Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Pittsburgh Pirates.
If you’re a Pirates fan, you can’t be feeling great going into the 2018 season. The club went 75-87 last year and traded franchise icon Andrew McCutchen to the Giants back in January, receiving Kyle Crick, minor leaguer Bryan Reynolds, and international bonus slot money in return. The club also sent ace Gerrit Cole to the Astros in exchange for Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, and Jason Martin. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus are projecting the Pirates to win fewer than 80 games. If that holds true, the Pirates will have their third consecutive sub-.500 season.
Offense looks like it’s going to be a problem for the Buccos this year. Let’s start in the outfield, which consists of All-Star Starling Marte in center, Gregory Polanco in right, and newcomer Corey Dickerson in left. Marte and Polanco both struggled last year. After returning from his PED suspension, Marte hit .275/.333/.379 with seven home runs and 31 RBI in 339 plate appearances. If Marte, 29, can’t return to his 2013-16 level, he at least still has speed and defense to offer. Polanco, meanwhile, hasn’t really found his footing in the majors yet. Across nearly 500 games, he has a .717 OPS. In 2017, he mustered a .695 OPS, but part of that was due to repeated hamstring issues.
Dickerson fell into the Pirates’ lap after the Rays designated him for assignment for pretty much no reason other than to try to pawn his salary off on someone else. He was an All-Star last year, finishing with a .282/.325/.490 batting line along with 27 home runs and 62 RBI in 629 plate appearances. Dickerson, who bats from the left side, didn’t show much of a platoon split last year, but has over the course of his five-year career, so the Pirates may opt to give him days off against a scheduled lefty starting pitcher.
The infield will feature Francisco Cervelli behind the plate, Josh Bell at first base, Josh Harrison at second, Jordy Mercer at shortstop, and David Freese at third base. Cervelli has been wonderful for the Pirates since joining the squad in 2015, even though his offense has tapered off. He’s one of the more well-respected defensive catchers, known in particular as a great pitch framer. The light-hitting Elias Diaz will back him up.
Bell hit a serviceable .255/.334/.466 with 26 home runs and 90 RBI last season. Normally, an .800 OPS is quite good, but the standard for offense is higher at first base as the league average was .815 in 2017. The Pirates are hoping Bell can take another step forward this season as he’ll likely be the backbone of the offense.
Harrison finally bounced back and had another All-Star season after struggling in 2015-16. He finished with a .272/.339/.432 line along with 16 home runs, 47 RBI, 66 runs scored, and 12 stolen bases in 542 plate appearances. Harrison will bat leadoff for the Pirates, so if he has another quality season, he’ll create plenty of RBI opportunities for hitters like Bell.
Mercer turned in a solid 2017, finishing with a .733 OPS along with 14 home runs and 58 RBI. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s close to average production from an infielder up the middle. Mercer also has a decent glove, helping solidify his value to the Pirates.
Third base will be an interesting position for the Pirates. Moran, acquired from the Astros in the Cole deal, is the Pirates’ No. 5 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. He had a .916 OPS in 79 games with Triple-A Fresno, his best season as a professional thus far. It remains to be seen if that will translate to the majors. Veteran David Freese could see the occasional start in Moran’s stead when a left-handed starting pitcher is on the hill.
The Pirates’ rotation looks strange without Cole at the top. It will now be led by Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon. The veteran Nova turned in a ho-hum 4.14 ERA across 31 starts last season. He has terrific control, issuing only 36 walks across 187 innings last year, but he doesn’t miss bats all that often. When he’s on, he’s on; when he’s off, he’s very hittable.
Taillon, 26, missed a little over a month last season between May and mid-June after undergoing surgery for testicular cancer. When he returned, he had a few really impressive starts, but he also got knocked around from time to time. Overall, he finished with a 4.44 ERA and a 125/46 K/BB ratio in 133 2/3 innings. Taillon has the swing-and-miss stuff to put up strong numbers, so if anyone out of the Pirates’ rotation is going to have an elite season, it’s this guy.
Musgrove, 25, has put up solid strikeout (21.3%) and walk (6.1%) rates across 171 1/3 innings in the majors, but he has been a bit too homer-prone (15.4%) as hitters tend to be able to square him up well from time to time. Now with a full-time change to start, Musgrove has been battling shoulder discomfort and has yet to pitch in a spring training game. He expects to be ready for the start of the regular season, however.
The rest of the rotation will include Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams. Kuhl posted a 4.35 ERA with a 142/72 K/BB ratio in 157 1/3 innings last year. As those stats may indicate, Kuhl can miss bats, but he can lose control from time to time. Williams had a 4.07 ERA with a 117/52 K/BB ratio in 150 1/3 innings. Both pitchers define solid but unspectacular.
In the bullpen, Felipe Rivero will open the season as the closer for the first time in his career. He took over after the club traded Tony Watson to the Dodgers, saving 21 games with a sterling 1.67 ERA and an 88/20 K/BB ratio in 75 1/3 innings. The Pirates signed Rivero to a contract extension worth $22 million over the next four years.
Behind Rivero, the Pirates have Michael Feliz, George Kontos, Edgar Santana, A.J. Schugel, Steven Brault, and a host of others battling for a roster spot this spring, including veterans Josh Smoker and Kevin Siegrist. It’s an uninspiring list and bridging the gap between the starter and Rivero in the ninth could be an issue for the Pirates all season long.
Aside from Rivero, the Pirates don’t have any obvious strengths at any position. It’s a team that is just adequate all the way around. Had the Pirates kept Cole and McCutchen, this might have been a team that could compete for the NL Wild Card. Instead, they will likely struggle to reach .500.
Prediction: 77-85, fourth place in the NL Central