MLB’s Winter Meetings will take place this week, and they typically mark the start of most of the offseason moves. This offseason has been quiet across baseball, with the belief that two players were holding up the progress. That could change, with Shohei Ohtani signing with the Angels, and Giancarlo Stanton getting traded to the Yankees in the past week. Those two moves could lead to the market opening up, and teams turning to the alternatives on their list.
As far as the Pirates go, we still don’t know their direction. Is this a team that will make one last chance to contend with Andrew McCutchen? Are they going for a rebuild? Or are they sticking around in No Man’s Land like they have been the last two years, not really being a strong contender, but not going for a full rebuild? Hopefully we’ll get that question answered this week. For now, let’s look at the breakdown of the team heading into the meetings.
What Will the Pirates Do With Andrew McCutchen?
What the Pirates end up doing with McCutchen will ultimately determine the path of their offseason. They could keep him around for one final year and try to contend with him. They could also trade him away and start a rebuild. I’ve argued for the latter, saying that they’re not close enough to contend with the Cubs for the division, and at best they’re a fringe Wild Card team.
If the Pirates do keep McCutchen, they will need to do something to add to the team in order to increase their chances of competing. They do have a lot of potential internal improvements over the 2017 team, with more expected offense from guys like Starling Marte, and better results expected from the rotation (more on that in the next section). But they will need more to become serious contenders, and return to being one of the best teams in the NL. I’m skeptical that they can pull this off with their budget, current needs, and the available options. If they do keep McCutchen, they’ll need to try for this upgrade, rather than largely going with the same team from 2017.
If they trade McCutchen away, then it would make sense to go for a full rebuild. It would signal that they’re not competing in 2018, which means it doesn’t make sense to keep guys like Gerrit Cole, Josh Harrison, and Francisco Cervelli around in hopes that the team will do a quick rebuild for 2019.
If the Pirates keep McCutchen and don’t add to the team, or if they trade McCutchen but keep everyone else, then they’ll be continuing a trend where they’ll be stuck in No Man’s Land, with one foot on the side of trying to compete, and one foot on the side of focusing on the future.
The Rotation Looks Good
Neal Huntington indicated at PiratesFest that he’s fine with the rotation, which would suggest that the Pirates are banking on bounce-backs from the group. They have been linked to Jaime Garcia, which would allow them to add a lefty to the mix, but wouldn’t really upgrade the top of the rotation.
The Pirates do have plenty of back of the rotation options. However, they don’t have a lot of left-handed starting options. Steven Brault is the only candidate right now, and if the Pirates determine that they need a lefty starter, then you could make an argument that Garcia is a better option than Brault right now. Of course, that only makes sense if you’re trying to contend in 2018.
I do agree with the idea that the Pirates potentially have all they need in the rotation. You’d like to see another top of the rotation guy added to the mix, but that’s largely because pitchers are unpredictable. But the Pirates have some good pieces, even without hoping every single thing goes right.
Gerrit Cole was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 2013-2015. He has struggled the last two years, due to injuries in 2016, and due to a huge increase in home runs in 2017.
Jameson Taillon showed top of the rotation numbers in 2016. He showed top of the rotation numbers in the first half of 2017. He also had strong results in the final month of 2017. He struggled in the middle of 2017, but considering he was dealing with cancer, I’d argue we can count that as the outlier to everything else he’s shown so far.
Ivan Nova didn’t put up the numbers we saw from him at the end of 2016, but did have slightly better than league average numbers. That would work if Cole and Taillon pitch to their potential, but if either one slips, the Pirates will need Nova to step up.
Chad Kuhl has established himself as a back of the rotation starter, and really showed improvements in the second half after introducing a new curveball to his arsenal. Trevor Williams also stepped up with numbers around league average, giving the Pirates another back of the rotation option, or a strong depth option. And they’re certainly not hurting for depth, with plenty of options in Triple-A.
The rotation is fine. They didn’t see the best results in 2017, considering the upside and potential, but still ended up slightly above average as a group. They could improve to a top ten and maybe even a top five rotation with better numbers from Cole and Taillon alone.
The problem here isn’t the rotation. It’s the offense. The Pirates had one of the worst offenses in baseball last year, and at best, they’re still looking at a bottom-third offense with no upgrades. That has led to an unfair focus on the rotation needing to upgrade in order to make up for the lack of offense. The reality is that the Pirates have a good foundation in the rotation, with a floor of an above average group, and a ceiling of one of the better groups in baseball. But I’m not sure the rotation could do enough to make up for the lack of offense on this team, which is why it’s unfair to look at the rotation as the problem here.
The Needs are on Offense
As noted above, the biggest needs for the Pirates are on offense. We’re going to go with the assumption here that they’re keeping McCutchen and going with the same offense as last year.
The Pirates could see internal upgrades from a few of their 2017 players. Josh Bell continues to improve, and I don’t think he’s finished. Gregory Polanco kept getting derailed by injuries in 2017, but has shown flashes of reaching his upside as an impact bat. I think Bell is more likely to show improvements, considering the circumstances, but there’s still a chance for Polanco.
Starling Marte had a down year last year, with a suspension due to PED usage. He showed numbers closer to his regular results in September, and I’d expect him to bounce back to normal, which will give a big boost to the offense.
McCutchen had better overall numbers than he did in 2016, but he was down compared to his pre-2016 numbers, and I don’t think he will ever return to those numbers on a consistent basis.
The infield is where the problem lies. The Pirates have opted for league average options at the middle infield spots, with most of the value coming from the defense. Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison both showed better offensive numbers in 2017, but still not enough to make an impact at the position.
The biggest hole on the team is that they don’t have an everyday third baseman. David Freese is a bench option at this point, and there’s no easy solution for someone who can take over at third. They could go with Harrison, and have Sean Rodriguez and Max Moroff at second base, but that plan largely relies on Moroff hitting like he did in September over a full season, and showing that he can be a starter.
Behind the plate, the Pirates have injury questions with Francisco Cervelli. I don’t know if we’ll see the same numbers that we did in 2015, and I’d even say that’s unlikely. However, Cervelli might provide their best bet for offense behind the plate, even if his injuries leave the chances low.
The Pirates have Marte expected to bounce back. They could see further improvements from Bell. The same is true for Polanco, with the injury risk disclaimer. Cervelli has an even bigger injury risk disclaimer attached to his potential improvements. McCutchen doesn’t look like the same impact player he once was. The middle infielders could continue with their 2017 offense, but it’s not enough to provide the impact the Pirates need. And there’s no starting option at third base.
The best approach for the Pirates would be finding a third base option who can improve the offense. I don’t think they’ll find anyone for the middle infield spots to upgrade over their current production. Aside from an outside upgrade for third base, their best bet is hoping for improvements from the guys on the roster, and I think that approach still limits them to a league average offense at best, and more likely an offense at the top of the bottom third in the majors.