Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team. It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams. We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well. Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.
The Pirates have slipped from those contending seasons over the last couple of years, but that doesn’t mean that they still aren’t an intriguing and dangerous team. A bold team as well, going out last year at the deadline and picking up Chris Archer even when they were, at best, on the fringes of the race. With the NL Central being the tightest division on paper, can Pittsburgh make a move up the standings and surprise some people? We should ask some bloggers about that, shouldn’t we?
|The Point of Pittsburgh
C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?
Kevin: By and large, the Pirates decided to not only sit out the offseason, but hamper their chances of success by restricting payroll to around $75M. This is on the heels of an 83-win season and a division that seems the most up for grabs it has been in years. The worst aspect of the offseason is going with the combo of Kevin Newman/Erik Gonzalez at shortstop, both unproven options, rather than go after a Jose Iglesias-type for Gold Glove-caliber defense. I did like the Lonnie Chisenhall signing to act as a stopgap until Gregory Polanco returns, but the rest of the offseason has been immensely frustrating.
Michael: This was a frustrating offseason. On one hand, we have to give the team at least some credit for pushing in the chips last season by going out and acquiring Chris Archer. On the other, could they have done things beforehand by going out on the free agent market and making the team better from the start of the year?
This year, it’s much the same. While the Padres came out of seemingly nowhere to sign Manny Machado, and the Brewers — in a similar yet smaller market than the Pirates — signed Yasmani Grandal one winter after bringing in Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, the Pirates brought in Jordan Lyles and Lonnie Chisenhall. Those aren’t bad players, but these type of edge of the roster and hope for more types have been the lifeblood of the team for the past two decades. At some point, it’s just not enough.
David: Just a whole lot of MEH. I get what they did at each position, but when you add it all up there are a lot of “ifs” on this team. There was potential to do so much more, especially in what was a very depressed market. They signed Lonnie Chisenhall early to fill in for Gregory Polanco while he finishes rehabbing his shoulder injury. Trading Ivan Nova was fine, but Jordan Lyles doesn’t exactly make you feel like the rotation is deep enough. Gio Gonzalez was STILL unsigned as of St. Patrick’s day and would have made a great fifth starter on this team.The one position where they did not have a great internal option was shortstop and they surprisingly traded for the unproven Eric Gonzalez from the Indians. Again, MEH.
C70: Chris Archer didn’t exactly wow in his first two months as a Pirate. What’s the outlook for him in 2019?
Kevin: Archer had hernia surgery in the offseason, so I’m hoping that contributed to some of his struggles. He’s not a 5-WAR ace-level pitcher at this point, but if he can be Jameson Taillon‘s wingman and deliver close to a #2-level performance, I’d be satisfied with that.
Michael: Archer is one of the most exciting and likable players in the Majors, so I think everyone is pulling for him. However, we’re getting further and further from 2015 and closer to having to accept that he’s generally a league average pitcher who can look like an ace every now and then.
However, there is one reason for optimism. He still has a dynamite slider and — sorry if you’ve heard this one before — the Pirates got him to bring back the sinker that he ditched years ago. That’s been the Pirates MO ever since Ray Searage took over — sometimes to their detriment (see: Gerrit Cole). While the results weren’t great last season — Archer gave up a .395 wOBA on the pitch — maybe, just maybe that’s the result of tinkering. I’m not hopeful, but I’m not resigned to despair.
David: The outlook is promising! He brought back his sinker, which isn’t a great pitch by itself but helps set up his other pitches. Also, by his own words last year, once he started trusting Francisco Cervelli‘s game calling he was much better. The floor is the same pitcher we’ve seen the last few years: a solid innings eater with promise of more. The expectation is for him to be a good number 2 SP behind Taillon. The best case scenario is an All-Star who could get some Cy Young votes.
C70: If Jung Ho Kang can make it back to the major leagues, what’s the reception for him going to be like?
Kevin: Based on both his contract and his performance in Spring Training, Kang is assured to make the 25-man squad on Opening Day. He appears to be returning to form prior to his injuries and legal woes. The reception for him will be mixed, as it should be. The repeated DUI charges are terrible and endangered the lives of others. That said, he has found spirituality and religion to make himself a better person. He’ll have to prove it, but I’m willing to give him a second (third) chance. Cynically, if he is helping the Pirates win, he’ll be cheered by the majority of the fans.
Michael: I’m hoping that Colin Moran is so good this Spring that this question is moot.
David: Kang has just been named the starter at third to open the season, so we’ll find out soon enough. Sports fans in general have a short memory as long as you are producing on the field. I think the initial response will be polite, and if he hits right away then his past transgressions will be quietly forgotten. I don’t particularly condone that, but we’ve all seen it happen many times.
C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?
Kevin: I’ve been predicting 83 wins and saying 3rd place in the division, probably 6 wins shy of a wild card spot.
Michael: Last season, I was a believer. This year, with the Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers getting better and the Cubs still being the Cubs, I’m less so. The pitching keeps them out of the basement and within the realm of respectability, but that’s a fourth place finsh and a far cry from meaningful October baseball.
David: The pitching will have to carry this team, because the bats are underwhelming as a whole. This is a highly competitive division where a .500 record isn’t likely to get you higher than 4th place. I’m guessing that one of CHC/MIL/STL disappoints and sinks to 4th (but still has a winning season). Bucs sneak into 3rd and Cincy, while much improved, is still in last.
C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?
Kevin: Shortstop is a gaping black hole of talent and the answer would have been to sign Jose Iglesias.
Michael: Can Gregory Polanco play a full Major League season and keep from falling into deep slumps? Unfortunately, the answer to that one is … future hazy, try again later.
David: Where will the power com from? It’s going to have to come from bounce back seasons from several key spots. Josh Bell needs to rebound from his sophomore slump. Jung Ho Kang needs to show he can still hit after having nearly two years off from suspension/visa/injury issues. Corey Dickerson needs to find his power stroke again. Gregory Polanco needs to come back from knee and shoulder injuries. Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz need to stay healthy.
C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?
Kevin: I really like this pitching staff from top to bottom. Sure, I wish they’d have a better #5 than Jordan Lyles or Nick Kingham, but Taillon-Archer-Williams-Musgrove is a great #1-4 that, in my opinion, is the best in the Central. The bullpen quartet of Vazquez-Kela-Crick-Rodriguez is likewise the best back end of the bullpen in the division, as well.
Michael: I will never stop loving Francisco Cervelli. Whether it’s the bizarro faces when he’s on the field or his sharp batting eye at the plate, I’m always here for Cervelli content.
David: A few things in no particular order:
Watching Francisco Cervelli do anything. He’s so passionate!
My thanks to these fine gentlemen for giving us some info on the Pirates. And I didn’t even ask about the Patron Pitcher! I do hope we see Tyler Lyons this year!