2017 Pittsburgh Pirates Season Preview: The Disappointment of a Wild Card Ceiling

BOSTON – It’s hard to give a fair evaluation of the Pirates for the 2017 season.

The proper way to do an evaluation is to see how good the team is compared to the rest of the teams in baseball. They don’t have to be the absolute best team in the game, but the goal would be for them to be one of the contenders for the post-season.

The problem is that they’re in the same division as the best team in baseball — the Chicago Cubs. And so every evaluation gets distorted by the scope of the Cubs. If the Pirates are seen as a legit contender, it’s not enough because they have no shot at the NL Central division. If they’re a team around .500, on the outside of the Wild Card race, then it’s a disastrous season. And if they actually had a disastrous season, I think PNC Park would burn to the ground.

We’ve come a long, long way from the time when the hope was that the Pirates could eke out their 82nd win on the final day of the season, with the ultimate dream being that they might be able to make the playoffs one day. When a sports team wins, the bar gets raised and the goalposts get moved, and all of that rightfully happened when the Pirates made the Wild Card game for three years in a row. The first time was amazing. The second time was good. The third time raised the question of whether they could go beyond that one game playoff one day.

And then that coincided with the Cubs becoming a powerhouse in the NL Central. The answer to the question “Can the Pirates get beyond the Wild Card game?” now has that hopeless feeling that once surrounded the question “Can the Pirates make the playoffs?” The answer is probably the same for both: “Absolutely everything would have to go right, and things would have to go wrong for other teams, and maybe it could happen on the last day of the season.”

As we saw, it was ridiculous to expect that everything would need to go right for the Pirates and wrong for other teams to reach the playoffs. They had a lot going wrong during the 2013-15 season, but managed to have more things going right. I just don’t think that will be the same situation when it comes to winning the NL Central.

I think the Pirates will be a good team this year, and that’s under the normal scope of comparing them to the rest of baseball, rather than comparing them to the Cubs. I think they could contend for a Wild Card spot. That might be controversial due to the fact that there’s a doom and gloom feel due to their chances in the NL Central, along with the perception that the Wild Card game just isn’t good enough anymore. But making the playoffs is still a good thing, even if it is masked by the hopelessness in the NL Central division race.

The Pirates have a lot of things going right for them. They have the makings of a strong rotation. Gerrit Cole ranked 17th in ERA and 19th in xFIP among 132 qualified starters between 2013 and 2015. Jameson Taillon had a fantastic rookie debut last year, and it’s reasonable to expect that he could improve as his career moves forward. Ivan Nova looked fantastic in his two months with the Pirates last year, and if he gets anywhere close to that, he’d be a solid number three starter. Then there’s Tyler Glasnow with some of the best upside on the team, and headed in the right direction with his development.

The offense also shows some promise. The Pirates are largely returning a group that finished third in the NL in wRC+ last year. They lost Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez, and there’s the risk that they will lose Jung Ho Kang for the year. But Joyce and Rodriguez propped up a slumping offense. The 2016 team saw injuries or poor performance for almost every player in the starting lineup. They should see some of those guys bounce back in some form, and would need a few players to step up with big years to replace Kang’s loss.

But as Clint Hurdle noted in his pre-game meeting with the media today, “What happens if [the Pirates] give up fewer runs?” Last year’s offense might have been better, but the pitching was atrocious. That team won 78 games, and they were in the Wild Card hunt until September. This year’s team could see a bit of a drop off with their offense, even if a few players bounce back. But the pitching should see a huge boost over last year, and the overall team should have a shot at contending for the Wild Card spot.

As for the Cubs and the division, they’re still not quite there. A lot of the situations above involve “what if” scenarios. What if Cole bounces back, Taillon takes a step forward, Nova gets close to his final two months of 2016, Glasnow reaches his upside, McCutchen bounces back, Polanco or other players step up to replace Kang, and so on. They don’t need all of that to happen to be contenders, but they would need all of that to happen to beat the Cubs. I just don’t see that happening this year.

That said, I don’t think it’s impossible for the future. This is a young team, with a lot of young players on the way. I don’t think it’s a team that is at the end of their run as contenders, but in a bit of a lull, with a long run of contending still ahead of them. If you’re disappointed by a ceiling of a Wild Card run, then this might not be a promising year for you. But if you’re looking for a team that could reach the playoffs, and has a brighter future ahead of them, then this is your team.

  • I have to say I really enjoyed just having the actual game play yesterday- win or lose which is really what the game is. Day 1 of an extreme difficult grind. I just wanted to see the team, our guys, and see if they are ready for this journey.
    I came away convinced our team can compete with the best which is what the RedSox are in the AL. Also Cutch had a rough day one and Cole would like one pitch back not to mention missing our best 3rd baseman.
    We have found our lead off tandem with Harrison and Frazier platoon, with Frazier maybe spelling in the outfield to get a few ab’s vs lefties.
    Mercer is looking ready for his breakout year.
    The bullpen looked strong.
    This team is definitely wildcard ready and with some games under their belts the starters will have to find their stride in the second half. If they do there is no ceiling for this years team.

  • The Pirates have a World Championship ceiling.

  • The question isn’t whether they can get past the wildcard. The question is whether they can make it to the playoffs at all. They didn’t do enough to offset what losses they had, in my opinion. In fact, I don’t see that they’ve done anything to add to the team at all. Every one of their starters played for them last year. Sure, I think you can expect some progression from Tallion but at this point, isn’t it just as likely that most of their players will take a step backwards as forwards? they were sub 500 team last year and I would expect them to be a sub 500 team this year especially now that Kang is out of the lineup

    I frustration with the Pirates isn’t that the Cubs are in their division. My frustration with the Pirates is that they seem content with being a team that floats around 500 every year.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD
      April 3, 2017 11:41 pm

      You hit the nail on the head Thomas H – they seem content to be what they are and where they are.

      This is reflected in their non-participation in any of the top International free agent signings – I seldom see their name even listed as being a contender for any of the top 25-50 each year.

      It is reflected in their total neglect of any of the top Cuban defections – they are never even in the conversations.

      It is reflected in their reluctance in trusting their own prospects over mediocre journeyman veterans like Jaso, Stewart, Gosselin, Bastardo, etc, etc, etc. They have squandered a lot of value in their farm system in the last 2-3 years – with dumb trades and letting some prospects grow stale (see Hanson and Diaz) and lose their peek value.

      It is reflected in their drafting – especially the past 3-4 season when they draft mostly college position players (by far) who are cheaper to sign, but have less to offer. Picks like Joe and Craig were just unbelievable poor choices. They seldom draft the higher ceiling HS position players, and the lower levels of the farm system reflects that.

      This franchise is handicapped by a poor FO, who still thinks its the best in baseball, along with cheap ownership that allows economics to trump baseball in decisions involving personnel. Until those things change, expect more of the same…

      • Thing is this is this team. So basically your saying you don’t like it, every day pretty much.

  • GreenWeenie
    April 3, 2017 5:29 pm

    The FO has done some very good things to get the Pirates in a better place, but they need to be even better….better talent evaluators in the draft, better making trades, better coaching up a culture of high effort and intensity. If they can’t realistically compete every year for a division title, then at least show me you’re trying and be a pro. I’m not sure we always see those things from our guys – at least some of them.

    • Joey Cora was hired and won at AA. His team was not filled with high level prospects, but they played very hard every day, and they succeeded as a result of their effort as a team. He was immediately promoted to be the Pirates 3B Coach assisting CH who does not have a contract for 2018. If Joey Cora is not the Manager-in-Waiting, I think we have a scoop.

      Like the Cubs a few years ago, we have young talent – we just need to find the right guy who can work with young guys, play them, depend upon them, and help them develop as MLB ballplayers. CH is not that guy

      • And, today’s game has nothing to do with that opinion. I think it is safe to say Frazier led the team. ‘Cutch hit some hard foul balls down left of third base. Freese had 2 hits, Bell dented the Green Monster, and Cervelli looked good also. They played well enough to win but still too many AB’s without contact – gotta put the ball in play.

    • “Better talent evaluators” ?? The 2011 draft produced. Cole, Bell, Glasnow and Clay Holmes. Also, in that draft NH took a kid named Trea Turner… Too bad he didn’t sign. You will be hard pressed to find a better draft than that the past 5-10 years.

      • GreenWeenie
        April 3, 2017 9:05 pm

        Yes, better talent evaluators in drafting and trading. One good draft doesn’t make a champion.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    April 3, 2017 3:58 pm

    If Cole pitches all season like he is doing today, no need to worry about a wild card. Regardless, I don’t think he’s going to be our #1 starter all season – Taillon is more dependable and in time Glasnow will surpass him.

    Just as he was in college, his stuff doesn’t always translate to results. For someone with his stuff, you would expect more K’s, mode dominant starts, and that he wouldn’t get hit as hard as he does.

    I just hope today isn’t a sign of what we will see from him all season….

    • He is a good pitcher but your observations are on point. He just doesn’t dominate the way you think he would with his stuff and that has been the story of his career. Good career so far, but not great-one excellent season and the rest leaves you wanting more. Of course there is more room for this story to change, we’ll see…

      • PG had an article this morn showing that only Kershaw, Cueto, Mad Bum and Wainright have been better than Cole in the Nl. Rather eye opening. perhaps we’re being too harsh on him?

        • BuccosFanStuckinMD
          April 3, 2017 6:19 pm

          Over what time period?

          • Go to PG.com and read the article….From the time Cole came into the league

            • As long as you are looking at stats since the 2015 playoffs where he probably has around a 5.00 era, Cole is pretty good.

        • BuccosFanStuckinMD
          April 3, 2017 11:30 pm

          When I first read this I thought this was preposterous, so I went back and looked at some stats over the past 4-5 years when Cole entered the league….

          (1) Cole has had one VERY good season (2015), and three good to average to below average seasons. He’s only pitched 200+ innings once.
          (2) There are at least six NL starters who have been vastly superior to Cole in the same time period – Wainwright, Greinke, Arietta, Bumgartner, Kershaw, and Cueto.
          (3) Even though he has only pitched two years in the NL, Scherzer has been clearly better – two outstanding seasons to just one for Cole – and far more dominant and consistent.

          Don’t get me wrong, Cole is a special talent and he is still young and can improve. But, if I had to assess his first 4 seasons in the majors, I would say he’s underachieved – given his talent, pedigree, and expectations of a #1 overall pick. He needs to be the ace of the staff – to win the tough matchups in difficult settings, and win the big games when a lot is riding on the line – he has yet to do any of those things on a consistent enough basis. I am still hopeful, despite today’s dreadful performance, that he will be more like his 2015 version….

  • We won the Wild Card game in 2013 and were up 2-1 in the next round. Since then we’ve run into buzz saws named Arrietta and MadBum in the WC.

    Even if we win the division, there is no guarantees that we win the best of 5 series. Even the “Worst” playoff team is pretty darn good.

    Playoffs are won by the hottest and luckiest teams. Teams with the best W-L are not automatic WS winners. I doubt even the Cubs win the WS last year if Cleveland doesn’t lose its top 2/3 Starters (there’s that luck part).

    As Billy Beane once said “My job is to get them (the A’s) to the playoffs. After that, all bets are off.” (or something of that ilk).

    As long as we make the playoffs in any way shape or form, we have a chance.

    That is fine with me.

    All that being said, we just have way too many “ifs” for me to even entertain the thoughts of a Wild Card. As usual, I hope I am wrong. 🙂

  • We should not overlook the Cardinals when assessing our competition in the Central . STL is a Top 5 NL team with depth and a good mix of veterans and young / emerging players. I agree with Tim that we have a young team that will get better over time. I think this is the best team that we realistically could have put on the field, so I have no regrets about running this team out there to see how they stack up against two of the best teams in the league. If they play to their (collective) ceiling, this will be an incredibly entertaining season. If they don’t, then I hope to hell that we can capitalize on some of the ridiculous prospect-for-veterans trades we’ve seen over the past couple years to set us up for our next playoff run.

  • The biggest problem and I think most Yinzers and displaced Pittsburghers like me can attest to this is that the Pirates play in the same city as the Steelers and Penguins. The Steelers are the crown jewel of the NFL and the Pens are one of the most successful NHL franchises over the last quarter century with 4 Cups. They will always be compared. That being said.
    Let’s Go Bucs!
    Let’s Go Pens!
    Here We Go Steelers!

    • two words….Salary cap. It allows small market teams, like Pittsburgh, to compete on an even playing field. The buccos margin for error is just smaller than some other teams due to the lack of cap.

    • I’ve always found this somewhat funny.

      One, as Brian said, those leagues have salary caps. And the Steelers have their version of the Cubs that have haunted them for years, that they’ve never shown they can keep up with. They’re just lucky enough that the Patriots are in a different division.

      But the real funny part to me, is that the Pirates are doing what they can to build the team exactly the same way as the Pens and Steelers. They bring up their own talent, stay away from high priced free agents, and supplement the team when required. They do their best to make smart, efficient management decisions that are the best for today’s team and tomorrow’s.

      They just don’t have Sidney Crosby

  • JustABitOutside
    April 3, 2017 1:12 pm

    I don’t see a “Wild Card Ceiling” as a disappointment for several reasons: 1) Who in the world knows how this year will play out? It is possible Arrieta and Hendricks get injured/play relatively poorly (Not rooting for injury for anyone) and the Cubs come back to earth. The Pirates could perform much better simply by guys producing as they should. Would I put money on them making up 25 games? No. But it isn’t impossible either. This team is pretty decent (As you note in this article). 2) Who cares how you get to the playoffs? Yes, the one game playoff sucks. However, if they get to the dance and have Taillon, Cole, and Nova/Glasnow/anyone else pitching very well, this team could be dangerous. I think it is possible this team gets to the playoffs as a WC team then makes a deep run. Nobody would consider the wild card a disappointment at that point.

    • pierogieking
      April 3, 2017 1:44 pm

      I agree, I also think that this team may look much different in the second half. Guys like Bell and glasnow reaching closer to their ceiling and guys like meadows and Kingham coming in to help.

    • Wild card as a ceiling is not a disappointment but I think that is the ceiling. Its more likely this team will fight again to be above 500. This line up looks weak. Polonco already has shoulder issues and we haven’t had our first game. Bench has zero power and looks far inferior to last year. Nothing Cutch has done this spring gives me optimism he is going to turn in a stellar year. Kong is gone and I really had hoped a full healthy year from him would be a boost to this team. I think our starting pitching is better for sure and that should help but I think our overall defense may be worse which could affect the pitching. I do believe the ceiling is WC and I would be real happy if we get their but I think this team will be sellers at the deadline again and fighting for 500.

      • JustABitOutside
        April 3, 2017 2:00 pm

        I think this team has the potential to have a very good rotation and a much better bullpen than last year. If Glasnow can get close to his ceiling, Cole can return to form, and Taillon can pitch like he did last year- this team could be a dark horse 2014 S.F. Giants. That team only hit 132 home runs but their pitching carried them. That is obviously an optimistic view (Hey, it’s opening day!). I will say this too- the Pirates don’t have any pitchers who will hit two home runs in a game…

        • That 5-spot Cole gave up in the 5th today smarts.

          • JustABitOutside
            April 3, 2017 6:23 pm

            True. Last year, Liriano looked like a Cy Young Award winner on Opening Day. One never knows.

        • BuccosFanStuckinMD
          April 3, 2017 4:19 pm

          Disregarding Cole’s meltdown today, I agree with you – the rotation will have to carry the team this year.
          We don’t have much power, unless Polanco and Bell really step up in the HR category this year, but I think the team will score enough runs to win – as long as the starting pitching gives them a chance.

          The OF defense should be among the best, while the infield defense will likely be serviceable at best.

          I think the bullpen can be outstanding, as long as they don’t get overused on a consistent basis.

  • I agree that they could “contend” for a wild card. I’m not exactly excited about that since I think there will be plenty contending for a wild card spot. IOW it’s not saying much. Looking at the line up cards for today’s game — ours looks like a punch & judy line-up vs. Boston. Boston also has some darn good pitching. I suppose there are several teams who have some weaknesses like the Bucs. We have to hope the starters stay health b/c there’s not much relief behind them that will make a difference. I’m hopeful but not yet sold that Cole will ever really live up to his potential as a #1 stud. The defense is just ok overall. They’ll have to move guys around the bases b/c the line-up lacks punch. Hopefully they can improve on their base running b/c w/o a punch, not improving could cripple their run-scoring plan.

    • To be fair, Boston is for many the favorite to win the AL this year. I think our lineup compares more favorably to most teams. I think we have a top 5 NL offense again this year. Which isn’t fantastic, but its something.

      • Without Kang and losing the HRs of SeanRod and Joyce, I highly doubt that we will have a Top 5 offense. But, I hope that you are correct in that assumption.

        • DangerWilRobnsn
          April 3, 2017 3:41 pm

          Without the HR’s and their perpetually bad baserunning, this team will REALLY struggle to get runs across the plate. They may have plenty of hits, but a disproportionately high number of LOB and few number of runs out of those hits.

        • I love how everyone said the same thing last year about losing Walkers and Avarez’s HRs who in the world can replace them? Then people bitched when SRod was re-signed. Then magically SRod, Joyce and others stepped up. People forget players continue to grow and mature, especially young high ceiling players like the Pirates have in Polanco, Bell, Marte, etc. let it play it out. Would it be nice to have Jung Ho, sure not discounting that. But someone always seems to step up and replace production from somewhere, history will probably repeat itself yet once again.