Every year on New Year’s Eve, I do the same type of article. The theme of the article is always a play on the upcoming year, with this year’s article being 17 situations that could lead to the Pirates returning to the playoffs in 2017. In previous years I focused on breakout candidates, high upside players, and other similar situations that could boost the Pirates forward.
This article was difficult to write last year, because the Pirates didn’t have a lot of high upside players. A lot of their offseason additions were lower upside guys like Ryan Vogelsong or Jon Niese. That, combined with all of the struggles across the board from players performing below projections, led to a down year.
This time around, the article takes a different shape. You don’t have as many high beta guys who can see their production range from very good to very bad. There are a number of players who are loosely involved in trade rumors who I included on the list, meaning the list could change by Opening Day. And then there are all of the guys who struggled last year, who need to bounce back this year.
So I took a different approach with this article. I didn’t focus as much on the individual importance of each number (meaning you could argue someone listed as 14 should be in the top 10). Instead, I focused on grouping the people below into individual categories, to show how important they were to the Pirates contending in 2017. I also cheated a bit and included other players throughout the article, so you’ve got more than 17. And I have a feeling I might have to revisit this article in a month or two when all of the dust settles from the delayed offseason.
Here is the list for 2017, focusing more on the groups and situations with these people, and less on specific high-upside guys.
In previous years, the guys coming up from Triple-A would make up the bulk of this article. The Pirates were relying on those prospects to come up and make an impact, helping to push the team beyond their projections. So many of those prospects have arrived the last few years that the rotation and the lineup are pretty much set. There are still some top prospects in the minors, and those players who have arrived in previous years will still show up later on this list. For now, most of the guys in this first group are just depth for the rotation or bullpen, with two key top prospects included.
17. Edgar Santana/Dovydas Neverauskas – The Pirates have two hard-throwing right-handers in Triple-A in Santana and Neverauskas. Both can hit upper 90s and have good sliders, with the potential for late inning work in the future. They could both arrive in 2017, although they’re unlikely to make the team on Opening Day. I don’t know if they will immediately emerge as late inning options, or as guys who will have an easy transition to the majors. But having two guys with this type of arm strength could provide a nice boost for the bullpen during the year.
16. Austin Meadows – Meadows is a guy who probably won’t have a big impact unless an injury comes up, or unless Andrew McCutchen is traded. If the latter happens, he would shoot up this list in terms of importance. He’s got the potential to be an impact player in the majors, and the skills to have an easy transition to the majors when he arrives. He should be ready at some point in 2017, and it’s just a question of whether he has an opportunity that could come up this year.
15. Drew Hutchison/Steven Brault/Trevor Williams – The Pirates have some other pitchers in the minors who could provide depth for the back of the rotation, but Hutchison, Brault, and Williams are at the top of the list. At the moment, they would be competing for the final rotation spot on Opening Day. If the Pirates added another starting pitcher, like Jose Quintana, these three would provide some nice depth, or be candidates for the bullpen in long-relief/swingman roles. I don’t see any of them as having more than number four starter upside, but they all could easily reach that back of the rotation upside, and really help the Pirates out in the event of an injury or poor performance.
14. Tyler Glasnow – If the Pirates added Quintana, I don’t see how the deal could be made without including Glasnow. And if they added Quintana, it would be easier to trade Glasnow, since their rotation would be under team control for at least the next three years. But if that doesn’t happen, then Glasnow remains in the mix of starting pitchers from Triple-A, and obviously has the highest upside of the group. He won’t be ready at the start of the season, since there is still a lot of work to be done with his control and his changeup. The Pirates recently promoted Justin Meccage to the Minor League Pitching Coordinator role, which could be good, as it will give him some more time to work with Glasnow, who made his best progress in the past under Meccage. I don’t think it will be easy for Glasnow to provide an impact in 2017, but I also don’t think it’s impossible.
The New Bullpen
Ii’ll get to Tony Watson later in the article, and I’m not including Juan Nicasio here, since I don’t think he could perform better than what the Pirates saw last year. However, there are two relievers in the back of the bullpen who could perform better than expected.
13. Daniel Hudson – The Pirates signed Hudson to a two-year deal this offseason. He’s got one of the hardest fastballs, and can generate some strikeouts, with the chance to be a nice late inning reliever. The Pirates have brought in guys like this in the past, and after some minor changes, saw them take their game to the next level. We’ll see if the same happens with Hudson. If he remains the same pitcher he’s been the last two years (with the consideration that last year saw his numbers greatly inflated by a bad one or two-week stretch), then the Pirates will still have a really good arm in the late innings, and a possible closer if Watson is moved.
12. Felipe Rivero – Rivero has electric stuff, but also some control problems that hold him back. He’s a good late inning reliever and a potential closer with the control problems. If the Pirates can find a way to reduce those issues, he could take a step forward as a very dominant reliever, on par with what the Pirates saw from Mark Melancon and Tony Watson in previous years. Just like with Hudson, the Pirates will have a very good reliever here if no improvements are made, although there is some upside.
How Good Will These Guys Be?
I mentioned earlier that the Pirates had a lot of prospects who made the jump to the majors the last few years. Some of those guys could still have another level to reach, while others are guys who need to show that their 2016 debuts were legit and something to build upon. Note that I included Ivan Nova in this group because he fits the overall theme of wondering how good players in this group can be.
11. Adam Frazier – I’d include Alen Hanson with Frazier as someone who could provide some nice depth off the bench, although I feel Hanson would belong in the “Depth” group above. Frazier is also ahead of Hanson on the depth charts, essentially guaranteed a roster spot. He worked his way to the majors last year, and worked his way into getting some starts at the end of the year. Defensively, Frazier doesn’t offer a lot at any position, which will keep him on the bench. However, he’s a good hitter who can get on base frequently, and that makes him a top depth option off the bench if an injury comes up or a starter doesn’t perform. That worked well in 2016, and we’ll have to see if the performance carries over in 2017.
10. Chad Kuhl – I’ve been talking up Kuhl as a strong number four starter with a high floor for the past few years. He’s a guy with surprising velocity and a high ground ball rate, although the lack of a great strikeout pitch will prevent him from being higher up in the rotation. He can get some strikeouts with his slider, and he mostly pitches to contact and avoids the strikeout approach, but he’s still not a guy who can completely dominate hitters like Jameson Taillon or Gerrit Cole. That said, he showed the potential to be a solid number four starter last year, especially after making an adjustment to his approach after the first few starts in the majors. He should have a rotation spot locked up, and could be a nice boost to the group if he can put up around a 4.00 ERA over a full season.
9. Ivan Nova – Nova isn’t a young player like the other guys in this group. However, he’s a guy who could really give the Pirates a boost if he repeats his final two months of 2016. He had a 3.06 ERA and a 3.13 xFIP in his time with the Pirates, earning him a three-year, $26 M deal, which seemed a bit low. That deal could turn into a big value if he comes close to what he did last year. I think the floor here is around a 4.00 ERA, but if he has figured something out, he could shoot higher than that and give the Pirates a very strong number three starter.
8. Josh Bell – Bell’s offense carried over about as well as you could hope for in his MLB debut. He only had a .775 OPS, which isn’t what you want long-term from a first baseman with his defensive issues. However, I think there’s still a lot left for Bell, and we haven’t come close to seeing his upside with the bat. The defensive issues will suppress his value, keeping him at a 2-3 WAR player. If he can become that player in 2017, he would finally give the Pirates some security and production at first base.
7. Gregory Polanco – I’ve been waiting for Polanco to break out since he entered the majors, and he was the most important player on this list last year. It looked like he was finally breaking out, with a .310/.386/.556 line in the first two months of the season. He struggled at times the rest of the year, with a .229/.286/.412 line. He still showed promising signs, with good power production in that span. He also had some injury issues that he was dealing with, and that could have slowed his production. Polanco just turned 25 at the end of the 2016 season, so he still has plenty of time to see that long-awaited breakout, and hopefully it finally happens in 2017.
6. Jameson Taillon – You couldn’t ask for a better debut than the one the Pirates saw from Taillon. He looked like a guy who could already pitch as a number two or number three starter in the majors, with an advanced approach, and the stuff needed to dominate opposing hitters. The thing about young players is that the league can adjust to them, and they don’t always stay consistent in their early years. If Taillon can counter the adjustments quickly, and avoid inconsistencies, he would give the Pirates exactly what they need as a young, top of the rotation starter.
The Bounce Back Candidates
One of the big issues for the Pirates last year was that most of their roster under-performed, suffered injuries, or both. The Pirates have four key players who fit in this category who need to bounce back in 2017 to help the team. There’s also the chance that two of them might not be on the team by Opening Day.
5. Tony Watson – A lot of people started noticing Watson’s struggles when he moved to the closer’s role last year. But he was struggling before making that move. Watson was close to replacement level in 2016, which is a far cry from his performance from 2013-2015, when he was one of the best relievers in baseball. The Pirates could trade him this offseason, so it’s not a guarantee that he will play for them in 2017. But if he does, they would need him to bounce back to being the reliever they had prior to 2016, and that reliever would pair nicely with Hudson and Rivero in the late innings.
4. Francisco Cervelli – Cervelli probably was unlikely to repeat his 2015 season, when he posted a 3.8 fWAR, which is a value that doesn’t include his pitch framing. That framing ranks among the best in baseball. Cervelli saw his power drop off, but maintained his .370 range OBP that he’s had in each of the last four seasons (although the first two years combined for 223 plate appearances). He also dealt with injuries, being limited to 101 games and 393 plate appearances. I don’t know if 130 games and 510 plate appearances can be expected again like we saw in 2015, but the more he can stay healthy, the better it would be for the Pirates. Having a strong defensive catcher who can reach base 37% of the time provides a big boost for the team on both sides of the ball.
3. Gerrit Cole – Cole’s 2016 season was filled with injuries, with three trips to the disabled list due to elbow issues. He didn’t need surgery this offseason, and has already resumed throwing. We probably won’t know how he’s responding or get an indication of how he’s bouncing back until Spring Training. Needless to say, the Pirates will want the 2013-2015 version of Cole, who was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball over that span. He ranked 19th, 16th, and 19th in WAR, ERA, and xFIP among 132 qualified pitchers during that span. The Pirates could use that type of production at the top of their rotation.
2. Andrew McCutchen – This is another case where the Pirates need the 2013-2015 version more than the 2016 version. I don’t think McCutchen will bounce back to those levels and be a 6 WAR player, but I could see him being at least a 4 WAR player, which is a big increase from his 2016 production. Of course, there’s the chance that McCutchen won’t be on the team by Opening Day, and if that happens, along with some other moves, then this could be an entirely different list. That all brings me to number one…
The Offseason Moves
1. Neal Huntington – Normally, the rosters are starting to take shape across baseball by this time, and this type of article would be pretty locked in. But the slow offseason, combined with a lot of trade rumors for the Pirates, makes this list very flexible. You could see scenarios where half of this list could be traded away by the start of the season. Neal Huntington’s job isn’t finished yet this offseason, and he will easily be the most important part in 2017, at least early in the year. He will need to find a way to add help, trade the right prospects or players to get that help, make deals where he gets young talent back for guys like Andrew McCutchen, Tony Watson, or other veterans, and all while trying to fit in under a small market budget. When the season starts, this list will be entirely about the players. But so much can happen until then, and Huntington’s wheeling and dealing over the next 2-3 months will have the biggest impact on the 2017 season.