. That will leave a number of players vying for playing time at second base, including veteran INFs Sean Rodriguez and Pedro Florimon and rookie INFs Alen Hanson and Gift Ngoepe. Rodriguez has logged more time at second base than any other position during his eight-year career and hit .246 with four home runs in 141 games last season. Florimon is considered an above-average fielder but batted just .087 in 24 games in the major leagues and .245 with two home runs in 64 games with Triple-A Indianapolis. Hanson, 23, hit .263 with six homers and 35 stolen bases in 117 games at Indianapolis. Considered the best defensive infielder in the farm system, Ngoepe, 26, will try to become the first South African to reach the major leagues after batting a combined .257 with three home runs in 92 games with Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona. The right-handed hitting Rodriguez is presumptive favorite because of his experience but could wind up in a platoon with the switch-hitting Florimon.
ROOKIE WATCH: Hanson or Ngoepe could begin the season on the major league roster yet it would not be a surprise if the Pirates had no rookies when they open April 3 against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. Right-handers Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams figure to get a look this spring along with catcher Elias Diaz and first baseman Josh Bell in anticipation of getting called up at some point during the season. Glasnow, 22, is considered the Pirates top overall prospect and went a combined 7-5 with a 2.39 ERA in 22 starts with Indianapolis, Altoona and short season West Virginia last year. Taillon, 24, reached Indianapolis in 2013, but the second overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft missed the last two seasons while recovering from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. Williams, 23 was acquired from the Miami Marlins in an offseason trade following a season in which he was a combined 7-10 with a 3.85 ERA in 25 games, including 24 starts, with Triple-A New Orleans and Double-A Jacksonville. Diaz, 25, went 0-for-2 with the Pirates last September after hitting .271 with four home runs in 93 games for Indianapolis and winning Baseball America's Captain's Catcher award, which goes to the top defensive backstop in the entire minor leagues. The switch-hitting Bell, 23, batted a combined .317 with seven homers in 131 games for Indianapolis and Altoona while also going deep in the All-Star Futures Game in Cincinnati.
COMEBACK TRAIL: LHP Eric O'Flaherty, who struggled to an 8.10 ERA in a combined 30 innings with the Oakland Athletics and New York Mets last season in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, has an open path to the job as the second left-hander in the bullpen after being signed to a minor-league contract earlier last week. The 31-year-old had a 1.99 ERA in a five-season span, covering 249 1/3 innings, with the Atlanta Braves from 2009-13. The Pirates love sinkerball pitchers and O'Flaherty has induced groundballs at a 58.3 percent rate during his 10-year career.
--RHP Gerrit Cole will be the unquestioned ace of the staff this season after nearly becoming the Pirates' first 20-game winner since 1991 last year. Cole finished with a 19-8 record and a 2.60 ERA in 32 regular-season starts, though he lost to the Chicago Cubs in the National League wild card. He showed his durability by pitching a career-high 208 innings while striking out 202. Just 25, it is easy to expect Cole to continue to improve.
--LHP Jon Niese will be the No. 3 starter for the Pirates after getting squeezed out of the New York Mets' rotation by a number of hard-throwing young pitchers last season. Acquired in a December trade for 2B Neil Walker, Niese is a sinkerball pitcher and his ability to induce groundballs dovetails well with the Pirates' strategy of aggressively shifting their infield. Niese, 29, was 9-10 with a 4.13 ERA last season in 33 games, including 29 starts.
--RHP Mark Melancon will return as the closer after leading the major leagues with 51 saves in 53 opportunities in the offseason. Melancon is eligible for free agency at the end of the season and the Pirates attempted to trade him during the winter but had no success because of the glut of closers on the market. Thus, the Pirates instead avoided a salary arbitration hearing by signing him to a one-year, $9.65-million contact and hope for another big season from the 30-year-old.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We'll never dominate the hot stove. We know who we are and I think the best thing about us is we measure ourselves by how we do with what we have, from top to bottom. And I like our group," -- manager Clint Hurdle on the lack of splash moves by the Pirates during the offseason.