2018 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

Photo: WBLZ Media

by Anthony Brown

Pittsburgh Pirates

2017 Record: 75-87 (4th in NL Central)

2017 Payroll: $109,840,330 (25th)

Projected 2018 Lineup:

All player projections for 2018 from Steamer

  1. 2B Josh Harrison, .276 AVG/.325 OBP/.416 SLG, 1.5 WAR
  2. LF Corey Dickerson, .268 AVG/.317 OBP/.473 SLG, 1.0 WAR
  3. CF Starling Marte, .287 AVG/.342 OBP/.443 SLG, 2.7 WAR
  4. 1B Josh Bell, .273 AVG/.354 OBP/.461 SLG, 1.2 WAR
  5. RF Gregory Polanco, .268 AVG/.334 OBP/.440 SLG, 1.7 WAR
  6. C Francisco Cervelli, .265 AVG/.354 OBP/.377 SLG, 1.5 WAR
  7. 3B Colin Moran, .259 AVG/.318 OBP/.398 SLG, 0.8 WAR
  8. SS Jordy Mercer, .263 AVG/.330 OBP/.403 SLG, 1.1 WAR

Projected 2018 Rotation:

  1. Jameson Taillon, 189.0 IP/3.96 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 3.6 WAR
  2. Ivan Nova, 165.0 IP/4.49 ERA/1.35 WHIP, 2.2 WAR
  3. Chad Kuhl, 149.0 IP/4.42 ERA/1.40 WHIP, 1.9 WAR
  4. Joe Musgrove, 157.0 IP/4.05 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 2.6 WAR
  5. Trevor Williams, 109.0 IP/4.66 ERA/1.45 WHIP, 1.1 WAR

Offseason Recap:

After another disappointing season last year, many expected the Pirates to throw in the towel and start another long rebuild. And they were partially right. The Pirates traded star pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Astros in January for pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, 3B Colin Moran, and LF Jason Martin. As if that wasn’t enough, two days later fan favorite Andrew McCutchen was traded to the Giants in return for pitcher Kyle Crick, CF Bryan Reynolds, and future considerations. Some of these players will have an immediate impact, as Musgrove will slot into the starting rotation this season, Feliz should play a big role in the bullpen, and Moran looks to start the season as the starting third baseman.

After trading Cole and McCutchen, most expected the Pirates to either keep selling off their assets or stay pat for the remainder of the offseason. However, after the Rays surprisingly DFA’d Corey Dickerson, the Pirates swooped in and traded reliever Daniel Hudson, minor league 2B Tristan Gray, and some cash for Dickerson. Dickerson is expected to replace McCutchen in the outfield this season after a breakout 2017 with the Rays.

Season Preview:

After three straight postseason appearances from 2013-2015, the Pirates have followed that up with two straight losing seasons. Most of the disappointment can be attributed to the decline of certain players over the years. Andrew McCutchen dropped off a cliff in 2016, Starling Marte was suspended for steroid use last season, Gerrit Cole went from ace to middle-of-the-rotation arm, and Gregory Polanco hasn’t come anywhere near the lofty expectations set for him. Much of the roster has changed since 2015 as well. Since Cole was traded to the Astros, there are no more pitchers from the 2015 Pirates remaining on the current roster. Despite playing in a tough division this season, the Pirates do have some hope for a playoff spot, as long as everything goes right for them.

The biggest question coming into this season for the Pirates is how the rotation will perform without Gerrit Cole. Last season, the Pirates starters finished 13th in the league in ERA with a mark of 4.47, with a 4.24 FIP that would have them in 9th. The new leader of this rotation is Jameson Taillon, who overcame testicular cancer in May and returned to pitch just five weeks after surgery. Taillon started off hot despite the cancer scare, pitching to a 2.73 ERA and averaging almost one strikeout per inning for the first half of the season. During the second half, however, he completely fell apart, finishing with 5.96 second-half ERA despite a good September. During those months, he had a sharp increase in line drive and fly ball rates, as well as striking out fewer batters and giving up harder-hit balls. Taillon is still only 26 years old, so he should be expected to improve on last season’s performance. If he can fine-tune his mechanics and improve on last years performance, he could very well develop into a perennial Cy Young contender.

The middle of the rotation has the potential to be very good, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will reach this potential. Ivan Nova dominated in his 11 starts as a Pirate in 2016, raising hopes that he was becoming the ace he was once predicted to be. He followed this up with a great start in 2017 before, like Taillon, completely falling apart in the second half. Unlike Taillon, however, Nova’s peripherals do not favor a bounce-back season, and at age 31, he’s running out of time to improve. Replacing Cole in the rotation this season is Joe Musgrove, who the Pirates received in the Cole deal. Musgrove doesn’t have the ace potential that Cole does, but is actually predicted to adequately replace Cole, having a predicted 2.6 fWAR compared to Cole’s 2.8 fWAR. Both of these pitchers have the potential to be solid additions to the rotation, but it’s more likely they turn out to be just okay.

At the back end of the rotation are Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams, who both had breakout seasons of sorts last season. Kuhl struggled in the rotation early in the season, while Williams pitched out of the bullpen until Taillon had surgery. However, in the second half, they became the two best pitchers in the Pirates rotation, both increasing their strikeout rates while decreasing their hard-hit percentage and fly ball rate. Williams ended up leading the Pirates with a 3.96 ERA while pitching in the rotation, and if you take out two bad starts where he gave up 14 ER in 6 IP, his ERA drops to 3.20. While it is unlikely that both will improve too much this season, they only need to be solid back-end options in the rotation.

The bullpen is most likely the biggest strength of the Pirates this season, led by star closer Felipe Rivero. Stolen from the Nationals in the Mark Melancon deal in 2016, Rivero broke out last season and became one of the most dominant closers in the game. Starting off the season as a setup man, Rivero became the closer after Tony Watson struggled and never looked back. With an average fastball velocity of 98.8 MPH coming from a lefty, Rivero dominated hitters and finished with an ERA of 1.67. The rest of the Pirates bullpen should complement Rivero despite not having another standout pitcher. Newly acquired Michael Feliz will pair up with George Kontos as setup men. Feliz is another hard thrower who struggled last season but is predicted to bounce-back, while Kontos looks to dominate like he did after being acquired by the Pirates last summer. The rest of the bullpen is projected to be filled up by young pitchers such as Dovydas Neverauskas, AJ Schugel, and Edgar Santana, who performed well in limited action last season.

While the pitching side of the ball looks decent, the offense is definitely something to worry about. Last season, the Pirates ranked 29th in home runs, 27th in AVG, and 27th in WAR produced by their hitters, and that was with Andrew McCutchen. Without McCutchen, the default leader of the offense will be Starling Marte. After putting up very solid seasons from 2013-2016, Marte was suspended for 80 games for steroid use at the beginning of last season. When he returned, he struggled for a couple of weeks before picking up the pace at the end of the season. Replacing McCutchen in center field this season will certainly improve the defense, but Marte will have to return to his former offensive abilities in order to fully replace McCutchen’s value. If all goes well, Marte should return to his former glory and get fans to forget the fact that he cheated.

The corner outfield positions are anyone’s guess as to how they will perform this season. Corey Dickerson will take over in left field after being acquired from the Rays this offseason, and looks to build on a breakout season last year. After struggling in 2016, Dickerson broke out with a .282 AVG, 27 home runs, and 2.6 fWAR, as well as making the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. While some regression is likely to occur, Dickerson should provide another solid offensive season for the Pirates. In right field, Gregory Polanco looks to prove that 2017 was a fluke and that he still has All-Star potential. Last season, Polanco hit .251, his worst average since his rookie season, and finished with 0.5 fWAR. Hopefully, this awful season can be explained by the three separate DL stints for hamstring problems last season, for which he has spent the offseason working on durability. If he fully recovers, Polanco could have a huge bounce-back season and give the Pirates a third solid outfielder.

Up the middle, the Pirates have Josh Harrison at second base and Jordy Mercer at shortstop. Despite rumors about wanting to be traded after Cole and McCutchen were traded, Harrison will start the season at second base and will be batting leadoff. Usually not much of a power hitter, Harrison had a huge leap in home runs last year, going from 4 in 2016, to 16 last season. This was mostly due to a huge increase in HR/FB%, which means that regression in that regard is likely. Mercer also increased his home run total last year, from 11 to 14, but his peripherals show that he is more likely to stay in double digits than Harrison is. Projections for both players have them in the 1.0-1.5 range for fWAR next season, which may seem a bit low. Both are solid offensive players and provide above-average defense, culminating in a solid middle of the infield.

At first base, Josh Bell will try to improve on a solid rookie season, where he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting, behind Cody Bellinger and Paul DeJong. After a slow start, he improved every month until falling apart in September, which could be due to fatigue. He has 30 HR/.270 AVG potential and should be a solid contributor again this year. His main problem is his defense. It’s awful. Like J.D. Martinez awful, but at first base, which is considered the easiest position to field. He would best be suited as a DH, but seeing as the Pirates are a National League team, they can only hope that he improves his defense this year. On the other side of the diamond is Colin Moran, who was acquired in the Gerrit Cole trade. Moran has double-digit home run power and will likely hit around .260, but he could be platooned with veteran David Freese, who has put up solid numbers for the Pirates the last few seasons.

One player that the Pirates definitely hope will return to their former glory is catcher Francisco Cervelli. He suffered a wrist injury and quad problems last year and struggled to hit while he was healthy. It is likely that the wrist injury affected his swing last year, so the hope is that he will improve his offense in 2018. If fully healthy, Cervelli should hit around .260 with around 5 home runs, along with his usual fantastic defense. Backing him up this year will be Elias Diaz, who is also a very good defender, but even worse offensively than Cervelli, even though he was healthy all season. With Cervelli healthy, the Pirates infield should be solid, if not borderline good this coming season.

Down on the farm, the Pirates have fewer high-level prospects than they have the last couple of years. After being plagued by injuries and underperforming in the minors last season, outfielder Austin Meadows has lost his hold on the Pirates’ top prospect spot, falling to number two after pitcher Mitch Keller had a good year in A+ and AA. Meadows looked to compete for a roster spot this spring but will start the year in AAA, likely earning a call-up if injuries strike the outfield. Keller is ranked 16th overall on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list but isn’t projected to reach the majors until 2019, although a strong season could earn him a September call-up. Keller has a solid fastball and is developing a strong curve, has good control, and can strike out a lot of batters. MLB.com projects his floor as a middle-of-the-rotation arm with a much higher ceiling. The only other prospect to make it onto the top 100 list was Shane Baz, a pitcher drafted out of high school last summer. He is reported to have a solid repertoire, but at only 18 years old, he is still several years away from the majors

All in all, the Pirates are not too far removed from playoff contention. They have all the pieces needed to compete, they just need everything to come together in order to make it happen. However, playing in a strong division that got stronger over the offseason won’t help, so the Pirates only realistic shot of making the playoffs is through the Wild Card, which isn’t much of a chance, but it’s all they’ve got.

Predicted Record: 75-87

Player to Watch: Starling Marte

As mentioned above, after missing 80 games due to suspension, Marte returned and resumed hitting like his former self. He has 20 home run power, the ability to hit .300, and, when healthy, can steal 40 bases per season. While he put up 1.2 fWAR over 77 games last season, that isn’t the level that he had performed at in seasons before. If the Pirates are going to compete this season, Marte needs to return to 4 fWAR seasons he was putting up before his suspension. Look for him to improve his offense this season as well as shoring up the defense in the outfield. Also, now that McCutchen is gone, Marte will be looked at as the de facto leader of the team, as well as becoming the new fan favorite Pirate.

Player to Watch: Tyler Glasnow

Once the highest rated prospect in the Pirates system and a top 10 rated prospect in the majors, Glasnow had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde season last year. After winning a spot in the rotation during spring training, Glasnow struggled to a 7.45 ERA and a 1.91 WHIP before being sent to AAA in June. While in the minors, he dominated the competition, having a 1.93 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and striking out 38.5% of batters he faced. This dominance earned him a call-up in September, where he was somehow even worse than he was at the beginning of the year. In his one start and two relief appearances in September, Glasnow had a 9.39 ERA, 2.74 WHIP, and a walk rate of 37.5%. Glasnow has tons of potential, but can’t seem to figure it out in the majors yet. He is expected to begin the season either in the bullpen or AAA but should join the rotation if injuries strike or someone struggles.

Player to Watch: Corey Dickerson

One of the biggest surprises of the offseason happened when the Rays designated Dickerson for assignment. It was followed by another surprise when the Pirates traded for him after appearing to be selling off all assets this offseason. Dickerson proved that he was capable of putting up All-Star quality numbers last season, but he has to do it again to prove it wasn’t a fluke. One cause for concern is his improved hitting against lefties last season. In 2016, Dickerson hit .241 in 108 AB against lefties, while in 2017, he hit .308 in 158 AB. Considering his career average against lefties is .266, it is likely that his batting average against them will be closer to the mean this season, bringing his overall batting average down. Despite that, Dickerson still projects to be a 25 HR/.270 AVG hitter, which should fit in well with the rest of the Pirates lineup.

Categories: 2018 Season Preview, Articles

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1 reply

  1. Amazing analysis!

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