On May 5th, the Pirates record stood at 12-20, and they were 9 ½ games out of first place in the NL Central. Following two decades of futility prior to their breakout 2013 season, it appeared the Pirates were headed to another disappointing season. However, tides turned and from that point forward the Bucs went 76-54, including a 17-9 record in September, earning another trip to the NL wild card game.
The back-to-back postseason appearances for the Pirates have been driven by a talented core of young homegrown players (Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Neil Walker, Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, etc..) and there are more top prospects on the way soon. Replacing a team leader like Russell Martin will be difficult, and with the question marks right now at the end of their rotation, the Pirates could be looking again to their deep farm system for help in 2015.
It will be a challenge for the Pirates to make the postseason for a third straight season in a division where the Cardinals reign supreme, but the Bucs have the talent to not only make another run for their first World Series title since 1979, but be a squad chock full of fantasy stars as well.
A note for our readers. While informative, since we are still months away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, these previews are far from definitive or complete. Free agent signings, trades, and other offseason news will change the landscape for most if not all teams. For any moves that take place after a team preview is written, please look to our Transaction Analysis coverage for instant reactions, and then check back on the Team Previews for more detailed updates (including lineups, rotations, bullpens, etc.) as we get closer to Opening Day.
Another note for our readers. The characterizations below (for example, “stud”) are designed to be taken in context for each team. Not every team has a Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton, so the “stud” category represents the best player or players on each team, not necessarily in comparison to the league.
Andrew McCutchen – CF
The numbers speak for themselves; McCutchen has been one of the top fantasy players in the game the past three seasons. Coming off his 2013 MVP season, the Pirates centerfielder put up even better numbers last season, en route to his third top three NL MVP finish the last three years .If not for a Randall Delgado fastball that hit McCutchen in the ninth inning of a game in August that fractured a rib, his overall fantasy numbers would have been much better. He led the NL in OBP (.410) and OPS (.952) and posted his third consecutive season with greater than a .300 BA, .400 OBP, and .500 SLG. While he did not run as much last year, he had his best stolen-base success rate, going 18-for-21 in that department. Entering his age-28 season, he is a fantasy star and a top-five fantasy player in all formats.
Up and Coming
Gregory Polanco – RF
The potential five-tool stud was the talk of the early season in Pittsburgh, as he was tearing up Triple-A and fans were adamant the Pirates should call up the left-handed outfielder. Polanco lived up to the hype early on, and opened his big league career with a .365 BA and .863 OPS over his first 57 plate appearances. However, Polanco then fell into a major slump and put up a .197/.247/.310 slash line in 156 plate appearances from early July to late August and was sent back down to Triple-A to work on a few things until the September call-ups. Despite his struggles in the second half, the ceiling is high for Polanco as he possesses all the attributes to be a fantasy stud. What impressed me most when watching him is his deceptive speed, using long strides to beat out routine grounders for infield hits. The power/speed combination this 23-year-old brings to the table not only makes the Pirates brass and fan base excited, but fantasy owners as well.
Andrew Lambo – OF
The former Dodgers prospect was the Pirates 2013 Minor League Player of the Year after belting 32 home runs and putting up a .282/.347/.574 slash line. With the Pirates questions at first base heading into 2014, the plan was to have Lambo move from his traditional OF spot to first base with the hopes he could win the first base job. Well, he struggled in both winter ball and in spring training and began last year back in Triple-A, not even able to beat out Travis Ishikawa on the big-league roster. Lambo continued to crush Triple-A pitching last season (. 328/.389/.563) and was called up in September as a bench player. There is still talk of Lambo getting looks in RF and 1B for the Pirates this year, but he is not an everyday player and has little chance of making any impact in 2015.
Corey Hart – 1B/OF
It seems like eons ago when Hart was a fantasy darling, posting multiple 20 HR/20 SB and 30 HR years over his six full seasons with the Brewers. Injuries have derailed his career, undergoing two knee surgeries the past three seasons and missing all of 2013. He battled hamstring and knee injuries last season while with Seattle and was limited to just 68 games and putting up a miserable .203/.271/.319 slash line. His days in the outfield are probably over with his bad knees, so the plan will most likely be to platoon him with Pedro Alvarez when a lefty is on the hill, and be a right-handed bat off the bench. The Pirates are becoming a defensive minded team, and Hart is not a good defender at 1B which will also limit his playing time. Not a bad gamble for the Pirates for the cost, but not a gamble you will want to take.
Francisco Cervelli/Chris Stewart/Tony Sanchez – C
The loss of Russell Martin has left the Pirates with a muddy situation at catcher between these three backstops. None have the ability to win the everyday job or have the track record to provide any fantasy value in any format. Sanchez, the former fourth-overall pick in 2009, has the most upside from a fantasy perspective, but the Pirates will go with a rotation at catcher, and from a defensive/game-calling perspective Stewart and Cervelli will probably see the most time.
Josh Harrison – 3B
Harrison was arguably the most unexpected fantasy surprise last year, failing to be drafted in many leagues. Despite that, he went on to an All-Star performance and finished in the top 10 in NL MVP voting, earning in the high-$20’s in standard 5×5 formats. Harrison’s versatility was always his fantasy edge, but now he will be the starting third baseman and expectations will be high. Harrison is a gamer and Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle loves him, so he will be given every opportunity to repeat last year’s success where he put up a slash line of .315/.347/.490 with 13 HR and 18 SB. What brings additional value to Harrison is that in leagues that require 15 games played for position eligibility, he qualifies at 2B, 3B, and OF.
Pedro Alvarez – 1B
With Ike Davis heading to Oakland and Harrison taking over the full-time duties at the hot corner, the Pirates are ready to hand over the 1B job to Alvarez. Alvarez got off to a slow start last year hitting just .172 in April, but began to turn it around and put up a strong June posting a .299/.396/.483 slash line. However, a knee injury in July and foot injury in August derailed his season, and the slugging lefty started just 39 games from July 1st on. Prior to the injuries, Alvarez was putting up very similar lines as he did the previous two seasons, and his slugging percentage was climbing. He also put up the best SO% and BB%’s of his career. That said, he saw a big drop in HR:FB and ISO last year which is concerning, and continued to be inept against LHP with an abysmal slash line of .175/.241/.263. Alvarez did lead the league in errors (for the third consecutive season) but 24 of his 25 errors at 3B were throwing errors, so the Pirates are hoping he should be fine switching positions and be able to stick at 1B. He might get an occasional day off vs. lefties in favor of the newly acquired Hart, but his power helps offset his flaws, so if he can return to his past 30 HR form, he will be a solid corner-infield option.
Starling Marte – LF
Heading into 2014, many doubted Marte could repeat the success of his sophomore season based on his free-swinging style and an expected normalization of his .364 BABIP. Well, the toolsy outfielder proved the critics wrong, putting up even better numbers in his third season. Marte posted another eye-opening BABIP of .373 last year, hinting that these higher BABIP numbers could be the norm, based on his speed and GB rates. It certainly helps explain the solid batting averages the past two seasons despite the poor K:BB ratios. He did not run as much but still stole 30 bases and improved his SB% from the previous year. The speed is there, but if Marte can become a 15-18 HR guy while continuing to hit for a decent average, he will be a top 15 fantasy outfielder in mixed leagues.
Gerrit Cole – SP
Despite missing extended time last year with two DL stints, limiting the former overall #1 pick to just five starts from June 1st to September 1st, Cole still ended up winning 11 games and putting up positive fantasy earnings. Cole is the ace of the Pirates staff, and health is the only thing holding him back from a breakout 2015 season. He has proven he can put solid K/9 numbers since the end of 2013 while posting impressive BB/9 and GB rates. Cole is a pitcher you will want to target in all formats and could be primed for a breakout season.
A.J. Burnett – SP
Has a team and fan base ever been so excited about signing a pitcher entering his age-38 season coming off a year that resulted in a league-leading 18 losses? It was so bad in Philadelphia last year for Burnett that he took a $4.25 million pay cut to come back to the Pirates. Burnett had a forgettable 2014, but that does not mean he cannot relive his success from the previous two years in Pittsburgh. Burnett pitched all of last year with a sport hernia, and if that was not bad enough, did you see the defense behind him last year? He also suffered through one of the league’s lowest run support totals at 3.21 runs per game. Despite this, he still logged over 200 innings and lead the league with 34 starts, the seventh straight season the veteran righty has posted 30 or more starts. Burnett is reunited with Ray Searage and a city that embraced him for the two years he pitched there. With his durability, a better team around him and continued strong K/9 rates, Burnett’s swan song could be profitable for his fantasy owners.
Francisco Liriano – SP
The Pirates re-signed the lefty to a three-year, $39 million contract based on the success he had in Pittsburgh the past two seasons. This past year did not start out too promising for him or his fantasy owners, as he posted a 1-7 record, 4.72 ERA and 1.483 WHIP over his first 15 starts. However, it was a tale of two halves for Liriano as he was able to turn things around after the break, putting up a 2.20 ERA and 1.128 WHIP over 14 starts while improving his K/9 and K:BB rates. In the end, despite the poor start his overall numbers were very similar to his 2013 season, expect for those 16 wins. He’s become much more of a GB pitcher in his two seasons with Pittsburgh while maintaining strong strikeout numbers, including a 9.7 K/9 in 2014. His mechanics have improved under the tutelage of Searage, leading to his 2013 BB/9 ratio that was his best since his 2006 rookie year. However, his command issues resurfaced in 2014 with a 4.5 BB/9, which is concerning. At the end of the day, Liriano still has a live arm and if he is more like the pitcher he was in the second half last year than the first half, he can certainly return to his 2013 form, where he finished ninth in NL Cy Young Award balloting.
What You See Is What You Get
Neil Walker – 2B
If you’re looking for consistency from the 2B position, Neil Walker is your man. Here are Walker’s slash lines since his 2010 rookie season:
The second baseman has posted earnings in the teens in standard 5×5 NL–only formats in every season. The intrigue with Walker is that his HR totals have improved in each of the last 4 seasons, including a career high 23 bombs in 2014, tying Brian Dozier for the most HR’s last year by a second baseman. His career HR/FB rates would suggest 23 HR would be difficult to repeat, but his scan shows he is as reliable as they come and consistency is always worthy paying an extra buck or two for.
Mark Melancon – RP
And by this I mean—what you are getting is one of the most consistent and effective short relievers in baseball the past two seasons. Melancon has flourished in the closer role with the Pirates and saved 33 of 37 chances last season. His cutter is his best pitch, which has helped him induce his extreme GB rates and allow only three long balls over 142 innings the past two seasons. Over the last two years with the Pirates he has put up a 1.65 ERA, 0.915 WHIP and 141-to-19 K:BB ratio over 142 innings. I would never classify a closer not named Craig Kimbrell or Aroldis Chapman a fantasy stud, but Melancon should be a top closer in 2015.
Vance Worley – SP
It was an unexpected resurgence for the right-hander last year. Released by the Twins in March following a horrible 2013, he was acquired by the Pirates for cash a week later. After seven starts in Triple-A when he posted a 43-to-4 K:BB ratio over 46 innings he was called up to the Pirates rotation when Francisco Liriano was put on the DL with an oblique injury. Worley made the most of the opportunity and proved to be a reliable source of quality innings for the Pirates while they dealt with injuries. His complete-game shutout against Madison Bumgarner on the road in late July was one of the biggest performances for a Pirates starter all season. Another Searage reclamation project, he improved his command last year as well as his GB rates going 8-4 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over 17 starts. He has a great chance to make the back-end of the Pirates rotation out of spring so he needs be on your radar.
Travis Snider – OF
Snider was hitting .202 on June 4th, and his playing time cut drastically when Polanco was called up a week later to take over the everyday RF duties. However, injuries in the second half to McCutchen and Marte, and combined with Polanco’s drop in production, Snider was called upon again to see routine time in the Pirates outfield. Snider responded by putting up a 288/.356/.524 slash line after the break with nine of his 13 HR. Snider has been used as platoon player for most of his time in the majors, but his career lines are nearly identical vs. RHP and LHP, and the left-handed hitting outfielder put up a .381/.435/.619 against southpaws over 47 plate appearances last season. The former top prospect will probably never fulfill the lofty expectations, but he is still just 26 years old and could be a solid fourth outfielder again for Clint Hurdle.
Tony Watson – RP
Relief pitchers that put up the numbers Watson did last season are worth their weight in gold in deep NL-Only formats. The lefty went 10-2 with two saves while posting 81 strikeouts with a 1.64 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. Watson earned more than most NL starting pitchers in that format, and was his second season with double digit fantasy earnings. Target him for a buck or two in the end game and reap the rewards.
Jordy Mercer – SS
Mercer cracked double digits in earnings for the second straight season in NL-Only leagues. After a horrific April where the SS had a .167/.222/.182 line, he really picked it up in June and was a steady fantasy performer at MI the rest of the way. His plus defense will keep him in the line-up and the 12 HR he hit in 2014 might not be his ceiling as he hit 19 HR in 2011 between Double A and Triple-A.
Charlie Morton – SP
Injuries are always an issue with Morton, and following hip surgery during the off-season he will probably begin the 2015 season on the DL. That said, when the righty sinkerballer has pitched the past two seasons, he has been effective, and not just by inducing groundballs at an elite rate. Morton has also improved his K/9 rates the past two seasons, helping his value in 5×5 formats while maintaining a solid WHIP. Morton is more valuable in deeper 4×4 and 5×5 NL-Only formats, and the injury could lower his price and make him a decent stash in keeper leagues.
Prospects for 2015
Nick Kingham – SP
Not nearly as heralded as fellow pitching farmhands Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon, the 6-foot-5 right-hander has been a top Pirates pitching prospect the past couple of years, and has the best chance of the three of making the majors first for Pittsburgh in 2015. Kingham will not overpower hitters but has shown solid command of his pitches and did not miss a beat when promoted to Triple-A last year in his 14 starts, despite being much younger than the players he was competing against. With the Pirates question marks at the back end of their rotation, Kingham has a legitimate shot to make the rotation out of spring. If not, he should be up shortly thereafter and could provide fantasy help, even without great K/9 rates.
Alen Hanson – 2B/SS
Following struggles after his promotion to Double-A in 2013, Hansen began 2014 back in Double-A with something to prove. He did just that, putting up solid numbers for a middle infielder—. 280/.326/.442 slash line with 11 HR and 25 SB. He projects better at 2B, but could be asked to take over at SS at some point in 2015 if Mercer falters.
Tyler Glasnow – SP
Our no. 1 prospect in the Pirates organization, the tall righty has impressed with his fastball and curveball, resulting in a 12.0 K/9 rate over his three minor-league seasons. The ceiling is high for Glasnow, but he is still a work in progress, and struggles with his control. If Glasnow can repeat the dominance in High-A ball in Double-A, there is a chance we will see the talented 21-year-old this summer at PNC Park.
Josh Bell/Willy Garcia – OF
Both outfielders flashed their power potential at Double-A Altoona last season, and should be given the chance to show what they can do this season at Triple-A Indianapolis. Garcia was added to the Pirates 40-man roster last month so Pittsburgh could protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Bell is the better prospect, but both have the skills to make it in the big leagues soon. The issue for both is trying to crack the current Pirates outfield, but both should still deserve consideration in Dynasty Leagues.
Elias Diaz – C
Not much of a prospect, but like Garcia, the Pirates added the young catcher out of Venezuela to their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Known more for his defense, he did put up a .328/.378/.445 slash line in Double-Altoona before being called up to Triple-A. The only reason I am mentioning Diaz is because of the current state of Pittsburgh’s catching situation. If Diaz can put up solid numbers at Triple-A, he could be called upon at some point in 2015 by the Pirates.
Jameson Taillon – SP
Unfortunately for the Pirates and his owners in Dynasty Leagues, Taillon missed all of 2014 after TJ surgery, and hopes to be back some time before mid-season in 2015. Arguably the most prized arm in the Pirates system, Pittsburgh will not rush him, so do not expect much fantasy impact in 2015.
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