March 14, 2017
Looking Back on Tomorrow
Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
The Pirates, somewhat famously, lost the NLCS in 1992. They then embarked on a 20-year streak of losing records, only once coming closer than 13 games of first place. Then, in a year celebrated by Travis Sawchik’s Big Data Baseball, they zoomed to a 94-68 record in 2013, kicking off a streak of three straight Wild Card appearances. Losers (78-83) again in 2016, the 2017 Pirates will be remembered as the team in which the old guard, who led them to three brief October appearances, gives way to the next iteration.
These are the 2013-2015 Wild Card-winning Pirates' leaders in games played, by position:
C – Russell Martin, 227 games
1B – Gaby Sanchez, 161 games*
2B – Neil Walker, 404 games
3B – Pedro Alvarez, 247 games
SS – Jordy Mercer, 325 games
LF – Starling Marte, 367 games
CF – Andrew McCutchen, 453 games
RF - Gregory Polanco, 215 games
SP1 – Francisco Liriano, 86 games started
SP2 – Jeff Locke, 81 games started
SP3 – Gerrit Cole, 73 games started
SP4 – Charlie Morton, 69 games started
SP5 – A.J. Burnett, 56 games started
CL1 – Mark Melancon, 100 saves
CL2 – Jason Grilli, 44 saves
*Yes, really. Pedro Alvarez is second with 126.
(Figures derived using the Baseball-Reference Play Index.)
Of these 15 players, only five—Mercer, Marte, McCutchen, Polanco, and Cole—are still with the team, and only Mercer and Cole are still playing the same role they did during the Pirates’ three-year, eight-game postseason run. By 2018, only Marte, Polanco, and Cole may remain.
Some of the turnover was inevitable. Martin, Walker, and Melancon got expensive. Sanchez, Alvarez, Liriano, Locke, Morton, and Grilli became ineffective to varying degrees, and Burnett got old. The three outfielders are playing musical chairs this year, each assigned a new position with which he has limited experience: Polanco has started only 27 games in left, Marte 42 in center, and McCutchen has never played right. The transition to the new Pirates, begun in 2016, reaches a crescendo in 2017.
And the year could be a last hurrah for two of the team’s longest-tenured members. Mercer, 30, will earn $4.325 million this year and is arbitration eligible in 2018. Will the Pirates ante up for a 31-year-old shortstop who, in his four-and-change-year career, has totaled 8.2 WARP and 7.7 FRAA? Or will their much cheaper options—Adam Frazier (.326 TAv at Triple-A Indianapolis, currently being groomed for the Sean Rodriguez utility role), Kevin Newman (.268 TAv at Double-A Altoona), Cole Tucker (.236 TAv at Single-A Bradenton, but he was only 19)—take over?
And then there’s the "new" right fielder, the man whose 2015 BP Annual comment was, simply: “Practically the perfect franchise player.” After a career-worst 2016, there seem to be only two plausible outcomes for Andrew McCutchen: Another poor year, after which the Pirates will exercise their $1 million buyout, or a bounce-back year, which will force the Pirates to trade McCutchen and his $14.75 million team option before losing him to free agency after next season. McCutchen is the Pirates’ best and most beloved player since the retirement of Willie Stargell. But it’s difficult to envision him wearing black and gold after 2017. His ambiguous comments about his move from center field to right suggest that even if the economics of his next contract weren’t a concern, he may be inclined to move on anyway.
Of course, for a small-market team like the Pirates, economics are always a concern. The team has sought to lock in promising young players to long-term contracts, delaying their eligibility for arbitration and free agency. But it’s only a delay. From reclamation projects like Martin to local heroes like Walker, the day of reckoning eventually comes. So personnel turnover is going to be a constant feature of clubs like the Pirates. What makes this transition so jarring is that it comes after the 10th-most wins (280) over a three-year run in franchise history, following 20 years of wandering in the wilderness.
Some of the reinforcements are already established. Francisco Cervelli succeeded Martin as the team’s former Yankee pitch-framing hero. (His backup, Chris Stewart, is another ex-Yankee.) Josh Bell, who had a successful (.273/.368/.406) 152-plate appearance audition last year, is set to take over at first base. Josh Harrison is ensconced at second base, though he hasn't come close to duplicating his .315/.347/.490 2014 super-utility season. Jung Ho Kang, who may begin the season suspended for his DUI conviction in South Korea, is the third baseman as long as he can stay healthy and out of trouble. And Austin Meadows, the top prospect in the eighth-ranked organization, is McCutchen’s heir apparent. The mix of veterans, prospects, and other teams’ castoffs is not qualitatively dissimilar from the 2013-2015 Pirates.
The pitching staff is a greater challenge. The Pirates and their pitcher whisperer/pitching coach Ray Searage became famous for acquiring arms on the cheap (of the seven pitchers listed above, only Cole and Locke were homegrown) and revamping their approach, emphasizing down-in-the-zone two-seam fastballs that induced ground balls hit to shifted infielders. That approach was less effective last year, as the strike zone rose slightly and batters stopped chasing Pirates pitches out of the zone.
Cole’s an established star (albeit coming off an injury-marred season), but the rotation will rely heavily on young pitchers: Jameson Taillon (25), Chad Kuhl (24), Steven Brault (25), and Tyler Glasnow (23), projected to be four of the team’s top six starters, have 43 career starts, combined. If the new faces are to improve on last year’s 4.67 starter ERA and 4.80 starter DRA—both fifth-worst in the National League—Searage will have to work new magic.
One hopeful sign is yet another new face, Ivan Nova, another former Yankee. After joining the Pirates in exchange for two minor leaguers on August 1, he posted superior outcomes (though DRA is a bit of a doubter) without a significant change of repertoire:
The approach was to get strikes. With the Yankees, 43.4 percent of his pitches were in the strike zone. That jumped to 51.6 percent in Pittsburgh. His strikeout rate increased, his walk rate plummeted, and his K/BB ratio went from an above-average 3.0 to an absurd 17.3.
This is not to suggest that this will become the Pirates’ new pitching philosophy, the way the two-seam fastball/infield shift strategy was employed by former Brave Morton, former Twin Liriano, and former Yankee (and, subsequently, former Phillie) Burnett. But Nova’s success, if it’s sustained, would indicate a flexible approach that the Pirates have not been forced to employ in the past when the one-sinker-fits-all solution was so successful. Maybe Searage has more rabbits in his hat for the new Pirates.
The changing of the guard need not be a rebuild. The Pirates' offense remains solid, and the lefty bullpen tandem of Tony Watson (a Pirate since 2011 who, like Mercer, is a free agent next year) and Felipe Rivero should lock down the late innings. Like the 2013-2015 Pirates, the new edition will likely be looking up at a Central time zone juggernaut, with the Cubs now filling the role of best organization in baseball that the Cardinals previously occupied. But a return to postseason contention, even if for just one game, is a reasonable goal. The 2017 Pirates will be the bridge between the last winning Pirates team to the next one.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.