I typically ignore most of the public statements made by Neal Huntington in terms of how he’s building a team, trade discussions, free agency plans, and so on. Most of the statements are typical GM-speak, where you won’t get the actual plan. There’s no reason and no incentive for him to reveal his actual plan.
For example, leading up to the Gerrit Cole trade, Huntington refused to label the Pirates as sellers. That was despite daily rumors saying the Pirates were in trade discussions involving Cole, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and so on. Actions speak louder than words. If you were ignoring the comments, and just paying attention to the actions (in this case, you’d assume the rumors were true and that constitutes actions), then it was clear that the Pirates were sellers. If you cared more about the words, then it created a conflict with the actions, and you would have been one of the fans or media members yelling for Huntington to finally admit that the team was selling — which was weirdly a demand of Huntington even after he actually traded players away, showing that some just totally ignore the actions and only focus on words.
But Huntington hasn’t helped with this confusion for anyone who focuses on the words. After the Cole and McCutchen trades, he continued to say that the team intends to contend in 2018. He said this in the wake of continued trade rumors surrounding Josh Harrison. Again, this is where I’d look at the actions, and ignore the words. There’s no reason for Huntington to say that he’s absolutely dealing Harrison if he’s trying to get a good return. There’s every reason for him to say that they plan on Harrison being a key part of the team if he’s trying to get some leverage in trade talks.
But then Huntington had this to say following the Felipe Rivero extension:
“There’s a lot of misinformation, and a lot of false narrative out there about when we are looking to compete again,” Huntington said. “We’re looking to compete again this year. We believe this club is a lot closer to the ’11, ’12, and ’13 Pirates than we were to the ’07, ’08, and ’09 Pirates. There was enough talent at the Major League level, on the verge of the Major League level. We’ve added to that group. And Felipe, as one of the best young closers in the game, gives us some certainty in the back of the bullpen, and will continue to be an important pitcher for us going forward.”
That comment is a lot different than the typical throwaway “We still think Josh Harrison can help us contend in 2018” comment in the face of a trade rumor that you don’t want to confirm. That comment had definition. Not only does Huntington think the Pirates can contend in 2018, but he believes they’re closer to the 2011-13 teams, rather than the total rebuild 2007-09 teams.
To that, I would agree. I don’t think the Pirates are close to those 2007-09 teams, where you’re expecting 90-100 losses in any given year. But I also think that you need to separate those 2011-13 years, since the Pirates were at different stages of being on the verge of contending in those years. They weren’t really contenders in 2011, but benefited from a weak division, which made them appear to have a shot for most of the summer. They were fringe contenders in 2012, and could have made the playoffs if not for a horrible collapse in the final two months. And they were actual contenders in 2013.
I think this team is a little more 2011 than the 2012 and 2013 groups. I don’t see them as contenders. But I also wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t entertain the idea, and give my thoughts on what the Pirates actually need to do to contend. So here are those thoughts, looking at what the Pirates need to do to contend in 2018.
Every year I do an analysis on the team, using expected playing time and ZiPS projections to see a projected record. This year’s analysis came at the start of the offseason, and had the Pirates winning 85 games. That was with Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen on the team, as the best pitcher and position player.
If you remove McCutchen and Cole, the team drops down to 78.5 wins. Of course, you need to add other production to make up for those spots. It’s difficult to do this, since the ZiPS projections for the Astros players aren’t available, meaning we don’t know what Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, and Michael Feliz are projected for. Let’s just say that this group, plus McCutchen’s replacement in the outfield, can add about 2-3 wins in a conservative projection, bringing the Pirates up to the 81-82 win range.
This isn’t a bad place to be. It does ignore a few things:
**Josh Harrison is still a major part of the projection, and second base would see a big drop-off if he was traded.
**I noted at the time that the ZiPS projections left little room for error, and not a lot of room for improvements. So while it’s nice to see 81-82 wins as a possibility, there’s more room for things to go wrong than for things to go right.
With that in mind, it’s obvious that if the Pirates want to contend, they’re going to need additional help here.
Help From Within
Back when I did the same ZiPS analysis for the 2013 squad, I had them at 83 wins. That was higher than almost every other projection, but much lower than their actual 94 wins. So what happened?
The big impact here is that the Pirates saw massive internal improvements where players ended up playing well above projections. Russell Martin was projected for a 2.3 WAR and finished above a 4 WAR. Starling Marte was projected at 2.6 WAR and finished at 4.8. Andrew McCutchen was projected at 5.3 and finished at 8.4. The rotation of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, and Charlie Morton finished 8 WAR above their combined projections. Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon added 3 WAR above their projections.
Aside from all of those performances, very few players fell below their projections in 2013, and none of the guys the Pirates were really counting on struggled. So the part from above about most things needing to go right for the Pirates in 2018 to get to 81-82 wins isn’t far fetched. It can happen, and isn’t as impossible as it sounds (especially since most of the analysis factors in things like injury risk, players performing below career high marks, and so on).
But the Pirates will need the other factor — guys to play above their projections. They’ve got a few places where that could happen, such as Starling Marte and Felipe Rivero playing closer to career bests to add a few extra wins. Young guys like Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell can take the next steps in their career to add value, although they’re projected to pretty much do that, so there’s not a lot of room for improvements.
There are a few big areas where the Pirates could use some internal improvements:
1. Tyler Glasnow – This might be the biggest factor, unless the Pirates add an outside rotation piece. Glasnow has top of the rotation stuff, but has been far from a top of the rotation pitcher in his attempts to make the jump to the majors. The Pirates will need a replacement for Gerrit Cole in the rotation, giving them another guy with top of the rotation potential. Glasnow is the only guy in the system right now who can provide that in 2018.
2. Gregory Polanco – I don’t believe the Pirates need an 8 WAR player like they had in McCutchen in 2013 in order to contend. But I do know that if they don’t have that MVP caliber player, they would need other players to step up and be above-average. Polanco was projected for a 2.3 WAR, which is close to his production in 2015-16. He’s got more potential than this average level of production, and the Pirates will need to see that come out in 2018 in order to help make up for the lack of an MVP-quality player on the roster.
3. Francisco Cervelli – The Pirates are on the hook for Cervelli over the next two years. It’s unlikely that he can be traded, since starting catchers of his value are getting less than his two years and $22 M remaining. So the best the Pirates can hope for is that he stays as healthy as possible, and finishes closer to his 3.7 fWAR in 2015 than his 0.9 fWAR in 2017. He was projected by ZiPS for 1.3.
4. Colin Moran – The more I think about it, the more I really like the addition of Moran from the Gerrit Cole trade. He totally changed his value last year, adding more power in a swing adjustment that not only looks to add lasting power, but also didn’t see a reduction on his other offensive skills. I could see the potential for an impact bat at third base, but I’d want to see more than half a season of numbers in the PCL before I think that’s an extremely likely possibility. The Pirates do need that to happen if they want to contend in 2018. I think a year from now, they’re going to either look extremely smart for adding Moran, or we’re going to learn some kind of lesson about projecting the new trend of adding lift to your swing.
5. The Prospects – The Pirates got help from their farm system in 2013. Gerrit Cole arrived at mid-season and was worth 2.5 WAR. Jordy Mercer took over as the starting shortstop at mid-season and was worth 1.5 WAR. Guys like Brandon Cumpton and Justin Wilson stepped up to add half a win or more in value. They’ll need some help from their prospects this year as well. That could be someone like Max Moroff stepping up to replace Harrison, if Harrison is traded. It could be Kevin Newman replacing Jordy Mercer in the same way Mercer replaced Clint Barmes. It could be Jordan Luplow or Austin Meadows taking the third outfield spot. Or, it could be one of the number of pitchers from Triple-A stepping up to take a rotation or bullpen spot, or to provide depth throughout the year.
Help From the Outside
The Pirates have some areas where they can get help from within, but if they don’t make any outside additions, then they will need pretty much all of the above to go right. It’s inevitable that some of the above players won’t take steps forward to out-perform their WAR, and the Pirates can offset that with outside additions.
It’s tough to determine which areas of the team need outside help when you’re coming from the point of view that the Pirates should be rebuilding. If they trade Harrison, they’d need a second baseman. But I’d rather give that time to Max Moroff or eventually to Kevin Kramer and see what they could do for the long-term, rather than finding a short-term option that could help in 2018. The same goes for the third outfield spot, a rotation spot, and so on.
With that in mind, here are the areas where I think the Pirates could use some outside help if they want to contend in 2018.
1. The Rotation – The Pirates have a lot of starting options, but you can never really have too many starting options. They had some very fortunate health last year, and probably could have gone with just six starters if they didn’t want to give younger guys a chance later in the year. But they should be expected to use ten starters in any given year. I don’t think the problem here is depth, but the lack of quality at the top. They need someone to join Jameson Taillon at the top of the rotation. I think Mitch Keller will eventually be the guy, but that won’t happen in 2018. I think Tyler Glasnow still has a shot, but it seems like a long shot, and I wouldn’t put all of my eggs in that basket. They need to get back to the reclamation project days and try to find the next A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, or Edinson Volquez. If they add a starter, it needs to be one of these types, and not the Jon Niese/Ryan Vogelsong type that just boosts the depth in the back of the rotation.
2. The Outfield – I wouldn’t add a starter for the outfield. I’d give Jordan Luplow the chance to show he can be a starter, and eventually leave the door open for Austin Meadows. I would get a contingency plan in the form of a fourth outfielder who could step in if Luplow doesn’t work out, and if the injury problems continue for Meadows. Similar to the approach the Pirates took in 2016 when they added Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, and David Freese to their bench. You’d want a guy who could be a good value as a bench guy, and who could be a decent starting option if needed.
3. The Bullpen – The Pirates have added some good pieces to their bullpen this offseason. None of them are really guarantees, but they’ve got the potential for a good complement to Felipe Rivero in the late innings after the additions of Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz, joining Edgar Santana as potential 8th inning guys. The Pirates could have a nice bullpen with one of those guys stepping up to join Rivero, plus George Kontos in the seventh inning, and the other two from that group providing interesting middle relief options. But with the rotation not looking as strong, and the offense unlikely to be better than average, the Pirates would need a shut-down bullpen. You can’t count on five relievers to make that happen. They’d be smart to add another quality piece to the group, with the knowledge that relievers do have trade value at the deadline if it turns out you aren’t actually contending.
Can the Pirates Contend?
I agree with Neal Huntington that the current team is closer to the 2011-13 teams, but only to the extent that I think they’re closer to the 2011-12 teams than 2013. Can they actually be a contender? Sure.
The Pirates can contend if they see improvements from some of the key young players on the roster. They can contend if they have a year where not everything goes wrong, and most players live up to their projections. They can contend if they add a few high-upside guys to the roster from the outside who can help the team either by providing a backup plan for their young guys, or by providing value that some of the young guys can’t possibly replicate.
This is another thing where actions speak louder than words. I don’t care if Neal Huntington says the Pirates think they can contend in 2018. I care about how they approach that idea.
If the Pirates go out and add some free agents to boost the current team — even if they’re not the top guys like JD Martinez or Alex Cobb — then it shows that on some level they are trying to compete in 2018.
If the Pirates sit back and bank on younger players to step in and see improvements, then that’s not really a problem with where they are as a team rebuilding. It would just define their intent to content as a hope that they could contend, rather than an attempt to contend.
The only way the passive approach would be a problem is if they decided to keep someone like Harrison in an attempt to contend, and then didn’t add anyone around him. That would be a waste, missing out on the chance to move Harrison in order to contend, and then not actively doing anything to contend after keeping him.
Again, actions will speak louder than words. The Pirates may believe they have a shot at contending in 2018. Technically, anyone in baseball can contend if the right circumstances take place, with the odds of each team contending being much different. The actions we see the rest of the offseason will tell us whether they think they have an outside shot, but not enough of a shot to bank on with outside additions, or if they think they have a real shot — enough to add pieces and go for it. I feel it’s going to be the former, and that any pieces that should be added would be better off added in 2019 or beyond.