The MLB offseason has begun for the Pirates, although with the playoffs still going, we’re still a few weeks away from the MLB offseason officially starting. And then we’re about six weeks away from things really heating up on that front, to the point where we can start to see teams making moves to improve their 2018 chances.
Eventually, I’ll get to discussing the players from outside the organization who can help the Pirates improve in 2018 and beyond. That will probably take place once the official offseason begins, and we know which players will be available.
The thing is, the Pirates need more than just outside help. They have a young team with the chance for improvements at many different positions, not to mention some bounce back candidates who can improve the team. Before focusing on outside help, I wanted to focus on the players who can provide the biggest improvements for the Pirates in 2018 and beyond.
My focus was on players who have upsides that we haven’t seen before. Obviously the Pirates will need Gerrit Cole pitching like a top of the rotation starter in order to contend, but we’ve already seen him do that. We’ve seen Starling Marte as a 4 WAR player. We’ve seen Jameson Taillon show top of the rotation stuff for half a season. The focus here is on players who have yet to show the upside that the Pirates need in order to maximize their internal upgrades.
Let’s take a look at the list:
Gregory Polanco – The Pirates haven’t seen Polanco’s full upside yet, and they might never see that. He has maxed out at a 2.4 fWAR so far in the majors, which isn’t a horrible result. However, his power potential suggests that he is capable of much more. Unfortunately, injuries have limited Polanco so far in his career. This year, for example, it seemed like every time he started hitting, he would go down with an injury that would put him out for a few weeks, and derail any progress he was making.
The key for Polanco going forward will be his health. I don’t know if you can expect him to fully stay healthy, but I think you can hope for 500+ plate appearances, especially since he did that in each of the previous two seasons leading up to 2017. From there, you hope that the health allows him to progress his game enough to get closer to his upside as an impact player, or at least improve on the maximum production we’ve seen from him so far. Polanco provides the greatest potential for improvement in the Pirates’ offense, although that improvement is largely based on his health.
Tyler Glasnow – If Polanco provides the biggest chance for improvements to the Pirates’ offense, then Glasnow provides the biggest chance for improvements to the pitching staff. We saw this year how much the Pirates need top of the rotation starters. They had a rotation full of guys who were league average or slightly better, which obviously put them around a league average or slightly better rotation. They didn’t have anyone performing like a top of the rotation guy, which hurt them, especially in a year where they needed pitching to make up for their lack of offense.
The Pirates have top of the rotation options like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. But pitchers aren’t always consistent, which means you need several top of the rotation options to get a good shot of one working out. Glasnow has top of the rotation upside, but has largely been inefficient due to a lack of control with his fastball. I’d place the chances of him figuring it all out and becoming a top of the rotation pitcher much lower than the chances of Polanco staying healthy and becoming an impact hitter. But Glasnow is still young enough to make it happen, even if the odds are low, and even if the change might not happen overnight.
Josh Bell – Bell has made some steady improvements over the last year, both on offense and defense. He started showing off his power potential this year, hitting 26 homers and hitting for a .211 ISO. He saw improvements defensively at first base, going from a -32.8 UZR/150 in 2016 to a -2.9 UZR/150 in 2017. He also went from a -3 DRS to a 6 DRS in the same time, and went from 0 to 6 in Plus/Minus, showing improvements across the board. The UZR rating puts him below average, although DRS and PM both have him above average.
The question is whether Bell can continue to show improvements going forward. I think that’s possible, as he’s only 25 years old, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best from him offensively. The biggest thing holding him back this past year was a lower average. He got on base due to a 10.6% walk rate, but his average was only .255. He had a .278 BABIP, down from .294 last year, and well down from the .330 range he saw in the upper levels of the minors. I think we should definitely see a better hitter in the future, with the chance for more power. I also wouldn’t rule out further improvements to his defense, based on the improvements we’ve seen so far. While the previous two guys have one big thing to improve upon, Bell could provide an impact by showing further steady improvements on both sides of the ball.
Elias Diaz – As I wrote today, the Pirates don’t have an easy decision behind the plate going forward. Part of that is due to the fact that Elias Diaz has not become anything close to a starting catcher option the Pirates need to replace the injury prone Francisco Cervelli. Diaz has a lot of work to do to become a starter. His offense has always been inconsistent, but the tools have been there. The defense has shown up in the minors, but hasn’t translated to the majors.
I think that the defense will show up enough to make him a backup option in the majors, even without the offense making big improvements. The offense could show up enough to pair with the defense and make him a starting option. Even with that combo, the upside here is low. Diaz doesn’t compare to the previous three options as a potential impact guy. The impact here would be that he could allow the Pirates to move on from Cervelli, freeing up some money that would be put to better use elsewhere. They’d have to gamble on Diaz and hope it works out for this to be effective in 2018.
Austin Meadows – I’m not including prospects on this list, because the goal is to see where the Pirates could find improvements on their current roster. The one exception I’m making is Meadows. The Pirates expected him up by this point at the earliest, but he probably won’t arrive until next year at mid-season, at the earliest. He has been derailed by injuries, which has slowed his transition to Triple-A, to the point where he isn’t ready for the majors yet. Once he gets beyond that, he still has to make the successful jump to the majors, and that ignores the injury issues, which should still be a concern.
Meadows makes this list because he’s a special circumstance. The Pirates have guys in the minors who can replace current MLB players in the next year or two, like Kevin Newman or Cole Tucker for Jordy Mercer, or Kevin Kramer for Josh Harrison. But Meadows is the guy set to replace their current franchise player. It won’t take much for Newman/Tucker/Kramer to match the production from guys like Mercer and Harrison. It will take a lot more from Meadows to match the production from McCutchen. A key here is staying healthy. I don’t think you can expect full health, but you could expect something better than this year, which combined with the upside from his skills, could lead to an impact player.
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.