The Pittsburgh Pirates have become the kind of organization many hope the Reds will become. They have a forward thinking front office that uses both advanced data and excellent scouting to build a strong roster in spite of their resource limitations. The Pirates had a payroll of just over $86 million last season but that didn’t stop them from winning 98 games.
The men from the Steel City have now been to the playoffs three years in a row, but they haven’t had much postseason success. Last year, they lost in the Wild Card game to the up and coming Chicago Cubs and must feel their window is getting a little smaller. They have a limited timetable to win with Andrew McCutchen at his peak as he turns 30 this year. Because of these factors, we would have expected the Pirates to be a little bolder in the offseason to try and get over the hump but instead, we see a team mostly content with their roster.
This part of our preview will cover the offseason moves, starting rotation, and lineup. Later today, we will cover projected wins and losses and where we see the Pirates finishing in the NL Central.
The Pirates made a few notable offseason moves. First, they signed long-time catcher John Jaso to play first base. Jaso and his career .361 OBP are poised for the leadoff spot in the lineup, though he could slot in any number of places.
David Freese also signed in mid March and will likely man third base. Freese’s best year was four years ago (2012), but he has been a league average player the last two seasons for the Angels. If nothing else, he provides the Pirates with talented depth as the team already has Jung Ho Kang and Josh Harrison floating between second and third base.
The Pirates also took steps to sure up the back end of their rotation. They traded long-time second basemen Neil Walker to the Mets for Jon Niese and signed former Pirate Ryan Vogelsong. They also signed Neftali Feliz to improve their bullpen.
The team’s notable losses are filled with solid if not great players. A.J. Burnett retired and the team traded away Walker and Charlie Morton. They also lost frustrating slugger Pedro Alvarez who had fallen out of favor with the front office last season. Joining Alvarez on the out train are the following players:
- J.A. Happ
- Antonio Bastardo
- Joakim Soria
- Joe Blanton
- Vance Worley
- Travis Snider
This is a solid list of talent, but none of these guys strikes me as irreplaceable. The biggest concern for the Pirates has to come from the back end of the rotation, which could cause some major problems.
Starting Rotation and Bullpen
The Pirates likely rotation to start the season is as follows:
- Gerrit Cole
- Francisco Liriano
- Jon Niese
- Jeff Locke
- Ryan Vogelsong
If that strikes you as top heavy, you’re right. The first three spots in the Pirates rotation are locked in: Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and Jon Niese. That’s a solid top three but not without question marks. Cole is a stud and should be for years to come. Liriano has revived his career in Pittsburgh, but he walks far too many people. His saving grace is both his ability to strike out batters and induce a ton of double plays (22 groundball double plays in 2015). At some point, the walks will catch up with him. I’m not betting on a major regression this season, but it is something to pay attention to.
Niese had a subpar season last year for the Mets, posting a 4.13 ERA with a 4.11 xFIP. He saw his strikeout rate dip and his walk rate rise. Not a good combination. From 2011-2014, Niese had eerily consistent seasons with WAR totals between 2.0 and 2.7. The Pirates are clearly counting on seeing that guy this season. He won’t strikeout a ton of people, but when he is going well, he doesn’t walk many people either.
The back of the rotation is where things get interesting. It appears that Jeff Locke, Vogelsong, and Juan Nicasio are competing for the final two spots. Locke seems to have the upper hand as he is a lefty in a ballpark friendly to left-handed pitchers. He consistently puts up an xFIP of around 4.00 meaning last year’s ERA of 4.49 was a tad high. He doesn’t inspire too much confidence though. Locke struggles to put away hitters and lets up far too many home runs.
Vogelsong was a replacement level player last season and will turn 39 in July. Nicasio provides more upside but hasn’t started full time since 2013 with the Rockies. He seems better suited for the bullpen, but the Pirates might have to ride with him to start the season. I’d be awfully nervous about either of these guys pitching every five days.
The Pirates’ saving grace is the likely rotation upgrades coming this summer in top prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. If these two are as good as advertised, the Pirates may not need to trade away assets in order to improve a shaky rotation. They better hope they can survive long enough until the kids are ready.
The bullpen may help out a questionable back end of the rotation. Mark Meloncon, Feliz, and Jared Hughes will attack hitters from the right side and Tony Watson returns from the left. Add in Nicasio who was throwing 95-96 as a reliever last year, and the Pirates may only need starters to go five or six innings to win games. There isn’t a lot to say about this bullpen – they should be good.
The Pirates have a talented group of position players; they could arrange their lineup in any number of ways. Here’s my best guess:
- John Jaso 1B
- Gregory Polanco RF
- Andrew McCutchen CF
- Starling Marte LF
- Josh Harrison 2B
- David Freese 3B
- Francisco Cervelli C
- Jordy Mercer SS
That lineup could be scary. Not because the Pirates have a ton of star players but because they have serious depth throughout their lineup. Polanco, Harrison, and Freese all project to be about average offensively. Cervelli, Jaso, McCutchen, and Marte will likely produce at higher levels to varying degrees.
The only major weak link is Jordy Mercer, and he isn’t in the lineup for his bat. Michael Morse will play some first base against left-handed pitchers as Jaso doesn’t hit nearly as well against southpaws. With a strong bench that features Morse, Kang, and Sean Rodriguez, the Pirates possess some real depth in case of injuries.
Polanco, McCutchen, and Marte may be the best outfield trio in the game. Polanco struggled some at the plate last season but is only entering his age 24 season and still put up 2.3 fWAR in 2015. McCutchen and Marte both had “down” years last season and still combined for 9.4 fWAR between them. Defensively, these guys cover a ton of ground and are all under 30.
Cervelli finally became a starter and rewarded the Pirates faith with a 119 wRC+ (runs created score, 100 is average) and 3.8 WAR. His numbers are roughly in line with his part-time duty before the 2015 season, so maybe that’s who he is. Even if he regresses a little, the Pirates will be very happy his production from the catcher position.
Things would have to go majorly wrong for this offense to struggle. The Pirates have put together a strong lineup with a solid defense. Again, the depth is the impressive thing. The Pirates just don’t put bad players on the field.
The Pirates are a good team. How good they are will likely depend on the depth of their rotation. They have two good starters and a bunch of question marks. If all works out there, they might contend for the NL Central. If not, who knows.