The Pittsburgh Pirates expected to contend for postseason play in 2016, perhaps for a division crown and certainly for a Wild Card slot. Instead, they finished at 78-83, a full 25 games behind the first place Chicago Cubs, and 8.5 games out of the Wild Card. Returning manager Clint Hurdle’s team was third in the NL Central, closer to the fourth place Milwaukee Brewers (5.5 games ahead) than to the second place St. Louis Cardinals (7.5 behind).
There were many reasons for the poor showing, of course - you don’t drop ten games or more in expected win totals with just a few minor things going wrong - but the two main culprits are Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.
Right handed starter Cole was limited to 116 innings due to three disabled list stays. He had elbow issues all season, but did not require surgery in the offseason. He is the Pirate ace, and his BB/9 (2.7) was up almost one per game from 2015 while his K/9 fell to 7.6/9, down a little over one per game. Hi xFIP jumped from 3.16 to 4.22.
Center fielder McCutchen was arguably a bigger disappointment. His fielding numbers, which had been declining in recent years, fell off the cliff. His batting numbers, which had seen a slight decline in 2015, went in the same direction. His fielding rating came in at -18.7; you can’t have that in center. He had career lows in OBP, Slugging, Batting average, OPS (natch), walk rate, stolen bases (by a lot - only 6), and provided a career low 0.7 WAR. And he played virtually every day. McCutchen was the subject of much trade speculation in the off-season, but returns for another year with the Bucs.
What do the Pirates look like for 2017?
The Pirates are addressing the fielding deficiencies in center by moving McCutchen to rightfield, and playing Starling Marte in center and Gregory Polanco in left. While both are very talented defenders and have young, projectable talent, neither is expected to play at an all-star level next season. Both project at under .800 OPS, and McCutchen projects at a slightly higher WAR. My guess is that both Polanco and Marte will out-perform their expectations, but that McCutchen will continue to struggle. One of the factors for McCutchen was that teams shifted on him twice as much in 2016, and his performance against shifts was at 74% of league average. Teams will notice this.
More issues here; third baseman/shortstop Jung Ho Kang begins the season on the restricted list, following his DUI conviction in Korea. Veteran David Freese will get the bulk of the work at third in Kang’s absence, while Jordy Mercer gets the shortstop job. Neither is an above-average player. Veteran Josh Harrison returns at second base, and also plays at about a league average level.
An intriguing player is top prospect first baseman Josh Bell, who slashed .273/.368/.406 in 45 games last year. His BB/K rate of 1.1 was second best in all of baseball for players with 100+ plate appearances. The Pirates will look for more power from the youngster.
The loss of Sean Rodriguez to free agency will hurt the depth of the infield, and we wish Sean a full recovery (for him and his family) from his horrific car accident.
Francisco Cervelli gets the bulk of the work here. He had an excellent .377 OBP last year, but provided only one homerun in 393 plate appearances. Cervelli missed time due to injuries, too, and is backed up by Chris Stewart. Neither is a particularly effective defensive player. Cervelli is a first-class complainer while at the plate, though.
Besides Gerrit Cole, the Pirates’ rotation will include Jameson Taillon (he of christening Hernan Perez as the Latin Babe Ruth fame), Ivan Nova, Tyler Glasnow, and Chad Kuhl. A healthy Cole makes this an above average group. If Cole’s elbow is balky again, it suffers considerably. Cole is ace-level when healthy, so contention this season could very well depend upon his continued good health.
The Pirates have a hole to fill here, too: closer Mark Melancon was dealt to Washington prior to the deadline last year, as the Bucs decided to get something (Felipe Rivero) before not bidding on him in free agency. Tony Watson is slated to step into the closing role. FA addition Daniel Hudson looks to finally put injuries behind him and return to effective form; he has at least thrown over 60 innings in the past two seasons for the D-Backs. Jared Hughes, Antonio Bastardo, Juan Nicasio, and Rivero will fill out the rest of the pen. Again, this has the looks of a major league average group.
Most of the Pirates’ top prospects are playing with the big league team. Number one prospect Austin Meadows will most likely get time in the majors this year, but expect the above group to be the team you see most of the season.
Projections for Pittsburgh range from 82 to 85.5 wins, and of course that range is reasonable. But I see an average team with concerns with their ace pitcher’s health, an all-star outfielder that seems to be in decline, and a bullpen replacing their closer with their eighth inning man - creating a domino effect for the rest of the group. Plus, they play in a division with the world champion Cubs and ever-contending Cardinals. I see an 81-81 season.
Statistical information courtesy of Fangraphs