It all gets going on Sunday, as the Pittsburgh Pirates look to try to build off a 98-win season that saw them reach the Wild Card game for the third consecutive time yet fall short in that one-game playoff to the Chicago Cubs. When that first pitch of the 2016 season is thrown on Sunday afternoon against the Cardinals, here are the five questions, I feel at least, that will need to be answered throughout various points in the year:
1. How will Juan Nicasio do?
What a tremendous revelation the right-hander has been throughout Spring Training, coming from nowhere (to some) to earn a spot in the rotation. But even as he uprooted what many thought would be Ryan Vogelsong’s spot as a starter, there are real questions about Nicasio that remain: How long can he keep up the form he’s shown in Spring Training and, also, is he really a guy who can pitch well for an extended time in the regular season? After his 2011 rookie season in Colorado, he has never had an ERA lower than 5.14 as a starter and has been burdened by more than 100 innings in a season just once in his career. That said, the safe bet is that he won’t last the season as a starter, which is why the Pirates look to be ultra smart by moving him to the rotation when he’s pitching his best (right now) and seeing what they can get from him.
2. Can Gregory Polanco become a star?
While just 24, Polanco has risen to the point where he is undeniably counted on to be an essential part of this team. But he really needs to perform like it — offensively and defensively — this season. There needs to be a limit on the defensive flubs and the plays where he takes bad angles at the ball or throws to the wrong base. At the plate, even as he raised his average in his second season from .235 to .256, Polanco hit just two more home runs in his sophomore season even as he had 340 more plate appearances than as a rookie. Those power numbers need to spike. Many comment on his swing being “too long” or “loopy” and he needs to shorten it up and the power will come. I don’t know the particular answer, but I do know this: If Polanco can show more power, this team would seemingly greatly benefit.
3. Will the Cardinals and Cubs fall off?
You can only control what you can control, for sure. But from the looks of it — and the handicapping jobs done by the national experts — it looks like St. Louis and Chicago are the far and away picks to finish 1-2 in the National League Central. Perhaps the best thing the Pirates could do in this realm is, well, control what they can control. Last season they went 8-11 against the Cubs and 9-10 against the Cardinals. It is definitely a tough ask, but a winning record against at least one of those teams could be the difference between playing in a Wild Card game or making the playoffs proper.
4. How will Kang heal?
The signing of David Freese could definitely turn out to be enormous, but he is a guy who has power numbers way down from that 2012 season when he blasted 20 home runs for the Cardinals. That said, he will play in Kang’s place at third when Kang can’t go, so Freese would look to be a more-than-serviceable replacement, but he isn’t Kang right now. The big question is, though, what is Kang right now? Because of the gruesome injury he sustained toward the tail end of last year, it is a logical thought that he might have to have more than a few off days interspersed throughout the season — and that’s on top of most likely starting the year on the DL. Like football coaches say all the time, “you can’t help the club in the tub” and it will be interesting to see just how much time Kang needs down not just to start the season, but as it progresses.
5. Will the Pirates run more effectively?
Taking an extra base when they can — especially when the Pirates lost the power of Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez — would look to be paramount in the 2016 season. Last season, the Pirates weren’t all that incredibly effective stealing bases, as they had a success rate of 68.53 percent, which was 11th out of 15 National League teams. That said, this is a team that must find a way to maybe run more, but also run more effectively. That is no small accomplishment, but it seems like, with a lack of power in the lineup, they must do so.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weekdays from 5:40 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.