By Anthony Brown
2018 Record: 82-79 (4th in NL Central)
2018 Payroll: $91,025,861 (27th)
Projected 2019 Lineup:
- 2B Adam Frazier, .273/.339/.397, 2.0 WAR
- CF Starling Marte, .282/.334/.441, 3.3 WAR
- LF Corey Dickerson, .275/.317/.466, 1.5 WAR
- 1B Josh Bell, .271/.359/.445, 1.8 WAR
- C Francisco Cervelli, .256/.357/.382, 2.0 WAR
- 3B Colin Moran, .265/.328/.407, 1.0 WAR
- SS Erik Gonzalez, .257/.292/.379, 0.3 WAR
- RF Lonnie Chisenhall, .259/.321/.413, 0.4 WAR
RF returning in May: Gregory Polanco, .259/.335/.454, 1.4 WAR
Projected 2019 Rotation:
- Jameson Taillon, 190 IP/3.91 ERA/1.26 WHIP, 3.3 WAR
- Chris Archer, 191 IP/3.66 ERA/1.23 WHIP, 3.7 WAR
- Trevor Williams, 145 IP/4.72 ERA/1.44 WHIP, 1.1 WAR
- Joe Musgrove, 162 IP/4.03 ERA/1.27 WHIP, 2.4 WAR
- Nick Kingham, 113 IP/4.51 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 0.8 WAR
Once again, the Pirates had a very quiet offseason. While every other team in the NL Central has been making moves, the Pirates have done the bare minimum. On offense, they replaced shortstop Jordy Mercer by trading bench players Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff to the Indians for Erik Gonzalez, a mediocre infielder blocked by the Indians infield. To replace the injured Gregory Polanco, the Pirates signed free agents Lonnie Chisenhall and Melky Cabrera to battle for the starting right field job. Other than stealing the Indians’ leftovers, the Pirates did nothing to help their mediocre offense.
On the pitching side, the Pirates have been slightly more involved than they were on offense. They traded starter Ivan Nova to the White Sox to save money, because the Pirates definitely couldn’t afford to pay $9,000,000 for one more year of a decent 5th starter. To replace Nova, they signed Jordan Lyles, who struggled as a starter last season but was solid as a reliever. Reuniting with Francisco Liriano and signing Tyler Lyons should help bolster the bullpen, but other than a couple mediocre signings, the Pirates had yet another quiet offseason.
After a surprisingly successful season, many Pirates fans hoped that the team would spend money to improve the offense, but, as usual, the front office did nothing. While this normally would not disqualify a team from making the playoffs, the rest of the NL Central has significantly bulked up over the offseason. Even the Reds, who lost 95 games last year, made big trades and spent money on free agents. All these moves makes the NL Central one of the best divisions in baseball; and leaves the Pirates behind.
By far the best part of the Pirates’ season last year was the rotation. Ace Jameson Taillon finally pitched to his full potential, finishing with a 3.20 ERA and a 3.46 FIP. After starting slow, Taillon finished the second half with a 2.33 ERA, basically the opposite of his 2017 season. His emergence as a true top-of-the-rotation arm is one of the biggest reasons why the Pirates were better than expected last year. Another big surprise last season was when the Pirates traded Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz for Chris Archer at the trade deadline. While the price was very high for a pitcher who has had his ups and downs, the Buccos will have one of the best 1-2 punches in the majors if Archer can return to prior form.
Trevor Williams was one of the biggest surprises in the majors last season. With a low K% and a higher-than-average BB%, he was expected to be a serviceable #4 starter. However, after a mediocre first half, he ended the season with a 1.38 ERA in 72 IP, finishing behind only AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell for lowest second-half ERA. His style of inducing contact makes his performance volatile, and a 3.11 ERA isn’t likely to be repeated, but stranger things have happened. Another pitcher who took a step forward was Joe Musgrove, acquired in the Gerrit Cole trade before the season. After missing time due to injuries, Musgrove started out hot before fading over the last two months. With a fully healthy season, Musgrove should be an above-average arm in the middle of the rotation. The back end of the rotation is much more questionable than the rest. Jordan Lyles and Nick Kingham figure to get most of the starts, with Mitch Keller waiting in the wings. Lyles pitched well out of the bullpen for the Padres last season but was roughed up as a starter, and Kingham struggled in the rotation after a historic first start. Neither of these options are ideal, but even with a weak #5 starter, the Pirates’ rotation should rank among the best in the majors.
In the bullpen, closer Felipe Vazquez changed his last name and proved that he is one of the top closers in the game. With a strikeout rate of 11.44 K/9 and a 2.43 FIP, Vazquez should be a top-10 closer in baseball, if not better. In the setup role, Kyle Crick, acquired in the McCutchen trade, and Keone Kela, acquired from the Rangers, provide solid support for Vazquez. Michael Feliz struggled mightily last season, but should get a second chance, and Richard Rodriguez, who had a breakout campaign, should be a very good middle reliever. The rest of the bullpen should be composed of some combination of Francisco Liriano, Tyler Lyons, Steven Brault, and one of Jordan Lyles/Nick Kingham.
On the offensive side of the ball, Starling Marte returns as the star of the team. He proved he could play even without steroids, hitting 20 homers and stealing 33 bases along with good defense in center field, compiling a 3.7 fWAR. He is projected to lead the Pirates’ offense again this year along with left fielder Corey Dickerson. Dickerson, who was considered a power hitter, ended up hitting .300 with only 13 home runs. His very low walk rate is a concern, but he dropped his strikeout rate by almost 10%. The biggest surprise from Dickerson, however, was his Gold Glove winning defense. Before last season, Dickerson was seen as a defensive liability in the outfield, but in 2018 he put in the work in the offseason and won a Gold Glove.
In right field, Gregory Polanco had a semi-breakout campaign before forgetting how to slide in September. His batting average is still low, but he almost doubled his walk rate and set a career high in home runs. His injury will cause him to miss at least the first month of the season, but his return should provide a boost to the offense. While Polanco is out, right field will be manned by Lonnie Chisenhall, the oft-injured Indians’ utility man. Chisenhall has showed promise over the last two seasons, but he has only played 110 games in that time. If he can stay healthy, Chisenhall should help fill the void until Polanco returns.
Up the middle, the Pirates let both Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison walk away in free agency. Replacing Harrison at second base is Adam Frazier, a utility player who makes a lot of contact but has little power. There is a chance that he can reach double digits in home runs and stolen bases, as well as hitting around .300. At shortstop, the tandem of Erik Gonzalez and one-half of the Seinfeld duo Kevin Newman should see most of the AB’s. Gonzalez projects as a glove-first player with little offensive output, while Newman should fare a little better on offense while sacrificing some defensive ability. Both have very little power, but Newman has potential to steal 20 bases after stealing 28 in AAA last season. While neither position will be a game-changer, they should both provide an upgrade over Mercer and Harrison.
The corner infield is very difficult to predict for this season. While Josh Bell and Colin Moran should start at first and third, respectively, that may change during the season. Bell had a great rookie season, but lost all of his power last year. His high walk rate will keep his value, but he needs to find his home run swing if he wants job security. Moran makes a decent amount of contact, but also has little power and walks a below-average amount. To make matters worse, both Bell and Moran are bad defenders at their position, with Bell ranking second-to-last in defensive WAR at first base. Waiting in the wings is Jung-Ho Kang, who returns after missing the last two seasons with a visa issue. Kang was a good player when he played, but nobody knows how he will do after two years away. If Moran struggles, Kang will almost certainly take over the starting third base job.
One of the best positions on the Pirates last season was catcher, with Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz both having breakout offensive seasons. Cervelli set a career high in home runs and increased his walk rate to 12.6%, but also missed time with several different injuries. Despite Cervelli’s injuries, the catcher position was taken care of thanks to Elias Diaz’s breakout. Diaz hit .288 with 10 home runs in only 277 at bats along with providing above-average defense. With Cervelli fully healthy, the catcher position should be all set for the upcoming season.
Down on the farm, the Pirates farm system is more depleted than usual after trading Glasnow, Meadows, and Baz for Chris Archer. However, Mitch Keller is still very highly regarded and should be fighting for a rotation spot by the end of the season. On the offensive side of the ball, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes had a big breakout season, becoming a top-50 prospect. Next year, he will likely push Colin Moran for the starting third base job, if not by the end of the season. Draft pick Travis Swaggerty has not just a fantastic last name but also the potential to be a future All-Star, and 6’6” shortstop Oneil Cruz has a lot of power. Both are still a couple of seasons away, but show that the Pirates farm system still has some strength.
Overall, the Pirates definitely have the potential to be Wild Card contenders. A full season of Chris Archer and Joe Musgrove will help the rotation, and some of the young players have the potential to break out. However, it will be very difficult to compete with the rest of the NL Central, seeing how every other team has made impactful moves this offseason. If the Pirates stay healthy and have a couple more breakout performances, they definitely have a shot at the playoffs, but they’ll have a hard time getting there.
Projected Record: 85-77
Player to Watch: Chris Archer, SP
Chris Archer is somewhat of an enigma. His stats suggest that he should be a very good pitcher, striking out a lot of hitters without walking too many. He hasn’t had an ERA under 4.00 since 2015, but in each of the last two seasons his FIP has been over 50 points lower than his ERA. Unfortunately, also over the last two seasons, his hard-hit rate has skyrocketed to almost 40% and his HR/9 is slightly above league average. After coming over to the Pirates at the trade deadline last season, he pitched badly in August but had a strong September. If Archer can regain the ability that made him one of the best pitchers from 2013-2015, then he will provide a huge boost to the Pirates rotation. If not, then the Pirates paid too much for an average starter.
Player to Watch: Mitch Keller, SP
As the Pirates top prospect and a top 20 prospect in MLB, the expectations for Keller are pretty high. After starting the season in Double-A and dominating the competition, Keller was moved up to AAA at the end of June. While he struggled at first in AAA, he ended up with a 3.22 FIP and started the All-Star Futures Game. His fastball is widely regarded as one of the best in the minors, and his curveball is a good strikeout pitch. While Keller is going to start the season in AAA, he will be the next man up in case of an injury or bad pitching. It would not be surprising to see him make a couple of starts by the end of the season, and then taking a starting job for good next season.
Player to Watch: Josh Bell, 1B
After a solid rookie season where he finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, expectations were high for Bell last season. While he did raise his walk rate and lower his strikeout rate, Bell’s power essentially disappeared. His home run total dropped from 26 in 2017 to 12 in 2018, and his SLG dropped from .466 to .411. What’s worrying about the drop in power is that it may not be a fluke. Bell’s HR/FB% dropped from 19.1% to 9.2% in 2018, which is right around league average. In addition to his drop in power, Bell is one of the worst defensive first basemen in the league. Despite this, he definitely has the potential to hit .275 with 25+ homers every season. His walk rate and solid contact ability, along with his potential of power, will keep him in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future. If he can’t improve, though, the Pirates should probably start looking for a replacement.
Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images