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2018 Pirates Preview: What to expect from a team in transition

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MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Pittsburgh Pirates
Jameson Taillon takes over as staff ace after the offseason trade of Gerrit Cole.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates attracted more attention than usual in the 2017-18 off-season, but not of the sort they’d probably prefer. Following a 75-win season, they gained both headlines and considerable consternation from their fans by trading away their marquee player, Andrew McCutchen, and their best pitcher, Gerrit Cole. The trades were followed by several of their veteran players expressing doubts about the team’s desire to win. Then, when all that seemed to have died down a little, the team got named in a grievance filed by the MLB Players Association. The union claims that the Pirates and three other teams haven’t spent their revenue sharing funds on efforts to improve on-field performance, as required by the collective bargaining agreement. So the team will open its 2018 season amid a lot of skepticism about its future.

QUESTIONS REMAIN

Whither the Pirates?

A fundamental question underlying all of the above controversies is the team’s direction. Are they launching a rebuild, like the Astros, or something less? The Pirates themselves maintain that they’re just retooling with a view toward returning to contention by 2019 at the latest. That doesn’t mean, though, that the offloading of salary won’t continue. By many accounts, the Pirates had trade discussions about infielder Josh Harrison, who owns their second-highest salary. Those went nowhere due to the mostly static trade market during the winter. The Pirates’ highest-paid player, catcher Francisco Cervelli, might also have been the subject of trade discussions were he not coming off two injury-plagued seasons. They could still become trade targets this coming summer if the Pirates aren’t in the race, as could Starling Marte and several lesser, but highly-paid (by the Pirates’ penurious standards) players like Ivan Nova, David Freese and Sean Rodriguez.

The answers to continuing questions about the team’s direction will be heavily influenced by players acquired in the McCutchen and Cole trades. Four of them — third baseman Colin Moran, starting pitcher Joe Musgrove and relievers Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick — figure to play roles on the major league team this year. None of the four has an established, major league track record. Moran muddled along for several years as a disappointing first-round draft pick before he put together a big partial season (ended early by an injury) in AAA last year. The Pirates’ most obvious hole is at third, so Moran will have his chance to fill it. Musgrove, who struggled as a starter for the Astros last year, will try to replace Cole in the rotation. Feliz and Crick have electric stuff, but have to overcome gopher-ball and control problems, respectively, to fulfill their potential as late-inning, shutdown relievers.

The Pirates are counting on Colin Moran to take over at third base.

Who will step forward?

The Pirates face a lot of questions beyond their new acquisitions. Their 2017 team was a little peculiar in the sense that it didn’t have any glaring holes. For instance, despite having MLB’s third-worst offense, there wasn’t a particular position that was especially awful. On the mound, all five of the team’s regular starters hovered around league average. The Pirates in fact were, and are, loaded with decent, or decent-ish, players. What they’ve lacked has been the star-level performers who characterize winning teams.

The Pirates right now have four players who could become the sort of high-level performers the team needs. Two are already established in Pittsburgh. Starter Jameson Taillon had an impressive season in 2017 interrupted by testicular cancer. Taillon beat the disease in impressive fashion, but wilted in the second half of the season after his return. He obviously deserves a mulligan for that, but this year will try to replace Cole as the staff ace. First baseman Josh Bell had 26 home runs and 90 RBIs as a rookie, despite a severe fade in September. The team needs him to become a high-producing bat in the middle of the order. Apart from those two, the Pirates also have had high expectations for starter Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows. Glasnow has been dominant to a nearly comical degree in the minors, but had a disastrous indoctrination to the majors last year and will probably start 2018 in the bullpen. Meadows has been hamstrung by a series of . . . uh . . . hamstring injuries and hasn’t hit well in AAA when he’s been on the field. He won’t be up before mid-season.

Austin Meadows is the Pirates’ top hitting prospect.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES

Starting with the bad . . .

The Pirates’ weakest position is catcher. Cervelli followed a breakout season in 2015 with two injury-plagued ones, even seeing his defense slip significantly in 2017. New backup Elias Diaz seemed like the team’s catcher of the future two years ago, but he uncharacteristically lost most of his 2016 season to injury and then simply regressed in 2017. The only other reasonable option now is untried Jacob Stallings, who may be the best defensive catcher of the three. The system has no catching prospects who’ve established themselves as yet.

The team’s most glaring overall problem is its lack of power. The Pirates ranked 29th in the majors in home runs and slugging in 2017 and now have traded their leader in both categories. They’re hoping to get a lift from bounce-back seasons by Cervelli and Marte, but neither is a big power hitter at the best of times. Moran, if he builds on his 2017 gains, may help, but the three of them will have trouble just making up for McCutchen’s loss, much less improving the team’s anemic offense. Slugging outfielder Corey Dickerson, acquired after the start of spring training, certainly should help with the power situation, although he struggled through a rough second half in 2017. He’ll take over the outfield spot left vacant by McCutchen, with Marte moving to center.

Which leaves Gregory Polanco, who may be the team’s single biggest question mark. Polanco arguably has the team’s best power potential and seemed to be headed toward establishing himself as a star by the middle of the 2016 season. What followed at that point was an unnerving succession of injuries almost too numerous to count. Polanco largely stayed on the field in 2017, but his performance suffered badly. Nothing could help the team more than him picking up where he left off a year and a half ago.

And now the good . . .

The Pirates have depth. Lots and lots of depth. It starts with the rotation, where Taillon and Nova will be joined by Musgrove and holdovers Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl. If somebody falters, the Pirates will turn to Glasnow or Steven Brault, who also had a big season last year in AAA. Another possibility is Nick Kingham, a long-time prospect who’s been delayed by Tommy John surgery. How many of their starters will be more than just adequate is, of course, the question.

The bullpen has just as much depth, although of a different sort. Behind closer Felipe Rivero, aptly nicknamed Nightmare, the Pirates have loaded up on high-risk, high-reward relievers. Two of them are veterans: George Kontos, a journeyman middle reliever who suddenly started missing bats in 2017, and former Cardinals stalwart Kevin Siegrist, who’s trying to recover from injuries. Then there’s a long list of pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff, many of whom are making the transition from starting, most of whom have had command issues, and none of whom has gotten established as a major leaguer. They seem to come in twos: Feliz and Crick from the trades; Jordan Milbrath and Nick Burdi from Rule 5 (although Burdi is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t be available before mid-season); lefties Josh Smoker and Jack Leathersich; and prospects Dovydas Neverauskas and Edgar Santana. Except for the Rule 5 picks, everybody on this list has options remaining, so the Pirates have the freedom to do a lot of sorting through. The question is how efficient their sorting process will be. With so much risk, this bullpen could be anywhere from a great success to a dumpster fire.

The Pirates also have a lot of depth in position players, but the problem once again is that too much of it consists of role players and not enough of potential difference-makers. The list is long, but infielders Max Moroff and Jose Osuna, and outfielder Jordan Luplow, are all likely to see time in the majors at some point, if they don’t make the opening day roster. In case of need, the Pirates won’t have to look far for players who at least figure to be capable.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019

The Pirates’ greatest need isn’t going to change. When next season rolls around, they’re still going to need some players to step forward as elite performers. There are also likely to be ramifications from in-season developments this year, depending on which players step forward and which don’t, and whether the team is a seller at the trade deadline. Harrison and Cervelli, for instance, could become trade chips if the team is out of contention. There almost certainly will be an opening at shortstop, as Jordy Mercer will be a free agent after this season. The farm system has plenty of potential replacements, but how many profile as above-average major leaguers remains an open question.

Of course, any significant additions are going to have to come from the farm system, as the Pirates will not enter the free agent market with any gusto. They’ve never been willing to pursue premium free agents, but they’ve become increasingly reluctant to pursue even second- and third-tier free agents. In this past off-season, the Pirates were the only one of the 30 teams not to sign a free agent to a major league contract.

The Pirates’ ability to spend, or more accurately maybe their willingness, remains an open question. They saved a net of $12M by trading McCutchen while not getting back any significant talent. That cut their payroll from $109M last year to $83M going into 2018 (sub. req’d), which makes it a little difficult to understand why exactly McCutchen had to be traded. The Pirates seem to have the capability of adding to their payroll during the 2018 season and, to an even greater extent, after. Between Mercer and Rodriguez, $11.75M will come off the payroll after 2018, and the Pirates could decline Harrison’s ($10.5M) and Freese’s ($6M) 2019 options. After 2019, another $20M will disappear as Cervelli’s and Nova’s contracts expire. The team won’t lack for room in its payroll, but fans will continue, with reason, to question its willingness to spend. Of course, the MLBPA has taken it one step further by actually litigating the team’s willingness to spend.

Still, the Pirates aren’t completely dependent on free agents for solutions. There are certainly some near-term answers in the farm system and some of them will probably show up soon. As noted above, the farm system has no answers for near-term catching needs, but the infield could be different. Former first-rounder Kevin Newman could start taking over for Mercer as early as the latter part of this season, and another former first rounder, Cole Tucker, will open 2018 in class AA. He could reach the majors in 2019, as could third base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes. Second baseman Kevin Kramer had a breakout half-season (shortened by injury) in 2017 and could be ready by mid-2018.

Kevin Newman may be the Pirates’ future shortstop.

The Pirates’ best chance of adding an impact player in the near term, though, is with right-hander Mitch Keller, their top prospect and one of the top starting pitching prospects in baseball. Keller will probably open 2018 in AA, but the Pirates haven’t ruled out the possibility of him reaching Pittsburgh as early as late this year. He’ll add to the depth the team has in the rotation, which hopefully will increase the odds of one or more starters stepping forward and making the impact the Pirates need to see.