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  • Buried in a loaded division with holes all over the roster, the Pirates will need to do something remarkable to even sniff playoff contention in 2019.
By Matt Martell
March 19, 2019

2018 finish: 82-79, Fourth in NL Central

SI's 2019 rediction: 71-91, Fifth in NL Central

Key additions: SP Francisco Liriano, OF Melky Cabrera, OF Lonnie Chisenhall, SS Erik González

Key Departures: SS Jordy Mercer, INF Josh Harrison

Projected Lineup

1. 2B Adam Frazier

2. CF Starling Marte

3. LF Corey Dickerson

4. 1B Josh Bell

5. C Francisco Cervell

6. 3B Jung Ho Kang

7. RF Lonnie Chisenhall

8. SS Erik González

Projected Rotation

RHP Jameson Taillon

RHP Trevor Williams

RHP Joe Musgrove

RHP Chris Archer

RHP Jordan Lyles

Bullpen

LHP Felipe Vázquez (closer)

RHP Keone Kela

RHP Richard Rodriguez

RHP Kyle Crick

LHP Francisco Liriano

RHP Nick Burdi

RHP Nick Kingham

Bench

C Jacob Stallings

INF Colin Moran

INF/OF Pablo Reyes

OF Melky Cabrera

INF Kevin Newman

Injured List: OF Gregory Polanco, C Elias Diaz

Movin On Up! Felipe Vazquez has emerged as one of the better closers in baseball over the last two seasons. The lefthander posted a 1.67 ERA during his breakout 2017 campaign and followed it up with 37 saves and a 2.70 ERA last year. Unlike most dominant relievers who rely on a two-pitch mix––typically fastball, breaking ball––Vazquez has four pitches and works off a fastball-changeup combo. He gets his fair share of strikeouts (29.3 strikeout percentage in 2017 and 30.1% in 2018), but what makes him so effective is that he keeps hitters off balance and induces lots of ground balls. If the Pirates are going to stay afloat in the NL Central with a subpar offense, Vazquez will have to close out a lot of close games.

Sell! Chris Archer was brilliant with the Rays during his first three seasons (31-29, 3.26 ERA, 117 ERA+) but has since fallen off and become about a league average starter. Since the start of 2016, he is 25-39 with a 4.12 ERA and a 99 ERA+. Archer projects as the PIrates’ No. 4 starter—a steep fall for a player once considered an ace by many organizations. While the NL Central is not the offensive powerhouse he faced in the AL East, Archer will still face some difficult lineups in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Chicago.

Appreciate This Man! Corey Dickerson has been among the most underrated hitters in the majors over the last five seasons, slashing .286/.327/.501 with a 120 OPS+ in that span. And the best part for the Pirates isn’t how consistent Dickerson has been thus far, but that he’s improving defensively. Dickerson, who will turn 30 this season, won his first Gold Glove in 2018; his 16 defensive runs saved ranked second among leftfielders, behind the Royals’ Alex Gordon.

A Modest Proposal From Joe Sheehan: Is it time to start lumping Bob Nutting in with owners like Jeffrey Loria? Two years ago, the Pirates dumped face-of-the-franchise Andrew McCutchen and budding ace Gerrit Cole. This last winter, they built on an 82-79 season by...trading their #3 starter and adding a bunch of low-end free agents. All the goodwill of the 2013-15 playoff runs has been squandered, as Nutting’s refusal to raise payroll -- the Pirates haven’t been above 24th in MLB under his watch -- has come back to him at the gate. The Pirates have lost one million tickets sold in just three years, dropping from 2.5 million in 2015 to 1.47 million in 2018. Nutting seems content to lock in a profit based on national revenue and revenue-sharing distributions, rather than risk his money building a winner that would excite Pirates fans and bring them back to PNC Park. The locals deserve better. 

MLB.TV rating: 5.2

Sorry Pirates fans, but your team lacks excitement. Francisco Cervelli (and his lifetime .383 slugging percentage!) is projected to be a run producer in a lineup that lacks star power. Plus, this is the team’s watchability rating on TV or streaming devices, not at the beautiful PNC Park, where every game is worth attending.

Keep an Eye Out For...: Kevin Kramer and Kevin Newman. Bring on the Seinfeld references when these two prospects are in the lineup together and turning double plays in the middle infield. In 2018, Kramer had a rough start to his major league career (.135 average in 21 games), and Newman didn’t fare much better (.209 average in 31 games), but both have been productive at the plate in the minors and should do better than what they showed last year. Ke’Bryan Hayes is the Pirates’ top prospect per Fangraphs, Hayes has had a strong spring training, slashing .348/.360/.870 in 14 games. The third baseman has yet to play above Double-A during the season and will start the year with Triple-A Indianapolis. With the Pirates in rebuild mode, it’ll be worth following along with Hayes this year. Mitch Keller is the No. 1 prospect in the Pirates’ organization according to MLB Pipeline and Baseball Prospectus and could be poised for a midseason call-up should Pittsburgh deal one of their starting pitchers at the trade deadline.

Scout's Takes

What is the key question surrounding this team in 2019?

Can they change divisions? The big problem is they didn’t do much in the offseason while other teams got better. It’s gonna be a stretch to get back into the playoffs. They’re in catch-up mode and they’ve gotta find a middle infield duo that works. Losing Josh Harrison is big. He was the leader of this club and he’s not there now. Ownership has taken a beating there because they didn’t do anything. They don’t draw well anyway. They deserve to take a beating.

Who is the most overrated player on the team?

Josh Bell can’t play. He’s not a good defender. He’s a big lump. He has bad agility, bad footwork. He can’t run. Supposedly he’s a big power threat, but he hit 12 home runs at first base. This is not a kid! This is his third year in the big leagues! I don’t think he’s got the ability to get better.

Who is the most underrated player on the team?

That was always Harrison, but now he’s gone. I think Adam Frazier’s a pretty good player. He’s gonna replace Harrison, so there’s a lot on his shoulders. He hit 10 home runs in half the at bats of Bell and is a pretty good contact hitter. He can go the other way and will take a walk. He doesn’t run great, but that doesn’t matter in the big leagues anymore.

What young player(s) is/are on the cusp of stardom?

Colin Moran plays a solid third base. He’s got some power. He only hit 11 home runs last year, but watching him in BP, he’s a big, strong kid. He’s got a chance to be a pretty good power hitter if he can make adjustments to take advantage of ballparks. He’s gonna have to pull the ball to hit it out.

What young player(s) is/are the biggest bust candidate(s)?

Bell. There’s so much anticipation for what he’s supposed to be and he hasn’t done it.

Who gets the most out of his talent?

Corey Dickerson has always been a good hitter, but he's made himself into a pretty good outfielder too. He shouldn’t have gotten a Gold Glove, but he made himself a plus outfielder. He probably made more strides than anybody on this team. The best leftfielder I ever saw playing the line was Barry Bonds, but Alex Gordon’s pretty good, too. Dickerson is kind of a mini-Gordon in that regard.

Who gets the least out of his talent?

He’s hurt again: Gregory Polanco. He should be a great player and he’s not. He thinks about home runs too much. He was supposed to be one of the cornerstones of the greatest outfield in the big leagues, but he’s never put it together. He should hit .280 with 25 or 30 home runs every year. Now he’s got a bad shoulder.

Who has the nastiest stuff on the team?

Chris Archer. His stuff is crackling good. He’s the ace, but he’s not really an ace. There are always buts with him. He doesn’t win. Some guys give up way too many hits for their stuff, and he’s one of them.

Who has the best baseball instincts/IQ?

Starling Marte’s raw ability is off the charts. He strikes out too much, which is a big problem for this club. This is a swing-and-miss club. It’s not an intelligent-playing team.

Whose batting practice makes your jaw drop?

Bell, but he’s a 5 o’clock hitter. He has immense raw power, but there’s something in his head. He just doesn’t do it. He doesn’t have a plan in BP. He just hits the ball far somewhere.

Name two guys on this team that you would immediately trade for.

Pass. Well, Jameson Taillon has got great stuff. He’s more of a winner than Archer. He throws hard with good breaking stuff. He’s out there every game. He’s reliable and durable.

Name the guy (or guys)on this teams that you would never want in your clubhouse.

I don’t know if Francisco Liriano makes the club, but he shouldn’t. I don’t think I have anybody I’d veto, other than Bell, ’cause he doesn’t produce.

Who do you want at-bat or on the mound in a season-defining moment?

Corey Dickerson. He’s a proven hitter. He’s learned to go the other way. Francisco Cervelli can hit, but he’s a little bit in cruise control. He’s not the greatest worker in the world. He knows he’s the lead catcher on this club and nobody’s gonna push him out of his job. Some guys are very comfortable being regulars on second-division clubs.

Who don’t you want in that situation?

Bell.

Which under-the-radar prospect/non-roster invitee could make a splash this season?

Erik González is a good defender. People in Pittsburgh loved Jordy Mercer, but this kid may win them over and he has better range. He’s a contact hitter and a pretty solid shortstop.

Is the current manager one that you would hire to run your club?

Three or four years ago, yes, but I think Clint Hurdle is in cruise control now. He’s too comfortable there. He just got a big extension and he knows they’re not gonna win.

What is the ceiling for the team this year? What about the next three years?

If they go .500, they should be jumping for joy. I think they think they’re better. I don’t. I don’t see any guys on this team who can put the team on their back and charge through the NL Central.  Over the next three, they have young pitchers—Nick Kingham, Jordan Lyles, Trevor Williams—who are good in the middle- to low- end of the rotation. They will have to solidify and carry the club. If they could get Polanco healthy and Marte back to what he should be and add some pieces, they could be okay over the next three years.

Emptying the notebook:

Jung-ho Kang has played pretty well this spring for a guy that’s been off for as long as he has. He’s made the adjustment. … Kevin Newman is going to make the club as an infielder. He’s a scrappy kid. … Richard Rodriguez throws hard. He came up last year. His hits-to-innings are good. He’s a big, strong kid. I think he has got a chance to be better if he can establish his offspeed and command it better. Felipe Vazquez is the closer here, but Rodriguez has a chance to be that.

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