|Sportsbook||Win NL Central||Win NL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 69.5 (BetOnline)|
Out of 30 MLB win total picks, I had nine misses last season. The worst was far and away the Detroit Tigers, but the second-place prize goes to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates felt like a team that could contend in the NL Central to me going into last season, but that was absolutely, unequivocally not the case.
The toxic environment in Pittsburgh was far worse than I thought and things just got progressively worse as the season went along. The Pirates actually started 12-6 over their first 18 games, but by the end of October, Clint Hurdle was fired, Neal Huntington was fired, team president Frank Coonelly was fired, Felipe Vazquez was in jail for being a predator and a pedophile, and the organization had next to no direction.
So, it was a big swing and a miss to say the least, though I guess it spoke to my dislike of the NL Central as a whole. At least that part was true, as the Cardinals had six fewer wins than any other division champ and only the Diamondbacks had fewer wins among second-place teams than the Brewers.
Starling Marte and Josh Bell stayed mostly healthy, but Gregory Polanco was not and neither was Jameson Taillon. In retrospect, the Pirates had minimal margin for error and the bullpen didn’t perform up to the expectations that I had.
Of course, through it all, the Pirates still hit the All-Star Break at 44-45. I’m not saying it could have gone either way because they clearly weren’t that good of a team, but Pittsburgh only won three games in the month of July after the All-Star Break and then lost eight of nine to open August. After starting the year 28-28 through the month of May, the Pirates were 41-65 the rest of the way, including a 25-48 stretch in the second half in which they were outscored by 117 runs.
Pittsburgh was beaten 39 times by five or more runs. The pitching staff was simply atrocious. The offense wasn’t good either, but the Pirates pitchers never really gave the team a chance most nights. In fact, the Pirates allowed the fourth-most runs per game last season. Admittedly, that was something I did not expect. If I had expected them to be that bad, there is no question that I would have shied away with such a pedestrian offense.
But, it is a new season. The Pirates have a new manager in Derek Shelton and a new GM in Ben Cherington, who was most recently with the Toronto Blue Jays as the vice president of baseball operations. Huntington, one of many branches of the Cleveland Indians coaching/executive tree, never really seemed to translate analytics to the Pirates as well as we have seen from other former Indians employees. Cherington is not a branch of the Indians tree, but did work alongside Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins in Toronto.
I don’t want to necessarily call this a rebuilding job in the Steel City, but a large-scale clean-up needs to take place. The culture of the organization needs to change and continued development needs to take place at the minor league levels because the Major League talent leaves something to be desired. They just don’t have a ceiling consistent with the other teams in the division. I found that out the hard way last season.
With a brand new front office and a brand new outlook, the Pirates can wipe the slate clean in 2020. Does that mean we’ll see more of the Jolly Roger?
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-157 (4.59/5.55)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||65.9-96.1|
|Record in One-Run Games||19-25|
|Additions: Jarrod Dyson, Andrew Susac, Charles Tilson, Derek Holland, Robbie Erlin, John Ryan Murphy, Guillermo Heredia, Phillip Evans, Socrates Brito, Miguel Del Pozo, Luke Maile, Hector Noesi, Brennan Malone, Liover Peguero, Sam Howard|
|Losses: Elias Diaz, Wei-Chung Wang, Yefry Ramirez, Francisco Liriano, Lonnie Chisenhall, Melky Cabrera, Corban Joseph, Jake Elmore, Steven Baron, Starling Marte, Dario Agrazal, Alex McRae, Parker Markel|
The best transactions for the Pirates this winter have come on the executive side. They fired Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly. They are starting over as best as they can. Apparently starting over included trading Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks for Liover Peguero and Brennan Malone. The Pirates also got some international free agent money.
Peguero is only 19 and spent last season in the low levels of the minors. Malone is also 19 and worked just eight pro innings after being drafted in the supplemental part of the first round of the June draft. In other words, those guys won’t help the Pirates this season.
The Pirates got worse for 2020 by trading their best player and didn’t really get any better with the guys that they acquired.
This offense just isn’t very good. Josh Bell is the best offensive player on the team. He hit 37 homers and slashed .277/.367/.569 with a .378 wOBA and a 135 wRC+. Starling Marte was the only other player to hit at least 20 home runs. The high batting average for the Pirates is all well and good, but only the Royals, Tigers, and Marlins hit fewer home runs. Only the Marlins, Tigers, and White Sox walked less often.
It was good to see the power spike from Bell because he went from 26 home runs in 2017 to 12 in 2018. His 135 wRC+ was a career high. He is one of the few Pirates that walks a lot and he also falls in line with the team’s offensive strategy of not striking out. Bell makes a lot of quality contact, grading in the 90th percentile for exit velocity, Hard Hit%, xwOBA, and xSLG. He is the cornerstone and centerpiece of this lineup.
Bryan Reynolds is also an above average hitter. He slashed .314/.377/.503 with a .371 wOBA and a 131 wRC+. I’m not sure that a .387 BABIP is repeatable, but he does grade pretty well overall in the contact quality metrics. He actually led the Pirates in fWAR last season and hit 16 homers, which was third behind Bell and Marte. Those are your offensive building blocks.
Beyond that, the Pirates don’t have much. Colin Moran battled a hip injury in the second half and saw his numbers fall from .294/.335/.480 to .257/.308/.369, but he has a fairly low ceiling with a low walk rate and poor contact quality metrics. Gregory Polanco just can’t stay healthy. He had 167 plate appearances last season. He’s a fine player when healthy, but that has been rare. He did post a .254/.340/.499 slash with a good walk rate and a 123 wRC+ in 2018, so there is hope for him, but that’s only if he stays healthy.
Jason Martin struggled to hit in Triple-A in both 2018 and 2019 with little power and very little contact authority. That is kind of a theme throughout the lineup. Aside from Bell and Reynolds, the Pirates just don’t have a lot of guys that hit the ball hard and can carry respectable slugging percentages. That is the way to score runs in today’s offensive environment. You notice that the Pirates were a top-10 offense in batting average and finished 21st in runs scored. It’s not about hits. It’s about quality hits. Doubles. Dingers. Things that the Pirates can’t really do.
Ke’Bryan Hayes will make his highly-anticipated debut at some point this season, but he struggled at Triple-A last year with a 92 wRC+ in 480 PA. Cole Tucker also struggled last year and has struggled at the upper levels, but has an interesting skill set to follow.
There is very little to get excited about with the Pirates on this side.
It sure feels like that disastrous Chris Archer for Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows deal has leaked over into every aspect of the Pirates organization. Getting pantsed that badly just seems to be looming over the team. Archer hasn’t been very good. Glasnow looks like a budding star if he can stay healthy and Meadows is on his way as well.
To make matters worse, Jameson Taillon will miss most or all of the season with Tommy John surgery. The Pirates are waiting and hoping that 23-year-old Mitch Keller will be the answer. They just don’t have a lot of guys with high ceilings and that is problematic with an offense as impotent as this one. They really need Keller to take a huge leap this season or for Archer to work his way into a premier trade candidate.
Archer was not healthy late last season, but that wasn’t the only reason he posted a 5.19 ERA with a 5.02 FIP and a 4.36 xFIP. His slider usage fell to its lowest point since 2014, but he still generated a good rate of swings and misses. He just had no command. Again. Archer allowed 25 homers in 119.2 innings, yielded at 20.2% HR/FB%, and the worst walk rate of his career. Maybe it was health. Maybe it was mental. Maybe it was something more, but the Pirates really need Archer to be better. His 4.38 SIERA and xFIP suggest better, but those are numbers you’d want for a fourth or fifth starter. Not a de facto ace.
Joe Musgrove continues to be underrated. The former Astro doesn’t have eye-popping numbers in any department, but the raw stuff is good and so is the command profile. Musgrove fell victim to a lot of Cluster Luck last season with a 63.2% LOB%. His 4.44 ERA came with a 3.82 FIP. I can’t really say that Musgrove will be better this season, but his ERA will be with better LOB% fortunes. He is likely to carry a lower LOB% than average because of his lower K% and that will keep him from posting an ERA that resembles his FIP in all likelihood.
Trevor Williams and Steven Brault are guys. Rotation fodder. Williams saw a ton of regression last season and posted a 5.38/5.12/5.25 pitcher slash. Many wondered how he was able to posted a 4.07/4.03/4.49 in 2017 and especially a 3.11/3.86/4.54 in 2018. Brault is just a below average dude in general.
The ceiling guy for the Pirates rotation is Mitch Keller. In 11 starts over 48 innings last season, Keller hung a 7.13 ERA with a 3.19 FIP and a 3.47 xFIP. Projection systems have him down for an ERA in the upper 4.10s and a FIP around 4. That seems a touch pessimistic if he has better LOB% fortunes, but the command profile still needs time to grow. In 103.2 innings at Triple-A last season, he had a 3.56/3.60/3.87 pitcher slash. That would play at the MLB level for sure.
The Pirates have some more rotation fodder as depth guys like Derek Holland or Robbie Erlin. Keller is really the only pitcher with tremendous upside this season. Musgrove is solid. The rest is pretty blah, though I’ve always been lower on Archer and his command profile.
The biggest mistake I made with the Pirates last season was in my evaluation of the bullpen. I expected that group to be borderline elite. They were 23rd in ERA and 22nd in FIP. Felipe Vazquez was excellent until going to jail for being a complete piece of human garbage. Nobody else pitched all that well. Richard Rodriguez had a 3.72 ERA, but a 5.22 FIP and a 4.99 xFIP, so it was smoke and mirrors for him. Francisco Liriano had a 3.47 ERA with a 4.53 FIP and a 4.92 xFIP.
Rodriguez is back, Liriano is not. Keone Kela had a 2.12 ERA last season, but with a 3.52 FIP and only 29.2 innings of work. Kyle Crick went from a .316 wOBA against and a 3.23 ERA in the first half to a .389 wOBA and a 7.85 ERA in the second half, albeit in just 18.1 innings. His season ended when he got into a fight with Vazquez.
From a pure stuff standpoint, guys like Kela, Crick, Chris Stratton, with an elite spin rate on his curveball, and Michael Feliz are not bad. But, this is still a bullpen with a lower ceiling than most.
Positives & Negatives
Admittedly, I have no way to quantify this, but it was a toxic environment with the Pirates last season. Clint Hurdle was a dead man walking. Neal Huntington probably was, too, especially after that Archer deal. The Vazquez situation was ugly. A lot of the problem areas are gone now, with a new GM in Cherington, a new manager in Derek Shelton, who was previously in the Indians and Rays organizations, and Vazquez in jail.
It should be easier and more fun to come to the ballpark every day. Well, aside from that losing thing, of course.
Pick: Under 69.5
It looks to be a long year at PNC Park. The Pirates Opening Day payroll projects to be around $57 million and the team did very little of consequence in the offseason. Archer and Kela are trade candidates come July if they are healthy and performing well. At time of publish, the Pirates were on the hook for less than $20 million in guaranteed money in 2021 and exactly $1 million in 2022, which would be the Vazquez buyout, but the Pirates should be able to get out from under that money.
This just isn’t very good team and there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about going forward. As mentioned, Keller is the guy to watch in the rotation and it would be nice to see the baseball gods quit kicking Musgrove around. Bell could be an attractive trade piece with two arbitration years left, but he will be the best hitter alongside Reynolds in a poor lineup otherwise. Hayes and Double-A OF Oneil Cruz should make appearances this summer.
Otherwise, this is just a bad baseball team in a position to bottom out. This is a pick for the guide and not an official bet as far as season win totals go, but this is clearly the worst team in the NL Central and I don’t disagree with anybody that wants to go under this number with a bet.