It’s been quite a confusing decade for Pirates fans, who have seen the front office flirt with going all-in, and flirt with rebuilding, but never truly commit to either one. After a 2018 season which saw Neal Huntington and company make an incredibly lopsided trade for Chris Archer, it seems that the Pirates are yet another team trying to contend in what should be a bloodbath of an NL Central. With a lot of upside on the team, but a lot of
Rotation: While Chris Archer may be more of the household name set to pitch in the 2019 Pirates rotation, he is far from the best pitcher on their starting staff. Coming off two straight 3.0+ WAR seasons, Jameson Taillon has the potential to make a push at the NL Cy Young Award this season. The former #2 Overall pick is coming off a season in which he had a career low in ERA (3.20) and a career high in innings pitched (191.0). With his BB/9 dropping heavily last year as well, his numbers should only get better this season. A slider he added to his repertoire in May of 2018 actually turned out to be an incredibly effective pitch with a 1.10 wSL/C, the best of any of his pitches. Trevor Williams is another guy who took a major step forward with a career season in 2018. However, unlike Taillon, a lot of regression seems in store for the 26-year old Williams. With a 4.54 xFIP and 4.68 SIERA, as well as career-lows in BABIP and GB%, Williams cannot expect to have the success he did last year if he keeps relying on his fastball-sinker mix. Unfortunately for Williams, neither his breaking ball (-9.56 wCB/C) nor his changeup (-1.27 wCH/C) were very effective last season. That being said, Ray Searage, the Pirates pitching coach, has a tremendous reputation in developing young pitching so Pirates fans should be optimistic that Williams can make the adjustments necessary to have another stellar year in 2019.
Although Trevor Williams may take a step back for the Buccos this season, a guy who could really step up is Joe Musgrove. Anchored by a really good slider, Musgrove showed durability and consistency last season, posting a very respectable 2.2 WAR. If he can get to a point where he feels comfortable throwing that slider (.248 wOBA against), as well as his changeup (.233 wOBA against), at a higher percentage than he did last season, his ability to generate swing and misses, as well as weak contact on those pitches should make him much more effective. Just like Musgrove, Chris Archer will need to mix in more offspeed pitches if he wants to have success in his first full season with the Pirates. Now 30 years old, Archer is clearly declining after posting the worst BABIP of his career last season and his worst WAR since 2013. His near-3 BB/9 and HR/9 well over 1.00 last season should not bode well against the other four incredible lineups within the NL Central. Archer has had a great career up to this point, but it’s time for him to make adjustments to counter those the league has made to him. Rounding out the rotation for the Pirates will be Nick Kingham, who, despite a brutal debut season a year ago, still possesses enormous potential. The problem for Kingham in 2019 really centered around his fastball command, which is not a rare problem to see from a pitcher getting his first taste of the Majors. Fortunately for him and the Pirates, as soon as he can locate his fastball consistently, his secondary pitches should be able to generate even more swings and misses than they already did in 2018 (20+ Sw-Str% on both changeup and slider). Overall, this Pirates rotation should be the strength of the team and, at the very least, should eat innings and put minimal pressure on Pittsburgh’s bullpen.
Bullpen: Pirates faithful should like their chances in close games this season thanks to what should be an elite bullpen this season. While Felipe Vazquez as the closer gets all the credit, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez were both incredibly effective at the back-end of the ‘pen last season for Pittsburgh and 2018 mid-season addition Keone Kela should give Clint Hurdle yet another reliable option in high-leverage situations. Although Steven Brault probably won’t see too many meaningful innings early in the season because of his struggles with the big league squad last year, his tremendous numbers in AAA, including his outstanding ability to generate ground balls, still gives him a lot of upside. Veteran Francisco Liriano will return to the Pirates in a swingman role while former #3 overall pick Nick Burdi is yet another young arm the Pirates are hoping will be able to turn things around at the Major League level with a low-leverage role in the bullpen. Come September, Pirates fans can certainly expect top-prospect Mitch Keller to get some innings out of the bullpen as well.
Catchers: With Elias Diaz on the Injured List (IL) to start the season, Francisco Cervelli will begin as the everyday backstop with Jacob Stallings as his backup. However, while Cervelli is very reliable behind the dish, he is five years older than Diaz and is set to hit free agency after this season. If Cervelli continues to produce at a 2.0+ WAR, 125-ish wRC+ pace, the Pirates could receive a lot of interest in the 33-year old backstop as a rental at the trade deadline. Elias Diaz, whose 114 wRC+ was just 11 points lower than Cervelli’s last season, showed last season he would be more than capable of stepping into a larger role if Cervelli were to be traded. Without a real Major League ready catcher in their minor league system, it looks like this will be the year where Elias Diaz transitions into what will be an everyday role for seasons to come.
Infielders: After the departure this offseason of two consistent, long-time infielders in Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, the Pirates infield will look a lot different in 2019. Josh Bell will certainly see a lot of action at first base again, but with Colin Moran in the mix, that could turn into a platoon. At the hot corner, Pirates fans should be excited about Jung Ho Kang finally returning to action after struggling with some off-the-field issues during the last couple of years. Kang offers true middle-of-the-lineup upside after posting a .369 wOBA and 132 wRC+ in 2016. Up the middle, Adam Frazier should finally get to see consistent starts at second base and should thrive after posting sneaky-good numbers in 2018. At shortstop, Erik Gonzales and Kevin Newman should split time, with Newman’s development something to keep an eye on as the young infielder struggled immensely last season at the Major League level and really offers no value if he is not hitting for average and stealing bases.
Outfielders: Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco should see a vast majority of the starts in the outfield this season for the Pirates, although with Polanco starting the season on the IL, Melky Cabrera, Pablo Reyes, and J.B. Shuck could see some limited opportunities. The key for all three of those main guys however will be consistency. Gregory Polanco, perhaps more than any other hitter in the Majors over the last couple of seasons, has been super streaky with weeks of brilliance at the plate followed by weeks of some miserable plate appearances. After a drop-off in power in 2017, Starling Marte bounced right back last year, posting a career-best .182 ISO. As he continues to steal bases, his 30-30 potential will make him the Pirates most valuable player very likely in 2019. As for Dickerson, after posting his second straight season of 115 wRC+, he should continue to hit for average at the top of the Pirates lineup and provide really good defense for the Buccos.
How the Pirates Will Win: Overall, with a strong pitching staff and a lineup that could break out with the return of Jung Ho Kang and with Adam Frazier seeing everyday time, the Pirates certainly can’t be ruled out in the extremely competitive NL Central. If Taillon keeps pitching like an ace, Williams and Musgrove make the adjustments to remain effective, and Archer and Kingham are halfway decent, pitching is going to keep the Pirates in a lot of games this season. While stolen bases are on the decline overall in the MLB, the Pirates have some guys that could wreak havoc on the basepaths this year. Getting the lead early will be key for the Pirates so that Clint Hurdle can turn things over to his bullpen. Depth-wise, especially on the position-player side, the Pirates don’t match up super well with the rest of the teams in their division, but they certainly have the fixtures in place both on the pitching staff and in the lineup to hang around in the NL Central this season and potentially even push for a Wild Card spot.
How the Pirates Will Lose: As good as the Pirates rotation was last season, as aforementioned, a LOT of regression will likely be in store. Trevor Williams’s 3.11 ERA from a season ago is almost a guarantee to skyrocket and both Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez could easily struggle to replicate last season’s success out of the bullpen considering the volatility of relievers. Joe Musgrove has struggled to stay healthy and consistent throughout his career and if he goes down, the Pirates rotation would become a lot thinner. Chris Archer was nothing special after being traded to the Pirates last July and, despite Ray Searage’s incredible track record, his decline might just be something that has to do more with his age and durability than anything to do with game-plan. In terms of the lineup, Dickerson attacked early in the count throughout all of last season so if the league starts throwing him more offspeed pitches early in the count and/or his contact percentage goes down a little, his average could creep down into the .270s or even .260s. Jung Ho Kang certainly has tremendous upside, but after missing two years, he could really struggle to re-adjust to the difficulties of hitting in the MLB. Adam Frazier and especially Gregory Polanco both have been inconsistent throughout their time with the Pirates and if both of them falter, the Pirates lineup would be essentially reliant on Starling Marte which would make pitching around him much more manageable for opposing pitchers. While the Pirates certainly have a lot of potential to win a lot of baseball games this season, if certain guys can’t replicate last year’s success, things could get ugly in Pittsburgh which could potentially lead the front office to decide to move in a different direction manager-wise.
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