From 2013-2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates won at least 88 games with a high water mark of 98 wins in 2015. Last season they took a step back, finishing with a 78-83 record. Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates perennial MVP candidate, was a below average player (0.7 WAR). Even so, the Pirates offense finished a respectable 6th in the National League in runs scored and had seven players with an above-average runs created score (minimum 300 plate appearances).
The starting pitching, however, was no bueno. The Pirates gave a combined 39 starts to Fransisco Liriano and Jonathan Niese, and they rewarded their employer by producing -0.7 WAR. Both were traded before the season ended as the Buccos tried to cut their losses. They also dealt with numerous injuries, as no started pitched more than 116 innings. Going into 2017, the Pirates have made only small tweaks to last year’s roster, but a solid core remains intact that could return them to contention.
The rotation will likely be better just by the absence of Niese and a struggling Liriano. The ZiPS projections suggest the following four are their best starters:
The Pirates need Gerrit Cole to stay healthy and Glasnow (23) and Taillon (25) to begin demonstrating their considerable potential. The latter seems reasonable, even though Glasnow may start the season in AAA, but Cole really struggled with tricep and elbow issues in 2016. Maybe I’m squeamish because of Homer Bailey, but elbow issues don’t always turn out too well. Cole is obviously an extremely talented pitcher who two years ago posted 5.4 WAR and a 2.60 ERA. If he’s healthy, he will go a long way toward stabilizing the unit.
Ivan Nova pitched extremely well after coming over in a trade around the deadline last year, and the Pirates rewarded him with a three-year contract worth $26 million. The team had a lot of success with bringing A.J. Burnett over from the AL to the NL. Nova profiles as another talented guy who may pitch considerably better for the Pirates than he did for the Yankees.
Chad Kuhl will start the season in the rotation, and while he doesn’t have dominating stuff, he could succeed as a back-end starter. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh lacks depth, so when the inevitable injuries do occur, they may be in trouble. They don’t have a lot of impact pitchers at high levels in the minor leagues.
Tony Watson likely takes over closing duties for Mark Melancon, who was traded to the Nationals last July. My favorite memory of Watson is watching Todd Frazier hammer a game winning home run off of him early in the 2015 season. Oh Todd. You were fun. Watson’s been awfully good for a while but took a step back last season with a 4.20 xFIP.
The Pirates added the often injured Daniel Hudson this offseason. Nobody questions Hudson’s stuff and at one time he looked like a good starter. The low-risk signing is something the Pirates seem especially adept at. They are likely counting on Juan Nicasio and Jared Hughes to provide value for a unit that was too inconsistent in 2016. If Drew Hutchison doesn’t win a rotation spot, he will get significant bullpen innings. It looks like a group that will be good enough, even if they aren’t dominating.
The Position Players
You will recognize most of the Pirates position players. After floating the idea of trading McCutchen during the offseason, the Buccos settled for moving him to right field to improve their defense. The stellar Starling Marte will man Billy Hamilton’s territory with Gregory Polanco in left. Here are some ZiPS projections for the starters:
Why are there two starting third basemen? Well, it turns out that Kang’s season is in doubt because of legal trouble back in his home country of South Korea. He likely won’t start the season with the Pirates, though the team is trying to resolve the issue with the Korean government.
The loss of Kang will certainly hurt the Pirates because he was their best offensive player last season, smacking 21 homeruns in only 370 plate appearances. While Freese is an excellent backup, he doesn’t have nearly the upside of Kang.
The rest of the offense looks pretty good. While McCutchen may never produce MVP numbers again, he will likely be better than last season. Polanco took a step forward in 2016 and is still only 25. Marte has posted at least 121 wRC+ and 3.6 WAR for the last four seasons. He may not have elite power, but he does almost everything else well.
The upside for the Pirates offense comes from youngsters Josh Bell and Austin Meadows. Bell will likely get plenty of plate appearances as a first basemen. Scouts suggest he is a poor defender there, but his advanced strike zone knowledge and above-average power potential could lead to a prolonged career in the big leagues.
Meadows was just rated the number three outfield prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com and number five prospect overall by Fangraphs. In 2016, he dominated AA for roughly 200 plate appearances with a .311/.365/.611 slash line. He dealt with injuries after being promoted to AAA and struggled some but impressed during Spring Training this year. The Pirates crowded outfield will keep him in AAA for a bit, but if an injury occurs or they trade McCutchen, Meadows provides depth and incredible upside. ZiPS projects him as an average player for 2017 as a 21 year old.
John Jaso is still around as a backup, meaning the Pirates have a player that produced 111 wRC+ last year on the bench.
The Pirates are likely fringe contenders. They need a fairly healthy rotation, but the offensive pieces are there for a wild card run, especially if they can get Kang back sooner than later. The balance throughout the lineup is extremely impressive, and it’s not hard to imagine the Pirates as a top five offense in the National League.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t be shocked if the pitching holds them back some this year. The pitching staff looks better on paper than last season, but they have way too many unknowns to feel comfortable. A few injuries or growing pains from youngsters, and 2017 could look a lot like 2016. I’m guessing they fall just short of the postseason but expect them to be in it for a while.