The Pirates finished 2017 with the third-worst offense in MLB. They’re obviously not going to improve much, if at all, on their 75-win finish without upgrading their lineup. They’ve made it clear they expect upgrades from players who had disappointing 2017 seasons, specifically their three outfielders and probably also Francisco Cervelli. Whether they think simply expecting improvement from players having better years will be enough to get them back in contention isn’t clear. As bad as they were this year, though, it seems delusional to think that they can improve that much without making any moves.
The obvious spot for the Pirates to look for improvement through outside acquisition is third base. David Freese wasn’t bad, but he ranked near the bottom among qualifiers at the position on offense, although he remains an asset with the glove. He provides very little power, doesn’t run well, and will turn 35 early next season, so he’s a large risk to decline further.
There are a number of third basemen potentially available, but it’s not that clear how much of an upgrade any of them would provide. Most of them are both only a little above average offensively and right-handed hitters, which presents a risk of a significant power drop-off due to PNC Park. There’s also the question of cost, as the Pirates are more likely to be cutting payroll this offseason than adding it. I’m just going to assume that the Pirates are serious about improving in 2018, because being totally realistic will ruin the offseason.
There are some decent players here. Leaving aside Mike Moustakas, who’s beyond pipe-dream status, the Pirates could probably find an upgrade, but maybe not a huge one.
Todd Frazier - The 31-year-old (32 in February) Frazier saw a drop in power this year, with his ISO going from roughly .240 the previous two years to .215. Of course, that’s still good; Freese’s was .108 and the MLB average was .171. Frazier hits for a low average, although a boost in his walk rate this year (sometimes a sign of a declining hitter) left him with a solid .344 OBP. He’s played in good HR parks his whole career, which is ominous considering what PNC Park does to right-handed power. Frazier’s career numbers at home and on the road, though, are almost identical, with just a one-point difference in OPS and slugging. UZR thinks he’s still very good at third. In its list of the top 50 free agents, MLBTR guesstimates that he’ll get three years at $33M.
Eduardo Nunez - More of a career utility player, Nunez is coming off three straight seasons at ages 28-30 in which he was a slightly above-average hitter. He had a power spike after a deadline trade to Boston this year got him out of AT&T Park, but moving to PNC probably wouldn’t help. For most of his career, Nunez has hit for average and gap power, and seldom walked. He appears to be good defensively in the outfield and solid at third, although he’s never gotten consistent time at third. MLBTR thinks he’ll get something like two years and $14M, which isn’t much more annually than the Pirates are paying Sean Rodriguez, who’s over two years older, has a career OPS ten points lower and is coming off a major shoulder injury.
Neil Walker - Of all the players listed here, Walker is probably the most likely to provide a meaningful offensive upgrade. His 2016 season was cut short by a back injury, but he still rebounded with a 111 OPS+ in 2017 that was just two points shy of his career average. He even improved his plate discipline. He again lost a chunk of the season to injury, but this time it was a hamstring. After improving dramatically against LHPs in 2016, he reverted to struggling against them in 2017. That shouldn’t be a major problem, though, as the Pirates would still have Freese. According to UZR, Walker was above-average defensively at second in 2016 and just a hair below in 2017. The Pirates could move Josh Harrison to third or try Walker there, as he was very good defensively at third in the minors. MLBTR guesses he’ll get something like 2/$20M. Of course, the two sides would have to overcome some bad feelings for him to return to Pittsburgh, but it’d have the side benefit of offsetting at least a little of the hostility that the team’s fan base has developed over the last two years.
Jhonny Peralta - This would be just a flier on a minor league deal. Peralta started a downhill slide in 2016, when he suffered two different thumb injuries. He got off to a bad start in 2017, then went on the DL with a respiratory infection that may have had more to do with him objecting to a loss of playing time. After the Cards released him, Boston signed him to a minor league deal and he played just ten games in the minors before being released again. Whether he was worth bothering with would depend on whether the team believed his struggles were mainly injury-related, although there might also be attitude issues, as the Red Sox obviously weren’t impressed.
I’d love to see the Pirates get Jed Lowrie, who’d play second with Harrison moving to third. He’s a better player than anybody listed here and is under contract for one more year at just $6M. Oakland, though, supposedly intends to hang onto him.
Ryon Healy - The A’s supposedly are interested in moving the 25-year-old (26 in January) Healy for bullpen help. Healy has good power and has always hit for a good average, but he had a K:BB ratio this year of over 6:1. Baseball America considered him serviceable at third base as a prospect. As a pro, he’s been mostly a DH, with very bad metrics in limited time at third. Healy probably has more of an offensive ceiling than anybody else listed here and would fit within the Pirates’ minimal budget. They don’t, however, have any relievers to offer beyond Felipe Rivero. (I don’t think Dovydas Neverauskas or Edgar Santana would be more than secondary players in a trade for Healy.) The Pirates would probably have to try to interest the A’s in some of their pitching depth, like Steve Brault, Nick Kingham and Clay Holmes, some of whom might make good relievers. Or they could offer Taylor Hearn, Jake Brentz and/or Luis Escobar, if the A’s wanted somebody at a lower level.
Martin Prado - Prado’s 2017 was largely wiped out by hamstring and knee injuries, but he was an above-average hitter for many years prior. He’s similar to Nunez in that he’s generally hit for average and gap power, and he has a little better patience. He’ll play next year at age 34, so between that and his lost 2017, it’s hard to be sure how much he might decline. UZR has always considered him above-average defensively, including in 2017. The Marlins probably wouldn’t want much in return from any team willing to pick up Prado’s salary. He’s owed $28.5M over the next two years, though, and that’s several stratospheres above the Pirates’ puny price range. It’s possible the Marlins would pick up part of that salary if they got real prospect talent in return. They’re desperate to cut payroll, though, so they might rather have the salary relief.