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Pirates Series Preview: Q&A With Bucs Dugout

Eli Nellis from our Pirates sister site stops by to discuss the Marlins’ next opponent.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

After getting swept at home by the Mets, the Marlins will host the Pittsburgh Pirates for three games before heading to New York. The Pirates have come out hot with a 9-3 record and sit atop the NL Central. This comes as a surprise to many around baseball as the Pirates traded cornerstone players Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole during the offseason. Eli Nellis, co-manager of Bucs Dugout, was kind enough to speak with us about the Pirates’ hot start, players to watch, and the series in Miami.

Friday, 7:10 p.m. — Chad Kuhl (1-0, 5.06 ERA) vs. Dillon Peters (1-1, 9.35)

Saturday, 7:10 p.m. — Jameson Taillon (2-0, 1.26) vs. Trevor Richards (0-1, 8.64)

Note: Taillon was named NL PLayer of the Week for his complete game, one-hit shutout win over the Reds last Sunday. In his two games, Taillon has given up five hits and two walks in 14.1 IP, while striking out 16.

Sunday, 1:10 p.m. — Ivan Nova (1-1, 5.19) vs. José Ureña (0-2, 5.06)

The Pirates are off to a great start so far with an 9-3 record. What do you think has contributed to their success thus far?

The offense, a weak spot last year, has looked pretty darn good. Gregory Polanco is scorching the ball and Corey Dickerson is looking like every bit the steal people hoped he was. Several others, like Starling Marte, Josh Harrison, Francisco Cervelli and Colin Moran, are off to strong starts, too. That’s most of the starting lineup, and you’re going to do well when that many guys click at the same time.

The McCutchen and Cole trades were obviously the biggest news from the offseason. What was the reaction from the fan base like at the time? Has it changed now that the season is underway?

There was a lot of outrage with the trades, which I get. I was more disappointed the Pirates had gotten to that point, having nickel-and-dimed the roster to the point they essentially closed the book on the renaissance of 2013-15.

I don’t know that the reaction to the trades specifically has changed. The strange thing is, with down years from McCutchen and Cole in 2017, the trades didn’t dramatically alter the 2018 projections. It’s realistic to think the 2018 team will improve or at least perform at the same level as it did last year. Because of the trades, there wasn’t much excitement among Pirates fans going into the season, but looking at the trades (or management’s overall strategy) and the outlook of the 2018 season is sort of like judging two separate things, as odd as that may seem.

Jameson Taillon has been lights out so far. Coming off being named NL Player of the Week, what do you think has been the biggest key to his success?

The first thing is his health. He was dogged by injuries in the minors after famously being drafted second overall in 2010, before Manny Machado, and everyone’s heard about his testicular cancer scare last year. Taillon returned to the mound last June and was able to have a fairly normal offseason and lead-up to the regular season, which is a luxury I don’t think he’s had many seasons.

Also, he’s using his four-seam fastball more and his sinker less this year. The Pirates are known to emphasize the sinker organization-wide. This has paid off in several instances, but they’ve sometimes gotten sucked into a one-size-fits-all approach that hasn’t benefited all pitchers. It looks like Taillon’s getting into an approach more fitting of his personal strengths, so that’s promising.

Who would you say has been the biggest standout at the plate so far?

Polanco. He’s got five home runs and nine walks in 53 plate appearances. We’ve seen flashes like this before, where he looks like the young Darryl Strawberry he was known for, but he’s dealt with a lot of injuries and been wildly inconsistent overall in 3 ½ years.

It certainly feels good that he’s doing this right out of the gate, though, and he’s young and talented enough to make you feel like a full breakout season is in there somewhere.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Pittsburgh Pirates Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Who is one player in the Pirates organization that you think will surprise people the most?

Edgar Santana has a live arm, but hasn’t pitched a whole lot in the big leagues. I could see him putting it together and pitching important innings in relief this year.

What do the Pirates have to do to win this series against the Marlins? What would have to happen for them to lose it? What’s your W/L prediction for the series?

The bullpen has been a weak spot so far, so to win they’ll either have to get better performances from their relievers or hit enough that it doesn’t matter. Of course, if the middle relief falls through again or Felipe Vazquez (until recently Felipe Rivero) has a rough inning or two, it could be a bad weekend in Miami.

I’m going with two Pirates wins out of the three games. Taillon should do well, and I imagine the Pirates will get one good start from either Chad Kuhl or Ivan Nova. It’s hard to ever predict a sweep, and I’m certainly not going to start in a post on the opposing team’s blog.