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2018 MLB team preview: The Pittsburgh Pirates are one big signing away from contention

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Perhaps no team in baseball could use one more piece than the Pirates.

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MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Pittsburgh Pirates Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen within three days of each other in January, the baseball world all but wrote them off. Sure, there were some outlets that saw the bright side of things, especially in their return for Cole. However, those few articles were largely drowned out by those condemning owner Bob Nutting for crying poor — something he’s still doing, by the way — despite millions of reasons to believe otherwise.

Here’s a crazy idea, though: what if the Pirates didn’t get any worse? Losing McCutchen’s bat could certainly hurt, especially if he turns in another season as the guy who hit .308/.394/.528 after June 1 last year. But Joe Musgrove is actually projected to be better than Gerrit Cole this year, and the Bucs added a few other interesting pieces beyond that. Colin Moran could be a nice find if his swing changes are legit, and Michael Feliz gives them a potentially nasty one-two punch with Felipe Rivero at the back end of their bullpen.

And if they don’t compete this season, they have the pieces in place to be competitive for several years down the road. Most of their current core is still in their mid-20s, with elder statesman Starling Marte still only 29. They have a few talented prospects just arriving to the majors, and pitcher whisperer Ray Searage is still good for a reclamation project or two every year.

That might not be enough to win a title if Nutting doesn’t open his wallet — with the NL Central one of few MLB divisions up for grabs this year, it’s frustrating he hasn’t — but it should make for some fun baseball this season, provided their young stars take a step forward. Can the Pirates surprise and be a playoff contender in 2018?

Team at a Glance

2017 record: 75-87 | 2017 pythag: 74-88 | 2018 farm system rank: 16
Manager: Clint Hurdle (8th year)
SB Nation site: Bucs Dugout
Key additions: RHP Joe Musgrove, IF Colin Moran, RHP Michael Feliz, RHP Kyle Crick, OF Corey Dickerson
Key departures: OF Andrew McCutchen, RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP Daniel Hudson

Lineup

Heading into last season, the Pirates had one of the best projected outfields in baseball. Just two years earlier, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, and Gregory Polanco had combined for 12.9 rWAR, and all three were in their 20s. Moving McCutchen to right field after a down 2016 season should have improved their value, but injuries and Marte’s PED suspension resulted in just 3.9 rWAR from the group. While they’re no longer in the “best of MLB” stratosphere, Marte and Polanco should combine with newcomer Corey Dickerson to form an above-average unit. Marte showed flashes of his former self last September, and was on pace for another 30-steal season after the All-Star Break. Dickerson’s Jekyll and Hyde 2017 season is well-documented following his surprising DFA a couple weeks ago, but he still seems like a safe bet for above-average production, especially against the right-hand dominant NL Central.

Meanwhile, Polanco could be an X-factor. He disappointed in 2017 following two strong seasons in 2015 and 2016, producing at exactly replacement level in 108 games. His walk rate and power both tanked, resulting in a paltry 81 wRC+. Even his defense, per UZR, wasn’t quite as strong. Many have chalked this up to a slew of injuries that bothered him throughout the year, including shoulder and hamstring injuries that sapped his power and athleticism. Optimists still see Polanco as a potential three or four-win outfielder if the power comes around, but another down year could have the Pirates looking elsewhere — perhaps at top prospect Austin Meadows — for outfield help.

The rest of the lineup generates similar mixed opinions. Josh Bell adjusted to full-time duty nicely last season, posting a 108 wRC+ and 26 home runs in 620 plate appearances. While the dingers and walks (10.6 percent rate!) are nice, the Bucs are hoping for a little more from their Largest Adult Son in the middle of their lineup. Third baseman Colin Moran should be a safe bet to at least replicate David Freese’s 2.0 rWAR from last season, and could improve on that figure if he keeps putting the ball in the air.

Moran didn’t end up with the single biggest decrease in grounders. That would be one Antonio Nunez. But Moran did drop his grounder rate by 12.9 percentage points. That’s a bigger change than the one we saw from Logan Morrison. That’s a bigger change than the one we saw from Yonder Alonso. There are 1,063 players included in this data pool, and Moran’s grounder drop ranks as the 15th-greatest. That puts him in the best 2%. Trying to hit more fly balls isn’t for everyone, but based on the results, it worked out for Moran.

While PNC Park isn’t the most hitter-friendly venue out there, it plays a little nicer for lefties trying to hit the ball out of the park than it does for righties, which bodes well for Moran.

Moran’s acquisition should also help solidify the middle of the Pirates’ infield. Josh Harrison split time between second and third last season — easily his best since a breakout 2014 campaign — but will return to full-time duty at the keystone this year. If he’s not traded, that is. This will (probably) mean fewer starts for utility man Adam Frazier, who played a bit over his head last year and is better served in a bench role. Shortstop Jordy Mercer probably is too, but he has put up solid numbers in (mostly) full-time duty over the past couple years. The home run spike has agreed with him somewhat; he has 25 home runs and 117 RBI over the last two seasons.

While he has fallen off over the past couple seasons, the catcher job is still Francisco Cervelli’s to lose. His value took a dip when he only played in 81 games last year, but he still got on base at a .342 clip. More important will be him returning to being the above-average pitch framer we saw prior to 2017. He will get a long leash, though; backup catcher Elias Diaz isn’t anything more than that.

Pitching staff

After an injury-riddled 2016 season saw just one starter throw more than 120 innings, the Pirates finally got some length from their starters in 2017. Gerrit Cole returned to the 200-inning plateau, while Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams all topped the 150-inning barrier. Jameson Taillon added 133 23 innings of his own while dealing with testicular cancer like it was no big deal. Taillon’s resilience aside, the Pirates’ rotation finished with a mediocre 4.47 ERA.

While Cole is gone, the other four starters will be hoping to take a step forward in 2018. Nova, 31, is the veteran of the rotation. While he couldn’t quite match the brilliance he showed in a handful of starts down the stretch in 2016, he still managed 2.1 rWAR in 187 innings, his best season since 2013. With so many talented pieces around him, Nova just needs to be the steady hand he was last year. One of those talented pieces is Taillon, who has endured both the aforementioned cancer and Tommy John surgery on his route to the big leagues. Still, the one-time top prospect had a solid season in 2017 with a 3.48 FIP in 133 23 innings. He isn’t missing bats quite as much as he was in the minors, but there’s still time for the 26-year-old to develop more of a strikeout touch, provided he finally stays healthy.

The middle of the rotation is solid, if unspectacular. Righthander Chad Kuhl averaged 96 miles per hour with his sinker last season, but only managed a pedestrian 20.9 percent strikeout rate in 157 13 innings. His slider has improved over the past couple seasons, but I don’t know if it will help him improve much on his 9.5 percent swinging strike percentage. Any further progression in his profile will come from keeping the ball in the strike zone — he walked 10.6 percent of batters last year — or developing his changeup to keep lefties (.376 wOBA) off his case. Trevor Williams is more of a ground ball artist than Kuhl, but could also stand to improve his command some. Also like Kuhl, Williams saw lefties hit him better than righties last season. The Bucs don’t have the kind of spectacular infield defense that could help Williams wildly out-perform his peripherals, but he should keep churning out useful innings.

If the Pirates’ rotation takes a step forward in 2018, it will come from either (or both) of the two players competing for the fifth starter spot. Former top prospect Tyler Glasnow already appears slated to start the year in the bullpen, but has the most raw talent of any pitcher in the organization. He struggled mightily with his command in the majors last season, walking over five batters per nine innings in 15 appearances. He had no trouble in the minors, however, fanning 140 batters in just 93 13 innings at Triple-A. It may take a little while for the 6’8 Glasnow to sort out his command, but if he starts to trust his incredible raw stuff a bit more, he could be in the rotation before long. If he does so, he might take righthander Joe Musgrove’s job. Steamer already projects Musgrove to outperform Gerrit Cole this season, but there are already a couple of reasons to doubt this statistical nugget. Musgrove did most of his damage out of the bullpen in 2017, posting a 2.68 FIP there compared to a 5.07 FIP as a starter. In his brief MLB career, Musgrove has a 1.26 ERA as a reliever. As a starter? 5.37. Also, Musgrove is still working his way back from a bit of shoulder discomfort. While it doesn’t sound serious, it’s still a shoulder injury, and one to be monitored going forward.

The Pirates bullpen finished with a 3.84 ERA last season, but was a bit lucky to get there. Their 4.23 FIP was the sixth-highest in the National League, and they finished ninth in the league with just 2.2 fWAR. Two of their top relievers, closer Felipe Rivero and righthander George Kontos, both finished with ERAs nearly a full run below their respective FIPs. Righty A.J. Schugel had an even bigger discrepancy with a 1.97 ERA, but a 4.00 FIP. The talent is here to put up above-average numbers again — adding Michael Feliz from Houston also helps — but the Bucs will need to ward off a bit of regression first.

Down on the farm

Rankings indicate that the Pirates’ farm system has taken a big step back in the past year. At this time in 2017, they had the seventh-best system in baseball, according to Baseball America. This year, they’re 16th. Sure, Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell graduated to the big leagues, but that’s a big drop-off for just two graduations. It’s especially big when those losses are offset by the addition of Shane Baz, a hard-throwing righthander who has already cracked multiple top 100 lists.

These rankings are a reflection of the volatility within the prospect industry. Top prospect Austin Meadows struggled with a hamstring injury, and fell from a consensus top-10 prospect to one just inside the top-50. Tyler Glasnow graduated from prospect-dom last year, but his early struggles at the big league level have also caused some to sour on him. Youngster Ke’Bryan Hayes took a step back in the power department, but in a Florida State League that often swallows hitters alive.

In terms of pure talent, the Pirates are still loaded with players in the 25-and-under range, and that doesn’t include 26-year-olds Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, and Felipe Rivero. Not many teams have that much talent so close to the major leagues. While their farm system ranking may drop again should Meadows and others have good seasons, their big league roster will be all the better for it.

Player to watch: Starling Marte

Last year was supposed to be a coronation of sorts for Marte. Stuck in Andrew McCutchen’s shadow for his first five years in the majors, Marte found himself in center field on Opening Day. The move to center was to improve Pittsburgh’s outfield defense, which had been slipping as McCutchen’s range declined with age. Instead, Marte scuffled his way to a .659 OPS before a PED suspension sidelined him for 80 games. He didn’t fare much better on his return, and finished the season with a .712 OPS in 339 plate appearances.

However, Marte showed signs of life in September, hitting .322/.380/.456. He stole 15 bases in the final two months of the season, eventually looking like his old self. While he doesn’t appear to be the power threat some expected he would become earlier in his career, he is still a very productive offensive player who already has four 30-steal seasons to his credit. If the Pirates can get this version of Marte back (let alone the one that looked like mini-McCutchen a few years ago), they might make some noise in the National League.

Outlook

This will be a common refrain given the hesitancy to spend throughout baseball this winter, but this Pirates roster could really use a boost from one more free agent. If Jake Arrieta suddenly appeared at the top of their rotation, we’d be looking at this Pirates team as a club just entering its next window of contention, spearheaded by a dominant pitching staff with a young, athletic roster in tow. Instead, we’re left squinting to see if the Pirates’ latest low budget attempt at a contender can crack the ceiling built by the blue bloods above them. Can this roster catch the Cardinals, Cubs, or even the Brewers in the NL Central this year? Sure, it’s possible, but it’s going to take a lot of improvement and a fair amount of luck.

Or, you know, just a few more dollars.