In the same division as the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs, the third-place Pittsburgh Pirates couldn’t reach a fourth consecutive Wild Card Game. They didn’t do much in the offseason to establish themselves as a contender in 2017, either.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were kind of a letdown in 2016. They had reasonable expectations coming off a 98–win 2015 season, but failed to reach them. With Andrew McCutchen coming off a rough year and Gerrit Cole coming back from some injury problems, what should we expect from the squad in 2017?
Pittsburgh’s 2016 Story
If the Pirates 2016 season could be summarized in one question, it would be: “What happened to Andrew McCutchen?” In 675 PA in 2016, the Pirates outfielder slashed .256/.336/.430 — setting career lows in all three stats. His walk percentage dropped to 10.2 while his K% went up to 21.2, both career-worsts for the 30-year-old. He stole only six bases, which marked the first time in his career in single digits.
The problems weren’t just on offense. He was worth -28 DRS (defensive runs saved) in center field, by far a career worst. For perspective, in his seven other seasons in the majors, he was worth -26 DRS. Yeah, that’s not great, but -28 is uncharacteristically awful. Things may turn around in 2017, when McCutchen will be the Pirates’ starting right fielder, which could improve his defensive numbers.
Overall, McCutchen had by far his worst season in the major leagues. How bad was it? He was worth 0.7 WAR; his next worst came in 2009, when he was a rookie and accumulated 3.4 WAR in only 108 games.
But on the other hand, Pittsburgh had strong showings from outfielders not named Andrew.
Starling Marte was worth at least four WAR for the third time in the last four seasons, even only playing 129 games. In 966.2 innings in left field he tallied 19 DRS, something very much needed with Cutch in center. He also set career-highs in all three slash stats (.311/.362/.456).
In right, Gregory Polanco was solid as well. Although it was only his third season, he also set career-highs in all three slash stats (.258/.323/.463). Polanco was a pretty average fielder, being worth two DRS on the season with most of his innings coming in right field. Polanco hit 22 homers, more than his first two seasons combined, while also stealing 17 bases. That translated to a 2.5 WAR, which is solid — especially for a 24-year-old.
Otherwise, nothing really happened that was too surprising. A few things that pop out were the debuts of prospects Josh Bell, Adam Frazier, Tyler Glasnow, and Jameson Taillon. Bell had a really interesting rookie season, playing four games in July in which he went 2-2 with two walks, three runs, and a grand slam, all as a pinch-hitter. The rookie had a career slash line of 1.000/1.000/2.500. Could this perfection continue? Well… no.
But Bell kept his perfect average and OBP all the way until the end of August by being sent down to the minors. Bell did finish the season with a not-so-perfect .273/.368/.406 slash line in 128 PA and he tallied 100 innings at both first base and in right field, which is pretty solid for a first-year player. He’s actually still rookie eligible for 2017, so don’t be surprised if you hear his name when the Rookie of the Year results are released.
Frazier, who played at least five games in left field, right field, second base, and third base, was also fine in 2016. He slashed .301/.356/.411 in 160 PA, walking 12 times and striking out 26 times.
Glasnow, a very highly rated prospect, also came up in 2016 for Pittsburgh. He only pitched in seven games (four starts), but had an ERA of 4.24 (ERA+ of 100). That’s pretty nice for a 22-year-old.
Also, the Pirates traded ace closer Mark Melancon to the Washington Nationals for prospect Taylor Hearn and Felipe Rivero, because why not? The Pirates were nine-and-a-half games out of first and Melancon’s deal expired at the end of the year.
Gerrit Cole only logged 116 innings pitched as a result of injuries. He posted a 3.88 ERA in 21 starts in 2016, after a superior 2015 season when he finished with a 2.60 ERA in 208 innings, and finished fourth in the National League Cy Young voting.
Overall, it was a frustrating season for Pittsburgh fans. They didn’t reach the postseason, Cole and McCutchen regressed, and they traded Melancon — a consistent and popular late-inning reliever. The Pirates finished the year 78–83–1 (yes, there are ties in baseball).
What did the Pirates do in the offseason? This isn’t rhetorical. Did they do anything? At all? I’m honestly curious to see if they did anything that would’ve improved their team from 2016. Let me check.
Nope. Nothing. Besides the re-signing of Ivan Nova, the signing of Daniel Hudson, and the trade that got pinch hitter (yes, his baseball-reference.com page has his primary position as pinch hitter) Phil Gosselin from Arizona, the Pirates didn’t do much in the offseason.
They did, however, lose some players, including Neftali Feliz, Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, Jeff Locke, and Ryan Vogelsong. Also, Jung Ho Kang may miss the beginning of the season because of several DUIs in South Korea, and his entire season could be in jeopardy if he can’t fix his issues with his visa.
With the departures of the aforementioned players, it’s safe to say that the Pirates lost the offseason. They’ll need to do better if they want to win the division with the reigning World Series Champions, and also the overlooked St. Louis Cardinals.
What Wasn’t Answered?
The Pirates’ offseason was an offseason of “Did Not.” The Pirates very much needed to pick a direction for their franchise during the offseason, but that wasn’t done. They could’ve traded Andrew McCutchen to a contending team for a prospect or two, and that would’ve shown that they were following the path of rebuilding. They could’ve traded for an ace starting pitcher, like José Quintana, using some of their highly sought after prospects, which would’ve established them as contenders for the upcoming seasons.
Unfortunately, they did neither. The Pirates are stuck in “no mans land”. They haven’t taken that extra step, showing they want to make a playoff run, and they haven’t sold aging players, like 30-year-old Andrew McCutchen.
If anything, they hurt themselves in the offseason. Andrew McCutchen knows he was getting shopped, and he said “I’d be lying to you if I told you none of this bothered me.” Now, assuming Cutch stays put throughout the 2017 season, the Pirates will be playing a right fielder who knew that the team he’d been drafted by twelve years ago was trying to trade him. That’s not great.
So, what wasn’t answered? Their outfield is fine, with Polanco, Marte, and McCutchen, left to right. Their infield, well, that could’ve used some work. Per MLB.com depth charts, the rookie Bell will be their starting first baseman, Josh Harrison will be at second with the sophomore Frazier backing him up. They have Jordy Mercer manning short, with Frazier backing him up as well. Kang was supposed to be their starting third baseman, but until he gets back to the United States that can’t happen, and David Freese will likely take his spot until then. I mean, that’s not bad, but it’s also not very great. Francisco Cervelli is a pretty reliable catcher overall, with a career OPS+ of 100.
Their rotation also could’ve used some work:
- Gerrit Cole (3.88 ERA in 2016)
- Jameson Taillon (3.38 ERA in 2016, 18 career starts)
- Ivan Nova (4.17 ERA in 2016, 3.06 with Pittsburgh only)
- Chad Kuhl (4.20 ERA in 2016, 14 career starts)
- Drew Hutchinson (5.25 ERA in 2016)
That rotation does have some upside in Cole, Nova, and Kuhl, but overall, it’s not too strong. They still can trade for White Sox ace Quintana, or other great pitchers on struggling teams like Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi on Tampa Bay. They haven’t yet, so I’ll keep that as unanswered.
Their bullpen isn’t bad, even after trading Melancon last deadline. Tony Watson, who has a 2.22 ERA in 292 innings over the last four seasons will be the closer. They also have Felipe Rivero, Antonio Bastardo, Juan Nicasio, Jared Hughes, Daniel Hudson, and Wade LeBlanc as options for the later innings.
The 2017 Outlook
The Pirates should be pretty average in 2017. They have great youth, a strong outfield, and a below-average pitching staff.
The success of the 2017 season will ultimately come down to two players: McCutchen and Cole. How will McCutchen handle playing in the corners instead of in center, and how much did those trade talks over the offseason hurt his morale? Will he be able to return to all-star form? And for Cole, will he get in 30 starts this season? And if so, which Gerrit Cole will he be, 2015 Cole or 2016 Cole?