The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off a somewhat surprising year. They finished the year with an 82-79 record, their first above .500 record since 2015. Now, they look to build off of 2018, and maybe go for a playoff push in 2019. They’ve already made a few good moves in the off season already, and with a few more, the team could actually look at a Wild Card spot, or even better if player perform above expectations.
The Pirates have a solid platoon duo behind the plate. First, let’s go over Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli bounced back from an injury filled 2017 to turn in a .259/.378/.431 batting line in 404 plate appearances. He had a 125 wRC+. If he qualified, he would have tied Yasmani Grandal and have been 1 wRC+ under J.T. Realmuto. Defensively, Cervelli caught 39% of the runners trying to take a base on him, and was worth .3 dWAR. The other part of the catching tandem is the younger Elias Diaz. Diaz broke out in 2018, batting .286/.339/.452 in 277 plate appearances. Overall, his offense was worth 117 wRC+. He was fairly similar to Cervelli behind the plate. Though he only caught 28% of runners trying to take a base from him, he was still worth .4 dWAR.
The Bucs will more than likely deploy 2017 standout rookie Josh Bell at first. Bell is coming off a rough 2018. He only batted .261/.357/.411 in 538 plate appearances. However, he improved his batting discipline, increasing his OBP .023 points and walk % from 10.6 to 13.2, and making better contact, as his hard hit rate jumped 1.2%. He’s entering his age 26 season, so there’s not too much reason to think he can’t raise his power and defensive numbers in 2019.
The Pirates decided to turn down Josh Harrison’s 2019 option for a $1 million buyout, but the team does have a few options for 2B. The first piece the Bucs will likely turn to is Adam Frazier. For his entire career so far, Frazier has mainly been a utility man. However, he’s put together a solid career given that role. In 2018, Adam gave the Pirates a .277/.342/.456 batting line in 352 plate appearances. Fangraphs has given Frazier a solid 116 wRC+. What really made the Pirates decide to turn down Harrison’s option was Frazier’s performance from August to the end of the season. In his final 180 plate appearances of the season, Frazier gave the team a .299/.356/.524 batting line. His overall defense at 2B is decent. In his career, he’s been worth 4 DRS at 2B, and had a .7 dWAR last year. The team does have some other options internally for second with Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer, however they are much less proven than Adam Frazier.
The main 3B will likely be lefty swinging Colin Moran. Moran had an overall solid rookie season. He batted .277/.344/.407 with 11 HRS in 465 PA’s. His offense was worth 103 wRC+. His defense was a bit questionable, but passable. Moran had -8 DRS and a -6.6 UZR but just -.8 dWAR. However, the team will probably look into platooning Moran at third. In 2018, he had a .295/.354/.436 line against right handed pitchers, but only a .177/.216/.242 line against left handed pitchers. Internally, the best option is likely Jose Osuna. Osuna started playing a lot more 3B in the minors in 2018, and played 7 MLB games there this season. Given more playing time, he could be a decent platoon option. The Pirates could also go out of the organization, and acquire a righty batter. One name the team could pursue is infielder Logan Forsythe. Forsythe, though coming off a rough 2018, does have experience at third base, and also brings versatility at second and first. Plus, he has a decent .268/.345/.438 line against left handed pitchers.
It seems the team has elected to not resign Jordy Mercer. However, they have decided to resign Jung Ho Kang. Kang has experience at shortstop, as he played it an ample amount of time there in 2015. He seems to be the front runner for the middle infield position. Kang, before missing all of 2017 and nearly all of 2018 with his inability to attain a work visa after his third drinking and driving incident, was a solid middle of the line-up bat for the Bucs. Between 2015 and 2016, Kang had a .273/.355/.483 batting line, and hit 21 HRS in 2016 in only 370 PA’s. His overall defense at short isn’t amazing by any means, but he isn’t going to hurt the team. Kang has 426 innings logged at short, resulting in 0 DRS, and -2.3 UZR. Kramer and Newman are also experienced at short in the minors, so that gives the Pirates 2 other internal options to place at short. The team has stated that they do want to look at other external options at short, and one slick fielding middle infielder Jose Iglesias. Iglesias gave the Detroit Tigers a .269/.310/.389 batting line in 2018, but he’s mainly known for his fielding. Throughout his career, he’s been worth 12 DRS at short, and 4.9 dWAR. This season, he gave the Tigers 1 DRS an 8.2 UZR and .9 dWAR at the middle infield position. Plus, Iggy has experience at third base, and could probably give the Pirates another 2B option as well.
If it weren’t for Gregory Polanco having to undergo knee surgery in September, the starting 3 would probably be Corey Dickerson in left, Starling Marte in center, and Polanco in right. However Polanco’s time table to return is a bit up in the air so the Pirates went out and got Lonnie Chisenhall to fill the void of 4th OF and temporary RF. Starting with Marte, the now-center fielder turned in a solid .277/.327/.460 batting line in 606 PA’s. His CF defense was overall, average to slightly above average. He had 1 DRS, 3.2 UZR, and worth .3 dWAR. However, Marte does bring the team not only a solid .280-.300 hitter, but also a speed/power combo. While he may not be on the same level as someone like Jose Ramirez, Marte did give the Pirates 20 home runs, and 33 SBS last season. Most of the time, Marte reaches double digits in home runs, and steals 30 or more bases per season. Next, Corey Dickerson will man LF. After a trade from the Rays to the Bucs, Dickerson batted .300/.330/.474 with 13 home runs. His defense was gold glove level, as he recorded 16 DRS, 8.6 UZR, and worth 1.1 dWAR, and won the NL LF Gold Glove. Now Gregory Polanco will miss some time with his knee surgery, but he did have a notably good 2018 season. Though he was a bit streaky, Polanco did turn in a .254/.340/.499 batting line in 535 PA’s. Plus, he reached double digits in HRS and SBS with 23 HRS and 12 SBS. While his defense in right was below average (-5 DRS, -1 UZR, -1.1 dWAR), he has previously been an above average fielder in the past. If Polanco can bounce back, he could be another big cog in the line-up. Chisenhall is an outfielder the Bucs signed a few days ago to a 1 year, $2.75 million deal, and he could be an underrated signing. Though he may have only played a combined 111 games in the past 2 seasons, he batted .297/.368/.503 in that time span. In short, he’s good when he’s healthy. Defensively, he has career 8 DRS in the outfield.
The Pirates’ starting 5 is fairly underrated. The #1 starter for the Bucs is likely Jameson Taillon. The righty pitched in 191 innings to the tune of a 3.20 ERA, 3.46 FIP, and 1.178 WHIP. However, from May 27th to the end of the season (22 games, 139.2 innings), Taillon didn’t give up more than 3 runs in any start in that time span. The likely #2 starter is Trevor Williams. Williams had solid numbers overall. In 170 and two thirds innings, Williams had a 3.11 ERA and 1.178 WHIP. While his FIP may have been 3.86, he only walked batters at a 2.9 BB/9 rate, and gave up just 15 home runs. What is impressive is is that from July 11th on (total 76 and two thirds innings), he had a 1.29 ERA, 3.17 FIP, and .216 BAA.The third starter will most likely be Ivan Nova. Nova continued to show really good control, only walking 2 batters per 9. However, his overall numbers aren’t to pretty. His 161 and a third innings resulted in a 4.19 ERA, 4.57 FIP, and 1.280 WHIP. However after a 10-Day DL stint back in late May, he had a 3.71 ERA, and 4.72 FIP. Nova’s biggest weakness is keeping the ball in the ballpark. He had a 1.5 HR/9 rate in 2018, and if he can get that down, he could be a solid middle of the rotation starter. After coming off a trade with the Rays, Chris Archer will likely fill the 4th spot in the rotation. Archer wasn’t too great after coming to Pittsburgh. He had a 4.30 ERA, 4.00 FIP, and 1.357 WHIP in his first 52 and a third innings in black and gold. However there is reason to think he can bounce back. In September, Archer had a 2.70 ERA and 3.46 FIP. While another younger pitcher (Mitch Keller) could take over this spot later in the season, the current 5 guy looks to be Jose Musgrove. Musgrove is one of the pieces the Bucs got in return for Gerrit Cole, and he pitched decent. He had a 4.06 ERA, 3.58 FIP, and 1.179 WHIP. While he’s been known as a control pitcher before, he lowered his BB/9 rate from 2.3 in 2017 to 1.8 in 2018, all while his K/9 rate stayed at a similar rate (8.1 to 7.8).
Leading the bullpen will be closer Felipe Vasquez, who followed up his outstanding 2017 with an impressive 2018 season. The left handed hurler turned in a 2.70 ERA, 2.43 FIP, and 1.243 WHIP. He kept his impressive K/9 rate, raising it to 11.4 (almost one whole point higher than last year), while keeping a decent BB/9 rate (3.1). The Bucs have a more than enough set-up men to deliver it to Vasquez. However the main 8th inning man will likely be Keone Kela. The Pirates acquired Kela last July deadline in a trade with the Texas Rangers for Taylor Hearn. So far, it looks to be a decent pick up by the Pirates. In his 15 and a third innings of work in a Pirates uniform, Kela gave the team a 2.93 ERA, 2.96 FIP, and .978 WHIP. However, if it weren’t for a 4 run outing where Kela only pitched a third of an inning in September, Kela’s numbers would probably have looked a lot better. The Pirates main 8th inning man for most of the year last season, Kyle Crick, will rejoin the team next year. Crick was one of the pieces the Pirates got back in the deal that sent Andrew McCutchen to Pittsburgh, and his debut season in Pittsburgh was nice. He pitched 60 and a third inning of 2.39 ERA, 3.14 FIP, and 1.127 WHIP baseball. Crick also showed some improved control, as his BB/9 went down from 4.7 in 2017 to 3.4 in 2018. Another pitcher the Bucs can rely on as a set-up guy is right hander Richard Rodriguez. Rich-Rod came out of nowhere in 2018, as he was a minor league signee for the Pirates last off season. However he quickly became a reliable arm out of the pen. In 69 and a third innings, Rodriguez turned in an impressive 2.47 ERA, 2.60 FIP, and 1.067 WHIP. His strikeout rate was identical to closer Felipe Vasquez’s at 11.4, and his walk rate was lower than Vasquez’s at 2.5. While he is a set-up option, he will likely be handled in a multi-role option. Along with setting it up for the closer, or the 8th inning guy, Rodriguez will also likely serve as a fireman relief pitcher. The breakout righty led the NL in runners stranded rate. Outside of the core-4 of the pen, the team may want to explore some cheap, reliable options. The Bucs only left hander out of the pen that isn’t Felipe Vasquez is Steven Brault. Brault might not be bad, but they are likely better off signing a solid veteran left handed relief pitcher like Zach Duke or Jake Diekman. The bullpen needs more depth anyway. Edgar Santana, who was a key part of the bullpen in 2018, will miss most of, if not all of 2019 as he had Tommy John surgery at the end of last season. Plus, Michael Feliz has shown that he should not be seen as a reliable pen piece, and Dovydas Neverauskas struggled even more than Feliz in 2018.
Many may say that the Pirates biggest weakness is power, but they’re trying to fix that. They’ve restructured the hitting coach department, and that could help increase the power numbers of guys like Josh Bell and Corey Dickerson. However the Bucs’ biggest weakness is wild pitches. The team had 95 wild pitches all season. That’s the most by any NL team in 2018, and likely any AL team. 95 times a runner moved 90 feet closer to scoring or scored on a wild pitch. Whatever the team decides to do for the rest of the off season, they need to work with the pitchers and catchers on preventing wild pitches.
The Pirates are looking at another 82-85 win season in 2019. However, they’re not far from looking like real contenders. However the team needs more offensive production from player they’re heavily relying on. Namely Josh Bell and Corey Dickerson. But with new hitting instructors, they’re power should see an increase, along with Colin Moran. If the Bucs make a few under the radar moves like when they signed Lonnie Chisenhall a few days ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates may be looking at a return to Buctober instead of an 82-85 win season.