If the Pittsburgh Pirates want to contend again in 2017, they will need especially big seasons from a few select individuals.

With the Pittsburgh Pirates about to break camp and head north, projecting how Clint Hurdle’s team will finish in 2017 is no easy task. Is this team capable of recapturing its 2015 form?

For that to prove true, several Pirates will have to play very important roles.

Who are the most important keys to the Bucs making a trip back to the postseason?

Let’s take a look.

Gerrit Cole

Let’s state the obvious right off the bat. If Cole doesn’t get back to being an ace, the Pittsburgh Pirates have no chance in 2017. It is that simple.

Some will debate that Cole isn’t a top of the rotation pitcher and that very well may be true, but he has to be for this team to succeed this season. If he is the guy who finished 7-10 with a 3.88 ERA and 1.44 WHIP, then the Pirates are in trouble. But if Cole is the guy who went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 2015, then the Pirates will be very competitive.

The key with Cole is good health and he is healthy right now.  That wasn’t the case last season. Cole doesn’t need to be Clayton Kershaw for the Pirates to succeed, but he has to be dominant nonetheless.

My guess is Cole gets back closer to the guy we saw in 2015 instead of the guy we saw last season.

Andrew McCutchen

Sticking with the obvious again, but McCutchen has to rebound for the Pittsburgh Pirates to compete.

He finished August and September better after a miserable four month start to the 2016 campaign.

The .766 OPS McCutchen put up last season was the worst of his career by far and if that happens again, the Pirates won’t compete and McCutchen will also be tough to move at the trade deadline should the Pirates look to explore that avenue once again.

McCutchen is a true professional though and is playing with a chip on his shoulder. Those will both be big boons to the Pirates in 2017. He may not get back to MVP level, but McCutchen has to be the best hitter in the Pirates lineup on a nightly basis. If that happens, this lineup should be very good in 2017.

Ivan Nova

I could have gone with several candidates in this spot, but I lean towards Nova. We all saw how bad the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff was last season and ultimately that was the reason for a down season.

The starting rotation must be better in 2017 and Nova is a huge part of that. Behind Cole and Jameson Taillon, Nova has to have a big season as the Bucs’ third starter. He pitched well enough down the stretch to earn himself a big contract. Now Nova must back it up.

If he is anything like the guy who went 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA and 1.09 WHIP after the trade deadline then the Pirates could have a steal on their hands.

The one common thread with the Pirates three playoff teams from 2013-15 is that they received solid production from their number three starter. The club just did not have that last season.

Nova needs to play a big role this season on this team. He can’t revert to being the inconsistent starter he was in a Yankees uniform. If Monday’s spring training start is any indication, Nova very well could be in store for a big 2017 season.

Honorable Mention- Josh Bell

I include Bell on this list for a couple of reasons.

The first is the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to miss Jung-Ho Kang’s bat, especially his power. Bell is going to be given the opportunity to play and he has to live up to the hype. Bell doesn’t necessarily have to replace Kang’s power, but he has to be a very solid bat in the Pirates lineup right from the start of the season.

Another issue is Bell’s defense.

He’s going to have to play good enough defense that Hurdle can run him out there most nights. If Bell kills the team defensively, he’s going to be more harmful than helpful as he won’t be in games for long. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a rookie, but Bell is going to have to come through with an impressive season.

Image Credit – Keith Allison – Flickr Creative Commons

Matt Shetler

Matt is a life long Pirates fan with both a newspaper and radio background. Before coming to Pirates Breakdown he was most recently the co-owner and lead columnist for Pittsburgh Sporting News. He has been a credentialed writer for all four major sports and also has written for plenty of other sports and fantasy sports websites.