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.