What a difference a few months can make.
The Pittsburgh Pirates no longer employ Andrew McCutchen or Gerrit Cole. Relatedly, they no longer employ playoff aspirations, either. Instead this is a team caught in that awkward moment, transitioning between cores, where the past is the past and the future is not yet present.
One would be tempted to say, then, that this season doesn’t much matter for the Pirates; that they’ll play 162 because they have to, and not because there’s anything special on the horizon. To wit, PECOTA sees them raising the Jolly Roger 78 times and FanGraphs 76 times, positioning them in the oh-so-sweet (or is it sour?) spot between the game’s top and bottom teams. Sigh.
What can Pittsburgh fans look forward to? Here are a few developments worth tracking.
2017 record: 75-87 (minus-63 run differential)
2018 depth chart: Click here
2018 schedule: Click here
One of the biggest potential plot progressions for these Pirates involves two ex-top prospects who haven’t made good on their pedigree: outfielder Gregory Polanco and starter Tyler Glasnow. Should either develop into what used to be expected, the tides of fortune could change in a hurry.
Polanco, somehow 27 come September, was a replacement-level performer in 2017, per Baseball Reference. Futility has become a theme for him, particularly at the plate. In four seasons, he’s finished with an OPS above .700 twice — and on one of those occasions, his OPS was .701. Ouch. Polanco hasn’t hit for power — too often his barrel gets underneath the ball — and he’s been so ineffective against left-handers that he should be spared from facing them.
To Polanco’s credit, he worked hard over the winter, prioritizing mobility to strength with the hopes that he’ll stay healthier and be more explosive. Sweat equity doesn’t ensure success, however, and it’s not a great sign when the top reason for optimism revolve around how a player was regarded years ago. Maybe Polanco does put everything together, at least enough to return to his 2016 form, but it seems less and less likely that he’ll ever live up to his hype.
Unlike Polanco, Glasnow figures to begin the season in the minors, where he has little left to prove. In 2017, he posted a 1.93 ERA and more than four strikeouts per walk during his time in Triple-A. The problem for Glasnow, 25 in August, has been establishing a foothold in the majors. In 22 big-league appearances, he’s walked 57 batters and allowed 15 home runs in 85 innings pitched. Long and tall and blessed with a fastball that can lick 100 mph, Glasnow will get plenty of chances to make a successful transition to the majors. At some point, though, that opportunity might present itself in a relief role — especially if his command doesn’t improve.
Marte tries to bounce back
Entering last spring, Starling Marte looked like one of the top-20 or so players in baseball. He was an above-average batter with a penchant for stealing bags and getting hit by pitches, as well as a well-above-average defender who was finally being moved to center field after years of deference to the face of the franchise.
Then Marte got popped for a failed drug test, and subsequently showed little to no power upon his return to the lineup. Now, he’s entering his age-29 season hoping to revert to his old, all-star levels of production. That seems like a safe bet.
As ridiculous as this sounds, consider Marte’s chances akin to Pascal’s wager — in the past, he’s shown that either 1. He is a good player without using any illegal substance; or 2. He’s able to use illegal substances that go undetected. Either way, Marte figures to be the Pirates best player.
Are the kids all right?
Perhaps the most important development in Pittsburgh this year will revolve around their small town’s worth of younger players. The Pirates have more than a dozen players with little to no MLB experience who could see action in 2018 and who could help shape their future.
Starting with the position players, Josh Bell and Colin Moran figure to serve as the corner infielders most days. Bell held his own as a 24-year-old, homering 26 times, posting a 108 OPS+, and finishing third in Rookie of the Year Award voting. Moran, part of the Cole trade, has taken a long, odd route to the majors since being drafted sixth overall in 2013. The Pirates are banking on his mechanical changes — he began elevating more often — transferring to the majors. He homered 18 time in 350 Triple-A plate appearances in 2017 — notable, given he’d homered 30 times in his first 1,618 minor-league trips to the plate.
Throughout the season, that pair could be joined by outfielders Austin Meadows, Jordan Luplow, and Jason Martin, as well as infielders Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer. Meadows’s prospect shine has been reduced by injuries. Once seen as Andrew McCutchen’s obvious successor, he’s appeared in more than 100 games in a season just once — and that was in 2015. Lupow and Martin, acquired in the Cole trade, could turn into fourth-outfielder types. Meanwhile, Newman and Kramer both have an outside shot at developing into a starting double-play combo.
On the mound, the Pirates will trot out a rotation that includes Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, and likely Joe Musgrove. Taillon, equipped with front-of-the-rotation stuff and past big-league success, seems well-suited to assume the role of staff ace. He dealt with a cancer scare last season. Kuhl and Williams pitched better than most realized last season. The sinker-balling Kuhl has seen his velocity tick up, while Williams served as compensation from the Miami Marlins for since-fired pitching instructor Jim Benedict. Glasnow, Steven Brault, Nick Kingham, and Clay Holmes figure to provide additional rotation depth, and it’s at least possible that Mitch Keller — the top prospect in the system — and Taylor Hearn see the majors, too.
Basically, if you like younger players — even those who aren’t necessarily considered elite or above-average — then you’ll probably find a few Pirates worth your interest at any given time.
More moves to come?
Although McCutchen and Cole represented the Pirates’ top trade chips, they could well make another series of moves before the deadline. Second baseman Josh Harrison’s team-friendly deal will pay him just over $30 million through the 2020 season, while starter Ivan Nova will make less than $20 million over the next two years — a sum that could make him appealing for teams seeking a mid-rotation boost. The Pirates could conceivably also find takers for Corey Dickerson, Jordy Mercer, David Freese, Sean Rodriguez, and perhaps even Francisco Cervelli.
None of those deals are likely to be blockbusters, but they could return more prospect depth to a system that already has a lot.
The Pirates scored the third-least runs in the majors last season. Their lineup has only a slightly different look this year, with Moran and Corey Dickerson slotting in.
- 2B Josh Harrison
- LF Corey Dickerson
- CF Starling Marte
- 1B Josh Bell
- RF Gregory Polanco
- 3B Colin Moran
- C Francisco Cervelli
- SS Jordy Mercer
Bench: C Elias Daz, INF David Freese, UTL Sean Rodriguez, UTL Adam Frazier
Dickerson was a smart pick-up from the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s been an above-average hitter throughout his career, and made last July’s All-Star Game. Adam Frazier is a nifty bench piece, by the way, who should see time both in the outfield and on the infield. Jung-ho Kang’s status remains unclear.
Again, largely the same as last year. Just with Cole out and Musgrove in.
- RHP Jameson Taillon
- RHP Ivan Nova
- RHP Chad Kuhl
- RHP Trevor Williams
- RHP Joe Musgrove
Everyone here has the potential to be at least a back-end starter. Taillon has a real chance to develop into a no. 2, making him the staff ace by default.
The Pirates still haven’t signed a single free agent to a big-league deal. That’s more evident in the bullpen than anywhere else. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t know many of these names.
Closer: LHP Felipe Rivero
Rivero is one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball. Kontos was a nifty late-season grab from the San Francisco Giants. Feliz was yet another part of the Cole trade. The Pirates have a lot of choices for the other spots, so it’s possible that the bullpen is staffed by the likes of Edgar Santana, Jack Leathersich, Bo Schultz, and so on. Fun times.