By: Noah Wright
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Taking a look back at The Pirates 2018 season, it’s truly been a shocking season. I had no real expectations for this team, and thought that making .500+ would be a miracle. However, it’s now early September, and they’re sitting right at the .500 mark, and earlier in the season, even looked like competitors. Now looking ahead at the 2019 season, it’s looking a lot brighter than I thought it would 4 months ago. Now that they could potentially look like competitors next year, let’s take a look at different aspects of The Pirates team, and some problems they could take a look at over the off-season.
Catching was one of many questions entering the season, both offensively and defensively. Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz combined to throw out only 23% of runners trying to take a base on them, and both looked like offensive liabilities entering 2018. Diaz’s OPS was a very low .579, while Cervelli’s was an unimpressive .712. However, now it looks like The Pirates have a very good catching tandem entering next year. The veteran Cervelli currently is batting a healthy .260/.387/.432 with 11 home runs and has a 128 wRC+. Diaz has also been pretty impressive; batting .286/.336/.444 with 9 home runs and has 113 wRC+. Defense has also been sured up behind the plate, as they’ve caught 36% of runners trying to steal on them. The big question for Cervelli this season was his health. He missed most of 2016 and 2017 with injuries, but with the time share between him and Diaz, he’s been able to stay healthy most of the season, and now can rest easy some days, now that Diaz has started to prove he can be reliable behind the dish, and help Cervelli preserve his health.
Josh Bell was one of the bright spots of 2017, but hasn’t looked himself in 2018. After blasting 25 home runs, and finishing with a .800 OPS, Bell has seemed to suffer from a sophomore slump in 2018, however I do feel that he could bounce back next year in the power department, and maybe even add some batting average, as he’s been able to show the ability that he can get his average into the .260’s this season. At third base, The Pirates had a pretty good platoon of the young left handed batter Colin Moran, and right handed veteran David Freese. However, Freese was dealt at The September deadline, but The Pirates do have an upcoming option in the form of Jose Osuna. Osuna has mainly been a first baseman and corner outfielder in his time in the minors, but saw a handful of games at third base this season, and even got some good reviews there. So it seems that they’ll use a Osuna/Moran platoon at third base next season, but could bring in another option if need be.
This season, The Pirates have used Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer at second base and shortstop. While it’s no surprise that after the season, The Pirates probably won’t resign Jordy Mercer (who’s on the last year of his contract), but it is a slight surprise that they may not pick up the $10 million dollar option in Harrison’s contract. Harrison has struggled this season, both offensively and defensively, and I do see the reason why that they may heavily consider picking it up. But while any Pirate fan (including me) will be sad to see Harrison leave Pittsburgh, The Pirates have it covered with a Seinfeld Middle infield duo of Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer. Another option they can place up the middle is utility man Adam Frazier, who’s been a spark plug since being recalled from the minors.
The outfield has been one of the strong suits for The Pirates this season. The new guy, Corey Dickerson, has fit in well both offensively and defensively with The Pirates. He may have taken a dip in performance as of recently, but he’s still batting a solid .290/.319/.451, and ranks positively in DRS (13), UZR (7.2) and defensive WAR (.9). After trading McCutchen, The Pirates have utilized the speedy Starting Marte in center. Offensively, he’s been very good, batting .278/.322/.455 with 18 home runs, and 31 stolen bases. However in his new position, Marte has been decent, but not too impressive. He currently has 0 DRS, 1.6 UZR, and worth .2 defensive WAR. But a few weeks ago, there were questions about his effort level, as he’s been seen not running out ground balls, with it leading to him being benched for a few games. In right field, Gregory Polanco has actually been good this season. After a freezing cold start to the 2018 season, Polanco has batted .281/.354/.547 with 15 home runs, 56 RBI’s, and 9 stolen bases in 318 plate appearances since June. Overall, Polanco has batted .254/.340/.499 with 23 home runs, 81 RBI’s, and 12 stolen bases. One thing that Polanco needs to solve for next year is his fielding, and base running decisions. Polanco may have one of the best outfield arms in The MLB this season, but he currently is worth -1.1 defensively in right field, and has been criticized before for making many many base running errors, and the said base running errors have also been one of Marte’s weaknesses. If The Pirates can fix the base running, they can have a very good 3 in the grass.
The starting rotation has been one of The Pirates stronger suits this season. Their best pitcher this season has probably been Jameson Taillon. The 26 year old righty has played in 164 innings, and producing a 3.40 ERA, 3.57 FIP, and 1.213 WHIP. He’s also gotten better control of his pitches, lowering his walks/9 from 3.1 to 2.2. His biggest weakness has to be his ability to keep the ball in the park. He currently has a 1.0 HR/9 rate, and I feel with a bit of work and mentoring, he could probably lower that. Another impressive piece of their rotation has been Trevor Williams. Williams has pitched in 148 innings to a tune of a 3.15 ERA, and 1.177 WHIP. While his FIP may be 4.16, he could lower that by getting more control of his pitches. He currently has a 3.0 BB/9 rate, however he’s seemed to find more control recently, giving up only 17 walks, and impressively 4 earned runs in his last 54.2 innings. Their veteran starter this season has been Ivan Nova. While Nova hasn’t particularly been impressive, owning a 4.35 ERA, and 4.71 FIP, he’s only allowed 1.9 walks/9 innings. Nova could be better next season if he learns how to keep the ball in the park, like Taillon. Their starter with the most control with his pitches has been Joe Musgrove. A piece they received in The Gerrit Cole deal over the winter, Musgrove has been just fine coming off the DL early in the season, and slotting right in the rotation for The Bucs. He’s given them 103.1 innings and a 3.75 ERA, 3.77 FIP, and 1.181 WHIP. He’s only allowed 1.8 walks/9 as well, showing he’s a very good control pitcher. One thing The Pirates did at the deadline was buy some pieces (I know, crazy), and one of those pieces was Chris Archer. I had previously looked at the Archer trade in a video, and while his overall numbers in Pittsburgh haven’t been great (5.47 ERA, 4.23 FIP, 1.456 WHIP), he has performed better as of lately. Before giving up a three run home run in his last inning of work last night, Archer had a .77 ERA in his 11.2 innings before that last third of an inning. With Archer, many Pirate fans are hoping that he’ll find a groove in Pittsburgh, since they had to give up some guys that carried some value with them. The biggest problem with the rotation as a whole has been the long ball. If they can reduce the amount of home runs they can give up, this rotation could be one to look out for in 2019.
The bullpen has probably been the best part of The Pirates this season, and I don’t think many fans saw that happening. Entering the season, there were a bunch of uncertainties; how would Edgar Santana perform, how would Kyle Crick do in his first year in The Burgh after The Cutch trade, will Michael Feliz be any good; and most of them performed well. Edgar Santana and Kyle Crick have been two of The Buc’s most reliable set-up options, with minor league signee Richard Rodriguez having a very good breakout year. Then at the deadline, The Pirates further bolstered their bullpen, adding Keone Kela, The former Texas Ranger closer, who’s done very well since coming to Pennsylvania. After a questionable start to the season, Felipe Vazquez (formerly Felipe Rivero) found his grove from last season, and has pitched very well since. Long relief wise, The Pirates have plenty of options for next year. The most notable will likely be Chad Kuhl, who will likely be the odd man out once he comes off the DL next year. Some other options they have is Nick Kingham, Steven Brault, and Clay Holmes. Overall, if their main pitchers (i.e. Vazquez, Santana, Rodriguez, Crick, Kela) can perform like they have this season, The Pirates will have a bullpen that can easily lockdown leads in 2019.
In The Pipeline:
I’ve already mentioned Kevin Newman/Kramer, two prospects who could make an impact next season, but I want to go over some other prospects that could make an impact in 2019. The most notable is Mitch Keller, however since he’s struggled in his limited time in Triple-A this season, he may stay there for the first month or two before he gets a call to the majors (unless injury occurs). Another prospect that could make his debut next season is Ke’Bryan Hayes, however that’s assuming that he starts the year in Triple-A, and performs well.
Problems To Be Addressed:
The biggest problem I think The Pirates need to look at is their bench. Their bench will mainly look like this next season: Adam Frazier, Moran/Osuna, Cervelli/Diaz, and a mixture of Jordan Luplow, Max Moroff, Alex Reyes, or one of Kevin Newman/Kramer if they pick up Harrison’s 2019 option. When you look at it, their bench doesn’t really have that power hitter they could use. One option that I’d like to see them take a look at is Mark Reynolds. Reynolds has done very well in a bench role he’s played over in Washington, and is also a fairly clutch hitter (.295/.382/.659 line with RISP), another thing that they should take a look at. They could also use an actual 4th outfielder with defense. While Osuna and Frazier can play outfield, and Jordan Luplow is an outfielder, none of them are truly good at the corners. That’s when Gerardo Parra comes into play. It’s likely that after the season, The Rockies will buyout Para for $1.5 milion rather than pay him $12 million for next season. While he may not carry much of an overall bat, he performs very well against right handed pitchers (.301/.359/.399 this season), and has been pretty good in leftfield, with experience in both center field and right field. Like Reynolds, Para does well in clutch situations with a .337/.408/.446 with RISP this season. With that, I think a bench of Frazier, Moran/Osuna, Cervelli/Diaz, Mark Reynolds, and Gerardo Parra is plausible, even with the limited budget The Pirates have. Coaching decisions is another thing that has to be looked at, or something has to change. I’d be very surprised if The Pirates outright released Clint Hurdle out of his new extension, but he’s made some questionable decisions with pitching this season that can easily be fixed. The biggest is his stubbornness to pull pitchers from games. Sometimes, Hurdle leaves starters in games (some even crucial to the season) too long, which has either costed them leads or even games. One many examples of this is the game right before The All Star Break. Joe Musgrove had fired 7 strong innings, only giving up 2 runs, and his pitch count was running high. Sure, the bullpen may have been tired from the previous day’s double header, but it was right before The All Star Break, and The Pirates were making a decent push, winning 5 straight. However instead of putting in a relief pitcher, Hurdle and co. lets Musgrove pitch into the 8th with the game tied 2-2, even though he’s running his pitch count high. Musgrove goes on to give up 3 runs that inning, but The Pirates were able to come back, and walk it off, luckily. This happened again a few days ago. After pitching 5 innings of shutout ball against The Marlins, Hurdle and co. march Chris Archer out for a 6th inning. After struggling to get two outs, and visibly tired, Archer gives up a 3 run home run, giving up the 2 run lead The Pirates had previously. The Pirates went on to win that game too, but the game was almost lost over a questionable decision. One decision coaching made that did cost them the game was a move made by Joey Cora, the team’s third base coach. The game was against The Padres. The Pirates are down by one in the top of the 9th with the tying run, Gregory Polanco, at third base and one out. Jordy Mercer hits a fly ball to fairly deep right field. Hunter Renfroe catches the ball, stumbles a bit since he bumped into the wall, and fires home, but Polanco doesn’t tag. While it’s not clear whether Cora told Polanco to stay, or tag and Polanco didn’t go, Cora said that he told Polanco to go half way. Marte came up to bat next, and struck out ending the game. Small coaching decisions like this have costed The Pirates games and runs, however, they’re questionable decisions even fans have pointed out. These next few things may not be high priority, but should be something they should put on the back burner. The first thing is find a left handed bullpen guy. The Pirates have 2 lefties in their bullpen: Felipe Vazquez and Steven Brault. It would be nice to see them get another left handed bullpen guy such as Jake Diekman or former Pirate Zach Duke as a LOOGY guy they can put in. The second thing is do something with Michael Feliz. Feliz hasn’t looked very impressive in his first year in Pittsburgh. He has a 6.05 ERA, 4.28 FIP, and 1.560 WHIP in 41 and two thirds innings, and gives up a ton of home runs (1.3 HR/9) and walks (4.1 BB/9). While I don’t think The Pirates will pull another Daniel Hudson-for-Corey Dickerson, they should look into moving him; whether that’s trading him, or even outright releasing him if he starts next season struggling out of the gate.
In conclusion, I do think The Pirates have a chance at being a Wild Card contender, and if a lot of things go right for them, maybe even make a push for the division. However there are still some hurdles they need to pass before they can solidify themselves to a contender to me. But in the end, those hurdles aren’t hard to pass. Sign a few cheap players, make some better choices, and limit the long ball are the largest I that stand in the way, with one of the minor ones being fixing baserunning. If they do that, The Pirates may be looking at a playoff push in 2019.