Know Your (2016) Enemy: Pittsburgh Pirates

If marriage has taught me anything, it is the importance of expectations. If on a weeknight, I surprise my wife by breaking out of the mold of my boring old self and recommend we go to our favorite gastropub for burgers and drinks—rather than staying home and working as I am inclined to do—it is guaranteed that her joy and love for the culinary arts will overcome my curmudgeonly nature, and we will enjoy a relaxing, refreshing dinner together. Conversely, if on a Saturday night we have dinner plans with friends, and I make the always-ignorant decision to prioritize work or some other pursuit in place of prioritizing my wife, showing up late to dinner will absolutely shatter the expectation for the evening, and you can bet your last dollar that the plan of a relaxed evening will dissipate in a flaming heap of suddenly uninteresting food. Point is, the weight of expectation—both positive and negative—is an overwhelmingly powerful thing.

An abstract example, no doubt, but this is what I am wrestling with as I consider the various expectations fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates must feel as we enter this season. On one hand, they haven’t won a division title in 24 years, and have an awesome young core of gregarious, exciting stars. In other words, it’s Tuesday night for a Pirates supporter; the mystery and fun is just beginning. On the other, they had the second best record in baseball last year—winning 98 games—yet still couldn’t overcome St. Louis in the Central Division. In this version, it’s Saturday night in Pittsburgh, and Jake Arrieta is begging to teach them another lesson about meeting expectations. Without further ado, your 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates season preview.

 Last Season’s Record
98-64, 2nd Place in NL Central
Your perception of the Pirates this year probably follows one of two divergent paths. You either 1) believe they were one of the best teams in baseball last year (they were), and didn’t really need to make any drastic changes in the offseason, or 2) you side with PECOTA and believe they were one of the luckiest teams in baseball last year (they were), are due a bit of regression, and should have done more to address areas of need. It’s possible both ideas possess measures of truth, but I tend to believe the core squad that won 98 games last year will still be a dominant force, as teams with exceptional outfield defense and shutdown bullpens seem to consistently befuddle modern projection systems. As I wrote in January, the 93-win average they sport over the last three years is their best since Barry Bonds was winning Gold Gloves in a Pirates uniform, and despite Pittsburgh making very few player transactions this winter, three of the other four teams in the Central Division likely got markedly worse than they were a year ago. The divisional peer regression alone helps the chances of a competitive season and another postseason birth for the team from the Steel City, even if you don’t believe in their ability to reproduce their success from last year.
Key Losses/Additions
The most significant free agent addition of the offseason was signing catcher first baseman John Jaso for two years and $8 million to replace Pedro Alvarez—who they decided against tendering a contract—ending an up-and-down tenure that included many majestic home runs into the Allegheny river, but an even greater amount of strikeouts and defensive shortcomings. On the other corner of the infield, David Freese was signed to a one year contract worth $3 million to help ease the injured Jung-Ho Kang back into action, and Sean “Save the Gatorade” Rodriguez was brought back for $2.5 million as a depth option in the infield. Elsewhere in free agency, they added Ryan Vogelsong for one year and $2 million to help shore up the rotation after A.J. Burnett elected to retire, and made two intriguing additions to an already stout bullpen by signing swing-man Juan Nicasio ($3 million) and flame-thrower Neftali Feliz ($3.9 million). On the trade front, they made one of the more intriguing need-based trades of the winter, again bolstering the rotation when they sent longtime second basemen Neil Walker to the Mets for left-handed starting pitcher Jon Niese. All-in-all it was a solid but subtle collection of transactions for the thrifty team, addressing needs but spending very little and maintaining financial flexibility in the process. Barring any surprising changes late in spring training, they will enter this season with a payroll just under $100 million.

If It All Goes Right

In a perfect world where the sun shines on Pittsburgh every day and manufacturing jobs come back to the United States, this season would resemble something akin to last season, save the nightmarish wild-card scenario they found themselves in for the second consecutive year. The rotation will be similarly blessed with health, and the additions of Niese and Vogelsong will eat innings with reasonable effectiveness and help ease the loss of A.J. Burnett. Gerrit Cole will cement himself as one of the premier aces in the game, while one or both of top prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon will arrive in the majors and provide stability to the questionable back-end of the rotation. In the bullpen, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes and Tony Watson would continue owning the latter-third portion of games. On the offensive side of the ball, Andrew McCutchen would do what he does and threaten for another MVP award, while Starling Marte will continue contributing at a high level and finally receive the credit that has been due him. Gregory Polanco would improve his ability to hit major-league pitching and becomes the power, contact and speed threat that made him a top-10 prospect in all of baseball, and the outfield group as a whole will play Gold Glove caliber defense and infuriate opposing batters with their range. The infield would see Kang return from injury to the form that made him a Rookie of the Year candidate last year, while Jaso and Michael Morse would provide reasonable production platooning at first base. Up-the-middle, Josh Harrison would quite simply return to the All-Star form he carried in 2014, while Jordy Mercer plays solid defense at shortstop, and contributes at key moments with the bat. Health is the key at catcher, as team depth is thin at the position, and defensive wizard Francisco Cervelli is a critical component of the team’s success.

Clearly, we don’t live in a perfect world, and it isn’t feasible to expect this scenario to play out exactly as imagined. However, if this team has learned anything through the agony of losing the Wild Card game in two consecutive years, it is that the first goal for this year is crystal clear: overcome the Cardinals and Cubs to win the Central Division. Beyond that, they have the talent and experience to wade through the mystery that is Major League Baseball’s playoff system to win their first World Series since 1979.

If It All Goes Wrong

Despite their consistent success over the last few years, this isn’t a perfect team. The questions start with the rotation, where after Cole and Liriano the talent looks questionable, at best. The re-signing of Jeff Locke and acquisitions of Niese and Vogelsong to replace Burnett resemble the quantity-over-quality approach the Dodgers also took this offseason, when they went searching for Zack Greinke replacements. In short, they need to be prepared for it to blow up. Vogelsong represents the biggest question mark, as his WHIP ballooned to 1.46 en route to a 4.67 ERA last year, while Locke wasn’t much better at 1.42 and 4.49, respectively. Niese is a slightly more dependable option, but he also saw warning signs dotting his peripheral stats last year, as his K/9 rate fell for the fourth consecutive year to a career low of 5.8. The results weren’t much better for him when contact was made, as his 9.8 H/9 led to a 1.38 WHIP and 4.41 FIP. Nicasio is another option for the rotation, but has yet to throw enough strikes to find success as a starter in the majors. The easy answer is that the front office believes they have added enough intriguing pieces for pitching coach Ray Searage to impart his wisdom upon, but Nicasio strikes me as the only addition with legitimate upside in the group, as his velocity edged back up to the 95-96 mph range last season. If the rotation options beyond Cole and Liriano fail to produce anything more useful than their 2015 efforts did, the possible promotions of Glasnow and Taillon may become less about promoting exciting depth, and more about the necessity of the rotation demanding immediate assistance.

The infield could be cause for concern as well, as a cursory glance around the diamond might raise your eyebrows when comparing them to some of their Central division rivals. Consider for a moment the group of Jaso, Harrison, Mercer and Kang, then compare them to Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant. It’s just one facet of the game, but it becomes a bit hard to imagine they could be consistently competitive. We shouldn’t rest on the laurels of name value, however, so let’s take a look at how the production could vary on the Pirates’ infield.

At first base, Jaso—added to form a platoon with Morse—is an underrated hitter who carries a career OBP of .361. His career OPS of .797 against right-handed pitching is solid, while his .542 mark against lefties is, well, not usable. Morse, batting from the right side, is virtually a split-neutral player, owning a .787 career OPS against righties, and an .808 OPS against lefties. The addition of Jaso may be as much about Morse’s durability than anything, as Morse has only played more than 102 games one time since 2011, and will play this season at 34. While this tandem should quietly put up respectable offensive numbers, the defensive side of the ball is where I see room for concern. Morse has long been considered something of a defensive liability, which is why he was moved from the outfield to first base. Between his age and the questionable nature of his defensive ability, his glove work will be something to keep an eye on. Jaso, on the other hand, is another story entirely, as he has only made one appearance at first base in his career. It isn’t fair to say he cannot be solid defensively at first, but the popular misconception that any catcher can aptly play first base will be strongly tested. When you compare the question marks surrounding these two to the experience that Rizzo has playing first, it’s easy to see a marked advantage for Chicago.

Second base is much less complicated, as the former Cub farmhand Harrison will get the glut of the starts. The question in this case isn’t who will start at second, but rather which version of Harrison will they get. Will he be the 2014 player who slugged .490 en route to a 5 WARP season and top-10 MVP finish? Or will they get last season’s version, he of the .390 slugging percentage and 1.9 WARP? To me, Harrison is the key to determining whether or not the Pirates have a successful infield group this season, and we’ll touch on his PECOTA projection a bit more in a moment.

Mercer at shortstop offers above-average defense, collecting nearly 15 FRAA thus far in his four-year career. The question is whether or not his bat is even passable, as his .228 TAv last year threatens to derail his career as a starting shortstop. Backup Sean Rodriguez offers valuable defensive versatility all over the field, but his .230 TAv begs the same question as Mercer’s. Together, this is a troubling position for the Pirates, and could be the biggest early warning sign if the season trends poorly.

At third base is Jung-ho Kang, one of the most exciting and surprising story lines of last season. Signing out of Korea for five years and just $16 million total, he took the majors by storm by collecting 3.2 WARP en route to a third place Rookie of the Year finish. Unfortunately, his season ended prematurely in September on an unfortunate play involving Chris Coghlan, when he fractured his leg as Coghlan attempted to break up a double play at second base. Kang himself admitted that his rehabilitating leg is not yet 100 percent, suggesting he is unsure when he will return to game action. When he does return, he should be able to provide solid defense and excellent production at the plate, but the mystery surrounding that timetable is the main reason why Freese was brought into the fold. Freese should provide adequate production in the interim, but this is yet another position to keep in mind when comparing the Pirates to the Cubs and Cardinals.

Notable PECOTA Projections

Josh Harrison: 621 PA, .280/.314/.418, 11 HR, 75 R, 57 RBI, 18 SB, .261 TAv, 3.8 WARP

Our trusty robot friends think Harrison has a bounce-back season in him, projecting his WARP to double from last season’s mark of 1.9. Interestingly, they project his TAv to actually drop from .264 to .261, but also project he will make significant gains in the FRAA department, with a lofty projection of 13 runs above-average. Digging a bit deeper, his 90th percentile projection has him registering a lofty 6 WARP tally, still believing in his upside as the truly dynamic player he was in 2014. Harrison represents the highest upside of the Pirates infield, and a return to his All-Star form of 2014 would be a significant boon to their chances of winning the Central Division.

Gerrit Cole: 192 IP, 3.17 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 182 K, 50 BB, 3.2 WARP

The projection for Cole heads the opposite direction as Harrison’s, with PECOTA believing his ERA will rise from 2.60 to 3.17, bringing it more in line with his DRA of 3.33 last year. They also project his WARP to fall from 4.2 to 3.2, mainly as a result of his DRA rising to 3.59. I tend to disagree with this conservatism, as I believe this is the year Cole firmly establishes himself as one of baseball’s elite aces, and see no reason for the 25-year-old righty to regress from last season’s excellent performance.

Andrew McCutchen: 655 PA, .293/.387/.495, 24 HR, 100 R, 82 RBI, 16 SB, .313 TAv, 4.1 WARP

‘Cutch has long been one of my favorite players to watch, and I feel blessed to have witnessed the way he attacks the game every day. What he means to the recent success of the Pirates cannot be overstated, and last season is the perfect example of this. On May 6th, McCutchen—coming off two consecutive top-3 MVP finishes—carried an OPS of .571, and the team started slowly at 12-14. The next day, he recorded three hits in a 7-2 victory over Cincinnati. From that game forward, he regained his MVP from with a .953 OPS, and his team followed by going 86-55 and finishing with the second best record in the majors. His slow start led to him failing to eclipse the 6-WARP mark for the first time since 2010, and PECOTA believes it was the first sign of decline for one of the games brightest and most recognizable stars.

Final Thoughts

It wouldn’t be hard to absolve a Pittsburgh fan for feeling that the universe has conspired to keep them from winning the Central Division, as the Cardinals’ dominance of this decade has overshadowed the quality teams the Pirates have fielded in recent years, leading to three consecutive second place finishes. And just as fissures appear to be forming on the surface of the infallible franchise in St. Louis, a behemoth has begun to rise on the North Side of Chicago. The game must be decided on the field, however, and this version of black and gold should not be taken lightly.
Lead photo courtesy Butch Dill—USA Today Sports.
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4 comments on “Know Your (2016) Enemy: Pittsburgh Pirates”


With their pitching prospects coming up, the Pirates’ capacity to throw all lefty starters in a series will be an interesting facet to watch in how the season series plays out.

Isaac Bennett

….Not sure I am following, help me out: Liriano, Niese, and who? Glasnow/Taillon are both right-handed, and I don’t see an impact lefty in the system (not yet anyway). As for Niese, I kind of think he just isn’t very good. Curious to hear your expanded thoughts on this. Thanks for the comment!


I think that infield is going to be a serious achilles heel for this team this year, but man, that OF is something to behold.

Great write-up, and very well written.

Isaac Bennett

Thanks Tommy! It definitely could be their Achilles heel, but as you said that outfield might overcome it. I also think the Cards’ infield could struggle.

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