What’s it like being the third-best team in a division with only two good teams?
The 2017 Pirates are about to find out!
The Pirates open the season today with a three-game set against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, which is a bit like starting a marathon by running straight up a hill. The Bucs then get the Braves and Reds at home before three games against the Cubs and Cardinals each, setting up a roller coaster of a first few weeks of the 2017 MLB season.
The Pirates finished the 2016 season with 78 wins and we’ve outlined how they need to improve this season — ahem Andrew McCutchen, please stand up. So will the 2017 Pirates be better than last year’s team?
It depends on where you look.
The Las Vegas over/under for Pirates wins opened in early February at 85.5, which seemed particularly high given their sub-.500 record last year and injury/availability questions in several spots in both the lineup and pitching rotation. The St. Louis Cardinals — 1-0 after topping the Cubs in the season opener Sunday — were projected for 87.5 wins, while the Cubs topped the MLB list at 95.5 after last season’s historic 103-win season.
In late February, with spring training in full swing, Westgate superbook had the Pirates at 82.5 wins, which seems more realistic than the opening line set by Atlantis’ superbook. On March 27, CRIS superbook had the Pirates at 83 wins, just behind the Cardinals and 13.5 games behind the Cubbies.
The same day, Westgate put out their World Series odds and while the Pirates had opened at a not-terrible 30-1 in the off-season, their odds doubled (Note: Good for gamblers, not the team) to 60-1 before the season began. For comparison, the Cubs opened at 3-1 and moved 7-2 to win the World Series. Those are the best odds in baseball. The Cardinals went from 20-1 to 30-1, which is not great, but still twice as likely to win it all than the Pirates. Not that either of them should be planning a parade anytime soon.
Those numbers are pretty clear about one thing: Vegas thinks the Pirates should be better this season, though not good enough to actually compete for a title, be it the World Series or even just the NL Central division.
Only, Vegas isn’t in the business of baseball as much as the business of money, and guessing in March how many wins a team will have come October doesn’t matter unless Vegas can set a line that projects to make the sportsbooks money. Sure-thing bets do not keep the casino lights on, so it’s hard to know if a line of 85.5 or 82.5 or 83 wins for the Pirates is what we should actually expect them to hit, or if those marks are just what will make Vegas the most money.
Baseball Prospectus has the Pirates winning 81 games in their highly-regarded PECOTA rankings this season. That’s fewer wins than Vegas, but more than the Cardinals, which BP has winning just 78 games, tied with the Brewers. The Pirates, per PECOTA, are projected to finish second in the division, though still six games out of a Wild Card spot.
Bleacher Report took the PECOTA rankings and added their own “eye test” prognostications, and while they don’t think McCutchen will be getting back to his MVP-caliber self, they do think the Bucs will be better than last year, and even slightly better than PECOTA, at 82 wins this season. They have the Cardinals at 88 wins.
Fangraphs has things a little different than Baseball Prospectus too. Like BP, the Cubs are expected to run away with the division, but Fangraphs projects the Cardinals to have 85 wins, just off Wild Card pace, while the Pirates are projected for just 77 this season. Yikes, that’s fewer than last year!
USA Today projected the Pirates for 81 wins this season, wondering if the window has closed on their previous playoff success, while the baseball gurus at Yahoo have the Pirates anywhere from 79 to 89 wins. That’s … not a consensus at all.
In their Pirates preview’s “best case” scenario section starts: “Like last season, Pittsburgh appears stuck in baseball purgatory.” That’s almost worst than being bad, which is echoed in the Yahoo “worst case” scenario being, “there’s not a lot of places for this team to go” in the MLB standings.
Pittsburgh baseball in 2017 is, it seems, average at best — and average at worst.
That said, the Pirates may not have winning baseball this season, but not having losing baseball would be a step in the right direction after last year. Being around .500 seems likely, which is our totally unscientific guess as well: 81 wins.
Enjoy the middle.