Yarrrrgh it’s time for a preview of the Pittsburgh Pirates mate. I don’t expect you to take anything I write seriously after that cheesy intro but I don’t really care what you think either. So the Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the worst franchises in North American sports through the 1990’s and 2000’s. It wasn’t until 2013 that they broke a 20 year playoff drought that began when Barry Bonds bolted in free agency to the San Francisco Giants. The pirates missed the playoffs in 2016 but had put together three very good playoff runs from 2013 to 2015. Will 2017 mark a return for October baseball in Pittsburgh?
At the hot corner, the Pirates will have Jung-Ho Kang and David Freeze. Kang, will be entering his third MLB season after a good career in Korea. Kang only played in just over 100 games in 2016, but he hit for power at an elite level. Kang knocked 21 home runs over the fence and had an elite hard hit rate of 39.4%.His average did fall in 2016 to .256 but that’s partly due to some bad luck and an increase in flyballs which helped hit all those home runs. I’d expect Kang’s average to slightly recover and he ends up in the .265-.270 range. What needs to be considered though is that Kang was caught in Korea with a DUI for the third time. He was sentenced to 8 months but the sentencing is delayed for two years so he could play baseball through 2018. This kind of makes him an unlikeable guy given that he has a history for putting other people at harm. He may end up being suspended by MLB as he’s currently on the Pirate’s restricted list as he does not have a US work VISA yet. I’m sure it will all sort out eventually but there’s likely be some time missed by Kang.
So if and when Kang makes it back into play, Kang will also be utilized part time at shortstop and that’s where David Freeze comes into play. The former Angel’s third baseman isn’t a typical offensive threat that comes from most third basemen, but he actually had a pretty good year in 2016 where he played above average defence and provided a respectable .270 average for the Pirates. The .270 average is surprising and due to some good luck considering he had a career high 28.9% strike out rate and .372 BABIP. At the age of 33 it’s unlikely he repeats what was his best season in years, but he should be at least slightly above replacement level in limited action.
Jordy Mercer will be the Pirate’s primary shortstop to start the 2017 season. He’s really not that great offensively or defensively so it’s entirely possible that the Pirates look to sign a free agent like Stephen Drew if they feel an upgrade is warranted, but it’s also possible they keep going with the completely average Mercer for now. His batting average (career .257 %) and power (career slugging is .377 %) are completely average at best, and his defense declined in 2016 to well below league average. Hopefully a bounce back is in the cards, but realistically he is a replacement level shortstop.
Josh Harrison has been a super utility type player up until recently. From 2012 to 2015 he played regularly all over the field including 2B, 3B, SS, LF, and RF. In 2016 he found a permanent home at second base where is truly suited and he provides above average defense at that position. However, his bat which showed breakout promise in 2014 never fully materialized. He remains a high batting average speedster but is light hitting as evidenced by 28 career home runs. If he could only to take a walk every now and then he could bring so much more value to the Pirates due to his speed, but he only walks in 3.5% of plate appearances throughout his career. He has the talent to steal over 20 bags but that walk deficiency will continue to limit him because the power will never arrive.
First base has not been a strong suit for the Pirates as of late. Pedro Alvarez was once their guy, but was never quite good enough either and he’s now long gone. So the Pirates will now be handing the reigns over to top prospect, Josh Bell who had a September call up in 2016. Bell is currently one of baseball’s top first basemen prospects, but he isn’t likely to have a rapid ascent to stardom. His defence at first base is likely to be suspect and though he is a switch hitter, his hitting against left handed pitchers is well below standard. Bell will likely never be your typical 30 homerun and big strike out type first basemen. He profiles more like a Brandon Belt but he strikes out a tad less in return for diminished power.
John Jaso will remain as a backup in case Bell struggles during his first full campaign. The former catcher really doesn’t have a position so he was put at first base by the Pirates out of necessity. What Jaso does do well is take walks at a 12.2% career average although he doesn’t have the speed or power to compliment. He’s really not much more than a replacement level backup at this point in his career.
Francisco Cervelli will continue to receive behind the plate. The former Yankee catcher has been serviceable behind the dish since Russell Martin departed in free agency. He has provided 5.5 WAR since his arrival in Pittsburgh but only hit 1 home run last year. His on base percentage is one of the better ones for a catcher in baseball (.370 to .377 over the past three years) but he really doesn’t do anything else at the plate. Expect Cervelli to be at the back of the batting order and maybe he hits 2 home runs this year!
The Pirates have too much talent in their outfield. Between Andrew Mccutchen, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and prospect Austin Meadows this might be the best outfield in baseball.
To say that 2016 was a disappointment for Andrew McCutchen would be an understatement. The former MVP has consistently put up above average to elite seasons since making his MLB debut in 2009, but in 2016 he was only slight above replacement level due to his struggles at the plate and even more so in the outfield. Defence has never been McCutchen’s calling card, but man oh man his 2016 fielding was a horrific -28 defensive runs saved as he pretty much regressed in every important defensive component. Given the amount of young talent the Pirates have it’s absolutely prudent that McCutchen is moved to corner outfield or traded for assets. He literally cost the Pirates 3 wins due to his poor center field play last year!
At the plate McCutchen struggled out of the gate and never fully recovered. His strike out rate was a career high of 21.2% and although his hard hit % was still a very good 35.8%, it was his lowest output since 2011. McCutchen saw an increase in his infield pop flies and continues to be an overly pull happy hitter, but team’s shifted him more than ever last year which resulted in more easy outs. For a guy who used to hit over or around .300 every year his drop to a batting average of .256 is startling. He did manage to hit 24 home runs with 79 RBI’s and 81 runs, but that’s just not good enough for a player of McCutchen’s talents. He no longer has the speed to steal 20+ bases and he saw a career low 6 stolen bases as well. McCutchen’s career trajectory until 2016 was that of a future Hall of Famer. He’s only 30 years old but his dreads and elite days are gone and that’s a shame. It’s not like the end is imminent, but unless he can make some necessary adjustments at the plate and move to corner outfield he will no longer be a stud. The Pirates are betting he will improve at least part way back to his career norm but I unfortunately believe he is in the midst of a career downturn that will only slightly rebound in 2017. If the Pirates fall out of the playoff race by the deadline expect McCutchen to be the biggest name on the trade market especially since he is under contract through 2018.
Starling Marte is expected to become the regular centre fielder for the Pirates in 2017. But in 2016 he was their most valuable player by posting a WAR of 4.0. He missed some playing time late in the year with back problems but ultimately did a bit of everything for the Pirates. He hit for a borderline elite .311 batting average, stole a lot of bases (47), hit a few home runs (only 9 but he’ll rebound here in 2017) and scored a bunch of runs (71). What’s not to love?! I do think his average will fall a bit this year as his BABIP of .380 isn’t going to happen again. Expect a drop to .295ish, but a slight uptick in his walks as he will can better than a 4.3% walk rate. His defense in left field was elite over the past two years but from the limited time he’s played in centre field, he’s been closer to average. If McCutchen’s move to right field works out, the defensive decline to Marte will be negligible when compared to the improvement seen from McCutchen’s defensive contributions.
Gregory Polanco will now move to left field from right in 2017. But, in 2016 he played through knee and shoulder injuries which likely hampered his normally above average defensive production. He didn’t quite take the step forward that was expected of him although he hit for a career high 22 home runs. The batting average has been fairly consistent at .253 over his three seasons in the league. His line drive, flyball and hard hit rates all jumped up in 2016 as well so the power should remain. However, he’s an extremely pull heavy lefty so shifts will hurt his batting average on any groundballs he hits. With health on his side, Polanco is a good bet to take another step forward as he does a little bit of everything well. As a betting man I would think 25 year old, Polanco will end up in the conversation for Pirates most valuable player at the end of 2017.
Austin Meadows is one of the top prospects in baseball and is likely ready for the show. Meadows will likely end up playing corner outfield at some point for the big league club. His bat is MLB ready as he hit .266/.333/.536 in the minors last year. He will be a work in progress so expect a September call up for Meadows or if a key outfielder gets injured. He’ll only be 22 years old during the 2017 season, so time is on the former first round picks side.
The 2011 draft’s 1st overall pick was Gerrit Cole who is now entering his fifth season and he should be primed for a big one. Health had been a big issue for Cole in 2016 as he hit the DL three times and missed 12 starts. He’s a talented pitcher hence the number number 1 draft selection in 2011, but his elbow issues from 2016 are worrisome moving forward. He did not have Tommy John surgery which is a good sign or else I would not be talking about him but it’s a concern to watch moving forward. Through his 2016 injuries, Cole’s high velocity remained and he threw his heater at 95 Mph so hopefully this means his elbow is alright. His strike out rate fell from nearly 9 K/9 from 2014-2015 to 7.5 K/9 in 2016. This may have been due to pitching through injury and his slider was not getting the same kind of results as it did in his 2015 breakout. Consequently his walk rate ballooned up to 2.9 BB/9 up from a respectable 1.9 BB/9 in 2015. The ERA was lackluster as well as it hovered close to 4.00. Some bad luck was to blame, but truthfully batters hit a few more line drives off him and when compounded by those additional walks and that’s your reason for ERA regression. If he can stay healthy in 2017, I’d expect a rebound for Cole because his stuff is too good. Command will be instrumental for any sort of improvement because the strike outs will return if he’s truly healthy.
Jameson Taillon will be another young arm in the rotation and he showed great promise in 2016. Similar to Cole, Taillon was a top prospect taken 2nd overall pick in the 2010 draft and he throws just over 94 Mph. He missed all of 2014 and 2015 due to Tommy John surgery but in his first major league action he was stellar. His curveball and changeup are already plus pitches but he will need to generate more swing and misses with his arsenal if he is to improve upon his 7.5 K/9 rate. His ERA of 3.38 is likely to slip due to an inflated strand rate (78.4%), but unlike Gerrit Cole, Taillon’s command was superb in 2016 but he did have struggles in his minor league career prior to TJ surgery. Some regression is likely but Taillon appears to be the real deal. I believe he will emerge as one of the best pitchers in the Pirate’s rotation this year and an uptick in wins and strike outs is likely.
Former New York Yankee, Ivan Nova found new life in Pittsburgh after being traded mid-2016. In 11 starts with the Pirates, he had a 5-2 record, saw an uptick in his strike out rate and most importantly showed impeccable command (0.4 BB/9). This was only over 11 games, but the improvements he made during that time were remarkable. Nova will be facing weaker competition in the NL Central than the AL East so he should be better than what you saw the last few seasons. He isn’t a huge strike out guy, hence his home run problems seen with the Yankees, but now that he’s going to play half his games in a pitcher’s park at PNC this home run ratio is likely to improve. The decision to move Liariano to the Jays and pick up Nova as his replacement could prove to be a wise one for the Pirates as he’s signed to a reasonable contract for two more seasons after 2017.
Chad Kuhl was called up to the bigs for his debut last year and he was actually pretty effective as a fill in starter. In his minor league career he had a below average strike out rate and like most prospects had issues with walks. Regardless of his imperfections, he put it together in his debut and surprised everyone with 8 quality starts out of 14 games pitched. Kuhl’s upside is limited at best and he may have already peaked, but his numbers suggest that his 2016 ratios are somewhat repeatable which would be very good for a 4th or 5th starter.
Tyler Glasnow is another top prospect pitching arm for the Pirates. He was not very good in his small MLB debut as his walk issues were ugly and he hit the DL with a shoulder injury. Near the end of the season, Glasnow was put into the bullpen but don’t expect that to be the case in 2017. There’s a chance he starts the year in AAA in order to refine his command but his strike out appeal is so appetizing as he struck out nearly 11 K/9 in his 2016 AAA season. As a betting man I would guess the Pirates will go with Drew Hutchinson to start 2017 for the final rotation spot, but he has very little upside compared to Glasnow who will get his chance to pitch for the Pirates due to another starters’ injury or poor performance.
With no established closer in place it looks like Tony Watson may get first crack for 9th inning duty. He’s been a mainstay in the Pirates pen since 2011 but has recently developed some ugly pitching splits against right handers. He had been really good out of the pen since his debut, but was hit harder than ever last year and had an ugly 1.33 HR/9 allowed, which matches his career worst homerun ratio from his rookie season. He is really better off being the bullpen’s loogie and doesn’t offer traditional strike out stuff that you want from a closer. Daniel Hudson however, is a former starter who missed almost three years after Tommy John surgery, and has seen his velocity skyrocket since converting to a reliever role. He was never anointed the official closer with the Diamondbacks but he did manage 11 saves over the past two seasons. Moving out of Arizona should help Hudson as well and he has some strike out potential that holds value and could play well in the 9th inning. These situations have a way of figuring themselves out and Watson being an incumbent Pirate will get first crack, but it’s unlikely to remain this way.
Outside of the closing role, the Pirates have young flame thrower Felipe Rivera who could be used in high leverage situations due to his strike out potential. Juan Nicasio will no longer be a starter due to the plethora of young arms up front. He appears content to be a middle reliever, and his pitching numbers from 2016 agree. Antonio Bastardo is a hard throwing lefty who had some home runs issues in his limited 2016 action, but previously had been reliable with the Phillies. Jared Hughes, a pitch to contact reliever, recently resigned for two years and is almost surely assured a bullpen role and lastly, A.J. Schugel was pretty good in his first season in Pittsburgh out of the pen after a middling career in the minors as a starter.
The Pirates will be in tough to make it back to the playoffs in 2017. Any series against division mates, the Reds and Brewers should be winnable for the Pirates. But with as many games against the Cubs and Cardinals, the season could come down to their record against two of the top teams in baseball who happen to be division mates as well. If Andrew McCutchen can return to his 2015 level of play then the Pirates could be in on a wild card spot, but I suspect this will not occur. Holes at shortstop, first base and in the bullpen will be the marginal difference between playoffs and an early winter for the Pirates as they will just miss out on the playoffs with 85 wins.
Starling Marte – He’s a potential five category outfielder and should hit .297/.347/.448 with 15 home runs, 76 runs, 70 RBI’s and 35 steals. Players who do everything well don’t grow on trees so feel comfortable taking Marte in the late 2nd round of your draft.
Andrew McCutchen – His draft price has slipped to the 5th round but it’s still likely he will only hit .276/.360/.460 with 23 home runs and 80 RBI’s and 80 Runs. His stolen base totals will not come back so be happy if he even steals 7 or 8 bases. His upside just isn’t that high and if you didn’t know his name in a blind test you would probably rate him a round or two lower.
Jung-Ho Kang – DUI aside he will be a top 10 infielder at the third base and/or shortstop positions when he plays. He’s going super late in drafts because he missed a fair amount of time to injury in 2016 and because of his unknown VISA and suspension status. If you can afford to stash Kang on your bench then you can probably chalk up 20 home runs and a .262/.337/.477 slash line. You won’t find that kind of nearly guaranteed production at the back end of most drafts especially not for infielders.