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Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.

Pittsburgh Pirates PECOTA Projections:
Record: 78-84
Runs Scored: 703
Runs Allowed: 732
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .254/.314/.396 (.250)
Total WARP: 24.5 (11.0 pitching, 13.5 non-pitching)

Bryan Grosnick: This … is not quite what I expected of the Pirates’ offseason. Andrew McCutchen is gone, Gerrit Cole is gone, and guys like Corey Dickerson, Colin Moran, and Joe Musgrove are looking to step into the lineup and rotation to replace them. In many ways, the Pirates are an overcast night sky: you can’t see any stars. PECOTA is projecting this squad for 78 wins, which is only good enough for fourth place in the NL Central. All of a sudden it feels like 2009 all over again, when Garrett Jones led the team to a last-place finish in their division, though you can see a little hope over the horizon.

Rob, since you’re BP’s resident Pirates guru–not to mention the author of a wonderful essay about them in this year’s Baseball Prospectus Annual–I’d like to pick your brain on this question of stars. In a year that’s likely to be all about developing the team’s young talent, tell me who you think the Pirates’ next stars are. Who is their 2018 All-Star representative, and who is their next superstar?

Rob Mains: There are plenty of reasons for Pirates fans to get upset about the offseason. Among the overlooked ones is that even though trading Cole and McCutchen was effectively waving a white flag for this year (or maybe a green one), these were not traditional tear-down deals, in which the team got a bunch of high-ceiling prospects. Instead, the haul’s mostly MLB-ready players (Moran, Musgrove, Kyle Crick, Michael Feliz) who don’t look likely to be the next, well, Andrew McCutchen or Gerrit Cole.

Felipe Rivero is a safe bet for the team’s All-Star representative. The offense is just not all that good, and that’s probably going to limit the kind of surface stats that get starting pitchers invited to the game. Next superstar? Personally, I’d love it if were Josh Bell—fun player, smart guy, great interview—but I don’t know that he’s got the ceiling. It’s getting late for Gregory Polanco to become what we thought he’d be. Austin Meadows seems to be too fragile. I could see the Pirates being a superstar-less team for a spell.

I’m not answering your question. How’s this: If the All-Star is Mitch Keller or Tyler Glasnow, this could be an actually good club. If it’s one of the usual suspects like Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte, Polanco, or Bell—guys who are already decent and contributing—it’s not going to be enough to make the Pirates contenders. I’d guess Taillon could be their best player. But I don’t see a Vladimir Guerrero Jr., or Eloy Jimenez, or even a J.P. Crawford-potential player right now.

Am I missing anyone? Is there anybody in the Pirates system, majors or minors, who gets you really excited?

Grosnick: Keller is absolutely my dude. He’s the one I think could be the team’s next superstar, given his incredible breakout last year. He’s already packing two seriously impressive pitches in his easy heater and a heartbreaking curveball that–according to our prospect evaluators–looks just like his fastball coming out of his hand. He made it on our top-101 prospects list at no. 16 overall and the fifth-best right-handed pitching prospect behind Alex Reyes, Forrest Whitley, Brent Honeywell, and Sixto Sanchez. Unlike Reyes and Honeywell, he isn’t dealing with a UCL injury, but like pitchers of all types, injury is probably inevitable at some point.

Sure, he doesn’t have third pitch yet and he hasn’t pitched past Double-A, but he’s got the youth and potential to be better than Gerrit Cole ever was for this team. But I also agree with you that the team no longer seems to have that sort of impact, five-WARP talent coming up, other than perhaps Keller. If Meadows stays healthy and finally consolidates his skills this season, maybe he could fit that role, but this looks like a team with an interesting collection of young talent but few potential superstars. You can get by with a bunch of good players, but I think I’d rather have one great one and a few holes that can be filled.

I do think that the Pirates are likely to see Rivero snag the All-Star nod this year, but Marte could be a dark horse now that he’s ensconced in center field and able to to show what he can do in that position. He’s incredibly talented, looks the part of a superstar, and probably has something to prove after only playing a partial season in 2017. PECOTA projects a lighter offensive output in 2018 that’s more in line with his past season’s numbers (.257 TAv), but if he gets back to his usual .286 mark, he’s going to at least be worthy of All-Star consideration come July.

How about the other end of the projection spectrum? Are you especially worried about any of this team’s players this year?

Mains: Marte “playing a partial season” is quite a euphemism, Bryan. I worry about a couple guys for different reasons. Our depth charts have Francisco Cervelli penciled in for 420 plate appearances. That’d be the second-most in his career—he had 510 three years ago—and if that doesn’t work out, his backups really underwhelm me. But in terms of projections, the one that concerns me is Taillon. He certainly has the talent to post the 3.49 ERA that PECOTA projects, He had a 3.31 ERA when he had cancer surgery in May, but allowed a 4.85 ERA and .807 OPS in 19 starts after his return. Obviously, it could be that he was just kind of freaked out. I certainly would be. Not saying I’m worried that he’ll collapse—I’d view Father Time catching up with Cervelli or David Freese as the biggest risk of that—just that he may not be as good as projected.

Grosnick: Taillon is really something else, and I really hope that he’ll be as good as PECOTA (and his raw talent level) advertises, but I agree. Have we ever seen what a full Taillon season looks like at any pro level? Just showing up for 160 innings or so would probably be considered a win. And sure, Cervelli’s age and lack of a suitable backup could be cause for pause, but I also think there’s enough freely-available catching depth to plug that hole if things go sideways.

No, the guy that really worries me is Polanco. He had one of those seasons where nothing looks right last year, and pretty much everything collapsed across the board. So much of his profile is carried by his incredible physical tools, but injury can sap even the most talented athlete of his calling cards. Last year his power was down, his defense, his BABIP, his stolen base rate … pretty much everything save his batting average. He dealt with injuries to his shoulder, groin, ankle, and hamstring, which leaves precious little not injured over the last 12 months. The biggest predictor of future injury is past injury. If he’s healthy–really healthy, and not just playing every day–I still like him as a three-win player. But that “if” is looming larger and larger.

So what about the macro level? What do you think about this Pittsburgh franchise overall? Do you think they manage to sneak into the Wild Card discussion this year, or are they just playing to stay out of the gutter? And do you see a chance for a turnaround anytime soon?

Mains: I’m not wild about where they’re positioned. If you have to get rid of Cutch and Cole for money reasons, I’m not buying it. If you’re getting rid of them because you don’t see a window in 2018, why do you get basically MLB-ready parts like Musgrove, Moran, and Crick instead of prospects who’ll be joining the club when the next window opens? I don’t see how this positions the team for a postseason run in any of the next 3-4 seasons. Yeah, all the pitchers could be healthy and good, and Bell could develop and Polanco stay healthy and Marte bounce back, but we all know how compound probabilities work. This seems like a .500-ish club to me, how about you?

Grosnick: Yeah, I’m not exactly thrilled with their short- or medium-term prognosis. I don’t mind acquiring MLB-ready pieces as part of a rebuild because five years of team control is a long time, and if you believe a player is high-end then you bring them in first and worry less about the window of contention. My concern isn’t so much the estimated ETA of the players they’ve brought in, but rather their ultimate upside. It could be because I’m the low man on the players this team’s acquired, but I worry that the Pirates dealt away impact talents without receiving high-potential players in return.

When I see Musgrove, I see a pitcher who’s destined for a relief role. When I see Moran, I see a second-division third baseman. When I see Crick, I see a no. 4 starter. With Pittsburgh’s (perceived or not) financial limitations, the avenues for acquiring potential impactful talent seem fewer than other teams. It’s hard for this team to acquire those talents via free agency, so they have to come from trade or the amateur market, and I’m not sure they’ve managed to trade for those guys this offseason.

Mains: Our colleague Matthew Trueblood brought up an interesting point about the Pirates in the BP Annual. Specifically: Has pitching coach Ray Searage lost his touch? The two-seam fastball, down in the zone, get-batters-to-hit-it-into-the-ground strategy worked during the Wild Card years. But the league’s moved on. There are lots of hitters who can hit the low fastball into the seats. Some teams have responded by increasing their reliance on four-seamers. Some—the Astros come to mind—are throwing more breaking balls. Searage has shown some signs of adjusting—Trevor Williams relied primarily on his four-seamer and Glasnow doesn’t have a sinker. But has time passed the Pitcher Whisperer by?

Grosnick: It’s certainly possible, but we have such trouble even establishing that Searage’s “Pitcher Whisperer” magic ever existed. This is one of the many things about player development that seems to escape objective analysis: was Searage really all that good in the first place, or would a different pitching coach have had similar successes? Searage’s philosophy seemed to bring out the best in many pitchers, from Ivan Nova to J.A. Happ, but did it stunt the development of, say, Gerrit Cole? (It sure looks like he should throw more breaking balls, and likely will in Houston.) Would a different pitching coach have just brought out the best in different pitchers? Remember, the Marlins also did the low-and-in-the-zone strategy, and it didn’t work out nearly as well as it did for the Pirates.

Now, my gut tells me that Searage was (and is) a great pitching coach, but there’s not much more than gut to go on there. I do think that changing an approach every once in a while, especially if it’s in response to league-wide trends, is probably a good idea. Being open to adjusting the plan, even slightly, is necessary. Time and reputation will tell us if Searage eventually moves into the Dave Duncan/Leo Mazzone tier of all-time pitching coaches, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you if he belongs there.

Mains: And even if he will move up there, it’s not enough for this year’s squad. PECOTA’s got ‘em at 78 wins. Sounds right to me. Agreed?

Grosnick: It does sound about right, but if I had to take the over or the under, I’d probably lean under. I think there’s too much of a chance the team starts slow and deals away even more talent. There’s a chance the Pirates could be a Wild Card contender in a year or two, but they’d have to spend some money in order to get there. This year? They didn’t, and they probably won’t be more than fourth in the Central.

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James Thompson
3/14
Wow.....well.......that conversation just made me want to jump off the Clemente Bridge....
Joseph Dolney
3/14
Great article guys. One point about Ray Searage is that he worked with Jim Benedict on a lot of the reclamation projects. Benedict ended up with the Marlins and is now with the Cubs. This could be a case where Searage and Benedict are better as a team than individually.

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