After a very disappointing 2016, the Pittsburgh Pirates are hoping to return to playoff contention with bounce-back seasons from Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.
Coming off three straight years of postseason play, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a very disappointing 2016 season, as they dropped below .500 for the first time since 2012. Their biggest issue was starting pitching, which went from a 3.53 ERA and 16.9 Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs WAR), good for 6th in baseball, to a 4.67 ERA and 7.1 fWAR, 24th in baseball.
The rotation in 2015 was led by the big three of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. In 2016, Cole was injured and less effective than usual, Liriano was terrible, and Burnett was retired. They also missed J.A. Happ, who had been brilliant in 11 starts for the Pirates in 2015, but took his brilliance to Toronto as a free agent, where he was a 20-game winner.
A bounce back from Cole would give the Pirates the top-of-the-rotation starter they had in 2015, when he was 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA. Last year, he had three stints on the disabled list with elbow issues that limited him to 21 starts and 116 innings. His strikeout rate dropped and his walk rate went up, leaving him with the highest ERA of his four-year career. The good news was that his average fastball velocity still topped 95 mph, so the stuff is there.
The team’s position players also took a step back, dropping from 11th to 17th in fWAR, with Andrew McCutchen being the biggest disappointment. He went from hitting .292/.401/.488 in 2015 to .256/.336/.430 last year and his defense in center field graded out much worse in 2016. He dropped from 5.8 fWAR to 0.7.
There were rumors all winter long that McCutchen might be traded, but the Pirates didn’t trade him. Instead, they moved him to right field, with Starling Marte moving from left to center and Gregory Polanco moving from right to left. An optimistic fan would note that McCutchen hit .289/.374/.495 in his last 50 games of 2016. If he comes back with that kind of production this year and adjusts well to his new position in right field, he’ll be nearly as valuable as the McCutchen of old that Pirates fans have grown to love.
The bullpen will miss Mark Melancon. He was one of the best in the business during his time with the Pirates, but was traded during the season last year. He’ll be a tough guy to replace.
So, how do the Pirates look for 2017? What were their important additions and subtractions? What are the expectations for 2017? Read on to find out.
Relief Pitcher Daniel Hudson—The Pirates signed Daniel Hudson to be one of their late inning options. He’s likely to start the year as the setup man for Tony Watson, so he’ll be first in line to replace Watson at the closer position should the need arise. Hudson got off to a great start last year. He had a 1.55 ERA through his first 30 appearances.
Then he went through one of the ugliest stretches you’ll ever see from a relief pitcher. Over his next 15 appearances, he gave up 31 runs (26 earned) in 9 2/3 innings, for an ERA of 24.21. During this stretch, he allowed a Batting Average on Balls In Play of .625 and hitters knocked him around for a .541/.588/.836 batting line. It was brutal. It was beyond brutal. It was like he was pitching on a beer league softball team and had a few too many before the game. Then, suddenly, he was good again. Over his last 25 appearances, he had a 1.66 ERA in 21 2/3 innings. The Pirates are hoping the good Daniel Hudson shows up and sticks around all year long.
INF/OF Sean Rodriguez—Sean Rodriguez played every position in the field except catcher and pitcher last season and hit .270/.349/.510 while doing so. He was a terrific utility piece and his production will be missed. The Pirates let him go and he was signed by the Atlanta Braves in November. Sadly, he was in a car accident with his family at the end of January and suffered an injured rotator cuff that will likely cost him much of the 2017 season. His wife and two kids were also injured in the accident but should be okay in the long run.
OF Matt Joyce—Matt Joyce split his time between first base and right field and also packed a punch from the left side of the plate as a pinch-hitter in the late innings. As a pinch-hitter, Joyce hit .220/.432/.441, with four homers and 15 RBI in 81 plate appearances. The Pirates had Joyce at the bargain basement price of $1 million last year. His productive season earned him a two-year, $11 million contract from the Oakland Athletics.
Relief Pitcher Neftali Feliz—Feliz was one of the Pirates better late-inning setup guys last year, which may have priced him out of the ‘Burgh. He signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, where he’ll make $5.35 million and have a shot at being the team’s closer.
Starting Pitcher Jeff Locke—Locke was 17-13 with a 3.69 ERA over 297 2/3 combined innings in 2013 and 2014, but struggled over the last two seasons with a 4.90 ERA in 295 2/3 innings. The Pirates let him go in late November and he signed a one-year deal with the Miami Marlins in December.
Starting Pitcher Ryan Vogelsong—The 38-year-old Vogelsong had an ERA of 4.81 in 24 games last year, 14 of which were starts. The Pirates have enough young pitchers to fill his role, so he signed a minor league contract with the Minnesota Twins, hoping to make their rotation.
Relief Pitcher Arquimedes Euclides Caminero—The man with the Hall of Fame name can bring the gas with his fastball. He averaged nearly 98 mph last season. Despite the impressive heater, his 17.9 percent strikeout rate was below league average. He also walked too many hitters, which has been a problem in his career. He signed with the Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball to pitch in Japan this season.
Based on FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), the Pirates last year finished 17th in offensive fWAR, 24th in starting pitching fWAR and 25th in relief pitching fWAR. This year, FanGraphs has the Pirates projected to finish 12th in offensive fWAR, 10th in starting pitching fWAR and 20th in relief pitching fWAR.
The biggest wild card for the Pirates offense is Jung Ho Kang. In 229 games over two seasons, he’s hit .273/.355/.483, with 36 home runs in 837 plate appearances. This year, it’s unknown when he will be ready to play for Pittsburgh after he was sentenced to a suspended eight-month prison sentence in South Korea because of a third DUI arrest. The Pirates placed him on their suspended list, which likely means he won’t be ready to start the season. FanGraphs is projecting 574 plate appearances for Kang. I’ll take the under on that projection.
If McCutchen returns close to the player he was before last year, the team will have a terrific outfield combination of Cutch, Marte and Polanco. Josh Bell is a good, young prospect who should provide good on-base percentage at first base. Francisco Cervelli is another good on-base guy, but with very little power. The team’s best minor league hitting prospect, Austin Meadows, could be knocking on the door at some point during this season.
The Pirates starting rotation is projected to be much better than last year. A full, healthy season from Gerrit Cole will greatly help the cause, as will the development of young pitchers Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. If Ivan Nova can pitch as well as he did last year for the PIrates, he would be a solid mid-rotation starter. The back end of the rotation will likely feature a mix of pitchers, with Chad Kuhl, Drew Hutchison and Steven Brault being the most likely competitors.
65 IP, 3.91 ERA, 3.89 FIP—LHP Tony Watson (0.8 fWAR)
The Pirates traded away closer Mark Melancon last season after he gave them 260 innings with a 1.80 ERA going back to the 2013 season. He was a lockdown closer, on a tier with the best in the business. In his place, Tony Watson will likely be the first option to close games this year after he finished last year with a career-best 15 saves. Lefty Felipe Rivero was the main player the Pirates received from the National in the Melancon trade. He has great stuff. He struck out 92 batters in 77 innings and is projected to be the team’s best reliever this year. Hudson will likely start the year as the right-handed eighth-inning guy, with Nicasio in the mix for a setup role as well.
The Pirates don’t look to be in the same tier as the Cubs in the NL Central. The projections have the Bucs finishing roughly 12 games behind the Cubs in the division, and just a game or two ahead of the Cardinals. They are in the hunt for a Wild Card spot behind the Giants and Mets and ahead of the Cardinals, Marlins and Diamondbacks.
Of course, projections are just projections. They are more of a point to start from with error bars around them. The Pirates are projected to win 81 to 83 games. They could stay healthy and get production from unexpected places and finish near 90 wins or they could be hit with injuries and underperformance from key players and fall below .500 again. The fact that they are projected to be within a few games of a wild card spot should be hopeful for Pirates fans who suffered through last year’s disappointing 78-win season.