All off-season, there has been talk that the Pirates will struggle on offense in 2016. Looking at this team, I have no clue where this talk is coming from.
Alright, I do have a clue. It involves Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker departing. It involves focusing way too much on home runs, and not enough on the total offensive package. And in each case, the thought that the Pirates will have a poor offense is ignoring a lot of the aspects that will lead to them having a good offense.
Last year, the Pirates were about middle of the pack for the entire season. They ranked 7th overall in the NL with a .313 wOBA, but third overall with a 99 wRC+. Those numbers were almost identical to the numbers the Cubs put up for the season, and many would consider the Cubs to have a great offense.
Looking at the second half, things get better. The Pirates moved up to fourth overall in wOBA with a .323 mark. They were also second in wRC+ with 107. The reason for these improvements? Andrew McCutchen broke out of his April slump, Jung-ho Kang became an everyday player, the bench got much better at the trade deadline, and Gregory Polanco showed some improvements.
Then when you look ahead to the 2016 season, you see that a lot of the things that were working in the second half last year should be working again for the Pirates in the upcoming season.
They’ve still got an MVP in Andrew McCutchen. Over the last three seasons, he has combined for the sixth best wOBA (.395) and fifth best wRC+ (157) in baseball.
Starling Marte might be one of the most under-rated players in the game, and is definitely under-rated in Pittsburgh. During the last three years, he ranks 48th in wOBA (.346) and 37th in wRC+ (124) out of 233 qualified players.
Then there’s Jung-ho Kang, who was just as good as Andrew McCutchen offensively in the second half last year. In fact, Kang was one of the best in baseball in the second half last year. He ranked 19th in wOBA (.392) and 15th in wRC+ (154) out of 186 qualified players with 200+ plate appearances during that span. Because of his lack of track record and his current rehab process, it’s hard to say whether he can repeat these numbers going forward. The rehab is looking good, and Kang could be ready by Opening Day. If he gets close to his 2015 performance, the Pirates will have three impact bats in the lineup. And we’re just getting started.
Next up is Francisco Cervelli, who had some great numbers from the catcher’s position last year. He posted a .341 wOBA and a 119 wRC+, which ranked third and second, respectively, out of 28 catchers with 300+ plate appearances. And it’s not like those numbers were a fluke. He had a .358 wOBA and a 130 wRC+ in 2014 with the Yankees, albeit in a smaller sample size. At this point, I think the odds of him staying healthy for another 500+ plate appearance season would be the bigger question than worrying about his offense. As for that question about health, it helps that the Pirates do a good job managing the workload with their players and keeping guys healthy.
Now I will point out here that the second half success last year was in part due to Pedro Alvarez, who had a .367 wOBA and a 137 wRC+. But it’s not like the guy they got to replace Alvarez is bad offensively. He’s just different. Alvarez has his success due to power and very little else. He’s your typical three true outcomes guy. Meanwhile, Jaso doesn’t have the same power, but gets on base a ton. Both are platoon guys, limited to right-handers. And in that comparison, Jaso beats out Alvarez in almost every overall offensive category, as seen in this career comparison. So the Pirates did lose a big home run hitter in Alvarez, but they actually upgraded their offense at first base against right-handers by adding Jaso.
The other half of the first base platoon includes Michael Morse and/or Jason Rogers. I said yesterday that I think both should be on the roster, giving the Pirates a strong offensive bench. Morse was a big reason the bench improved in the second half last year, and he and Rogers would continue what the Pirates had in those final two months.
Jordy Mercer is a defense-first shortstop, although he does have some good offensive stretches at times. The consistency isn’t there, which means he won’t cash in on being a strong offensive shortstop. But he’s not a no-bat guy either. In the last three years, out of 28 shortstops with 1000+ plate appearances, he ranked 17th in wOBA (.297) and 14th in wRC+ (90). So he’s generally about middle of the pack offensively at the shortstop position. This is a drop off from the other guys in the lineup, but not everyone will be a star, and you’d take Mercer’s numbers from shortstop when paired with his defense.
It’s hard to say what you’re going to get from Josh Harrison. Anyone expecting a repeat of his 2014 season, when he put up a .365 wOBA and 137 wRC+, are probably being way too optimistic. That said, I could see him doing better than his 2015 totals of .313/100. He’s another guy who did well in the second half, hitting for a .340 wOBA and a 119 wRC+, which is about the mid-point of his 2014 and 2015 numbers. There might be an offensive drop off here from Walker to Harrison, but I don’t think it’s significant enough to turn the Pirates into a bad offense.
Finally, there’s Gregory Polanco, who has tons of upside, but hasn’t quite put it together in the majors yet. Polanco did show improvements in the second half, and was unlucky last year with a lot of hard hit balls that went right to fielders for outs. I’ve written this off-season about how I think he will be the most important member of the offense, mostly because any improvements from him could make up for drops in production at other positions — whether that’s a drop off from Walker to Harrison, or an injury to Cervelli, or Kang seeing a drop in his production after his injury. Polanco provides the biggest opportunity for an increase at an individual position, and as a long-time Polanco believer who was encouraged with the second half numbers last year, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a big increase this year.
I don’t look at this offense and see a bad offense. I look at this group and see an MVP. I see a very underrated hitter in Starling Marte, and another huge impact bat in Jung-ho Kang — assuming he returns healthy and close to his 2015 production. I see a really good offensive catcher in Francisco Cervelli. There’s a quietly great first base option in John Jaso, and two strong bats from the right side who should also improve the bench. Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison aren’t impact guys, and probably won’t be at the top of their positions like Cervelli, but they’re not going to be liabilities. And finally, Gregory Polanco is still a breakout candidate, and a breakout from him would put this offense over the top, or make up for any shortcomings from the previous group.
This isn’t a bad offense. In fact, it could end up being one of the best groups in the National League, just like how they finished the 2015 season.
**The Pirates Prospects App is Now Available on Android. If you missed it from this weekend, our app is now available on Android. The iOS version for Apple devices will be out in the next week.
**John Jaso Gets In-Depth About His Transition to First Base. I really liked this interview and all of the detailed responses Jaso gave about the move to first base from catching.
**Nick Kingham is on the Pirates’ Conservative Path Back From Tommy John. A look at where Kingham’s rehab is at, and when you might expect him back in real games.
**Pirates Top Ten Prospects From Baseball Prospectus. The latest prospect rankings, with another high-ranking for Kevin Newman, and a high-ranking for Mitch Keller.
**David Todd Podcast: Pirates Off-Season, Kang’s Health, Taillon, Glasnow, Rankings. Podcast of my interview with David Todd on Wednesday, looking at a lot of early Spring Training topics.