For the last few years, when the ZiPS projections come out, I do an article using those projections to figure out an overall projection for the upcoming season. This isn’t a simple projection where the entire team WAR is added up (which isn’t advised in the projection write-ups), but instead a method of projecting the current roster, and using ZiPS to determine the projected playing time and the WAR that each player will receive.
Compared to other projections, this one usually runs high. That said, it has been much closer to projecting the team results, since it has always come in at or under the actual team results. In 2013, the exercise projected 83 wins, and they won 94. It was right on with an 88 win projection in 2014. Last year the projection was 90 wins. The Pirates tend to have a lot of high upside guys on their roster, and impact prospects coming up during the year. They also have things that can’t easily be quantified, such as the impact from Ray Searage, defensive shifts, and a focus on ground ball pitchers and infield defense. I believe this is why they have been exceeding their projections in recent years.
The 2016 ZiPS projections were released today, which is a bit of a change from previous years. The projections for the Pirates in previous years came out later in the off-season, when the roster was pretty much set. This gave a somewhat complete picture for the projection. This time around, the projections came early, when the Pirates don’t even have a complete team. I know that the normal off-season impatience has kicked in, and the assumption is that the Pirates are finished making moves on December 15th. But the reality is that they’ll still add a starting pitcher, a first base option, a left-handed reliever, bench and bullpen options, and they could possibly trade Mark Melancon.
It might seem foolish to do a projection at this stage in the off-season, with so many things up in the air. But I wanted to see where the Pirates stood right now, before any of those moves, and see how much ground they need to make up. The results were very surprising, and run counter to the current narrative that the Pirates are headed for a rebuilding year. The Pirates, with this current roster, are projected for one more win than the 2015 team in last year’s projection. You can see how I got there with the work below, or skip to the bottom for the summary of the analysis, along with how the rest of the off-season could change the current projection.
Before we begin, I will point out again that the disclaimer in ZiPS is that you shouldn’t total all the WAR on the depth charts to get a team WAR. I’ve had that mentioned in the past in regards to this article, but I don’t think that applies. I believe that disclaimer is for all of the projections on the ZiPS page, which would result in a WAR that would be impossible to obtain, due to the unrealistic amount of playing time projected for each team. The approach I’m taking is much more calculated and more accurate. It’s also an approach that you could use with any projection system, since the main focus is figuring out playing time, then applying a projection to that playing time. There’s also the disclaimer to add that this is just for entertainment.
Now, here are the projections.
Generally the accepted baseline for a team of replacement level players is anywhere from 45-50 wins. The average usually falls around 48. So we’ll start with that figure before we look at any individual players.
WAR: +48.0 (48.0)
The Pirates will once again go with a combination of Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart behind the plate. Cervelli had a big breakout year last year, but ZiPS isn’t projecting as much playing time for him this time around, with a 2.5 WAR over 326 plate appearances. In most cases, I’d adjust the playing time up to what I expected the player to play. However, in this case, I don’t want to adjust Cervelli, since that would be banking too much on his 2015 health, and assuming the previous health issues are gone. We’ll just go with the disclaimer that if he can prove he’s as healthy as last year, he’d be a 4+ WAR player.
Chris Stewart is projected for 201 plate appearances and an 0.6 WAR. Last year the Pirates had 668 plate appearances behind the plate. The current projections leave them 141 shy. Giving those to Elias Diaz, and prorating his playing time and 0.6 WAR gives us another 0.2 WAR for the catcher total. Once again, this projection goes up if Cervelli stays healthy.
WAR: +3.3 (51.3)
This is one of those areas where it is early. Let’s assume for the moment that Michael Morse is the regular starter. He’s projected for an 0.2 WAR and 355 plate appearances. That leaves 326 plate appearances remaining, and those would go to Josh Bell in this projection. He’s projected for 0.7 WAR over 582 plate appearances, and a prorated portion of that has him at 0.4 WAR for half a season. That gives them a combined 0.6 WAR.
This would go up if I use Jake Goebbert (projected 1.1 WAR), but I’m trying to keep it accurate at the moment as far as the depth chart goes. The truth is that the Pirates will add a guy here for the first half, and that person will have a good shot of upgrading the position over the Morse projections.
WAR: +0.6 (51.9)
This one gets a bit tricky, as second base will be manned by Josh Harrison, but could go to someone like Alen Hanson if Jung-ho Kang isn’t available at the start of the year. Harrison is projected for 480 plate appearances, after receiving 449 last year. We’ll go with that projection, but it will leave 235 plate appearances remaining. I’m going to save those and apply them at third base. For now, Harrison would be projected for his full 2.4 WAR.
WAR: +2.4 (54.3)
Jordy Mercer will be the starting shortstop, and is projected for 472 plate appearances and a 1.4 WAR. I think that’s fair for playing time, but I’m not sure how to handle the other 253 plate appearances left over from last year’s playing time at shortstop. I’d give them to Jung-ho Kang, but I’m not sure if he can play shortstop after his injury, and his playing time is already being accounted for at third base. I’d go with Alen Hanson, but he’s not exactly a great option at shortstop these days, looking better at second or third. Josh Harrison also isn’t a good option, but could fill in here.
It’s very possible the Pirates go with a strong defensive backup for the shortstop position. The best guy on the list would be Pedro Florimon. But instead of giving all of the remaining playing time to him, I’m going to roll this over to third base. The shortstop section will only account for Mercer’s production.
WAR: +1.4 (55.7)
Third Base/Infield Bench
Harrison is being counted for at second base, but could start the season here, with Hanson playing second to start the year. Kang will eventually start at third, and is projected for a 2.7 WAR and 494 plate appearances. That seems fair, since he’s projected to return in April, and will probably get priority playing time once again when he returns. But this leaves 161 plate appearances remaining from the position.
We also have leftovers from second and short, which when combined with third base, add up to a total of 649 plate appearances. I think Alen Hanson could play a big role this year off the bench from the start of the season. He’s a candidate to start the year in Pittsburgh to replace Kang, and his best role to break in to the majors would be as a utility player. He’s projected for 1.9 WAR and 547 plate appearances. That leaves 102 plate appearances for Pedro Florimon as the backup shortstop, which amounts to about 0.1 WAR.
For this section we have Kang’s full amount at third, plus an extra 2.0 WAR off the bench from Hanson and Florimon.
WAR: +4.7 (60.4)
Starling Marte is projected for 620 plate appearances and a 4.0 WAR. The Pirates had 723 plate appearances last year in left field. The extra playing time in the outfield will be addressed in the right field position.
Marte’s projection in ZiPS tends to be lower than his actual results. That’s not the case when you compare this year’s projection and his results last year (3.6 WAR). But if you look at the previous two years (4.6 WAR average), then there is room for improvement here.
WAR: +4.0 (64.4)
Andrew McCutchen is projected for 651 plate appearances and a 6.0 WAR. This is another area with possible bonus potential. Last year was McCutchen’s worst year since 2011, and he had a 5.8 WAR. He had a 6.8 WAR in 2012 and 2014, and an 8.2 WAR in 2013. The 6.0 projection looks like the floor for McCutchen. You don’t want to project an MVP season like 2013, but it’s very possible you could see an extra 0.8 WAR or more here.
Once again, extra playing time will be factored into the right field mix.
WAR: +6.0 (70.4)
Gregory Polanco is projected for 627 plate appearances and a 2.4 WAR. Polanco actually had a 2.3 WAR last year, and has some breakout potential, so this could be a huge area of improvement.
The outfield had 2,186 plate appearances last year, and the current trio is 288 plate appearances shy. There are also 315 plate appearances remaining from pinch-hitting and the DH. That gives 603 plate appearances remaining off the bench, and the bench currently has Hanson, Florimon, and Stewart.
I think one of Keon Broxton or Jake Goebbert could make the bench as an extra outfielder. It’s also possible that both could make it in this scenario, especially since Goebbert has experience at first base. This would obviously change when another first baseman is added. For now, let’s go with Broxton’s full projection at 495 plate appearances and 1.2 WAR. He’s about the same value as Goebbert, so we could go with the assumption that they’d split this time.
This leaves about 108 plate appearances remaining for the other player, which would add an extra 0.3 prorated WAR off the bench. I think the bench will be something that will see a lot of changes the rest of the off-season, so this projection might change for better or worse.
For now, this section includes 2.4 WAR from Polanco, plus 1.5 WAR from the bench. There’s room for a lot of improvement if Polanco breaks out, and the bench picture could largely change.
WAR: +3.9 (74.3)
ZiPS has had an interesting recent history with the Pirates’ rotation. I got an 8.1 WAR with this article three years ago, and the rotation actually put up a 12.3 WAR. Two years ago I got a 9.3 WAR in this article, which seemed low when you consider the previous year’s actual results. They ended up with a 7.4 WAR. Last year the rotation projections were a bit more optimistic at a 10.4 WAR, and the rotation had a 16.9 WAR.
Here are the projected Opening Day starters, and their inning and WAR totals. The rotation currently isn’t complete, so there will be a big change when they add a starter. There’s also the factor of adding in the prospects, which I’ll get to in a bit.
SP: Gerrit Cole (190.0 IP, 4.2 WAR)
SP: Francisco Liriano (166.3 IP, 3.5 WAR)
SP: Jon Niese (157.7 IP, 1.3 WAR)
SP: Jeff Locke (162.7 IP, 1.2 WAR)
SP: Juan Nicasio (101.7 IP, 0.7 WAR)
That gives us 778.1 innings and a combined 10.9 WAR, which is already higher than last year’s projection, even without the real fifth starter. From there we need to fill 189 innings to get to the 2015 starting pitching total of 967.1 innings.
Before we get to the extra innings, I want to point out that I used Nicasio due to Neal Huntington’s comments over the weekend about how he could compete for a starter or reliever job. But either way, it doesn’t matter, since the Pirates will add another starter.
I usually include a disclaimer here about adjusting playing time for pitchers. Sometimes a guy will have low innings, and sometimes his innings will look high. I don’t adjust innings up, as injuries happen. Looking at the current group, I can’t see any massive increases that would be needed. Francisco Liriano’s projection is lower than his 2015 total. The same goes for Jon Niese, who could easily end up in the 180-190 inning range. In these cases, the Pirates would obviously see a big value boost if they got the extra innings.
There is also the issue of Jeff Locke. I don’t see him getting 162.2 innings, as the Pirates will have prospects arriving by mid-season. But this falls along the same category. Pitching is unpredictable. On paper, you can imagine Locke staying in the rotation until June 15th, and then being replaced by Glasnow the rest of the season. But in reality, Locke could get some extra starts if the above guys actually fall short from their career best innings totals. So we’ll also keep Locke’s totals the same.
The extra 189 innings will go to the prospects for now. Tyler Glasnow will be the top guy, arriving by mid-season. He’s projected for a 1.5 WAR over 116 innings. I think that’s possible over about four months of the year. That leaves 73 innings remaining. We’ll give all of that to Jameson Taillon, who has lower ratings than other options, but is the more realistic choice. That adds an extra 0.1 WAR, and plenty of room for improvement if Taillon exceeds his ZiPS projections.
Taillon and Glasnow add an extra 1.6 WAR to the rotation, giving a total of 12.5 WAR. Once again, this will probably change when the Pirates add another starter.
WAR: +12.5 (86.8)
I took the 522.1 innings pitched by the bullpen in 2015, and used that for the playing time here. For the main relievers, I kept their actual playing time, with the exception of Webster, who i adjusted down. In Locke’s case, he gets a total of 120 innings between the rotation and bullpen.
CL: Mark Melancon (68.0 IP, 1.3 WAR)
RP: Tony Watson (70.0 IP, 1.1 WAR)
RP: Allen Webster (65.0 IP, 0.3 WAR)
RP: Arquimedes Caminero (73.3 IP, 0.5 WAR)
RP: Jared Hughes (62.7 IP, 0.3 WAR)
RP: Bobby LaFromboise (65.3 IP, -0.2 WAR)
RP: Jorge Rondon (67.3 IP, 0.2 WAR)
There were 50.2 innings remaining. I always have a hard time deciding who to give the extra innings to, since this is a hard area to predict. Since so many relievers are in the 0.2-0.4 WAR range, I ended up just going with an extra 0.3 WAR. I figure that when the rotation changes, Nicasio will head to the bullpen, and Rondon will be the extra guy.
This year’s projection is at 3.8 WAR, which is 0.1 shy of last year’s projection. This could see some big changes, especially if Mark Melancon is traded. There could be some positive changes too if they add extra help. I think they’ll at least add another left-handed reliever. As an example, if you give LaFromboise’s innings to Antonio Bastardo, you increase the projections by almost a full win. For now, we’ll go with the low projections for a second lefty, and the high projections that include Melancon.
WAR: +3.8 (90.6)
Early 2016 Projection
Rounding up the figure, the Pirates are projected for a 91-71 record, which is actually one win higher than their projection last year, and that projection came when the team was set.
This figure will probably cause one of two reactions:
1. 91 wins won’t be enough. They will need much more than that to win the division. Except the problem with this reaction is that no projection will ever have a team winning 98+ games. As noted above, there are so many things that can change for better or worse with the projection. 91 wins is a good starting point.
2. There’s no way they are this good. This is actually the reaction I’m expecting, because this off-season has been filled with nothing but doom and gloom. The Pirates haven’t made any big additions, outside of adding Jon Niese, who is mostly regarded as a pitcher with very little value, even though that same thought was flawed when applied to Edinson Volquez and J.A. Happ in previous years. They’ve gotten rid of Charlie Morton, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker in the process. And we’re very early in the off-season, which means there are still moves to come, a lot of mystery surrounding those moves, and the natural pessimistic approach that seems to come with the off-season.
You look at the roster, and they really haven’t lost much. They’re largely returning the same team that won 98 games last year. They lost A.J. Burnett, and will need to replace him with someone. They basically swapped out Morton for Niese, which didn’t change the overall projection much. They traded Walker, but Josh Harrison is projected for a big year, putting up a WAR figure that Walker comes close to in his normal seasons. Alen Hanson is projected to have a big year, and if that plays out, they won’t miss Harrison’s production off the bench.
Then there are the potential moves to come, and all of the areas where they could improve. On the downside, if they trade Mark Melancon, that would probably see a decline to their numbers. And there’s no guarantee the guys they add would see an overall increase to the projections. But here are the areas that could improve, as a quick recap:
**Francisco Cervelli could add value if he stays healthy all year again.
**They need a first baseman, and should be able to improve over Morse’s 0.2 WAR projection.
**Starling Marte could add an extra half win if he performs closer to his 2013-14 numbers.
**Andrew McCutchen could add about 0.8 WAR if he performs to his numbers in previous years, with a huge increase if he sees an MVP season.
**Gregory Polanco is projected for his 2015 totals, and would really improve the team if he breaks out this year.
**The rotation will see the addition of one more starter.
**Jon Niese has been a 2.0+ WAR player in four of the last five years, and I could see room for improvement here due to the Searage impact.
**The bullpen could see an extra win if they add a good left-handed reliever behind Watson, and will also see a slight value boost when Juan Nicasio replaces Jorge Rondon.
**There’s also the team impact of having upgraded defense, defensive shifts, and Ray Searage. All of this could play a positive impact that is difficult to quantify here.
The Pirates are returning a lot of guys from a great team. They’re not seeing the expected drop off from the guys they lost. They’ve got a lot of top prospects who will add value throughout the year. And they still have three big holes to fill via free agency or trades (1B, SP, LHRP), plus a lot of room for upside over the current projections.
There aren’t flashy moves being made here, like spending over $200 M to bring in proven players like the Cubs are doing. But the Pirates are projected for a good team, have some upgrades coming in the form of young prospects, and will likely see several more additions this coming off-season. The idea that they can’t contend in 2016 seems very premature.