30 in 30: Pittsburgh Pirates

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Photo: Justin Berl/Getty Images

by: Ryan Waldis

Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 9th team preview of the series, featuring the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Quick Facts

Manager: Clint Hurdle (8th season)
2017 Record: 75-87, 4th in NL Central
Run Differential: -63
Top Position Player: Josh Harrison (3.3 WAR)
Top Pitcher: Gerrit Cole (2.8 WAR)

2017 Review

The National League was not very good in 2017. Of the ten worst teams in the league, seven came from the NL. Pittsburgh was the best of this group, playing close to .500 ball for most of the season. Had the offense not been anemic for most of the year, the team could have potentially played meaningful baseball in September. They OPS’d just several ticks over .700 (.704), but their pitching staff was among the better ones in the league, finishing 13th with a cumulative ERA of 4.22.

The Pirates went 42-47 over the first half of the season, scoring 378 runs while allowing 403. The offense picked up in May and June after a slow start during the first month of the season. The lineup plated just 90 runs in April and upped the total to 122 and 129 in the next two months. July was their best month of the season, as they went 14-11 on the backs of their pitchers, as they allowed just 94 runs in 25 games. They cooled off in August and September, posting unappealing 12-17 and 11-16 records. They experienced a seven game losing streak in the middle of September, their longest of the 2017 campaign.

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Photo: David Hague

Offense

The Pirates utilized three catchers over the course of 2017. Elias Diaz and Chris Stewart each appeared in at least 50 games, but Francisco Cervelli was the main option as he played 81 contests. The former Yankee would have played more had he not been shut down in August. He hasn’t been able to match his offensive numbers from 2015 (his first year with the organization); the backstop slashed .249/.342/.370 and finished with his highest strikeout rate since 2014 (21.4%). He wasn’t great defensively, either—his -2.0 Framing Runs mark was 85th out of 110 catchers, while his -2.3 adjusted FRAA ranked 83rd.

Josh Bell was very impressive over a 45 game stretch in his rookie campaign, and came into 2017 with fairly high expectations that he could be the Pirates first baseman for years to come. He took a step back in some aspects but overall Bell had a solid sophomore season. He finished with a wRC+ of 108, hitting .255/.334/.466 in 620 plate appearances. His strikeout rate increased by six percent and his walk rate dropped by three, but the first baseman hit 26 home runs and 26 doubles, proving that his power will definitely play in the bigs.

The other Josh in the Pirates lineup, Mr. Harrison had his best offensive season since his breakout 2014 campaign. The versatile position player slashed .272/.339/.432 and set a career-high with 16 home runs. Harrison also swiped 12 bags, indicating that he definitely has 15/15 potential. He showcased his solid defensive ability as well. Harrison logged time at four positions in 2017 and graded out positively at each one:

Second base: 653.1 innings, 0.3 UZR
Third base: 341.2 innings, 0.9 UZR
Left field: 56.2 innings, 1.0 UZR
Right field: 1.1 innings, N/A

Jordy Mercer may be one of the luckiest players in all of baseball. The shortstop seemingly keeps receiving playing time based on his breakout 2013 season when he posted the only wRC+ of his career (115). In 2017, Mercer hit .255/.326/.406 while posting walk and strikeout rates of 9.1% and 15.8%. The 14 home runs were nice, but they came on the back of a career-high 10.9% HR/FB rate. He also graded out negatively in the field—in the 1,241.2 innings Mercer logged at shortstop, he finished with a -1.4 UZR.

David Freese was exactly league average at the dish in 2017, posting a wRC+ of 100, which was the lowest mark of his major league career. His strikeout rate of 23.1% was right in line with his career average of 23, but he finished with the highest walk rate (11.5%) of his career, showing a solid approach at the plate. The former Cardinal and Angel hit 10 home runs and 16 doubles, and was actually a positive in the field—while the -0.4 UZR at first base wasn’t ideal, Freese posted a 3.1 UZR at third base over 977.2 innings.

Pittsburgh fielded a rough outfield for the most part in 2017 which ultimately contributed to the downfall of the offense. Andrew McCutchen led that way, bouncing back from an uncharacteristic 2016 by slashing .279/.363/.486 with 28 home runs while exhibiting a solid approach at the plate (17.8% strikeout rate, 11.2% walk rate) despite being the subject of trade rumors all season. Starling Marte, meanwhile, had a very uncharacteristic season last year. He missed time due to a suspension earlier in the year, and when he returned he didn’t look like the Marte of old. The power was gone, he was making more soft contact than ever before (career-high 29% soft% mark), and he looked a little off at the plate. He was still a positive in the field (4.3 UZR) and the speed was still there (21 stolen bases), but there were definitely reasons for concern with Marte following his return.

Gregory Polanco posted a third subpar offensive campaign in four years, hitting to an uninspiring .251/.305/.391 line. The power was gone, he was walking less, and the stolen base total dwindled to just eight after posting totals of 14, 27, and 17 in his first three major league seasons. He graded out positively in left and right field, but the offensive decline was concerning, shoulder injury notwithstanding. John Jaso was not good; he somehow appeared in 126 games and made 302 plate appearances despite slashing just .211/.328/.402.

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Photo: Jon Durr/Getty Images

Pitching

In an age where long-term injuries to pitchers are so common, the Pirates managed to get through the 2017 season without much issue. They had five arms start at least 25 games, with three reaching the 31-plus start mark. In all, they only had six pitchers reach double-digit starts. De-facto staff ace Gerrit Cole led the way, tossing 203 innings over 33 starts. The 26-year-old finished with some of his worst run-based numbers of his career—his ERA/FIP/xFIP line was 4.26/4.08/3.81. The strikeout and walk rates were right near his career averages, but Cole let up an average of 1.37 home runs per nine innings, which was by far a career-high. Ivan Nova started off the season incredibly well before tailing off from May onwards. The former Yankee started 31 games and pitched to a 4.14 ERA and 4.46 FIP. In five April starts, Nova pitched to a 1.50 ERA while posting a solid 22:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and allowing just two home runs. From May 4th to the end of September, Nova pitched to a 4.77 ERA, striking out 109 and walking 35 while allowing 27 balls to leave the yard.

Chad Kuhl was the other Pirates pitcher to log 31 starts, pitching 157.1 innings and finishing with a 4.35 ERA and 4.24 FIP. He kept the ball in the yard and upped his strikeout rate by over three percent, but Kuhl also walked more batters than he did in his rookie campaign, posting a 10.6% walk rate, which was up four percent over 2016. Trevor Williams made 25 starts for Pittsburgh in 2017, improving upon his extremely small sample size from 2016. A former Marlins prospect, Williams pitched 150.1 innings, finishing with an ERA of 4.07 and a FIP a few ticks below that. The 18% strikeout rate and 8% walk rate were passable, and Williams had a solid 0.84 HR/9 mark. He showcased his limited upside while also proving that he can be a serviceable back-of-the-rotation arm.

Jameson Taillon also made 25 starts for the Pirates after missing some time due to recovering from a surgery pertaining to testicular cancer. The number two overall pick in the 2010 draft pitched to a 4.44 ERA, but the 3.48 FIP was more telling of his abilities on the mound. Taillon struck out close to nine batters per nine innings and didn’t let up a ton of homers (0.74 HR/9), but the 3.10 BB/9 mark he posted was much higher than the 1.47 he allowed in his rookie season. Finally, Tyler Glasnow struggled once again at the major league level. In 13 starts, the right-hander exhibited major control issues—the 14.4% walk rate and 6.39 BB/9 statistic were both very ugly. He also stranded just 60.7% of the baserunners he allowed. Overall, the 7.69 ERA and 6.30 FIP were both very concerning.

At least in terms of ERA, Pittsburgh had a top 10 bullpen in 2017. The group pitched to a combined 3.84 ERA, striking out 495 while walking 214 and holding opponents to a .249 BAA. Southpaw Felipe Rivero led the way, making 73 appearances and pitching to a pristine 1.67 ERA and equally impressive 2.47 FIP. He posted close to a 4.5:1 strikeout to walk ratio. Juan Nicasio also provided 60 solid innings out of the ‘pen, pitching to a 2.85 ERA and 3.02 FIP in 65 appearances. Wade LeBlanc and Daniel Hudson also contributed key innings for the Pirates; the former made 51 appearances while the latter made 71, with both finishing with ERAs and FIPs in the low to mid-fours. 28-year-old A.J. Schugel had a 1.97 ERA and a passable 4.00 FIP in the 32 innings he pitched in relief, while George Kontos made 15 appearances after a trade from the Giants, pitching to a 1.84 ERA and 2.61 FIP with his new team.

Photo: Charles LeClair/USA Today

Offseason Recap

The Pirates were one of the busier teams during the 2017 offseason, making a number of minor signings and several notable trades. The biggest addition to the team was probably Corey Dickerson, who was acquired in a late-February trade with the Rays. Dickerson started off the 2017 campaign scorching hot before tailing off and regressing month-by-month, but the Pirates will seemingly see if the can get an entire season of consistency out of the outfielder.

The most notable departure could kind of be debated, but in the end it probably has to be the face of their franchise, Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen was sent to the Giants in a mid-January trade, just two days after the big Gerrit Cole trade that had been speculated for quite some time. There were always solid teams around the homegrown McCutchen, but the front office seemingly dropped the ball and forced their contention window to close sooner than it had to since they never shelled out the money to improve the team around their star.

All Additions: Corey Dickerson, Damien Magnifico, Bo Schultz, Jason Martin, Michael Feliz, Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Bryan Reynolds, Kyle Crick, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Smoker, Daniel Nava, Kevin Siegrist

All Departures: Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, John Jaso, Wade LeBlanc, Chris Stewart, Brandon Cumpton, Gift Ngoepe

2018 Outlook

Best Case: In a season where the Pirates won’t be competing for anything more than a top 10 pick in the 2019 Amateur Draft, the young talent has more ups than downs and leaves positive impressions for the future. Bell, Marte, Polanco, and Austin Meadows all contribute positively throughout the course of the season, while veterans like Harrison, Freese, and Cervelli perform well enough to garner interest at the deadline. The rotation post-Cole is inconsistent, but Taillon is solid and the rest of the rotation holds down the fort in anticipation of Mitch Keller’s debut in 2019.

Worst Case: The veterans on the team struggle to some extent, meaning that the Pirates can’t cash in on their value at the trade deadline. Polanco proves 2016 was a fluke and not the norm, while Marte is unable to get back to his pre-suspension performance. Moran, Reynolds, and Martin have issues in the minors, causing the offseason trades to look a little rough, while the pitching staff completely falls off as no one can find their footing. The Pirates lose 90-plus games for the first time since 2011 as the fanbase becomes even more restless and upset with the front office.

PECOTA Projected Record: 78-84, 704 RS, 732 RA

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