“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” – Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1
Consecutive seasons of wild card postseason exits would understandably leave a lot of western Pennsylvanians bitter. The two decades of losing seasons are one thing, but to finally break the barrier into the postseason for the first time since Barry Bonds wore their uniform only to get bumped after just one game—that’s enough to quell enthusiasm for a city that’s usually more engrossed in its football team anyway.
But, there is a sliver of possibility that the Pittsburgh Pirates just might make another push. Aided by a now-weakened St. Louis team, they might be poised to surprise. So while they are not forecast for a winning season, this might be the time for one more time unto the breach before they engage in restocking.
So much depends upon Andrew McCutchen, however. After he was heavily rumored to be headed elsewhere in December, he remains a Pirate, though in a different defensive position. His unhappiness seems like the prelude to a trade, but until then, a stable of young pitchers on the rise in their system and a relatively young core of surrounding talent just might be enough to convince Pittsburgh’s front office that he needs to stay.
There are a lot of variables here, of course, and even if a lot of things go right, the Pirates’ best hope of a 2017 postseason appearance is still through the wild card game.
Their fall back below .500 last season was surprising, and a return to at least a winning season appears slightly more likely, though not a certainty. PECOTA projects an 80-82 finish, two wins better than last season, and in the weakened National League Central, good enough for second place.
After a downtrodden 2016 season, PECOTA holds out hope for a resurgence from Andrew McCutchen, who is expected to lead the team with a 4.1 WARP. This might be optimistic, depending on how he handles his new spot in the outfield.
His replacement in center, Starling Marte, is projected to fall significantly after his nearly 4 WARP last season. PECOTA calls for less than half that in 2017, though Marte is expected to continue to provide value on the basepaths.
Otherwise, catcher Francisco Cervelli (3.2) is projected to best anchor the offense if McCutchen doesn’t bounce back, and Gregory Polanco (2.2) and Jung-ho Kang (2.9) should round out an at least stable offense. Josh Bell’s development will be one of the more intriguing stories of the Pirates’ season. He produced just above replacement level in his short stint in 2016, and with a full season, PECOTA projects 1.3 WARP output from him this year.
The pitching is perhaps an even bigger question mark, at least in the short term. Pittsburgh Tribune beat writer Rob Biertempfel shared via email that this was their biggest downfall in 2016. Going forward, this is a need that has to be addressed.
“That means a full season of a healthy Gerrit Cole, more progress from Jameson Taillon and Josh Kuhl, stability from Ivan Nova and good production from whoever gets the No. 5 job (barring a trade).” Biertempfel said.
The Pirates’ best pitching assets might be in their young, potential stars like Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. Taillon is projected to lead the team in WARP at 2.4, just edging out the aforementioned Cole.
Goals for 2017:
This season is the time for the Pirates to choose a direction. After what appeared to the rest of the baseball world like waffling during the winter meetings and a growing rift with their star outfielder, they are in a position to decide whether to build around what they have currently and reach for the postseason again or to sell off their assets and look ahead.
Given the likely dominance by the Cubs in the division for at least the next few years, the latter option is probably the best choice. McCutchen still possesses value that can yield a return that can bolster their future.
Unless their first half starts off with a bang, Pittsburgh will probably be sellers at the deadline. They successfully built postseason-caliber teams in very recent seasons, and even if they do sell off a few parts this year, the Pirates are not far away from October baseball again.
Long and short-term needs:
As Biertempfel said, the short-term need is to make the rotation work. Beyond the upcoming season, they are going to need to build for the future.
“Long term, it’s time to restock/reorganize by trading Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison and Tony Watson. That’s the Pirates’ business model.” Biertempfel shared.
Just a few savvy trades could make the difference for the Pirates to assume their place in the division race in the near future. With the right timing, this could coincide with a possible decline by the Cubs a few seasons from now.
Off-the-radar players to watch:
The pitching is certainly deep in the higher levels of the farm system, but here Biertempfel was quick to mention an outfielder.
“Obvious answer is Austin Meadows, who will be everyday OF in the majors before too much longer. He’s a NRI to big league camp, a good way to get him acclimated to the clubhouse, the coaches, etc. He’ll open the season at Triple-A Indianapolis, but probably will get his call-up before this season is over.” Biertempfel said.
Meadows sits at No. 6 on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 list, and a midsummer McCutchen trade might be the catalyst for his call-up.
Along with Meadows, Biertempfel mentioned a pitcher who has received less fanfare thus far.
“RHP Mitch Keller didn’t get an NRI and will begin the season at High-A Bradenton. He’s very aggressive with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and touches 97 mph. Can generate ground balls. Has upside as a middle-of-rotation starter.” Biertempfel said.
Keller is No. 4 in Pittsburgh’s system, and with his tools, he could be the rotation depth Biertempfel cited as a strong need for the Pirates.
This season is about direction for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and barring a surprisingly strong start in the first few months, the direction they’ll take will likely be one that means saying goodbye to the face of their team since his debut in 2009.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports