2018 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

75-87

74-88

70-92

668

731

After three years of being over .500 and playing in October, the Pirates hoped a 78-83 stumble in 2016 was merely a blip. Alas, it seems the patience of Pittsburgh will be tested again after the Bucs came out twelve games under even in 2017 and have now gone half-Marlins.

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, Kyle Crick, Colin Moran

Two significant trades have more than defined the Pirates’ direction headed into 2018: technically, it’s baseball. Staff ace Gerrit Cole’s two seasons of team control were turned into a whopping fifteen from Musgrove, Feliz, and Moran, and that’s definitely a bigger number. Musgrove may be a mediocre starter or a good reliever, and Feliz has legitimate closer upside, though Moran will likely need to wait out incumbent David Freese to get a real shot in the bigs. Crick showed well in relief out of the Giants’ bullpen last year, and could be a cheap setup option if things work out.

Key Losses – Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Andrew McCutchen, Andrew McCutchen

Cole’s departure likely makes the Pirates a worse baseball team in 2018, though he was almost certain to depart soon, as agent Scott Boras will have his due. It’s the loss of McCutchen that really stings, as he’s coming off a bounce-back 2017, leading the team in WAR and just generally leading the team. At $14.5 million, it’s difficult to imagine Pittsburgh couldn’t keep him financially; considering his place as the representative of winning in Pittsburgh, and the fact that he’s objectively a wonderful person, this is one of the very few instances where it shouldn’t have mattered what the best value decision was.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

76-86

76-86

78-84

As is now their due, the Pirates seem to be stuck in Neutral Hell: not bad enough to get high picks that might turn into good players, and not good enough to warrant trying to make the postseason. Even worse, they have taken that philosophy and applied it to their entire lineup; only center field is projected to finish under 1 WAR or over 2 WAR. Things look generally better on the pitching side, where the rotation is on the good side of average, but in general a surprising success looks a lot like 82 wins.

Key Players:

Trading two stars means the Pirates better get something out of Joe Musgrove, otherwise, they’ll have a lot of ‘splainin to do. Ironically, starting pitching is the one thing they have plenty of, so while Musgrove will get a shot in the rotation, his 2017 excellence as a reliever may portend his future. We already know the fate of utilityman Josh Harrison, as he’s requested a trade and will certainly get one; as a consistent performer who can play multiple positions, Harrison should have value but may not get dealt until the deadline. The same may be true of starter Ivan Nova, who is still just 31 and has resurrected his career in Pittsburgh – a year and a half of control at reasonable prices could make the pitching-rich Pirates move on if he continues to eat innings efficiently.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Now that McCutchen’s spot in the outfield is open, persistent top prospect Austin Meadows should be the recipient of consistent MLB action and may resurrect a once-great Pirates OF troika. The left side of the infield should be remade as Colin Moran replaces David Freese – he’s probably not as good, but definitely cheaper! – and Kevin Newman takes over for Jordy Mercer. Newman’s contact-over-power approach will remind Pirates fans of one of the lights in the Dark Years, Jack Wilson, though it’s unlikely he’ll provide the same defensive value.

Future Outlook:

Optimism for the Pirates must always be curtailed by the fact that they’re the Pirates, a reality which is becoming less magical-sad (how do you not accidentally win 82 games even once?!) and is now just sad-sad. There are more than a few intriguing rotation options and a sufficiently competent lineup that might do some damage if given the proper help. Up against a powerhouse in Chicago, a dynasty in St. Louis, a youth bloom in Milwaukee, and something FDA-approved in Cincinnati, it’s difficult to see where the Pirates can squeeze through.

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