In the macro sense, the Pittsburgh Pirates are an extraordinarily good baseball team. According to my sources (Wikipedia), there are 248 Minor League Baseball teams affiliated with Major League Baseball clubs, not to mention hundreds of teams in independent leagues, hundreds of teams in professional leagues outside the United States and Canada, and thousands of college, high school, beer league, and Little League teams. And the Pittsburgh Pirates, out of millions of teams around the world, are better than almost all of them.
However, they are not better than the St. Louis Cardinals.
As it presently stands, the Pirates are 14-11, surpassing preseason expectations a bit. Last season, the Pirates finished a lackluster 75-87, and with the team looking like a shell of the club which hosted three consecutive National League Wild Card games from 2013 through 2015, well-regarded general manager Neal Huntington launched what looked to be a rebuilding process. Beloved long-time center fielder Andrew McCutchen, ranked fourth in the “color photography for player pictures was a thing” era of Pirates baseball by Wins Above Replacement (behind Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Barry Bonds), was traded to the San Francisco Giants. Gerrit Cole, a former number-one overall pick and the team’s ace, was sent to the Houston Astros.
Still, however, parts remain from those excellent Pirates teams of a few seasons ago. Starling Marte is quietly one of the better outfielders of his era–from his 2012 debut through 2017, he ranked 8th by Wins Above Replacement among outfielders. Josh Harrison has bounced between second and third base and has twice been an All-Star, finishing in 9th in NL MVP voting in 2014. As of the time I started writing this series preview, the team’s top player by WAR was Corey Dickerson, whose designation for assignment by the Tampa Bay Rays last February shocked baseball, as Dickerson had been an All-Star in 2017.
The Pirates also have David Freese, who hit a home run off Mark Lowe one time. It went kind of far!
Tonight’s expected starters are Miles Mikolas and somebody named “S. Brault” (note: it turns out his first name is Steven). Although Mikolas had a shaky Spring Training at times, he has pitched well so far in his return to Major League Baseball after three seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball–his 3.46 earned-run average, 3.86 fielding-independent pitching, and 3.23 expected FIP easily surpass the 4.44 ERA, 4.73 FIP, and 5.51 xFIP of Brault.
The Pirates will have the pitching advantage on Saturday–maybe? Trevor Williams is the more established starter, and through five starts in 2018, his ERA is a sterling 2.15. But in Jack Flaherty, an acclaimed prospect who struck out nine batters while walking one in his lone MLB start of the 2018 season, the Cardinals have potential lightning in a bottle–no matter your thoughts on 2018 Adam Wainwright, Flaherty almost certainly has the higher upside.
As for Sunday, the Cardinals are expected to pitch Luke Weaver, who has shown promise and often been very good, but who in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s starts against the New York Mets was very bad. The Pirates are starting, according to ESPN, “Undecided”. If the Pirates start one of their current starting pitchers, the advantage should go to the Cardinals. If they decide to start Clayton Kershaw, probably gonna side with the Pirates. That said, they probably aren’t going to start Clayton Kershaw. I just try to keep an open mind.
While the series is in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals could sweep. They should take two of three. Anything less and the Cardinals should commit all resources at their disposal towards petitioning Rob Manfred to let them play the Cincinnati Reds every single game.