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2019 opponent preview: The Pittsburgh Pirates want to win now, but don’t want to spend now

Pittsburgh’s lack of urgency this offseason is frustrating, especially given the arms race in the NL Central.

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Miami Marlins v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

They may “only” rank seventh on The Athletic’s recently released MLB misery index, but I would argue that Pittsburgh Pirates fans are the most jaded fanbase in all of baseball. Sure, they technically made three consecutive playoff appearances from 2013 to 2015, but were twice blanked by opposing aces in the NL Wild Card Game, and did not win the lone Divisional Series they played in.

Meanwhile, let’s see what this fanbase has endured.

  • A World Series drought that will hit 40 years in 2019. The Bucs haven’t appeared in the Fall Classic since the “We Are Family” Pirates brought home the franchise’s second title that decade.
  • A 20-year playoff drought, one that saw them finish in last place nine times.
  • One of the lowest payrolls in baseball. The Pirates have never opened the season with a payroll north of $100 million. Meanwhile, their owner says payroll is not “controllable.”
  • Multiple cost-cutting trades, including one that saw the franchise’s best player this century unceremoniously shipped out of town last winter.

This list also doesn’t include all of the draft busts, mismanagement, and other tomfoolery that happened in the dugout and the front office over the years.

Now, after an offseason in which all four of their division rivals loaded up for the 2019 season, the Pirates are once again hoping that they can combine homegrown (cheap) talent with under-the-radar (cheap) signings to create a team that wins far more games than projected (with little financial backing at the trade deadline if this does happen).

While the front office has been up to this monumental challenge in recent years, they are facing a few too many obstacles to truly turn the Pirates into a contender this season.

Team at a glance

2018 record: 82-79 | 2018 pythag: 80-81 | 2019 farm system rank: 18
Manager: Clint Hurdle (9th year)
First series vs. Tigers: April 16-17
Key additions: OF Lonnie Chisenhall, RHP Jordan Lyles, IF Erik Gonzalez, LHP Francisco Liriano
Key subtractions: RHP Ivan Nova, SS Jordy Mercer, 2B Josh Harrison, OF Jordan Luplow

How are they going to score runs?

Only two National League teams hit fewer home runs than the Pirates last season, but they were still able to finish in the middle of the NL pack with 692 runs scored. They have been surprisingly good at scoring manufactured runs recently, ranking among the top six teams in baseball in this category four of the past six seasons. By mixing productive outs with a few sneaky base thieves — notably, outfielder Starling Marte — the Bucs have been able to keep scoring despite a lack of power.

Maintaining this trend may prove difficult, though. Marte is another year older, and was caught stealing a league-high 14 times last year. Gregory Polanco will miss about two months of action as he recovers from shoulder surgery, and the team may be reticent to push him too aggressively on the basepaths early on. Adam Frazier is a better overall player than Josh Harrison, but J-Hay is the far better baserunner. First baseman Josh Bell is a large individual, but not very fast. And if terrible human being Jung Ho Kang gets a lot of at-bats, that’s another plodder on the bases.

Strangely, their best bet might be to hope the power shows up. Bell, Kang, Corey Dickerson, and Colin Moran all have plenty of raw power, and Frazier basically doubled his professional home run total in 352 plate appearances with the Pirates last season. Francisco Cervelli also added double-digit dingers in 2018. It will take a team effort — the Bucs need almost everyone to beat their statistical projections — but it’s possible they could creep above average offensively.

Has the Tao of Searage waned?

During the Pirates’ run of three consecutive playoff appearances, pitching coach Ray Searage could apparently do no wrong. He turned reclamation projects like Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, and Jason GrilliJason Grilli! — into above-average pitchers who helped the club win 280 games in three seasons.

Since then, success has been harder to come by for Searage and the Pirates. They squeezed 11 phenomenal starts out of J.A. Happ in 2015, but that seems to just be part of a weird late-career resurgence from the veteran lefthander. Righty Ivan Nova is a bonafide Searage convert, but he was (surprise!) traded in a cost-cutting move this winter. Meanwhile, the departed Gerrit Cole shelved his two-seamer (a Searage staple) in 2018 and became a Cy Young candidate.

Because the Pirates refuse to spend on free agents — Dallas Keuchel, in particular, seems born for Searage’s system — they will have to find innings off the scrap heap. Jordan Lyles could be that pitch; he has thrown a mix of two- and four-seam fastballs in his career, with the two-seamer the far more successful option over the past two seasons. Ditto Joe Musgrove, who had his two-seamer BABIP’d to death in 2018, but allowed a scant .083 ISO. Francisco Liriano is back in town, though he has struggled so far this spring. Someone from this group (or the Nick Kingham/Stephen Brault/Rookie Davis triumvirate) will need to step up to support Archer, Jameson Taillon, and Trevor Williams in a rotation that will be counted upon to carry the load for the Pirates this year.

Down on the farm

The Pirates have been able to consistently churn out high-level prospects over the past several years, even beyond top-10 draft picks like Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, and Jameson Taillon. That is no different in 2019, as the Bucs have a fairly top-heavy system at their disposal. Top prospect Mitch Keller will join the major league rotation at some point this season if things go well, presumably after the Super-Two deadline in June. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes is now a top-50 prospect (No. 49 on Baseball America’s list) after a big year at Double-A Altoona in 2018. And last year’s first round pick, outfielder Travis Swaggerty, is someone I would not mind seeing in a Tigers uniform one day.

Beyond that, things get a bit thin. Shortstop Oneil Cruz snuck onto a few top-100 lists after a breakout 2018 season at Single-A ball, but there is still a lot of risk in his profile. Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker are battling for the starting shortstop job in camp, along with Erik Gonzalez. Tucker has the highest ceiling of the three, but will almost surely start the year in the minor leagues after an up-and-down showing in Double-A last season. Infielder Kevin Kramer made his MLB debut last year after a strong showing in Triple-A, but his ceiling is probably lower than that of incumbent second baseman Adam Frazier. Outfielders Calvin Mitchell, Bryan Reynolds, and Jason Martin — all among MLB Pipeline’s top 11 Pirates prospects — are all future bench options.

Player to watch: Chris Archer

It doesn’t seem right to say that one player will make all the difference for a team projected to finish in last place, but Chris Archer feels like an X-factor for the 2019 Pirates. Now 30, Archer has enjoyed a somewhat up-and-down career, one that (perhaps unfairly*) has always felt like it is missing something. Getting out of the AL East last year didn’t help; he posted a virtually identical ERA in 10 starts with the Pirates, and gave up a few more home runs than before.

If the Pirates are to make the playoffs in 2019, they will need a lot of different things to go right. One of those will almost certainly have to be Archer, who the team paid a heavy price for last summer. Archer has looked like an ace at times — including a full three-year run as that guy from 2013 to 2015 — but his ERA has only gone up over the past few seasons. While his age is trending in the same direction, his velocity has held steady, with an average fastball north of 95 mies per hour. It will be interesting to see how he transitions to pitching with the Pirates for a full season. He already started throwing more two-seam fastballs with the Bucs last summer, but it didn’t seem to make much difference in his overall results.

*Archer feels like the pitching version of Justin Upton. Both have had careers most big leaguers would kill for, but neither has quite been able to live up to their astronomical potential.

Projected record: 78-84

The Pirates have an interesting mix of talent on their roster, but this feels a little bit like a team a year or two away — not to mention a move or two away — from truly jumping into contention. This is what made the Archer trade so confusing last year; instead of being patient with Tyler Glasnow and holding onto Austin Meadows, they went for a win-now move that didn’t mix with anything else they did in 2018.

Now, the Pirates are left pushing for a return to the postseason in the near future... but without the financial urgency of most teams in this situation. Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, or any number of bats on the market this offseason would have helped, but the Pirates sat on their hands as the rest of the division loaded up around them.

Sounds nuts, right? This is just everyday life for Pirates fans in 2019.