Playing Pepper 2017: Pittsburgh Pirates

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Pittsburgh Pirates
78-83, third in NL Central
Last year’s Pepper

Over the past few years, as Cardinal fans we’ve had a front row seat as the Pirates not only threw off their stretch of sub-.500 baseball but became a significant challenger to St. Louis’s rule of the NL Central.  Last year, the Cubs snuck by both teams as the Pirates again finished with less than 81 wins.  To determine if that’s a bump in the road or an ominous trend, we’ve got five Pirates bloggers here to give us the lowdown on the black and gold.  (Please note: As an actual employee of MLB, Michael Clair recused himself from question three.)

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

PB: It was a weird offseason for the Pirates; on one hand they did re-sign Ivan Nova to a deal well-below market value, which was a MUST for their 2017 rotation. On the other, they were hotly engaged in a couple of big-time trades that did not pan out. They failed to deal Andrew McCutchen after engaging with the Nationals and other “mystery teams.” They also did not land White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana, after being the strongest team linked to him over the hot stove. GM Neal Huntington has gone on record as saying the price for Quintana was exorbitant and that the club did not feel pressured to deal McCutchen, but the lack of a Quintana trade in particular – one I wish they would have done – has left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths.

PP: No, not really, it was not a good offseason. The perennially PR-challenged Pirates botched the whole situation with the McCutchen trade talks. They were shopping him at his lowest possible value, expecting a return commensurate with an MVP-caliber player, and shocked by the chasm between the two. I wished they would have done whatever it took to get Jose Quintana from the White Sox. I would have been fine with emptying 3 top tier prospects for him, as prospects have high bust/disappointment rates and Quintana is an established #2 starter. It would have deepened the whole rotation and put them on par with the elite staffs in the NL.

643: It was a reasonable off season. The big need was starting pitching and they partially addressed the by re-signing Ivan Nova. There were plenty of rumors about a trade for Chicago’s Jose Quintana, but apparently the Sox want a deal comparable to what they got for Chris Sale and they Bucs just aren’t going to give up THAT much. I would have been fine sending a package built on Tyler Glasnow but not not Josh Bell and Austin Meadows. Another need that wasn’t addressed is for a 4th outfielder. Pittsburgh is on the list of rumored destinations for Angel Pagan. Signing Daniel Hudson gives the bullpen a lot of depth.

C4: It was an interesting offseason, to say the least. While some will dream of the cache of golden prospects that could have been acquired had they dealt Andrew McCutchen, and others will wish the team unloaded the farm for Jose Quintana, it ended up being pretty quiet.

Personally, I wouldn’t have been upset had the team gone all in on Quintana. Even though the superpowered and terrifying Cubs look to have the NL Central on lock for quite some time, the Pirates roster is about as good as it could be without tearing the whole thing apart and trying to build from the bottom again. (And with caps on international spending and in the draft, there is no guarantee they would be able to do so as quickly as the Astros have.)

The signing of Ivan Nova looks to be a good one — especially for the amount of money he was brought in on — but the concerning issue is what happened last July when the team acquired Drew Hutchison, giving up two prospects and Francisco Liriano in what appeared to be a salary dump.

If Hutchison makes the roster and proves to be an adequate mid-rotation stalwart, then fine, I’ll never bring it up again. But if the players they gave up just to offload Liriano were still in the system, could the team have made a run at a frontline starter like Quintana? That thought will plague me until Opening Day.

WHYG: I guess it was sort of a neutral off-season for the Pirates, in the way that most of their off-seasons are neutral. They didn’t do anything huge, but they didn’t fail to accomplish any basic necessary task, either. The signing of Ivan Nova was an excellent deal for them, in that it’s for a reasonable sum of money ($26 million plus incentives over three years), and Nova really took to Ray Searage’s coaching almost immediately with anabsolutely bananas walk rate after he was traded to the Pirates (3 BBs in 64 2/3 innings). The Pirates needed to add some sort of pitching depth this winter, with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon’s injury histories, the demise of Francisco Liriano’s Pirate career, the slow development of Tyler Glasnow, etc. etc. I would argue that the Pirates should’ve gone a bit further and tried to pick up some kind of starting pitching project in the Tyson Ross mold, and the Pirates certainly had pitching eyeballed in the proposed Andrew McCutchen deals (more on this in a bit), but Nova adds some stability and if Taillon and Cole stay healthy (IF! IF! IF!), they’re more than halfway to a full rotation with plenty of young internal options to at least give auditions to (all across the talent spectrum from Tyler Glasnow to the Chad Kuhl/Steven Brault/Trevor Williams tier down to the Drew Hutchison type options). 

C70: It was surprising to me to hear Andrew McCutchen’s name bandied about in trade talks. Did that makes sense to you and will McCutchen get moved this year?

PB: It made total sense. The guy is about to turn 30, had a down year but was still an attractive piece at a bargain price with two years of control left. I would expect that Huntington will field MANY calls at this year’s trade deadline, but he’d have to be blown away by an offer. If the team is in contention, true contention, McCutchen would not be available until next offseason.

PP: (Ed. note: See above for general McCutchen comments.) If the Pirates are out of it in July, they’ll try and move him.  Otherwise, in the offseason they’ll pick up his option for 2018 and move him then.

643: It made perfect sense from every logical perspective. Which doesn’t mean I liked it one bit. Barring the proverbial offer-you-can’t-refuse, Cutch only gets traded during the season if he’s having a good year and the team is out of contention. Once the off season comes around again I’d put the odds that he gets traded at around 80%.

C4: For a franchise like the Pirates, it is just a sad reality that players like McCutchen will continue to be brought up in trade discussions. Though a contract extension doesn’t seem to be a realistic possibility, his current contract is team friendly enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s kept through the end of it in 2018.

So, if the Pirates are truly in the playoff discussion and McCutchen has bounced back, I’d imagine he’s with the team all year. Otherwise — including a year in which the Pirates could, maybe, if-you-squint make a run a the second Wild Card — I’d expect they’ll try to unload him for a near-Major League ready-talent and not the kind of high-risk, high-reward players in the lower Minors.

Because this is a team that has 80-ish win talent, I’d imagine they are going to keep rolling the dice until both die have been lost under the table and everyone agrees it’s time to give up and go home.

WHYG: It is the unfortunate reality of small market baseball that these things happen and it seemed to me like a sure thing that the Pirates would shop McCutchen after they cut and run on Liriano’s extremely manageable deal at the deadline. McCutchen spent small stretches of 2015 and huge swaths of 2016 not looking like his old MVP-type self, and with the Pirates’ extreme outfield depth (Austin Meadows is a very promising outfield prospect knocking on the door behind the already excellent Starling Marte and the blooming Gregory Polanco), trading McCutchen was a reasonable channel to explore for the endless search for pitching. I will admit that I’m surprised the Pirates didn’t dump him off for a less-than-expected return after the rumored Nationals’ deal fell through, and I’m happy to see that they were apparently only willing to consider the deal if it was going to improve the team.

I have no idea if he gets moved this year; the easy logic is that they won’t trade him if they’re in contention, but they did trade Mark Melancon to the Nats at least year’s deadline despite being in the thick of the wild card race. The answer is probably that if McCutchen is mediocre again and Meadows is knocking hard on the door at AAA, a Nomar Garciaparra type deal is not entirely out of the question even if the Pirates are in the thick of a playoff race. If he falls off even further, I don’t know what his value is on the open market, though I’m sure the Pirates will find a way to move him rather than lose him for nothing. This all comes with the caveat that I suspect that McCutchen has been nursing a number of injuries the last few years and while there’s no guarantee of health at this point in his career, if he is healthy and producing at his old levels and the Pirates are contending, then I’m sure the Pirates will defer a decision on his future (he has an ~$18 million player option for 2018, so there’s a decision coming either way) to the off-season.

C70: There have been some legal problems with Jung Ho Kang this offseason. Is he expected to face any punishment from the team or MLB?

PB: He is expected to face some kind of suspension from MLB, and the Pirates acquired a depth piece in UT Phil Gosselin to guard against this.

PP: With regards to Kang, it’s now my personal belief that he misses a large portion of the season (if not the whole season) due to issues securing a work visa, due to his record and still-unresolved sex assault case here in the United States.

643: Jung ho Kang was sentenced to an eight month suspended sentence for his third DUI in Korea. Basically it means he was placed on probation and as long as he meets the terms he will not serve any time. However, even having a suspended sentence makes if much more difficult for him get get a visa to return to the United States. Kang is currently trying to get the sentence reduced to a fine so he can return sooner. I doubt the Pirates will place any punishment on him beyond some sort of mandatory counseling, and MLB has never before come down on any player for drunk driving. Due to the unknown length of time it will take for Kang to make his return, the Pirates placed him on the restricted list so he will not count against the 25 man or 40 man rosters. Speculation: Kang will be required to enter a substance abuse counseling program and may receive a short suspension of no more than 10 days.

C4: (omitted)

WHYG: Neither the Pirates nor MLB have indicated either way whether Kang will be disciplined for what turned out to be his third DUI in recent years, as I believe it’s league and team policy to defer discipline until the court process finished up. Given that that didn’t end until late February and Kang has yet to obtain a work visa to re-enter the US, he’s still well in limbo. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s still under investigation for an alleged sexual assault in Chicago during the season last year, though the last news update I can find there was in September of last year and it indicated that the accuser was not cooperating with the investigation.

I have no idea what the answer to this situation is; I’ll say that I’ll be disappointed if the Pirates don’t suspend him, given the repetitive nature of his DUIs in South Korea, but if he misses the season’s first six weeks due to his visa issues, I don’t know how likely it is that they’ll add a suspension onto him on top of that (he’s currently on the restricted list due to his visa issues). I can, as a fan, speculate that the Pirates probably anticipated some issues with Kang given that their extension of David Freese last summer felt pretty uncharacteristic in a vacuum, though there will never be any way to find an answer to that question. The Pirates will miss Kang’s pop for as long as he’s out, but between Freese, Adam Frazier, Josh Harrison, Alen Hanson, and Phil Gosselin, they can probably find some kind of rotation that fills third base out reasonably, and I think that’s the best we can hope for at this point.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

PB: Keep your eye on Adam Frazier. He’s a bench bat who can play both corner outfield spots as well as second and third base. He was solid but unspectacular as a rookie, but has potential to be one of the best part-time players in baseball thanks to his plate discipline and approach.

PP: I think Felipe Rivero, the main component received from the Nationals in the Mark Melancon trade last July, is a stud closer in the making. He’ll be in 7th/8th duty to start the year, but his role could evolve throughout the year.

643: Chad Kuhl had a perfectly cromulent rookie season. He doesn’t rack up the strikeouts but limits walks and hits enough to be a successful mid-rotation starter.

C4: The entire back of the rotation will be interesting to watch. Can Nova prove that his second-half was for real, when he simply stopped walking batters was for real? Will Chad Kuhl’s sinker make him an effective innings eater? What will become of Tyler Glasnow’s command?

The other option is Adam Frazier. The new super utility man, Frazier rode some excellent contact abilities and some batted ball luck to a fantastic .301/.356/.411 line in 2016. He hasn’t hurt his cause by blasting the ball in Spring Training and, while the numbers most certainly don’t matter, it’s hard to see his 1.146 OPS at the time of this writing and not get excited. While some fans liken him to the new Josh Harrison, and would prefer to see Frazier take the starting role due to his patience at the plate, I’m not ready to go there. Yet. After all, Josh Harrison and Freddy Sanchez each started their Pittsburgh careers on the bench.

WHYG: I think that in general the players that will come into focus for the Pirates this season will be pretty heralded; Tyler Glasow’s rough edges showed quite a bit last year and still occasionally jut out in spring training, but any competitive Pirate team is probably going to require a big contribution from him. Gregory Polanco made a big leap forward last year, but I think there’s still plenty of room for him to grow. I guess I’ll go with Felipe Rivero, the main return from the Nats in the Melancon trade. Rivero throws an easy 98-100 as a lefty and put up some ridiculous strikeout numbers in black and gold in August and September. If they reign his control in some, he’ll be ready to close basically on the spot. He’ll probably need to, too, since Tony Watson’s awful spring training resembles his shaky close to 2016, and in doing so has opened the door for someone like Rivero to step in.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

PB: Tough to say. This is a GOOD team. But their ceiling is low thanks to a shaky back end of the rotation. I would expect 85-88 wins, good enough for second in the NL Central, but playoffs may be asking a lot.

PP: I think they’ll get around 85-86 wins. That’s probably a 3rd place finish behind Cubs/Cards.

643: This year’s Pirates are a talented team with some holes. I see them getting 85 or so wins and battling for 2nd with the Cards.

C4: I don’t know if I’m clouded with delusion and dreams of wild success, but I believe in this team and think sweet Lady Luck will finally smile upon them. (those two Wild Card game losses means they’re due, right? )

87 wins, a Wild Card and … a Division Series loss.

WHYG: My hunch is that this is a .500ish team. Cole looks good this spring, but he’s dealt with arm-related problems in two of the last three seasons and I’m concerned about his ability to pitch a full season. The same basically goes for Taillon, though he’s been mostly healthy since his post-Tommy John hernia in 2015. That means there’s a good chance the Pirates are forced to lean pretty heavily on Glasnow, who I’m not convinced is ready, and guys like Kuhl, Brault, Williams, and Hutchison, who I’m not convinced are much better than the guys they previously had to lean on when the chips were down. I do think the ceiling is there for 85 or 90 or, on the upper end of the bell curve, a return to the 95+ wins of 2015, though that’s almost entirely dependent on (in order of importance) Cole’s health, McCutchen returning somewhat to form, Taillon’s continued health, and Glasnow’s emergence (the tail exists in the other direction, too, of course). Most likely, I’d say that the Pirates will probably find themselves in another wild card race without truly being able to threaten the Cubs, but I guess nothing’s impossible. 

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Pirate and why?

PB: This is very tough; I gravitate towards pitchers in general so I think I might just say Steve Blass. He was on the World Series winning club in 1971 before somehow catching the yips and completely forgetting how to throw strikes. He does not dwell on that, however, and loves to talk baseball in his current position as a Pirates broadcaster. His love for the game shines through every time he winds up to talk about some random story from the 70s. He also had two holes in one in one round of golf, which is incredible.

PP: That’s hard to say, because I’ve had favorite Pirates at different checkpoints of my life for differing reasons. I’d say Doug Drabek is right up there. We used to get our hair cut at the same place by the same lady, so I would pester him about his pitch usage of fastball/curve/slider and he probably thought, “I’m going to punch this 14 year old kid in the face.”  

643: I came of age as a fan around 1988, and Andy Van Slyke was my guy. Who wouldn’t love a wise-cracking, All-Star, Gold Glove center fielder?

C4: Somehow, I fell in love with this team in 2005. Looking at that roster, it’s hard to see why, but I did. Jason Bay, Craig Wilson, Zach Duke, Jack Wilson … these are my dream Bucs. While it’s hard not to say Andrew McCutchen, the answer is none other than Jose Castillo.

At the time I fell in love with the team, Castillo was the subject of nightly defensive highlights. He would range deep into the hole, dive and make magic happen. Add in Jack Wilson at shortstop and the middle infield was turning some of the prettiest double plays. (Of course, they were helped by the number of baserunners and balls in play that the pitching staff allowed…)

Castillo was young and it looked like he would be set for a long career of 20-plus home run seasons with a half-dozen or so Gold Gloves in his cabinet. That unfortunately did not happen. His plate vision never improved and he quickly grew thicker, ending the days of endless highlights and moving him to third and then to other teams.

I still remember the promise I felt while watching him and will think back quite fondly on highlights like this one whenever I wonder, “Why did I love a player with negative rWAR so much?” And I’ll remember.

WHYG: I guess given the blog name and online moniker everyone expects me to say Andy Van Slyke, but honestly, it’s McCutchen. He existed for so long as this shining idea that the Pirates could be better someday, and then he arrived and was actually better than anyone could’ve anticipated. There hasn’t been a more important Pirate in my life and I’m not sure that there will be. I’ll be sad when he’s gone, and what I want more than anything for 2017 is for his Pirate career to be properly sent off so that we can remember it for what it was, and not how it ended. 

Good stuff here about one of our division rivals.  My thanks to everyone that contributed and look forward to a lot of great Cards/Pirates games this season!

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