The Pirates made the playoffs for the second straight year in 2014. This is a big deal. In New York, or Boston, or even Oakland or Tampa Bay, it might not be. But in Pittsburgh, a city still shuddering over the two decades it spent in a seemingly hopeless marriage to a baseball team that didn't love it back, there's still euphoria and suspicion about the way the Pirates have seemingly turned over a new leaf.
After getting Bumgarnered out of last year's postseason, the Pirates faced the departure of catcher Russell Martin, who stood for everything that was good about their 2013 and 2014 seasons. In 2012, an unripe Pirates team contended through much of the summer, only to fall apart completely as the team clinched its 20th straight year of losing. That fall, talk about the team was dominated by an utterly irrelevant pseudo-scandal involving the organization's use of military training techniques. If you're a Pirates fan, think back to that time and how silly it seems now. Think back to the things you thought at the time. You're blushing. You were such an idiot. None of us understood what was coming.
Russell Martin was what was coming. The Bucs signed the former Yankee to a two-year deal at which most local commentators mostly scoffed or shrugged. And yet Martin and the Pirates whipped the Bucs' pitching staff into shape, framing and calling pitches and, in the process, getting better-than-expected contributions from Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, fellow newcomers Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon ... well, just about everyone, really. Martin also had an outstanding defensive year that Fangraphs still ranks as the best catcher-defense season of the past decade. He also caught the ball that ended up clinching the Pirates' first playoff berth in 20 years.
This offseason, following a second Bucs season that was even better than the first one, the Pirates tried to re-sign Martin. They ended up letting him depart for the Blue Jays, who offered a deal almost five times as big as the one to which the Bucs had originally signed him. It was, unfortunately, a good decision on the Pirates' part -- players don't last forever, and catchers especially don't. The Pirates had no business paying $16 million a season to a catcher in his mid-30s. But Martin's departure casts a shadow.
The 2015 Pirates might just be able to walk out of it, but it won't be easy. They had a more active offseason than usual, paying big bucks (for them, anyway) to re-sign Liriano and former star A.J. Burnett while also adding wild-card Korean infielder Jung-Ho Kang and a variety of role players. And, of course, they still have serious talent, with Andrew McCutchen coming off another elite season, Starling Marte emerging as an impact player, Josh Harrison hoping to build on an improbable 2014 breakout, and Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco each providing serious upside. It's not clear if the 2015 Pirates will be as good without Martin. But they will be fun to watch. Here's a look at this year's team, beginning with its new additions.
-P- A.J. Burnett, SP. Five words in, and already I'm stretching the definition of the word "new." Burnett is so old that the Phillies once signed him, and he isn't even new to the Pirates, having spent two years in Pittsburgh as a veteran hero / red-ass before heading to Philadelphia in 2014. There, he found that pitching in the middle of a dumpster fire is no fun, and so this offseason he approached the Pirates, offering to pitch one more year before heading off ito the sunset. As before, it's a good match, even if the Bucs can't count on Burnett to be the same pitcher he was the first time around. The Bucs needed rotation help given the impending departure of Edinson Volquez, and a ground ball pitcher like Burnett is a good bet to succeed in Pittsburgh. Plus, the entertainment value Burnett provides at his best (or worst) is second to none.
-P- Jung-Ho Kang, SS. The Pirates surprisingly posted the top bid for the best player in the Korea Baseball Organization and signed him to a four-year deal. As a result, the season has been preceded by a banchan of hype, hate and speculation regarding Kang, much of it not particularly well founded. No one really knows what Kang might become. The Pirates have said they think he'll eventually start somewhere (whether that's shortstop, second base or third base), but if other teams had agreed, the Bucs likely would have had to bid more than a relatively meager $5 million for the right to negotiate with him. Then again, dismissals of Kang as a novelty (or, more maliciously, as a clubhouse cancer, because reasons) are equally premature. His KBO stats (.356/.459/.739 last season) are easy to wave away because of the relatively low level of competition and the Coors-Field-on-the-moon environment there, but Kang was the best player in the league last year. And his power is legit.
-P- Francisco Cervelli, C. He's not Russell Martin, and not even the Pirates could deny that he's mostly just a cheap alternative, but like Martin and backup Chris Stewart, Cervelli should be able to help the Pirates' pitching staff with his framing and game-calling. Martin's signing turned out to be one of the best in the history of the franchise. Like the Martin deal, the Pirates' acquisition of Stewart prior to 2014 was greeted with ambivalence, and that one turned out well too. If there's any position where I'm confident in the Pirates' ability to root through the bargain bin and find something good, it's catcher.
-P- Antonio Bastardo, RP. If nothing else, Antonio Bastardo and the Pirates might be the best match of player name and team nickname since Milwaukee drafted Brent Brewer back in 2006. Of course Antonio the Bastard is now a Pirate. And is there a more pirate-y position in baseball than a left-handed reliever, the guy who sails in from the bullpen to steal hits from the Joey Vottos of the world and then disappears into the clubhouse before anyone realizes what happened? Actually, Bastardo isn't really a lefty specialist, and he doesn't fit the Pirates' usual game plan of finding pitchers who put the ball on the ground. But he should strike out more than enough batters to be an effective part of the Pirates' bullpen.
-P- Sean Rodriguez, UT. The Pirates might not have traded for the versatile Rodriguez if they'd already won the bidding for Kang, but Rodriguez is a nifty bench piece to have around -- he can play first, second, third or the outfield corners and is, for his career, an above-average (or at least slightly above-average) defender in all of them. A bit of regression in his BABIP (.235 last season) could help him rebound somewhat after a disappointing 2014 season. Rodriguez will likely collect 300 or so plate appearances while playing all over the diamond. Think Josh Harrison before Harrison became Pie Traynor, only with a lower average and more power.
-P- Corey Hart, 1B/OF. After last year's Ike Davis / Gaby Sanchez platoon didn't succeed, the Pirates tried, tried again, this time with Pedro Alvarez and his malfunctioning throwing arm joining the veteran Hart. That duo might leave Pirates fans asking where the beef is, but there's upside, too -- Alvarez still has huge power despite Mark Reynolds-grade strikeout issues and a lack of familiarity with the position, and Hart was a very good hitter with the Brewers before his knees failed him. For just $2.5 million, signing Hart was a move with little downside, although the Pirates haven't had a real answer at first base since Kevin Young in 1999.
-P- Radhames Liz, RP. If one reason to be wary of Kang is that the KBO features more offense than a Baylor/TCU matchup, Liz represents the flip side of the coin -- after struggling in parts of three seasons with the Orioles, he had three successful years as a starter in Korea. The righty will join the Pirates as a long reliever.
Other than Martin, the Pirates will return most key pieces from their surprisingly terrific 2014 group of hitters. Andrew McCutchen will again lead the way, and there's no reason to think he won't continue to post exceptional numbers. Starling Marte could join him after a brilliant 2014 second half that looks like it might be the beginning of a breakout. And third baseman Josh Harrison came out of nowhere last season to hit .315/.347/.490.
Expecting Harrison to do that again might be a bit much. His outstanding 2014 was fueled, in part, by hard-hit balls, and he should continue to provide at least some percentage of all the stinging line drives he hit last season. But there's little in his previous track record to suggest 2014 was coming. That's not a slight, either -- there were entire weeks in 2014 when it seemed like Harrison did something heroic every night, whether that meant crucial hits, diving stops at third, absurd catches in the outfield, or wild escapes from rundowns.
The Pirates could, however, get more from right fielder Gregory Polanco, who joins McCutchen and Marte in what could quickly become baseball's best outfield. The Pirates traded fellow lefty outfielder Travis Snider to the Orioles for two pitching prospects this offseason, a somewhat surprising move given that Snider was helpful in a part-time role last year. (More on Snider later.) The trade was, however, a vote of confidence in Polanco. Even in a tough rookie 2014 season, the ultra-toolsy Polanco recorded 30 walks in 312 plate appearances, consistent with the plate discipline he demonstrated in the minors. He has a chance to take a big step forward in 2015, and not only because his stride is about as long as an ostrich's. He should provide the Pirates with a little, or maybe a lot, more of this:
Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer will again man the middle infield, with the key variable there being Walker's health -- Walker had what might turn out to be a career season in 2014, but he was slowed by back injuries. If he's unavailable, or if Mercer falters, Kang could step in. The rest of the Pirates' position players are so good that it's tempting to stop there and treat Walker as a footnote, but the Bucs' hometown hero has become a key offensive cog in his own right, tying Brian Dozier for most home runs among second basemen last season.
The Pirates re-signed Francisco Liriano this offseason for three years and $39 million, more than doubling their previous largest-ever free agent contract. He'll join Gerrit Cole at the top of the Bucs' rotation, with Burnett, Charlie Morton and either Vance Worley or Jeff Locke (likely Worley) also involved.
Here's the key to the Pirates' rotation strategy:
The MLB average ground ball percentage last year was 44.8%. Everyone who might be in the Pirates' rotation this year is a ground ball pitcher. Edinson Volquez, who was in their rotation last year, was a ground ball pitcher (50.4%). Burnett, in his last season with the Pirates, had the second highest ground ball percentage of any qualifying pitcher in baseball.
The Pirates love ground balls. Love, love, love them. You might think that's because they have a terrific defensive infield, but that isn't exactly true -- as Bucs Dugout's David Manel has pointed out, they haven't relied on flashy defensive infielders, with Harrison and the now-departed Clint Barmes standing out as the only recent ones who have even obviously been above average. Instead, they've relied on creative defensive positioning, which has blunted the impact of their opponents' grounders. Add in a homer-stifling home park, and you've got a rotation that can be effective even if all-encompassing advanced metrics suggest it's terrible.
One key to the 2015 rotation will be Gerrit Cole's health -- Cole's stuff and strikeout rate are good enough that he could be excellent even without the Pirates' sleight of hand, but he missed about two months last year with shoulder and lat issues. Liriano, too, has only topped 162.1 innings more than once in his career. Getting 200 innings from him next year would be a coup for the Bucs.
Beyond Cole and Liriano, the Pirates' rotation shouldn't be outstanding, but it should be fine. That two pitchers as good as Worley and Locke are battling for a rotation spot speaks well of the Bucs -- Worley had a 2.85 ERA last season and is, in many ways, a perfect fit for the Pirates' strategy. If he doesn't make the rotation, there probably won't be any pitcher in baseball other than the Nationals' Tanner Roark who will have a more legitimate gripe about why he's not starting.
Hey, guess what? Ground balls! Knock knock. Who's there? Ground balls! Why did the chicken cross the road? Because Ray Searage said there were ground balls on the other side. Here are returning Pirates relievers who pitched at least nine innings with the Bucs last season.
Three guesses which of these pitchers was least successful! It was Pimentel, but let's not focus on him. Instead, let's focus on Hughes, who might have benefited from the Pirates' approach to run prevention more than any other pitcher. WAR marks Hughes as being below replacement level, but he posted a 1.99 ERA last year thanks to a fairly simple formula -- put the ball on the ground, don't issue walks, and let the Bucs' infield take care of the rest.
Due to a roster crunch, Hughes might not even make the team out of Spring Training. Melancon, Watson and Bastardo are sure bets. Liz is close, since he's signed to a big-league deal. Then there's Pimentel, newcomer Arquimedes Caminero (who has impressed the Pirates in camp) and the loser of the Worley/Locke duo. Pimentel, Caminero, Worley and Locke are all out of options. The Pirates are big on keeping assets in the organization, so it wouldn't be a surprise if they went with a bullpen of Melancon, Watson, Bastardo, Liz, Pimentel, Caminero and Locke to start the season, leaving Hughes and Holdzkom on the outside looking in.
That means they wouldn't be taking their best 25 north. Holdzkom, in particular, looked like a beast down the stretch last year, and he's one of the best stories in baseball -- a former top draft pick who flamed out, wandered through the baseball wilderness, got rediscovered while throwing in the high 90s with an independent team in Texas, then quickly cut a path through the upper levels of the minors and burst onto the scene in September as 6-foot-9, flame-throwing freak. He whiffed 14 batters in his first nine big-league innings and helped the Pirates clinched a playoff spot just months after he began the season making $600 a month in San Angelo.
It was a great story. But sometimes, taking your best 25 north isn't all it's cracked up to be. The Pirates need to keep talented players in their organization, and Holdzkom and Hughes will still pitch plenty of innings for the Pirates this season even if they don't make the team right away. By my quick and unscientific count, the Pirates made 38 distinct moves to add and remove pitchers from their 25-man roster last year, the first of which came April 21. Even if Holdzkom and Hughes don't make the team out of camp, they'll be fine.
Man, I don't know. Nobody knows. All we can really say is that for the third straight year, the Pirates have the talent necessary to make the playoffs. Whether they actually will remains to be seen.
Remember how confusing the Snider trade was? The Bucs shipped Snider to Baltimore, even though they had a clear use for him as their fourth outfielder and top left-handed pinch-hitting option, for two minor-league pitchers. There were cynical ways to look at the trade -- for example, maybe the Pirates were caught off-guard when they won the bidding for Jung-Ho Kang, and trading Snider was their way of getting back under budget. (GM Neal Huntington did list "financial flexibility" as one reason for the trade.) There were also practical ways to look at the deal -- Andrew Lambo projects to do a decent Travis Snider impersonation this year, and having someone like him, rather than the out-of-options Snider, will make it easier for the Pirates to tweak their bench during the season. The Bucs also lost two young arms (Joely Rodriguez and Buddy Borden) when they acquired Bastardo and Sean Rodriguez, and getting two more in return for Snider helps them replenish their stock.
More broadly, though, this has been an offseason filled with confusing moves. The Athletics signed veteran DH Billy Butler for three years. And then they traded Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Jeff Samardzija. And then they traded their top prospect for Ben Zobrist. The Athletics are one of the smartest organizations in baseball, and yet there's no easy way to make sense of all that. The Rays traded David Price last summer in what might have been a classic veteran-for-prospects deadline move ... and yet the key player they received in return was a young veteran, Drew Smyly. The Red Sox traded ace Jon Lester for an outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes, who only had a year and a half of control remaining. The Padres finished 77-85 last season, but they spent this offseason acquiring every veteran hitter known to man. The Reds traded two veteran members of their starting rotation for young players, but then traded one of their better pitching prospects for 37-year-old Marlon Byrd.
"Rebuilding" is no longer a thing, unless you're the Phillies. And for most teams, "going for it" or "going all-in" aren't really things anymore either. Instead, many teams seem happy to build clubs that are good enough to compete for playoff spots, with the idea being that contending late into the summer keeps fans interested, and if you're good enough to make the playoffs, you're good enough to go all the way. Just ask last year's Giants and Royals, both of them Wild Card teams.
The result is that there's a lot of parity, so projecting who should come out on top is even more difficult than it is in normal circumstances. (And it is difficult -- baseball seasons contain so many variables that predicting how they're going to turn out with any kind of accuracy is basically impossible, even if the predictor knows what they're talking about.)
Quick, name all the National League teams who project to be bad. Not flawed, but outright bad. I get the Phillies, Braves, Rockies and Diamondbacks, and that's it. That leaves 11 teams -- including, by my reckoning, all five NL Central teams -- to fight for five playoff spots. The Padres added James Shields, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Derek Norris this offseason. That makes them more of a McMansion of a baseball team than one with a strong foundation, but they at least should be interesting. The Marlins added Mat Latos, Martin Prado, Mike Morse and Dee Gordon to a good young core. The Padres and Marlins could be decent this year! What a world. There's probably even greater parity in the AL, which has no Nationals-like super-teams and only two, the Rangers and Twins, who figure to be poor.
In the NL Central, the Cardinals and Pirates look like the two best teams, but it's far from certain that they'll come out on top. The ridiculous core of young talent the Cubs are building might coalesce more quickly than we anticipate, for example. And the Brewers and Reds, while they aren't as well positioned for the long term as the other three teams are (and, in the Reds' case, have a lack of depth that could pose serious problems), still have plenty of talent. The NL Central's lesser teams could get more than they did last year out of some combination of, say, Ryan Braun, Mike Fiers, Jimmy Nelson and Joey Votto, and end up making the season difficult for teams in Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Chicago.
Despite Martin's departure, though, this is a good Pirates team, and it might even be a bit stronger than we imagine -- the Pirates have been much better in the past two seasons than most prognosticators (myself included) thought they would be, and that's because they built two teams that were more than the sum of their parts. The Pirates' system of catcher framing, ground balls and defensive positioning works, or at least it works right now, and they've earned the benefit of the doubt. Maybe their blend of star talent, depth and sabermetric magic isn't enough to get them past the Cardinals, but it might be.
WILD GUESSES THAT YOU CAN LAUGH AT LATER
NL PLAYOFF TEAMS
AL PLAYOFF TEAMS
PIRATES OPENING DAY ROSTER
C Francisco Cervelli
C Chris Stewart
1B Pedro Alvarez
1B Corey Hart
2B Neil Walker
SS Jordy Mercer
INF Jung-Ho Kang
INF Sean Rodriguez
3B Josh Harrison
LF Starling Marte
CF Andrew McCutchen
RF Gregory Polanco
OF Andrew Lambo
SP Gerrit Cole
SP Francisco Liriano
SP A.J. Burnett
SP Charlie Morton
SP Vance Worley
CL Mark Melancon
RP Tony Watson
RP Antonio Bastardo
RP Radhames Liz
RP Jeff Locke
RP Arquimedes Caminero
RP Stolmy Pimentel