Playing Pepper 2018: Pittsburgh Pirates

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Pittsburgh Pirates
75-87, fourth in NL Central
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

After breaking through that .500 barrier that kept them down so long, after three consecutive Wild Card games (and, unfortunately for Pirates fans, three straight losses), the sub-break-even pull looks like it is starting to exert its influence again.  The Pirates dealt off a number of big names this offseason and from the outside looking in, the prospects don’t look that good for another winning season.  What about from the inside?  We’ve got a very solid group of bloggers to tell you all about the black and gold!

Writer Site Twitter
Michael Clair Cut4 michaelsclair
Kevin Creagh The Point of Pittsburgh thepointofpgh
David Kaleida RDavidK
Jason Rollison Pirates Breakdown pbcbreakdown

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Michael: This is the toughest question and obviously the one that divides and upsets most Pirates fans. Most would argue that no, the team didn’t do enough — though that is mostly about the previous years when the team was perhaps an addition or two from getting beyond the Wild Card Game. Is Colin Moran the team’s third baseman for the next decade? Is Joe Musgrove a rotation stalwart? What will Kyle Crick and Bryan Reynolds, the prospects that the team got for Andrew McCutchen, become? The team seemingly shored up multiple positions this offseason, but didn’t get a future star. So, if I had to give the team a grade, it would be a C. As in, wait and see.

Kevin: This was a very frustrating offseason to be a Pirate fan. With the influx of the BAMTech $50M ($22.5M of which should have gone to payroll, using the 45% rule of thumb), the Pirates should have kept Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, plus added 1-2 pieces. This would have taken payroll to around $125M. If they were not doing well on July 1st, then they could have traded everything away down to the bare bones. So, no. The Pirates at best just treaded water this offseason.

David: No? Maybe? Who knows? The total sum of moves this offseason amounted to three trades. I’m not sure they were bad baseball moves but they felt bad because of the names involved.

The first deal was Gerrit Cole for Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz and a minor league OF. I don’t hate this trade. Due to injuries, Cole hasn’t been the Cy Young contender he was in 2015. If Moran’s swing changes from last season work in the bigs then the Pirate have their thirdbaseman for the next 4-6 years. Musgrove should be an adequate starter, but doesn’t have the upside that Cole did.

All I can say about the McCutchen deal is that it hurt. It hurt because the player is gone, it hurt because the man is gone and it hurt because you shouldn’t trade a player like him unless you’re getting back a can’t-refuse offer. They didn’t. But now he’s gone.

I will now attempt to analyse this on a purely baseball level. Combine it with the recent trade with the Rays:

Cutch, Daniel Hudson and a minor league 2B
Dickerson, Kevin Crick and a minor league OF

That’s almost a wash, folks. Dickerson should nearly match Cutch’s production this year and I expect Crick to be better than Hudson. Pirates get younger and more years of control, which is what they’re always looking for.

Jason: That depends on how you look at it. Surely McCutchen and Cole leaving the club would mean they did not improve, but the team also added Corey Dickerson, Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz. Those are five bona fide MLB players (giving Moran the benefit of the doubt here), one of whom was an All Star last year. AT the very least, you could say that the club stayed stagnant as the talent level is still more or less the same as it was last year, while other clubs perhaps leapfrogged them. Could the Pirates have done more? Absolutely? Did they NEED to? I’m not so sure.

C70: With some high profile folks traded, who now stands out as the face of the franchise and the ace of the staff?

Michael: Another tough one. The face of the franchise is now the usually smiling, racing around the bases Josh Harrison. Trevor Williams has an outside shot at becoming the voice, if not the face of the franchise, by virtue of his Twitter account and the podcast he co-hosts with fellow pitcher Steven Brault. As for the ace of the staff, that’s firmly Jameson Taillon’s purview now. Though the full season numbers don’t look great, he had a 3.31 ERA when he went on the DL with cancer, and is it really fair to judge someone’s stats when returning from cancer?

Kevin: The ace of the staff is Jameson Taillon, although in a macro sense he’s really only a low-end #2/high-end #3. The face of the franchise in the short-term is Josh Harrison, but in the long-term is probably Josh Bell.

David: Ace of the staff is easy – Jameson Taillon. He might have been the ace this year even if they had kept Cole. The Face of the franchise right now is harder to pin down. It might have been Starling Marte if not for the PED suspension. It might have been Gregory Polanco but injuries have kept him from breaking out. Ask me next winter and it might be Josh Bell, but let’s see what he does this year. It’s probably Josh Harrison. He’s good but not great and he’s ticked off at the front office. Sounds about right.

Jason: Josh Harrison and Francisco Cervelli will be the faces of this club, at least while they are here. The next wave includes Josh Bell and Jameson Taillon, who is as close to an “ace” as this club has.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Michael: Positively, Jordy Mercer. When he took over the shortstop in 2013, I don’t think anyone would have thought he would still be the starter in 2018. While Mercer isn’t going to be anyone’s idea of a superstar, he hits enough and fields well enough to let the Pirates worry about other positions. In a way, his ability to just be there has made him one of my favorites on the team.

Negatively, the team is thin at catcher. I have a deep love of Francisco Cervelli (and his robe), but injuries and age appear to be sneaking up as both his offensive and framing numbers took a dip. Meanwhile, backup Elias Diaz seems to lack the bat to start should Cervelli miss time.

Kevin: The Pirates have the potential for an excellent bullpen. The Cole/Cutch trades brought Feliz and Crick, respectively, to add to the bullpen with high upside. Felipe Rivero is either the 2nd or 3rd best reliever in the MLB, so adding Feliz and Crick to the solid George Kontos has a great deal of potential. If Kevin Siegrist isn’t irreparably broken, he’s a great lefty option.

David: Chad Kuhl had a solid second half, buoyed by an outstanding July. There’s a lot of potential in the rotation but it all has to come together for good things to happen.

Jason:  The young talent. I mentioned guys like Taillon and Bell, but Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are in their primes. They have some issues, sure, but the talent level with those two is there. Folks may also overlook just how much left-handed power is on this club. Moran, Polanco, Dickerson and Bell all have 25+ home run potential.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Pirates to do well?

Michael: Gregory Polanco. Everything was set for last year to be his breakout before multiple hamstring strains caused him to miss over 50 games and saw his numbers nosedive. This has to be the year he asserts himself as the star he could be.

Kevin: I would love to say Gregory Polanco, but he is appearing to be unrealized potential at this point in his career due to injuries. Starling Marte must return to his non-PED form and put up a 4-5 WAR season for the Pirates to have any legit hopes of contending.

David: Moran or Musgrove. David Freese was stretched as a full-time player last year, so getting solid production from 3B will help. And you can never have enough pitching.

Jason: It’s gotta be Starling Marte. The Pirates’ 2017 was absolutely derailed before it really began with his 80 game PED suspension. If he can come back to the 3.5-4 WAR player he was before the suspension, the Pirates will be in good shape.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Michael: Let’s say the Astros screwed up and Joe Musgrove is a mid-rotation pitcher, Colin Moran is a top-10 third baseman, Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco are stars and Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon front the rotation. That’s an 85 win team. More realistically, they win 75 games and finish in fourth place.

Kevin: I’ll say 78 wins and 4th place in the NL Central.

David: 4th place is the obvious projection, behind three teams making big positive moves this winter and ahead of the rebuilding Reds. Somewhere between 75-80 wins.

Jason: If everything breaks right, the Pirates could win 85 games. As it stands, I’ll say 80-82 or thereabouts is more appropriate. I think that with the club taking some hits in the PR department and trading away some stars, most fans would take that in a heartbeat.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Michael: Will Tyler Glasnow find the command necessary to start? And that question is one that is asked every time he takes the mound. I hope so.

Kevin: Why did the Pirates bring back Neal Huntington on a 4-year extension after his lackluster record of drafting players, which is how the Pirates must excel at in order to contend? The answer is that they appear to be comfortable in going with what they know that is moderately safe, rather than be bold.

David: Will the Pirates get over the mental hump of having traded their best two players? Will it matter? They were under .500 the last two seasons with them. I don’t think we can answer this because none of us are in the clubhouse with the team. If two players can step up their performance to fill in the void, the team will be fine.

Jason: What is Tyler Glasnow’s ultimate ceiling? The former number one pitching prospect has been a disaster in his major league career thus far. He can’t find the strike zone consistently and is prone to bouts of inept control. Despite high velocity, his fastball comes out of his hand flat and is very hittable. I’m actually glad you didn’t ask this because I have no idea at this point!

My thanks to the guys for telling us all about a team that’s been a good rival to the Cardinals over the last half-decade or so.  I’d expect they will be again this season as well!

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Last updated: 10/06/2022