2018 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

2018 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

If you’re a Pirates fan, you can’t be feeling great going into the 2018 season. The club went 75-87 last year and traded franchise icon Andrew McCutchen to the Giants back in January, receiving Kyle Crick, minor leaguer Bryan Reynolds, and international bonus slot money in return. The club also sent ace Gerrit Cole to the Astros in exchange for Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, and Jason Martin. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus are projecting the Pirates to win fewer than 80 games. If that holds true, the Pirates will have their third consecutive sub-.500 season.

Offense looks like it’s going to be a problem for the Buccos this year. Let’s start in the outfield, which consists of All-Star Starling Marte in center, Gregory Polanco in right, and newcomer Corey Dickerson in left. Marte and Polanco both struggled last year. After returning from his PED suspension, Marte hit .275/.333/.379 with seven home runs and 31 RBI in 339 plate appearances. If Marte, 29, can’t return to his 2013-16 level, he at least still has speed and defense to offer. Polanco, meanwhile, hasn’t really found his footing in the majors yet. Across nearly 500 games, he has a .717 OPS. In 2017, he mustered a .695 OPS, but part of that was due to repeated hamstring issues.

Dickerson fell into the Pirates’ lap after the Rays designated him for assignment for pretty much no reason other than to try to pawn his salary off on someone else. He was an All-Star last year, finishing with a .282/.325/.490 batting line along with 27 home runs and 62 RBI in 629 plate appearances. Dickerson, who bats from the left side, didn’t show much of a platoon split last year, but has over the course of his five-year career, so the Pirates may opt to give him days off against a scheduled lefty starting pitcher.

The infield will feature Francisco Cervelli behind the plate, Josh Bell at first base, Josh Harrison at second, Jordy Mercer at shortstop, and David Freese at third base. Cervelli has been wonderful for the Pirates since joining the squad in 2015, even though his offense has tapered off. He’s one of the more well-respected defensive catchers, known in particular as a great pitch framer. The light-hitting Elias Diaz will back him up.

Bell hit a serviceable .255/.334/.466 with 26 home runs and 90 RBI last season. Normally, an .800 OPS is quite good, but the standard for offense is higher at first base as the league average was .815 in 2017. The Pirates are hoping Bell can take another step forward this season as he’ll likely be the backbone of the offense.

Harrison finally bounced back and had another All-Star season after struggling in 2015-16. He finished with a .272/.339/.432 line along with 16 home runs, 47 RBI, 66 runs scored, and 12 stolen bases in 542 plate appearances. Harrison will bat leadoff for the Pirates, so if he has another quality season, he’ll create plenty of RBI opportunities for hitters like Bell.

Mercer turned in a solid 2017, finishing with a .733 OPS along with 14 home runs and 58 RBI. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s close to average production from an infielder up the middle. Mercer also has a decent glove, helping solidify his value to the Pirates.

Third base will be an interesting position for the Pirates. Moran, acquired from the Astros in the Cole deal, is the Pirates’ No. 5 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. He had a .916 OPS in 79 games with Triple-A Fresno, his best season as a professional thus far. It remains to be seen if that will translate to the majors. Veteran David Freese could see the occasional start in Moran’s stead when a left-handed starting pitcher is on the hill.

The Pirates’ rotation looks strange without Cole at the top. It will now be led by Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon. The veteran Nova turned in a ho-hum 4.14 ERA across 31 starts last season. He has terrific control, issuing only 36 walks across 187 innings last year, but he doesn’t miss bats all that often. When he’s on, he’s on; when he’s off, he’s very hittable.

Taillon, 26, missed a little over a month last season between May and mid-June after undergoing surgery for testicular cancer. When he returned, he had a few really impressive starts, but he also got knocked around from time to time. Overall, he finished with a 4.44 ERA and a 125/46 K/BB ratio in 133 2/3 innings. Taillon has the swing-and-miss stuff to put up strong numbers, so if anyone out of the Pirates’ rotation is going to have an elite season, it’s this guy.

Musgrove, 25, has put up solid strikeout (21.3%) and walk (6.1%) rates across 171 1/3 innings in the majors, but he has been a bit too homer-prone (15.4%) as hitters tend to be able to square him up well from time to time. Now with a full-time change to start, Musgrove has been battling shoulder discomfort and has yet to pitch in a spring training game. He expects to be ready for the start of the regular season, however.

The rest of the rotation will include Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams. Kuhl posted a 4.35 ERA with a 142/72 K/BB ratio in 157 1/3 innings last year. As those stats may indicate, Kuhl can miss bats, but he can lose control from time to time. Williams had a 4.07 ERA with a 117/52 K/BB ratio in 150 1/3 innings. Both pitchers define solid but unspectacular.

In the bullpen, Felipe Rivero will open the season as the closer for the first time in his career. He took over after the club traded Tony Watson to the Dodgers, saving 21 games with a sterling 1.67 ERA and an 88/20 K/BB ratio in 75 1/3 innings. The Pirates signed Rivero to a contract extension worth $22 million over the next four years.

Behind Rivero, the Pirates have Michael Feliz, George Kontos, Edgar Santana, A.J. Schugel, Steven Brault, and a host of others battling for a roster spot this spring, including veterans Josh Smoker and Kevin Siegrist. It’s an uninspiring list and bridging the gap between the starter and Rivero in the ninth could be an issue for the Pirates all season long.

Aside from Rivero, the Pirates don’t have any obvious strengths at any position. It’s a team that is just adequate all the way around. Had the Pirates kept Cole and McCutchen, this might have been a team that could compete for the NL Wild Card. Instead, they will likely struggle to reach .500.

Prediction: 77-85, fourth place in the NL Central

Pirates' Polanco says he is ready to fulfill his potential

Pirates' Polanco says he is ready to fulfill his potential

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — Gregory Polanco thought the best way to boost his power numbers was by bulking up his body.

The Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder quickly found out last year that was not the case. He said he ”didn’t feel right” at the beginning of spring training and throughout the season following a winter of heavy weight training.

”I felt like I couldn’t move,” Polanco said.

Polanco wound up hitting .251 with 11 home runs in 108 games. He also spent three stints on the disabled list because of a strained left hamstring.

The Pirates’ training staff came up with a different workout plan for Polanco to follow this past offseason and he reported to spring training leaner and feeling more flexible.

”I lost some weight, so my hips and hands are faster,” Polanco said. ”If your hands are slow, you get jammed a lot. That’s why I focused on that. That was my main focus, getting a strong core, lower body and legs so I can go quick, go fast.”

Polanco’s bat has looked quicker in his limited playing time so far this spring training. He homered in his first game and entered Monday 3 for 8 with a double.

”You’ve got to get the in the rhythm right from the start and I feel like I’m in a good rhythm,” Polanco said. ”Hitting a home run on the first day was a good start. I just want to carry what I’m doing this spring into the season then all the way through the season.”

The 26-year-old is a .252 hitter with 66 home runs.

”He’s a guy that’s got a swing that will play,” manager Clint Hurdle said. ”Home runs are thrown more than they’re hit. As he continues to mature as a hitter, I think there’s situations he can hunt them. There’s power in the bat. If he’s on the field consistently, you’ll see more power.”

Polanco vows he will be on the field more often this year.

”I feel great,” he said. ”As good as I’ve ever felt. I’m excited about what I can do this season.”

The Pirates need to fill the offensive void created when they traded five-time All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco.

”A lot of people said it is time for me to take charge,” Polanco said. ”I use that to get better and show what I can do for the team and me, too. I know I can do more than I’ve done so far. It motivates me to work hard and be a better a player. I know my team needs me more than ever now and it’s time I start to be the type of player I know I can be.”

More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

Pirates' Corey Dickerson: Gets feet wet Saturday

Pirates' Corey Dickerson: Gets feet wet Saturday

Dickerson, who made his spring debut Saturday, went 0-for-2 and batted second against Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports.

He’s expected to start in spacious left field at PNC Park and hit at or near the top of the lineup. “There could be opportunities there (batting leadoff), but it’s too early for me to commit to one spot,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I just like the fact that he’s moved around and he’s open-minded. Once we get him in a spot we’d probably like to leave him in a spot, not to continue to moving him.” Dickerson will be counted upon to help replace the offensive void left by the absence of Andrew McCutchen. His ability to play an adequate left field remains the biggest question mark surrounding the 28-year-old.

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Pirates’ Corey Dickerson: Gets feet wet Saturday

Pirates’ Corey Dickerson: Gets feet wet Saturday

Dickerson, who made his spring debut Saturday, went 0-for-2 and batted second against Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. He’s expected to start in spacious left field at PNC Park and hit at or near the top of the lineup. “There could be opportunities there (batting leadoff)

Pittsburgh Pirates 2018 season team preview: Shipwrecked or smooth sailing ahead?

Pittsburgh Pirates 2018 season team preview: Shipwrecked or smooth sailing ahead?

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.

The vitals

  • 2017 record: 75-87 (minus-63 run differential)

  • 2018 depth chart: Click here

  • 2018 schedule: Click here

Post-hype, post-hope?

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.


Starling Marte had a brutal 2017. USATSI

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.


Jameson Taillon is a potential frontline starter. USATSI

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.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Pittsburgh Pirates

Josh Harrison may eventually find himself on the move. Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports

Probable lineup

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.

  1. 2B Josh Harrison
  2. LF Corey Dickerson
  3. CF Starling Marte
  4. 1B Josh Bell
  5. RF Gregory Polanco
  6. 3B Colin Moran
  7. C Francisco Cervelli
  8. 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.

Probable rotation

Again, largely the same as last year. Just with Cole out and Musgrove in.

  1. RHP Jameson Taillon
  2. RHP Ivan Nova
  3. RHP Chad Kuhl
  4. RHP Trevor Williams
  5. 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.

Probable bullpen

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

Setup: RHP George Kontos, RHP Michael Feliz

Middle: RHP A.J. Schugel, RHP Dovydas Neverauskas, LHP Josh Smoker, RHP Kyle Crick, LHP Kevin Siegrist

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.

Pirates' Bell Seeking Fast Start

Pirates' Bell Seeking Fast Start

FILE – In this Feb. 16, 2018, file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell practices during baseball spring training, in Bradenton, Fla. Bell’s vibrant rookie season was a flash of hope in an otherwise dismal 2017 for the Pirates. The first baseman is hoping to prove it wasn’t a fluke. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — Overall, Josh Bell had a fine rookie season in 2017.

The Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind unanimous winner Cody Bellinger of the Los Angles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Paul DeJong.

Bell’s 26 home runs established an NL rookie record for a switch-hitter. He also had a .255 batting average and a team-high 90 RBIs in 159 games.

However, the 25-year-old Bell is looking for more consistency after a slow start and cold finish last year. He arrived at spring training nearly a full month before the reporting day.

“I felt it was important to shake the cobwebs off earlier this year,” Bell said. “Some guys can roll out of bed and be ready to play in a game. I’m not that way. I need more time to prepare and the more prepared I am the more confident I am that I’ll perform well.”

Bell hit just .214 with two homers in his first 20 games last season after arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies from his left knee two weeks before spring training opened. However, the Pirates gave no thought of sending him back to Triple-A Indianapolis.

“Josh was still trying to literally get his legs under him,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It was a little frustrating for him and we had to pump the air breaks a few times.”

Bell was hitting .262 with 23 home runs at the end of August. But he hit just .221 with three homers in his last 27 games.

The poor finish caused Bell to change his offseason itinerary.

He originally planned to drive the length of the Pacific Coast Highway to take in some breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. Instead, he stayed home in Dallas and spent extra time in the weight room and batting cage.

“You always want to finish the season strong and go into the offseason with a good feeling,” Bell said. “I was very disappointed with the way last season ended. I don’t want that to happen again this year. I tried to take safeguards to avoid that from happening.”

The Pirates, though, were pleased with Bell’s performance.

“There were some ups and downs but you’re going to have that with young players,” Hurdle said. “I like what Josh Bell did last season and I like what he can do us going forward. I like Josh Bell a lot.”

The Pirates also appreciated Bell’s defense graded well in advanced metrics. He was shifted to first base from outfield in instructional league following the 2014 season.

“I’ve put a lot of time into learning the position and it felt like everything started really coming together last year,” Bell said.

The Pirates have had high hopes for Bell since selecting him with the first pick of the second round of the 2011 amateur draft.

“Josh is one of the young, potential leaders of this group,” Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington said. “He had a great rookie season, and instead of taking a deep breath and saying, ‘I’ve got this thing figure out,’ he wants to go to the next level. He wants to be a good player for a very long time.”


Tim Beckham had two hits, including his first home run, and drove in three runs, and Colby Rasmus homered for the Orioles. Adam Frazier, hitless in his first eight at-bats, had three hits, including a triple and double, and three RBIs. Orioles’ No. 2 starter Dylan Bundy gave up five runs and seven hits in 2 1/3 innings.


Jason Kipnis hit a three-run homer and Jose Ramirez singled twice and drove in two runs for Cleveland. Trevor Bauer pitched three innings and gave up a run and three hits while striking out four. Cleveland closer Cody Allen pitched a perfect fifth in his first appearance. Joey Gallo homered for Texas. Indians All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor went 0 for 3 and is batting .083.


Clayton Kershaw’s second spring training outing went according to plan, save for one poor throw to first.

The ace left-hander breezed through two scoreless innings for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, allowing one hit and walking one during a victory over the Chicago White Sox. He worked a perfect inning in his spring training debut against Seattle on Sunday.


Russell Wilson struck out in his first spring training at-bat with the New York Yankees. The Seattle Seahawks quarterback pinch hit for AL Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge in the fifth inning against Atlanta on Friday and swung past a 2-2 pitch from left-hander Max Fried.


Detroit left-hander Travis Wood has a torn left ACL and medial meniscus in left knee, and the team is evaluating surgical options. Wood twisted the knee during a game Thursday. Miguel Cabrera had two hits Friday, including a two-run double. Matthew Boyd, trying to earn a rotation job, gave up three runs four hits in three innings with five strikeouts.


Max Scherzer pitched three perfect innings and struck out five. Ryan Zimmerman doubled in two at-bats in his first appearance of spring training. Tim Tebow and Adrian Gonzalez had back-to-back singles in the fourth inning for New York. It was Tebow’s first hit in seven at-bats. The Mets’ only other hit was Gavin Cecchini’s solo homer leading off the bottom of the ninth.


Joe Mauer had a hit an and RBI, and Eddie Rosario led off the second inning with his first home run. Twins starter Jake Odorizzi struck out three in 2 2/3 hitless innings. Cavan Biggio, the son of Astros Hall-of-Famer Craig Biggio, tripled in his only at-bat for Toronto.


Philadelphia’s top prospect Scott Kingery hit his third spring home run. Phillies ace Aaron Nola allowed two runs and three hits in three innings. Blake Snell allowed one run and one hits in two innings.


Boston’s Drew Pomeranz left after one inning due to left forearm tightness. Bud Norris of the Cardinals came out after 2 1/3 innings due to a left hamstring spasm.


Dan Vogelbach, hoping to make the roster while Ryon Healy recovers from hand surgery, has two hits for Seattle, including a three-run homer. Mike Zunino singled for his first hit in 11 at-bats. Junior Guerra, chasing a spot in Milwaukee’s starting rotation, allowed four hits in three shutout innings. Seattle’s Marco Gonzales gave up three hits in three shutouts innings..


Madison Bumgarner pitched three perfect innings in his second start and struck out four. Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey gave up two runs and two hits in three innings, and Reds closer Raisel Iglesias struck out one in a hitless fourth inning. Prospects Steven Duggar and Kyle Jensen had solo homers for the Giants.


Chris Iannetta homered twice and drove in five runs for Colorado. No. 2 starter Chad Bettis allowed four runs and six hits in 2 1/3 innings. Jake Lamb hit a grand slam for Arizona and Paul Goldschmidt singled and drew two walks in three trips.


Jose Quintana made his first start for Chicago and allowed one run and three hits in one inning. Los Angeles starter Garrett Richards gave up two hits in three shutout innings. Jason Heyward led off for the first time this spring training and doubled for his first hit. Ian Kinsler, Mike Trout, Justin Upton and Albert Pujols combined to go 0 for 10 at the top of the Angels’ batting order.


Austin Hedges had two hits, including his fourth home run for San Diego, while Wil Myers singled twice and drove in a run. Jorge Bonifacio hit a three-run homer and Whit Merrifield had two hits for Kansas City, which lost its first big league exhibition. Royals ace Danny Duffy retired his first five batters, then issued consecutive walks. Christian Villanueva followed with the only hit off Duffy, a two-run double.