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2018 NL Central Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

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Just a couple years removed from a run of success, the Pirates appear to be closing their own window a year early rather than a year late

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t that far removed from being one of the best teams in the National League. But after making three straight playoff appearances from 2013-2015, the Bucs have suffered through two disappointing seasons and found themselves at a crossroads this offseason -- were the past couple years bad luck (whether due to injury, PED suspensions, a promising young player not being allowed to enter the United States due to his DUI problems in his home country, or all of the above) or a sign their window was closing?

Pittsburgh’s front office ultimately decided it was time to tear it down and start over -- or, if it wasn’t a total rebuild, to at least try something new. They shuffled around some of their resources, trading away some of their more recognizable (and costly) players for younger (cheaper) options. You could argue it wasn’t necessary quite yet -- with another wave of young talent on the horizon, the Pirates easily could’ve been competitive this year and going forward -- but it looks like the Pirates decided it’s better to trade someone a year early rather than a year late. Ultimately, that led to the team being one of four to be slapped with a grievance from the MLB Players Association for what the union said was a failure to spend revenue sharing money.

Additions and Subtractions

Helping the union’s case in that grievance is the fact the Pirates traded a former MVP and the face of their franchise AND their #1 starter for a grand total of zero Top-100 prospects, or at least guys who have been considered Top-100 prospects more recently than 2014.

Andrew McCutchen ranks in the Pirates’ Top 15 all-time in Wins Above Replacement. The team has been around in some form since 1882. McCutchen will still be just 31 years old in 2018, is coming off a year in which he had an .849 OPS, 121 OPS+ and .360 wOBA, and is making just $14.5 million. Pittsburgh traded him to San Francisco for Bryan Reynolds (an outfielder who put up an .826 OPS in High-A as a 22-year-old), Kyle Crick (a pitcher who ranked 33rd on Baseball America’s Top 100 list in 2014 but hasn’t been ranked since, and pitched in 30 games as a reliever last year) and international bonus slot money. And we wonder why there wasn’t a trade market for Domingo Santana.

Gerrit Cole, a former All-Star and Cy Young contender in 2015, was shipped out to Houston for Jason Martin (an outfielder who had an .802 OPS in Double-A as a 21-year-old last year), reliever Michael Feliz (5.13 ERA in 121 MLB innings, but has yet to turn 25), third baseman Colin Moran (a Top-100 prospect in 2014, but hasn’t been ranked since on account of hitting for little power) and pitcher Joe Musgrove (who split time between the rotation and bullpen last year and had a 4.77 ERA/4.38 FIP in 109.1 IP). That’s the kind of deal you make when you prioritize close-to-MLB-ready players instead of those with high ceilings. Three of those players could be asked to play significant roles this year, but will they be worth more WAR combined than Cole would’ve provided at the top of the rotation?

At best, and sort of like the Tampa Bay Rays’ reshuffling this winter, those moves combined with the others they made may lead to them roughly breaking even. Whether or not that was worth it (aside from saving $20 million from the owners’ bank account) is up for debate, but the Pirates hope a full season of Starling Marte and the addition of Corey Dickerson -- acquired from Tampa for Daniel Hudson, Tristan Gray and cash -- can help replace McCutchen’s most of McCutchen’s production, while the young pitchers they traded for could shore up the back end of the rotation.

Looking for value around the edges of the roster, the Pirates also signed longtime Cardinals reliever Kevin Siegrist to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, and he looks likely to make the team as a member of the Opening Day bullpen. Pittsburgh also bought the contract of outfielder Bryce Brentz from Boston. The 29-year-old former prospect is out of options, but did hit 31 home runs in 120 games in Triple-A last year, so he could end up providing some pop off the bench as a fourth outfielder.

Infield

It looks like Moran will be given a chance to hold down the third base job. As mentioned, he’s never hit for much power in the minors (although he did hit a career-high 18 home runs in the hitter-friendly PCL last year), but he has shown a good eye at the plate with a career minor league line of .290/.353/.430 across five years. Last year’s regular there, David Freese, looks to slide into more of a reserve 3B/1B role, occasionally spelling Moran and Josh Bell.

Bell is heading into his second full season after hitting .255/.334/.466 with 26 home runs as a 24-year-old last year. That was good enough for a third place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year race, but for a slugging first baseman, he hits the ball on the ground a lot (more than half -- 51.1% -- of his balls in play were on the ground), which led to a low BABIP of .278. If he can take advantage of the launch angle craze, he may be able to improve on those numbers and become a scary hitter.

Up the middle, Brewer Killers Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer return at second base and shortstop, respectively. Harrison asked to be traded after the McCutchen and Cole deals, saying he wished to play elsewhere if the Pirates were rebuilding. But as of now, he’s still there and hoping to bounce back from a poor second half that saw him hit just .255/.293/.424 after making his second All-Star appearance. Mercer will make his 5th straight Opening Day start at shortstop despite not performing especially well with the bat or in the defensive metrics. He’s coming off of a .255/.326/.406 season and hasn’t been considered a positive defender in UZR or DRS for the past couple years.

Aside from Freese, Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez will fill out the reserve infield spots, with both serving as supersubs that could also see time in the outfield.

Outfield

Dickerson should add some much-needed pop to the Pirates lineup, which feels like it’s been mostly dink-and-dunk recently. The problem with Dickerson is while he brings 30-home run potential and is coming off of a .282/.325/.490, .341 wOBA, 115 wRC+ All-Star season, his performance cratered in the second half last year (.241/.282/.408) and his value is extremely limited by his defense. As a left-handed hitter, he’ll also have to deal with Pittsburgh’s tall wall in right field.

Marte missed most of the first half of last season with a PED suspension, then returned to put up the worst season of his career, hitting just .275/.333/.379 with a 91 wRC+ and less hard contact in 77 games. Whether it was just a smaller sample size or related to his suspension, Marte’s OPS dropped by more than 100 points last year. He’s still one of the best defensive outfielders in the game and a threat on the basepaths, but the lack of power is part of the reason why the Bucs brought in Dickerson.

Gregory Polanco will shift over to right field with the loss of McCutchen and the addition of Dickerson. He hit 22 home runs two years ago, but struggled to a .251/.305/.391 line in 108 games last year. In his defense, he hurt his shoulder in spring training last year and never seemed to recover, and then dealt with other injuries on top of that throughout the course of the year. Sort of like the Brewers and Jonathan Villar, the Pirates are hoping he can return to 2016 form instead of it being a one-year mirage.

If either Marte or Polanco continue to struggle, it could mean the long-awaited debut of prospect Austin Meadows if the former first-round pick performs well to start the year in Triple-A.

Rotation

While the Pirates could argue they could break even on outfield production after the McCutchen trade, it’s hard to say the same thing about dealing away Gerrit Cole. While he had a down year in 2017 and struggled with allowing home runs, much of the damage was done in two extremely poor months in June and September. Outside of that, he was still a legitimate top of the rotation starter.

Instead, the Pirates will be starting Ivan Nova on Opening Day. In an era of high strikeout numbers, Nova’s K/9 was just 6.30 last year, and his tightrope walk style of pitching led to his ERA outperforming his FIP (4.14 compared to 4.46). He’ll be followed in the rotation by Jameson Taillon (4.44 ERA in 2017 but a 3.48 FIP in a year where he fought testicular cancer), Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams and possibly Musgrove from the Cole deal. Musgrove is more of a question mark for the rotation after getting hurt this spring and falling behind schedule, but the Pirates seem confident he’ll be ready by the time they need a 5th starter.

Overall, it looks like a rotation that lacks much upside without Cole in it. They have plenty of mid-rotation depth, but the problem right now is that’s their entire rotation, and a bunch of 4 FIP guys won’t have the benefit of a strong lineup to bail them out of their occasional bad starts.

Bullpen

Like the Reds, the Pirates have a very good closer in Felipe Rivero who may be wasted being saved for 9th innings on what could be a bad team. Rivero put up a 1.67 ERA (2.47 FIP) in 75.1 innings last year, striking out 88 batters and a 4.40 K/BB ratio.

Outside of Siegrist, the rest of the field still seems to be up in the air, depending on what the Pirates want to do with their young pitchers. Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick could grab spots in middle relief. Steven Brault, who made some starts last year, could be a swingman. Tyler Glasnow was a top prospect last year before using up his rookie eligibility while struggling mightily with his control in the majors, walking 44 in 62 innings en route to a 7.69 ERA in 15 games (13 of them starts). He could possibly start the year in the bullpen, or the Pirates could elect to have him start the year in Triple-A to stay stretched out. The problem is he doesn’t have much else to prove in Indianapolis, where he had a 1.93 ERA in 15 starts and struck out 140 batters in 93.1 innings last year.

Prospects

If it feels like Austin Meadows has been considered a top prospect forever, it’s because he has been. Both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline have ranked Meadows in their Top-100 for the past 5 years, although he hasn’t had the consistent production to match. Last year he struggled to a .250/.311/.359 line in Triple-A in an injury-shortened year, but he is just a year removed from a .266/.333/.536 line that validated the hype. He won’t be starting the year in the majors, but if he shows a bounceback start to the year, he’ll probably be in the Pirates’ outfield at some point this year.

Elsewhere in the system, we talked about how the big league rotation is lacking in upside, but that could change in the next year or so. Mitch Keller will turn 22 in just a few weeks and ranks 12th on this year’s Baseball America Top-100 list, throwing in the mid-90s with a good curve. MLB Pipeline rates his fastball as well above average at 65, with a 55-grade curveball and 60-grade control. He’s only made 6 starts at Double-A, but could also see big league action by the second half of this year.

Prediction

If everything breaks right, the Pirates could be roughly as good as they were last year -- the difference is that it’s probably the higher end of their projections this year, whereas that 75-78 win area was a disappointment last year. It’s unfortunate for Pirates fans, who likely could’ve seen at least one more playoff push this year in McCutchen’s last season under contract and Cole under team control through 2020 with guys like Meadows and Keller coming soon.

The problem is that plenty could still go wrong, especially with a middling starting rotation and an offense that’s built on a lot of ifs and buts. As mentioned in the Reds preview, those two teams may be heading in opposite directions, to the point where if Cincinnati surprises, Pittsburgh could find itself in last place for the first time since 2010.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs

Poll

Where do the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates finish in the NL Central?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    1st
    (17 votes)
  • 8%
    2nd
    (29 votes)
  • 15%
    3rd
    (54 votes)
  • 36%
    4th
    (126 votes)
  • 33%
    5th
    (115 votes)
341 votes total Vote Now