Last September, the Pirates were technically contenders, but not really contenders. They were 2.5 games out of the Wild Card race on September 1st. A week later, they were four games back, followed by 5.5 games back a week after that, and finishing the season at 6.5 games back.
This also ignored the fact that if they made the Wild Card, and if they won the Wild Card, their rotation was not going to be good enough to beat the Cubs in a five game series.
But the Pirates continued playing for the Wild Card, and in my opinion, they pursued that for too long. This led to a few instances where they played veterans for too long, while benching young prospects who should have been getting a chance for the following season.
Some of this made sense in hindsight. My biggest complaint at the time was that they didn’t play Alen Hanson to see what they’ve got in him, and instead played Sean Rodriguez, who was about to be a free agent.
We later found out that the Pirates were trying to bring back Rodriguez as a free agent, so it made sense that they were playing him. And you could also argue that they already knew what they had in Alen Hanson. He didn’t get a chance this year, was lost on waivers to the White Sox, and hasn’t performed well with them, despite the chance he was given.
I still think it’s foolish to dedicate so much development time to a guy, then give him just 92 plate appearances over the span of three-plus months. However, he’s at a -0.6 fWAR with the White Sox, and hitting for a .595 OPS. Meanwhile, the Pirates finally got Rodriguez back, while getting much better results. I don’t know if that one outcome shows that the Pirates knew what they were doing, or if it shows that this situation worked out well for them.
The Pirates are heading for another similar situation this year. They are currently eight games out of the playoffs, so it’s a little more obvious that they aren’t contenders at this point. They do keep going through stretches where they battle back and pull to .500, only to slump and dash those hopes.
I’ve written before that I don’t think this team is far from being a stronger contender next year. Getting to that point will require some offseason spending to bring in someone to boost the team. But the Pirates can also work to get there by coming up with an internal plan, and seeing what they have in September.
They just called up Steven Brault yesterday, which was one day after Brian Peloza reported that their plans were to transition him to a reliever. Getting him adjusted to pitching out of the bullpen over the final five or six weeks of the season should help the team next year, as it could give them a lefty relief option. They have many other starting options in Triple-A, and eventually some of those guys will have to move to the bullpen. So they can also take this approach with other guys in September.
It’s an easy decision to have a guy like Brault pitching out of the bullpen, and getting more innings at the expense of someone like Joaquin Benoit. But there are some more difficult decisions.
One of those difficult decisions comes with Tyler Glasnow. He’s showing improvements in Triple-A, and should get another shot at the majors. That likely won’t happen until after August 26th, as the Pirates get an extra year of control if they wait to call him up on the 27th or later. But when he returns, he should be pitching in the rotation, spending the final month showing what he can do in the majors after some work in Triple-A.
The question is, who moves out of the rotation? You’re not going to remove Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, or Ivan Nova, as they are long-term starters. Chad Kuhl has been one of the best starters for the Pirates in the second half, and the team views him as a starter, not a reliever. Trevor Williams began the year as a reliever, but moved to the rotation and has pitched well most of the year, only showing some struggles recently.
The Pirates could go with six starters and ease the workload of everyone, although one of those starters will have to leave the rotation next year. Thus, the difficult decision here would just be delayed with a six-man rotation in September.
There’s another decision the Pirates should be making for the 2018 season, and that is what they will do behind the plate. Francisco Cervelli has seen his injury issues limit him to 303 plate appearances this season. He’s currently on the disabled list, with Chris Stewart and Elias Diaz splitting time behind the plate. Stewart has started five of the last eight games, with Diaz starting the other three.
If anyone from this current catching group would be the future of the position for the Pirates, it would be Diaz. He hasn’t put up offensive numbers yet, but he also only has 108 career plate appearances. The Pirates should be using the next month to give Diaz most of the time behind the plate, which will allow them to make a decision on whether to continue with Cervelli next year, or whether to go with Diaz as the primary catcher.
The Pirates are out of it. They need to start figuring things out for next year. They need to use the next month to decide whether guys like Steven Brault are relief options, or whether Tyler Glasnow has it figured out, or whether Elias Diaz is the guy they should be going with behind the plate. They don’t need to be giving time to Joaquin Benoit, Chris Stewart, or other veterans who aren’t going to play big roles, or any roles at all, in the future.
The road to contending in 2018 will require more than just adding guys like Brault, Glasnow, and Diaz to the mix. But this would be a good start, and a good use of the games during the final month of the season.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.