It’s kind of become a New Year’s Eve tradition for me to write about the boom or bust players who could make a difference for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the upcoming season. I first did this in 2013, talking about players like Francisco Liriano, Starling Marte, and Mark Melancon. I continued that in 2014 with guys like Jordy Mercer, Travis Snider, and Edinson Volquez. Last year’s group included Francisco Cervelli and Jung-ho Kang. All of those guys helped the Pirates making the playoffs three years in a row, and helped lead to them winning the third most games in baseball during that stretch.
The 2013 article was titled 13 Boom or Bust Players Who Could Make a Difference in 2013. Continuing with that trend, the 2014 article was called 14 Boom or Bust Pirates Who Could Make a Difference in 2014. Last year took a bit of a turn, with the article titled The 15 Boom or Bust Players Who Could Put the Pirates Over the Top in 2015.
Things are a bit different this year. The Pirates hadn’t had a winning season in a long time in 2013, and they needed a lot of high upside guys to make that happen. They had more high upside guys in 2014, and there was skepticism that they could return with another winning season. Last year it all looked a bit different, as they looked like a good team, with a few guys extra needed to put them over the top. The group last year was also pretty solid, and it was a bit of a struggle finding 15 people to highlight, without using individual bench or bullpen guys who might not make a big impact.
The 2016 season is kind of a hybrid of those years. The Pirates have reloaded a bit, sending out Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez. A.J. Burnett retired, and J.A. Happ left via free agency after being a huge boost in the second half of the 2015 season. Jung-ho Kang is coming off a serious injury. And we still don’t really know the full team at this point, since the Pirates are still connected to starting pitchers, and still have other needs to fill.
What we do know is that the Pirates have a lot of boom or bust players once again, which they can pair with more reliable guys like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and others. They’ve been successful with this approach the last few years, not just because they took risks in adding high upside guys, but because they added so many high upside guys that it was inevitable for a few of them to work out. Those breakouts only helped add to a strong core, and with that approach, it was no surprise that the Pirates were so successful the last three seasons. They’re set up for the same thing again in 2016, with a lot of high upside players who can make them a contender once again.
Before we begin, I’ll add the following disclaimers. One is that not all of these guys have star potential. Some will be just really strong middle relievers if they work out. Some will be strong back of the rotation starters. I tried to list them in order this year by importance (and I didn’t put a ton of thought into the list, so there might be some small disagreements on the order).
The other disclaimer is that I added two sections that focus on the farm system, rather than individual players. Technically, that would make this list 14 players long. However, I also grouped a bunch of middle relievers together, and grouped Jason Rogers/Michael Morse together. So if we’re being technical, there are more than 16 players in this article. I just didn’t want to write a second article talking about the importance of the recent drafts doing well and the potential for future breakout performances both being key to the future of the farm system. Yet. I’ll write that article in more detail soon.
For now, here are the boom or bust players for 2016.
16. Breakout Relievers
Assuming the Pirates keep Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, they will be returning the best reliever combo in baseball for the back of their bullpen. But as we saw at times last year, that doesn’t always lead to a strong bullpen. The middle relievers were an issue at times last year, and while the Pirates are returning Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero, they will need others to step up.
This off-season they’ve added a lot of high upside arms. They signed Juan Nicasio to a $3 M deal, and brought in Yoervis Medina, Jorge Rondon, and Curtis Partch on smaller deals. All of those guys share the same qualities — a fastball that can touch at least 97 MPH, and control problems. They also have Rob Scahill and John Holdzkom as two more hard throwers, and Guido Knudson, who tops out at 94. If one or two of these guys can fix their control issues, then the Pirates would have a strong middle relief group, and a potential replacement for Mark Melancon when he eventually departs the team.
15. Jason Rogers/Michael Morse
I’ll get to the other half of the first base platoon in a bit, as that could have a bigger impact on this team. Rogers or Morse will play an impact as the right-handed part of the platoon, and both have high upside potential. Morse shows the best raw power on the team now that Pedro Alvarez is gone, although that didn’t show up in 2015. Rogers had some great numbers with Milwaukee last year, although they came in a small sample size.
At this point, after trading for Rogers, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Pirates dealt Morse. That would be putting all of their eggs in one basket with Rogers, although they dealt two prospects for him, so it would make sense to give him a shot to show his 2015 was legit. If that turns out to be the case, the Pirates will have a good option as half of the first base platoon, and a strong power bat off the bench.
14. The 2014-15 Draft Classes
This has nothing to do with the MLB team in 2016 directly, but could have an indirect impact. The 2014 and 2015 draft classes were much different for the Pirates when compared to their previous groups. They took a lot of lower ceiling guys who came with much risk. There’s very little star potential in the two draft classes, but some guys who could be league average starters in the future. There could also be some trade depth here, as a lot of the guys drafted the last two years fall second, third, or lower at their positions on the depth charts.
In 2015, the Pirates traded JaCoby Jones (2013 draft) for Joakim Soria and Adrian Sampson (2012 draft) for J.A. Happ. They just got Jason Rogers in a deal that sent Trey Supak (2014 draft) away. Supak had some value as a young, high upside arm. But the hitters the Pirates have taken will need big seasons in Bradenton or higher — just like Jones saw in 2015 — in order to raise their values for trades.
Also, the Pirates will continue picking low in the draft, and will probably take a similar approach with their hitters. Seeing the last two draft classes showing some success would add some confidence to their approach in 2016.
13. Ryan Vogelsong or Another Starting Pitcher
The Pirates currently have Ryan Vogelsong as their fifth starter, although I’m not convinced that they will go without adding another starter this off-season. This is one of those areas where this particular article doesn’t work as well on New Year’s Eve due to how slow this particular off-season is going. I don’t consider Vogelsong a high upside guy. At best, you could expect a 1+ WAR performance, which wouldn’t be horrible for the first two months until the pitching prospects arrive, but wouldn’t be a great addition to Jon Niese and Jeff Locke.
If the Pirates add another starter, I’m guessing it will probably be another reclamation project. And that pitcher would end up on this list as well. They’ve got a strong top of the rotation with Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. They’ve got some top pitching prospects set to arrive mid-season. Guys like Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Vogelsong would be fine as back of the rotation guys. But they currently need one of those guys to have a big year and be a number three starter, or they need another starter who could fill that role.
12. Jon Niese
Speaking of the other starters, the Pirates added Niese by dealing away Neil Walker. The big appeal with Niese is his contract, which pretty much acts like three separate one-year deals, and all at reasonable rates when you look at what similar pitchers are getting on the open market. But that’s only appealing if Niese can return to being the pitcher he was pre-2015. From 2011-2014, Niese was a 2.0-2.7 WAR pitcher. If the Pirates get that out of him, then the Walker trade will look great, and the rotation will receive a big boost. The fact that their infield defense saw some upgrades (in part due to the Walker trade), and Niese is a lefty pitching in PNC Park with Ray Searage as his pitching coach, gives hope that he will bounce back to the pre-2015 numbers.
11. Francisco Cervelli
Cervelli was on this list last year, with the following summary:
“A big question is whether he can stay healthy as a starter. If he can do that, and if he can put up his career numbers or better on offense, with his usual strong defense, then the Pirates won’t miss Russell Martin at all.”
I bring that up in part because one of the regular commenters on this site now apparently owes me a case of my favorite beer (unfortunately, Vanilla Maduro by Cigar City isn’t sold in cases). I also bring it up because Cervelli did make us all forget about Russell Martin. He finished with a 3.8 WAR and at the top of the pitch framing boards, which put him ahead of Martin in each category.
The question this year is whether he can get close to those numbers again. Cervelli’s offensive numbers were slightly higher than his career numbers heading into the year. He had a .278/.348/.381 line, fueled by a .330 BABIP prior to the 2015 season. He posted a .295/.370/.401 line in 2015, fueled by a .359 BABIP. However, there was a clear change in approach here. His fly ball percentage went down, and his ground ball percentage went up (fly balls have the lowest BABIP). His opposite field percentage also went up. The Pirates try to get their hitters working middle-away. Cervelli didn’t see a change in his ability to hit to the middle of the field, but saw an increase in hitting to the opposite field. If this approach holds up in 2016 (they’ve taken the same approach with Chris Stewart, and it has worked for two years), and leads to higher numbers once again, then Cervelli would be a big boost once again for the Pirates, on both sides of the game.
10. Elias Diaz
The Pirates were pretty lucky that Cervelli and Chris Stewart stayed mostly healthy in 2015. Stewart started the year with an injury, but neither guy missed a lot of time, despite injury problems on both sides. That might not be the case in 2016, and if it isn’t, the Pirates will need Elias Diaz to step up. Diaz has some of the best defense behind the plate in the system, with an amazing arm that has been gunning down runners in winter ball. Diaz has some good offensive tools, but would ultimately be a continuation of Martin and Cervelli, where the defense is strong, and you hope the tools finally translate over to the field. He’s good enough that he can fill in for Cervelli as the starter if he goes down. He got a lot of work with Cervelli and the pitching staff in September, so he should be good to step in when needed. But there’s always an uncertainty with prospects, which is why he makes this list.
9. Josh Harrison
When the Pirates traded Neil Walker, they named Josh Harrison as the starting second baseman. Harrison was their starting third baseman going into last season, but ended up returning to his super utility role by the end of the year due to the emergence of Jung-ho Kang. He had a career year in 2014, putting up a 5.0 WAR, but didn’t come close to that last year with a 1.3 WAR. I don’t expect Harrison to return to the 2014 levels, but ZiPS has him at a 2.4 WAR, and that seems reasonable. It’s also right around where Walker has been throughout his career, posting a 2.6-2.7 WAR in most years. They reach that figure in two different ways, with Walker getting there due to offense, and Harrison being helped by defense, which might be more valuable to the Pirates and their ground ball pitchers. If Harrison can replicate Walker’s production, then the Pirates might be a better team overall, assuming Niese also bounces back to his pre-2015 ways.
8. Alen Hanson
One thing about the Harrison/Walker swap is that it removes Harrison from his super utility role, weakening the bench. The Pirates have signed Sean Rodriguez as a utility player, but he doesn’t project as more than a defensive option. They’ll need a guy who can provide some value with the bat. Hanson is a top prospect due to his hitting tools, and while they haven’t consistently shown up in the minors, he’s got the potential to be a starting second baseman one day.
The best way to ease him in to the majors might be as a utility player. The Pirates might have to make him a starter at the beginning of the year if Jung-ho Kang isn’t ready by Opening Day. After Kang returns, Hanson might be best off working in that utility role. This would put him in a similar position as Kang last year, giving him a chance to win a long-term job and push Harrison back to the bench in his super utility role. Of course, Hanson hasn’t been consistent in Triple-A, so you could make the argument that he’s not ready for the majors at the start of the year. But he should be up at some point, and could provide a big impact off the bench and eventually as a starter.
7. John Jaso
Last year, Francisco Cervelli looked like a big breakout candidate if everything went right. There were question marks about whether he could stay healthy and whether he could maintain his strong offensive numbers over a full season. This year, John Jaso looks like the new version of Cervelli. He’s had injury problems related to concussions, although that should be reduced with his move to first base. He’s got some strong offensive numbers the last few years, and is one of the best lefties in baseball against right-handers, which is going to be his role on the team. If the stats hold up over a full season, and if he stays healthy, then the Pirates will get a ton of production at first base, and they won’t miss Pedro Alvarez’s bat. The added twist here is that Jaso is learning a new position, and has an additional question mark with his defense. Fortunately, he can’t do worse than Alvarez did last year. He’s also a catcher making the move to first, and that transition is a lot more common in baseball, and leads to some good results.
6. Josh Bell
Depending on how Jaso works out, there could be a situation where the Pirates don’t even need Josh Bell this year. Or, they could bring up Bell and have a really strong bench with Jaso playing first, outfield, and emergency catcher. Either way, Bell is the future at first base, and is expected to arrive in 2015. There are questions about his defense which need to be addressed, as right now he would rival Pedro Alvarez with his defensive issues. Offensively, there have been some questions in the past. Bell has always had the raw tools to be a great hitter, with a bat that could definitely play at first. He adjusted his leg kick in Indianapolis, and that led to a big increase in power and production from the left side. The right side is still struggling, but could be just an adjustment away. He doesn’t have the same power from the right side, but has the potential to be a good enough hitter to avoid a platoon.
The question marks right now with Bell are his defense, and the hitting from the right side. There are also sample size questions about how legit the offense from the left side was at the end of the year, although the production matches the tools, and is explained by the adjustments. He’s got the potential to be an above-average first baseman or better, and the Pirates will need him if Jaso/Rogers/Morse don’t work out. If they do work out, then Bell would be a great addition, leading to a much stronger all around team.
5. Jung-ho Kang
Kang is another guy who was on the list last year, since he was a total unknown. His return to this year’s list is unfortunate, as it’s entirely injury related. He put up a huge year last year, with a .287/.355/.461 line in 467 plate appearances, good for a 3.9 WAR. He eventually became a starter, and in the second half, he was the best hitter on the team, with a .392 wOBA and a 154 wRC+ (Andrew McCutchen finished second in both categories with .379/137). His season was cut short after a dirty slide by Chris Coghlan, which has since led to a rule change to protect middle infielders from takeout slides. That also puts his 2016 season in question, as we don’t know right now the impact his injury will have on his future performance. If the Pirates can get the 2015 version of Kang, and get him back early, then that would be a boost for the offense.
4. Minor League Breakout Players
This is the other category that doesn’t impact the MLB team in 2016, although we could go with the disclaimer that breakout players make it possible to trade other prospects (or trade the breakout guys) to get help mid-season. The Pirates did this two years ago when they dealt Dilson Herrera for Marlon Byrd, to help fuel their first playoff run.
More importantly, the Pirates will need breakout guys to restock the farm system. They could potentially graduate five of their top ten prospects this year, and maybe more. Now, those prospects don’t just disappear when they arrive in the majors. The Pirates would then just have a lot of young talent under team control for several years, rather than a top farm system. But the Pirates have been picking low in the draft the last two years, will be doing that again in 2016, and hopefully will continue that in 2017 and beyond. They are still adding high upside guys, which led to them having a strong system the last few years. They’re also still seeing big breakouts, such as Yeudy Garcia and Max Moroff in 2015. They’ll need more of this in order to remain competitive for the long-term, and in order to replenish their system after The Next Wave arrives in 2016.
3. Jameson Taillon
This is actually the third year that Taillon has ended up on this list. He was expected to arrive in 2014, but Tommy John surgery in April of that year prevented that from happening. He was then a possibility to arrive in 2015, and was on track to pitch in official rehab games in July. However, he underwent hernia surgery and was out for the season once again. This year he will enter Spring Training healthy. He’s made some good strides with his mechanics during his rehab process, and shouldn’t need much time in the minors to get ready for the majors, outside of getting adjusted to upper level hitters after two years. Taillon has the upside to be a number two starter, and if he has a debut as good as Gerrit Cole’s was in 2013, then he will be a much-needed boost for the rotation.
2. Tyler Glasnow
Glasnow is the top prospect in the system, and expected to arrive by mid-season. Before that happens, he needs to refine his control, and learn to throw his curveball and changeup for strikes early in counts. He had some good numbers in Indianapolis last year, but the control remained a big problem, and his plus fastball and plus curveball got him out of a lot of jams. He won’t have the same success against MLB hitters with the same mistakes. Glasnow might not be fully ready and definitely won’t be at his upside when he arrives at mid-season. But he’s at the point now where giving him a few months extra in Triple-A won’t hurt. The hope is that he will also match Gerrit Cole’s 2013 debut. If that happens with either Taillon or Glasnow, then the Pirates will have a nice boost to the rotation behind Cole and Liriano. If it happens with both pitchers, then the Pirates will be getting a ton of production from their rotation in the second half.
1. Gregory Polanco
If you combined Taillon and Glasnow, their potential impact to the team would probably put them at number one on this list. But in my opinion, no single breakout candidate is more important to the Pirates than Gregory Polanco. The Pirates parted ways with Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker this off-season. There’s a chance that the replacements — John Jaso and Josh Harrison — will combine for the same offensive production as the guys they’re replacing. But there’s also the chance that the offense could drop off.
There isn’t much room on the offense to make up for this drop off. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte are locked in to the other outfield spots. Jordy Mercer is more of a defensive-first shortstop who won’t bring a lot of offensive value. Cervelli and Kang were both big performers last year, and as I mentioned already, there is risk of a drop in offensive performance from each player.
The only area where the Pirates could make up for the potential loss in offense from the other positions would be in right field with Polanco. And there’s hope that 2016 could be his breakout year. I wrote earlier this month why Polanco could be the most important Pirate in 2016, noting his potential to make up for the drop in offense elsewhere. He had a stronger second half than the first half, and the numbers would have been even better if he wasn’t so unlucky in September, with a lot of hard hit balls, but poor numbers. Hopefully the strong second half is a sign of a breakout for Polanco, and the numbers carry over to the 2016 season. That will be his age 24 season, so expecting him to be a finished product at this point is the wrong approach. If he can break out, he will either make up for the lost offense in other areas, or help give the Pirates a great offense if the other areas don’t decline that much.