This time last year, optimism was in abundance in the Steel City. The NL was sharply divided between have and have nots, and the Pirates sat closer to the haves. With former MVP Andrew McCutchen and former Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole leading the team, it wasn’t that hard to see a playoff push if those two guys returned to their previous heights. The BTTP previewer last year was blinded by this optimism, and the Pirates proved him wrong by winning 75 games. This year, after trading away both McCutchen and Cole, there is no playoff optimism to be blinded by.

The next free agent that Pittsburgh signs to a major league deal will be the first since the 2017 season ended. It’s hard to replenish the talent traded away with minor league free agents, but who doesn’t like a bold strategy Cotton? The best 2018 player that Pittsburgh acquired this off season was Corey Dickerson, who was designated for assignment by the Rays to facilitate the trade in the first place. While Pittsburgh has major league talent all over the roster, the upside that existed last year isn’t there.

Outfield

Adding Dickerson to the outfield gives the Pirates an outfield of (left to right) Dickerson, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. While this doesn’t match up to the starry outfields of the Red Sox and Yankees, among others, all three players figure to be around league average.

Marte, who had a down year after missing 80 games for a PED suspension, should have a bounce back season. Last year was the first time he had a below average season at the plate in his career. However, he still managed to post a 1.4 bWAR in the 77 games he played. His hard hit percentage hit a career low of just over 26%, but part of that can probably be attributed to rust. Getting better contact will be the key to the potential bounce back, but he won’t be a power threat even in this new homer environment. If he can sniff 3.5 WAR this year, that will be a welcome sight in CF.

Polanco and Dickerson bracket Marte in the outfield and both have similar outlooks but produce in different ways. Dickerson is a fly ball and strikeout guy, while Polanco is more contact oriented. Polanco is better on defense, but neither should see much time in CF.  Polanco is below average in CF for his career per UZR and the Rays DH’ed Dickerson for roughly 33% of his games last year for a reason. Polanco had a down season last year as various injuries, including his hamstring, limited him to 108 games. He saw his grounder rate go up 4%, so a healthy year should let him get the line drives and flyballs back so he can live up to his 20/20 potential.

Dickerson’s profile has been relatively steady for the past few years, although he might see a drop in WAR simply because he can’t DH for the National League Pirates. FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik did point out that Dickerson tends to whiff on fastballs in an excellent (as usual) piece. Both outfielders should have a shot to cross the 2 WAR threshold each, so a 7-8 WAR outfield is within reach for the Pirates.

Infield

Josh Harrison is the best infielder on the team, and can play 2nd or 3rd. Since young 3B Colin Moran came to Pittsburgh in the Gerrit Cole trade, Harrison should see most of his time at 2nd, barring an injury. Last year was the closest he has come to his 2014 peak, when he finished 9th in the MVP voting. He set a career high in homers and strikeouts, finishing slightly above league average. While he might never match 2014 heights again, if he replicates his 2017, the Pirates would be very happy.

Francisco Cervelli also had his season cut short last year, getting shut down in August. Injuries hampered him in 2016 and 2017, and he’s at the age as a catcher where his peak has passed him. His walk rate dipped and his strikeout rate increased significantly last year over 2016, which is the opposite of improvement. That, combined with his rapidly declining framing numbers (he was 5 runs below average in framing last year per Baseball Prospectus) is a major red flag. He is the highest paid Pirate this year and is owed $11 million next year on an extension signed in 2016Not great Bob.

As mentioned above, Colin Moran was one of the main pieces that came back in the Gerrit Cole trade. With over 100 days of service time, but nowhere close to where the Super Two cut off has fell in the past, he should start out in the majors and get plenty of at bats as the primary 3rd baseman. With 37 career plate appearances so far, he doesn’t have that much of a track record. FanGraphs has him ranked #53 on their top 100 prospects list. While he won’t be a superstar, he can be a productive major leaguer.

Side Note: Colin Moran’s uncle is BJ Surhoff, who amassed 34 bWAR in 19 seasons. Surhoff hit 188 homers in his career, with 7 seasons with 10+ and a single season high of 28. Will Colin Moran hit more homers than his uncle? I think so, if only because he will get multiple years of regular ABs in Pittsburgh and it’s easier to hit homers now then it’s ever been.

Josh Bell finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting last year, slashing .255/.334/.466 in 620 plate appearances. The obvious place for improvement is in his ground ball rate; it needs to drop to the right side of 50%. Despite this, both B-Ref and FanGraphs had him at 8% above league average. With another year to adjust to major league pitching, it wouldn’t be surprising to see his offensive production creep closer to 20% above league average.

Jordy Mercer is the epitome of the classic shortstop. He’ll just get to double digit homers, and get on base at a decent clip because he won’t strike out a ton. His batting line will look like .260/.330/.385 with a ground ball rate close to 50%. Not exciting one bit but a major leaguer. He is still way better at baseball than me.

Pitching

With Gerrit Cole gone, Ivan Nova will be the new #1 starter. He turned his career around after being traded to Pittsburgh midseason in 2016, another Ray Searage rebuild. He doesn’t strike out many batters, as he pounds the bottom of the zone with his sinker and gets groundballs. The best seasons of his career are when he induces grounders at a rate of 50% or more, so his groundball rate of 45.7% in 2017 needs to improve if he is going to be successful. He makes a lot of money respective to the rest of the Pittsburgh roster, but is still a bargain at $8.5 million.

Jameson Taillon came back from testicular cancer last year and was productive, something everyone was rooting for.  His 2017 FIP was close to his FIP in 2016 (3.48 and 3.71 respectively). So even though his ERA jumped up (4.44 after posting a 3.38), he can bring it back down to under 4 in 2018. His walk rate jumped up to 3.1 per 9, but if he can rein that in while keeping his strikeout rate where it was (almost one per inning), he will be in good shape.

Joe Musgrove was another key part of the return the Pirates got for Cole. In a loaded Houston rotation, he ended up in the bullpen, not making a start after July 15th. For the Pirates, he will get a chance to be a full-time starter. In his 15 starts, he walked more than 2.5 batters per 9, while striking out 7.7 batters per 9. Not the best ratio, but if he can maintain it over a full season’s worth of starts, the Pirates will take it. He did walk only one batter in 6.2 postseason innings, but starting is a different animal. The Pirates rotation will sink or swim based on how many free passes they give out. This isn’t different from any other rotation, but it’s still true.

If the Pirates have a lead going into the 9th, Felipe Rivero will close the game out.  He is one of the best young relievers in the game. Rivero struck out 88 in 75 innings and allowed 14 earned runs all year. He was traded to Pittsburgh in the Mark Melancon trade and has been lights out since arriving. He signed an extension this offseason that locks him in for the rest of his arbitration years at the very minimum. The Pirates can now make him the full time closer without worrying about his arbitration salary rocketing up as he notches saves. With two option years at $10 million apiece at the end, he is their most valuable piece overall. With a few years of 7-digit salaries left, he isn’t an obvious deadline trade candidate. But after seeing McCutchen traded away, no Pirate is 100% safe.

Kyle Crick came aboard (obvious pun time) this offseason from the Giants in the Andrew McCutchen trade. He walked 17 batters in 32 innings, a concerning sign even for a reliever. As a flyball pitcher, he is in a worse home park this year, but he will still be fine. With strong outfield defense, he is in a situation which will let him grow into a good 7th inning guy.

Other Notables

Austin Meadows’ 2017 mirrored his 2016 in terms of production and time missed for injury. Corey Dickerson took the third outfield spot earmarked for him. Now there is no obvious opening for him if he finally proves he has cracked AAA pitching and deserves his shot at the show. If 2018 mirrors the past two seasons, people will wonder if he ever will make good on his talent. Granted, this is his age 23 season, so he still has some development to go. Most prospect lists have him ranked as the top Pirate prospect.

While Austin Meadows is in the minors, the fourth outfield role is up for grabs. One of the competitors is Bryce Brentz, who the Pirates picked up from the Red Sox in a roster crunch. He hit 30 homers in AAA last year, so if he gets a chance to play in the majors it will be interesting to see if he can tap into that power.

David Freese played in 130 games last year, mostly at 3rd. With Moran aboard, he will be the backup corner infielder. The former Cardinal hero is still productive and is a trade candidate at the deadline if Bell and Moran prove capable. Making $4.25 million this year in the last guaranteed year of his extension signed in 2016, he won’t fetch much. But saving $2 million is something Pittsburgh won’t pass up. I would be very mildly surprised (I mean he is a backup) if he is in Pittsburgh come game 162.

Tyler Glasnow is another former top prospect who has struggled to find the ability to perform at the major league level. He’s a young pitcher who plays for the Pirates, so you can guess what he needs to improve. Walks have been an extreme issue for him though, as he has walked 57 batters in 85 innings. Unless he solves the walk issue, he won’t be a major league pitcher. A sinker/changeup pitcher, this year might be his best last chance to prove he can start. This year is his age 24 season, so the Pirates aren’t going to give up on him.

Prediction Time

With the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers taking 1-3 in the NL Central this year in some order, the Pirates will finish fourth. Luckily for them, the Reds still have some developing/cloning of Joey Votto to do. They can push .500 this year as they have major league talent all over the roster.  But the playoffs are out of the realistic picture.  The pitching will endure some rough stretches, while the batting order is lacking a bit in the power department. I think they will finish 78-84, and it wouldn’t be a super shock to see that record flipped. This is a roster with a decently high floor, but way less ceiling than last year.

Thanks to FanGraphs and Baseball Reference for the stats used in this preview

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