How the low-budget Pirates can build a better team with a few upgrades this hot stove season

For all the talk of out-of-nowhere playoff clubs like the Braves and A’s, the Pirates quietly emerged as one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball. Pittsburgh won just 74 games in 2017, traded away their two biggest-name players in Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole and surged to an 82-win season.

They did so with one of the most balanced rosters in the league. The Pirates failed to produce a true hitting star in 2018, with Gregory Polanco’s 23-homer, .254/.340/.499 effort the best of the bunch. But assuming superutilityman Adam Frazier slides into the starting spot at second base, seven of Pittsburgh’s eight projected opening day starters will be coming off campaigns in which they produced better-than-league-average park-adjusted offensive results. The bullpen’s top four innings eaters all delivered ERAs of 3.26 or lower, with the top three performers clocking strikeout-to-walk rates of 3.7-to-1 or better.

The rotation was more top-heavy than the rest of the squad. But Jameson Taillon continued his emergence as one of the most underrated young starters in the league, with Trevor Williams posting a rotation-best 3.11 ERA thanks to a low home-run rate and some good fortune on balls in play.

In other words, the Pirates did a good job of picking off the low-hanging fruit. Most of their starters and players in key position were at the very least capable, and in many cases better than league average. They built that highly-competent team despite rolling out the fifth-lowest opening day payroll in baseball. 

  • 2018 Result: 82-79, fourth place in NL Central
  • Key free agents: Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer
  • Needs: Shortstop, outfield

The problem is that there’s a reason players like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are projected to earn $35-$40 million a year in free agency: It’s much, much harder to find a superstar than it is to find a league-average performer. Meanwhile, the Pirates have shown no indication that they plan to shoot the moon in free agency any time soon.

That means they’ll need to bank on one of two positive outcomes. In the first scenario, one of their incumbent players breaks out. Taillon owns a wicked fastball-curve combination, and just walked one fewer batter per nine innings last season than in 2017, with an ERA that dropped by more than one full run. If he can edge his swing-and-miss rate a little higher, he could enter the realm of Cy Young contenders. Meanwhile you’ve got talented hitters like Josh Bell, Colin Moran and Gregory Polanco entering their age-26, -26, and -27 seasons, respectively, offering hope for peak-year power boosts. Flame-throwing right-hander Joe Musgrove missed much of last season to injuries, but his raw stuff offers hope for the future.

Their biggest hope for internal improvement might lie with Chris Archer. Last summer, the Bucs shipped off two of their most talented young players in Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow to land Archer, a once-dominant right-hander who’s under cheap team control through 2021. But Archer’s become nearly a one-pitch pitcher at this stage of his career. Consider opponents’ results against his fastball over the past few years:

Opponents’ results vs. Archer’s fastball

2015

.263

.405

2016

.279

.527

2017

.280

.506

2018

.308

.512

With Archer’s fastball yielding so many hits and extra-base hits in recent years, he’s throwing that pitch far less frequently, a career-low 38 percent of the time in 2018, which was less often than he threw his slider. Archer’s slider remains a plus pitch, with opponents batting just .228 against it last season. But they’re still seeing his slider a little better every year, which is what happens when you don’t have a go-to offering to set up your out pitch. Archer will need to greatly improve his ability to locate his fastball if he hopes to be the front-line pitcher the Pirates imagined.

Going beyond internal improvements, the Pirates will need to find additional talent either via free agency or on the trade market, and have those players deliver better-than-expected results. They’ve already done so with Moran at third base, and especially with Francisco Cervelli, the former part-time catcher who grew into an OBP monster in Pittsburgh, evoking memories of Russell Martin and Jason Kendall.

So who might fit the bill? The team’s biggest need lies at shortstop, and it’s a thin market both in free agency and via trade at that scarce position. Asdrubal Cabrera would offer a solid upgrade with the bat, but he’s also one of the worst defenders in the league at short and the Pirates should be trying to improve a defense that finished an ugly 12th in the National League in Defensive Runs Saved last season.

The Buccos do have some intriguing young pitchers they could swap for the right player, though. To name just one scenario, if the Phillies break the bank for Machado, could a team like Pittsburgh pry loose either J.P. Crawford or Scott Kingery, two talented young infielders who’ve stumbled badly at the start of their major-league careers but still offer significant upside?

If they wanted to try to win with veteran pitchers, Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi could be a perfect fit as a mid-rotation lefty who could break up the legion of in-house right-handers and potentially help for years to come, given that he might fetch a deal of four, five or more years at a relatively modest salary. Buy-low candidates include free agent Lance Lynn, who struggled badly in Minnesota before flashing a four-to-one strikeout-to-walk rate with the Yankees, and Sonny Gray, who was a disaster as a Yankee but could put up vastly improved numbers playing half his games at pitcher-friendly PNC Park, instead of righty-crushing Yankee Stadium.

All those hypotheticals assume the Pirates will be aggressive in their offseason shopping. But this isn’t a team that’s pushed all that hard for upgrades in recent years, with the McCutchen and Cole trades underscoring Pittsburgh’s perpetual push for future results, and the Archer deal offering a notable exception. If Meadows and Glasnow blossom in Tampa Bay and Archer puts up more ERA over 4.00 with the Bucs, that might make an already conservative franchise far more wary in the future.

Jonah on the MLB offseason

NL East
Braves:
 May be offseason’s most compelling team
Marlins: Finding where to send Realmuto
Mets: How Mets could jumpstart BVW era
Phillies: Harper or Machado might not be enough
Nationals: What will the Nats do if Harper leaves?

NL Central
Cubs: Keys to a Cubs rebound in 2019
Reds: Can Cincy revamp its pitching staff?
Brewers: Why Milwaukee should dig deeper in its war chest

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