The 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates finished fourth in the NL Central, but the team’s standing in the division was deceptively bad. They finished above .500, had the fourth-best team batting average in the NL, and finished in the top half for slugging and ERA in the NL. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they were in the most competitive division in baseball.
Although it missed the playoffs handily, Pittsburgh was a pain in the sides of their NL Central rivals. NL Central opponents went just 31-43 against the Pirates. Other NL opponents pummeled the Bucs 41-24. If the Pirates can improve on their performance against the rest of the National League, they could be players in the playoff picture.
Thankfully for everyone in the National League and the NL Central, the Pirates did little to nothing to make their team better this offseason. They lost most of their infield and added a few fringe players to replace them.
The biggest free agent addition is likely Lonnie Chisenhall. The 30-year-old Chisenhall signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh. He was an adequate player for the Cleveland Indians before departing in free agency, but hasn’t played more than 100 games in either of the last two seasons. Chisenhall has played almost every corner position, but has been relegated to mostly outfield and first base work in recent years.
The other free agent signing was #oldfriend RHP Jordan Lyles. Between San Diego and Milwaukee, Lyles threw 87.2 innings for a 4.11 ERA. Lyles made 27 relief appearances and 8 starts. He has phenomenal potential but has yet to turn it into results and is a low-risk sign for the Bucs making only a little over $2 mil.
The Pirates did acquire utility player Erik Gonzalez in a five-player deal with the Cleveland Indians. Gonzalez could end up taking one of the infield spots to start the season. Over three seasons, Gonzalez has played in 162 games and hit .263/.292/.389 with 5 homers and 79 Ks.
The Bucs also added a few key veterans on minor league contracts. Francisco Liriano has returned and is a potential strength for the pitching staff if he can find success in Pittsburgh again. Outfielder and veteran Melky Cabrera also joined on with a minor league deal.
Otherwise, the Pirates claimed Aaron Slegers and Jake Barrett and added a couple low-level minor league players.
While the Pirates didn’t make any significant additions, they had some big departures. One of the most important is the departure of Ivan Nova. Nova was traded for a low-level minor league player in the offseason. He was never a fantastic player for Pittsburgh, but was one of the main innings eaters last year.
Pittsburgh also saw the departure of longtime infielder Josh Harrison. Harrison has had several down years for the Pirates in recent years, but was an excellent defender with the versatility to play at most positions.
Gone too is Jordy Mercer, another diverse infielder with a less impressive offensive profile. Mercer only had one season with a slugging percentage above .400 and wasn’t particularly spectacular at any one thing.
The Pirates infield will be nothing if not volatile. The most controversial is Jung Ho Kang at third base. Kang missed almost two full seasons after multiple DUIs in Korea and a sexual assault charge in the states. He was one of Pittsburgh’s best hitters in 2015 and 2016, but it’s yet to be seen how the now older Kang will be able to compete.
If Kang doesn’t play at the level he was before committing his crimes, Colin Moran will be the player to takeover third. Moran is just 26 and came to Pittsburgh from Houston in the Gerritt Cole trade. In 465 plate appearance, Moran hit .277/.340/.407 with 11 homers. He has the potential to be an All-Star presence at third, but he needs to get playing time ahead of Kang to reach that ceiling.
The young Adam Frazier will man second. Frazier has generally played a super utility role at second and the outfield, but will now be covering second full time. Frazier hit a very solid .277/.342/.456 in 352 plate appearances.
As mentioned before, Erik Gonzalez will take over shortstop. He doesn’t have the greatest track record, but the Bucs are waiting for an improvement at the plate to bolster their lineup.
Former top prospect Josh Bell continues to hold down first base. Bell had a phenomenal season in 2017, but saw a fairly substantial drop in power in 2018. He has the potential to be a solid first baseman, but definitely needs to get his home run total back above 20 to make the impact the Pirates want.
At catcher, Francisco Cervelli and Jacob Stallings will split time. Cervelli is a great offensive catcher but lacks the defensive talent to keep him behind the backstop for a majority of the season. Elias Díaz will join the fold at some point, but needs to get healthy first.
The Bucs outfield is lead by team star Starling Marte. Marte has worked to develop his power and become a legitimate power/speed threat. He will generally be a top NL base stealer while hitting around 20 homers. He doesn’t walk a lot and has a few other issues that keep him from being a star.
Next up is Gregory Polanco. Polanco has shown glimpses of super stardom, but is more likely to sit in mediocrity. The Pirates were happy to see him get some of the power he lost in 2017 back, but he’s still a high-risk, high-reward player.
Finally, we have Corey Dickerson. Dickerson is a phenomenal hitter who made a great debut for the Pirates last season. He should shore up the middle of the batting order as a reliable force at the plate.
The Pirates’ pitching rotation is yet another area filled with storylines and potential. The almost guaranteed star of the staff is Jameson Taillon. Taillon pitched 191 innings with a 3.20 ERA. He’s not a strikeout artist, but he limits base runners.
The big question mark of the staff is Chris Archer. Pittsburgh acquired Archer for a king’s ransom at the trade deadline. Archer pitched WELL below expectations, allowing a 4.30 ERA in 52.1 innings for the Bucos. His peripherals are still strong, but the results aren’t showing.
Joe Musgrove is a solid fourth or fifth starter, but cannot stay healthy. Trevor Williams is just 27 and had a phenomenal 2018, but his 4.28 DRA does not support the 3.11 ERA. The last starter will almost certainly be former Brewer Jordan Lyles.
The Pittsburgh pen is led by Felipe Vazquez. Vazquez is one of the more reliable closers in baseball. He’s had sub-3 ERAs in each of the last two seasons and has had a vice grip on the closer job since it was given to him in 2017.
After Vazquez comes Keone Kela. Acquired from Texas last year, Kela is a dominant strikeout specialists. He’s young and has a ton of talent, whose only blip was the first half of his season in 2018.
Last year’s pen was also received pleasant contributions from Kyle Crick — who pitched to a 2.39 ERA over 60.1 innings — and Richard Rodriquez — who had his own phenomenal season, pitching 69.1 innings for a 2.47 ERA.
The Pirates’ farm has some major league ready assistance waiting in the wings. RHP Mitch Keller is a top-20 prospect in baseball and could be seen in the rotation if an injury pops up. Infielder Cole Tucker is a threat on the base paths and would be quite the asset in the top of the order if the other middle infielders fail.
The Pirates have a weird team. They could be the best team in the NL, or they could be a cellar dweller struggling to justify its mid-season acquisitions in 2018. The thing I’m most certain of: they will be a pain for everyone in the NL Central. Because of that, I think they’ll finish in fourth place again, but with 83 wins.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference