For Pirates fans, 2016 was an unwelcome reminder of the franchise’s post-Barry Bonds past. For the first time since breaking the 20-year streak of losing seasons, Pittsburgh finished under .500. This was particularly unwelcome since Andrew McCutchen, former MVP and Pittsburgh’s best player since Bonds, was believed traded this past offseason, as the post-2018 free agent seems to be out of Pittsburgh’s price range in free agency. While he is still a Pirate, it’s doubtful he will be in a year. And the Pirates aren’t capable of doing anything outside of pushing for yet another Wild Card appearance.
McCutchen, Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte are the three main cogs on the team (with Gregory Polonco not too far off), and two of those three didn’t have the above-average to star-level seasons the Pirates needed last year. McCutchen might never be a MVP candidate again (apologies if your internet device is now on fire), but he can be closer to a 4 WAR player than the sub-1 WAR player he was last year (by FanGraphs and B-Ref). A position change to right field from center will help mask his declining defense, but his 4-percentage point decline in walk rate, from 14% to 10%, needs to see some reversal if he is to be better than league average at the plate. However, a turnaround from the 30-year-old McCutchen isn’t the only thing the Pirates need to reverse last year’s fortunes.
Gerrit Cole made three trips to the DL last year, which makes his 21 starts and 116 innings impressive. However, he wasn’t his 2015 All-Star self, which many attribute to his various injuries. Without a workhorse Cole in the front of the rotation, the Pirates’ pitching staff isn’t good enough to keep them in the Wild Card race. Ivan Nova, who closed out 2016 pitching better than he ever had before by pounding the zone and only walking three batters in 11 Pirate starts, is the next best pitcher in the rotation. While he won’t strike out 17 batters per walk again, it looks like the Pirates have found the next Ray Searage Reclamation ProjectTM. A 2015-esqe Gerrit Cole and 2016-esqe Ivan Nova would form a pretty decent 1-2 on top of the rotation, but it might not be enough with the bottom of the rotation.
The rotation, while dependent on Cole and Nova on the front end, will sink or swim based on a pair of highly touted prospects. Jameson Tallion and Tyler Glasnow both pitched in the majors last year, with Tallion easily outstripping Glasnow in innings. Tallion made 18 starts and posted a 3.38 ERA with a 3.71 FIP, walking only 1.5 batters per 9, compared to striking out 7.5 hitters per 9. He showed that he is ready to be a mid-rotation arm, and maybe even push Nova for the 2nd spot in the rotation. Glasnow however needs to cut down on his walks, as he has walked another batter in the time it took me to write this sentence. 13 walks in 23.1 innings isn’t going to cut it, even if you strike out 24 batters in the same timeframe. While there is speculation that Glasnow’s future is as a reliever, Pittsburgh’s 2017 and beyond outlook would look a lot better if Glasnow can stick in the rotation, even if it’s just as a mid-rotation arm.
The most interesting arm in the bullpen belongs to Daniel Hudson and his 3rd UCL. After a July to forget, in which he gave up a 1.430 OPS and a 19.29 ERA, he couldn’t be moved at the deadline. If Hudson can pick up where he left off in September, then the Pirates bullpen can shoulder the load. If not, then Tony Watson, Juan Nicasio, back in his proper role, and the rest of the solid but not spectacular bullpen might have too big a burden to shoulder.
If you’ve read this far, then you might assume that the Pirates’ roster consists of McCutchen and a bunch of pitchers. Well, I am happy to report that the Pirates plan on filling the other seven positions with major league players for all 162 games. The aforementioned Starling Marte, now the center fielder, should finish with the highest WAR of all of the outfielders. Even with last year being the first time in his career in which he had 500 PA and under 10 homers, he slugged a career best .456. He may not win a MVP like McCutchen, but he is ready to be the best position player on a winning, if not playoff, team. Gregory Polonco will man left field, after having his first above average season at the plate by OPS+. If he can continue his growth at the plate, he should be able to pick up McCutchen’s slack just fine. For the Pirates to do well this year, their starting outfield needs to produce at least 10 WAR.
Gerrit Cole wasn’t the only Pirate that was underproductive in 2016 because of injury. Francisco Cervelli only appeared in 101 games due to a wrist injury. While he is a catcher on the wrong side of 30, he wasn’t a full time major league catcher until he got to Pittsburgh and doesn’t have the level of wear and tear a catcher his age. His OPS+ of 113 and WAR of 3.2 in 2015 will probably end up as his high-water marks, but more games from him this year, even at the same level as last year, can maybe buy the Pirates another win.
While Cervelli’s ability to be league average at the plate is buoyed by his ability to walk, hitting a few more homers would help him in replacing the Jung-ho Kang hole in the lineup. Kang has reportedly been denied a work visa to enter the US, which makes it very unlikely that he will see a major-league at-bat this year. Kang fits a profile that is all too familiar: a guy with great talent who has off-field demons that he can’t beat. Hopefully a year away from the game allows him to get help to make it back, but if this is it for his major-league career then at least he opened doors for other talented Korean players to come to America.
His subtraction from the lineup means that Clint Hurdle must manage his infield well. David Freese will get the first shot to take the everyday job at third base. Freese had one of the most under the radar seasons last year as he posted a WAR right around 2 and a slash line of .270/.352/.412. While that won’t replace Kang completely, the Pirates are lucky to have a league-average option as a backup plan. Kang’s absence also means that Josh Bell must pick up some of the offensive slack. After a decent debut last year, in which he walked two more times than he struck out (21 and 19 respectively), Bell would benefit like Cervelli would from hitting a few more homers. At the very least, he showed plate discipline as a 23-year-old in the majors, which should allow him to grow at the plate.
Up the middle, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison are solid. Harrison can also play 3B and a little bit of SS, so he can be in the lineup every day regardless of how Hurdle manages his platoons and rest. While that is it for skills that make Harrison stand out, he is a good guy to have to round out the lineup. Mercer doesn’t have the versatility of Harrison, but he can handle one of the hardest positions on the diamond, if last year’s defensive numbers from Baseball Prospectus (-7 FRAA) were a fluke and not the sign of aging, and also hit like a traditional middle infielder. This very well could be the last season that he is capable of being the starting SS. Adam Frazier is behind Mercer and will get playing time, but he won’t be a major upgrade over Mercer this year. While the middle infield won’t win too many games for the Pirates, they’ll still get some value from there.
The Pirates are lucky enough to have a great reinforcement waiting in the wings in their top prospect. Austin Meadows will take McCutchen’s place when a trade is made or free agency beckons. In a short taste of AAA last year, Meadows struggled for the first time in his young pro career to the tune of a sub-.300 OBP, but he did have some injury issues. While he is a prime candidate to be a June call up (GM Neal Huntington hates Super 2 status like Dr. Cox hates Hugh Jackman), he might also stay in AAA for a little longer. McCutchen won’t be traded at the deadline as teams want to see a full year of good McCutchen before trading for him, and Meadows only got 145 plate appearances at AAA as a 21-year-old. If the Pirates are contending post deadline, he makes sense to help down the stretch, and if one of the outfielders is injured in June or later he’ll get the call. But some extra time in AAA would help, especially if there isn’t an everyday job at PNC Park for him.
All in all, the Pirates are the definition of a middle of the road team for the 2017 season. PECOTA ranks them right in the middle of the pack, rightfully so. For a win total, I was going to say 84 or 85, which puts them in Wild Card range. However, that was before Jung-ho Kang failed to get a visa. 84 to 85 wins assumed that Kang would be available for most of the season (I assumed about a 30-game suspension), but with Kang out of the picture, the chances of the Pirates getting a Wild Card took a sharp dip. My official prediction is 82 wins, which leaves them with some work to do if they want to make a Wild Card run.
Pirates outfielder with most WAR: Starling Marte
McCutchen B-Ref WAR: 3.2
Gerrit Cole innings and ERA: 180, 3.05
Let me know @kosstheboss34 how wrong my predictions are. Thanks to Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and the Baseball Prospectus Annual for help in putting together this preview.Next post: 2017 Season Preview Series: Your New York Yankees
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