At the start of the offseason, I did my annual ZiPS based analysis of the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates and their win total. I try my best to call this practice an “analysis” rather than a projection, although I use the word “projection” throughout the article. This is for simplified purposes, and not to say that this practice is the same as any other win projection you find out there.
The practice is an analysis because I’m taking the already established ZiPS projections and giving my analysis of the depth chart and playing time. You could use any projection system for the WAR total, although I prefer ZiPS. The key here is giving a breakdown of the team and the expected roles.
When I first did this article, it was at the start of the offseason, before the Pirates had made any moves. A lot has changed since then, including the trades that sent out Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, along with some additions along the way. I wanted to do an updated analysis of where the team stands after all of the moves, giving a better idea of their chances of contending in 2018.
Most of the time, this analysis runs high. Most projections will have the Pirates around 75-78 wins right now, and this one came in above .500. The fun part with this analysis is going back at the end of the year and seeing which players exceed or fell short of expectations, rather than focusing on the actual win total. And for right now, it’s less about the win total projection being concrete, and more about seeing the path to that win total.
I’ll add a disclaimer here that the ZiPS projections on the individual player pages were off from the projections in the original FanGraphs articles. I noticed they were almost universally 0.5 WAR lower for all position players. The pitchers were a different situation, with a few guys higher, but a lot of guys lower. I just kept the original projections, and added the new guys in the mix. I also noted where there were no changes to the original projections.
Now, here are the projections.
Generally the accepted baseline for a team of replacement level players is anywhere from 45-50 wins. The average usually falls around 48. So we’ll start with that figure before we look at any individual players.
WAR: +48.0 (48.0)
CATCHER – No Changes
Francisco Cervelli is projected for 1.0 WAR and 364 plate appearances. I don’t typically adjust his playing time up, since he has a lengthy injury history. Last year’s projection was 349 plate appearances, and he finished with a 304. He had an 0.9 fWAR last year, so a 1.3 with his current projected time assumes he’ll be the same type of player. This is a drop in value from last year, when he had a 2.0 WAR projection.
The Pirates had 641 plate appearances at catcher last year. ZiPS has Elias Diaz projected for an 0.9 WAR and 396 plate appearances. The pro-rated amount of 277 plate appearances gives him an 0.6 WAR, and gives the Pirates 641 plate appearances between the two catchers.
Jacob Stallings is the third catcher, and is projected for an 0.8 WAR in 267 plate appearances. So ZiPS isn’t projecting a big dropoff if (when?) Cervelli gets injured and Diaz/Stallings take over. However, considering the projection has the catching position at a 1.9 WAR, I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing.
WAR: +1.9 (49.9)
FIRST BASE – No Changes
Josh Bell is projected for 621 plate appearances and a 1.7 WAR. There were 698 plate appearances at the position last year. I’m going to give Bell all of his appearances, since he has become an everyday and nine inning player in the last year. I’ll save the remaining plate appearances for the bench.
WAR: +1.7 (51.6)
SECOND BASE – No Changes
Right now I’m going with Josh Harrison as the regular second baseman. He’s projected for a 2.1 WAR and 534 plate appearances. There were 705 plate appearances at second base last year. I’ll save the rest for the bench.
WAR: +2.1 (53.7)
SHORTSTOP – No Changes
Jordy Mercer is projected for 528 plate appearances and a 1.5 WAR. I used his full projection. There were 643 plate appearances from shortstop last year, with the rest going to the bench.
WAR: +1.5 (55.2)
This is the first area where there has been a big change. Colin Moran will be the third baseman, and has a 1.4 WAR in 449 plate appearances. David Freese had a 1.3 WAR in 459 plate appearances. So the playing time doesn’t change, and the value doesn’t really change much either. One thing I like about Moran is that he has some upside. I could see him surpassing that 1.4 WAR better than Freese, since Freese showed last year that he doesn’t have the stamina to be a starter.
Third base had 694 plate appearances last year, and the rest will go to the bench.
WAR: +1.4 (56.6)
The outfield has seen some changes with the Andrew McCutchen trade, and with Starling Marte moving to center. That really impacts the projections for left field and center field.
Corey Dickerson will be the starting left-fielder. He has a 1.8 WAR in the ZiPS projections, which is about the same as the results he put up last year. He’s doing that over 572 plate appearances, and I’ll give him all of those.
The Pirates had 725 plate appearances last year in left field, and the extras will go to outfielders on the bench.
WAR: +1.8 (58.4)
Starling Marte is projected for 504 plate appearances and a 2.6 WAR. He was originally projected for left-field, so I’m not sure how the move to center will impact him.
I’ll point out here that Marte has exceeded this projection every year from 2013-2016. He missed time due to a PED suspension last year, but looked like his old self in September. At the least, I’d expect him to be a 3.5-4.0 WAR player in 2018, so this is an area where I could see some improvement over the ZiPS projections. I’m only going with the ZiPS projections here.
There were 706 plate appearances in center field last year, and the extras will go to the bench.
WAR: +2.6 (61.0)
RIGHT FIELD – No Changes
Gregory Polanco is projected for 534 plate appearances and a 2.3 WAR. If you’re only looking at last year’s numbers, this is an improvement. But these figures line up almost exactly with what he did in 2015-2016. So ZiPS is projecting that 2017 is an outlier, which is good. The bad is that they aren’t projecting improvements on the 2015-2016 numbers. The hope here is that Polanco can finally break out and become more than a league average starter.
I previously said that the injury concerns have been addressed in the projections. He had 652 plate appearances in 2015 and 587 in 2016. He had 411 in an injury filled 2017. Giving him the 534 seems fair, with the hope that he stays as healthy as he was in 2015-2016, and avoids the injuries of 2017. Considering his conditioning this year, there’s some hope that he stays healthy and returns to the 2015-16 totals.
Right field had 685 plate appearances last year, and the remaining spots will go to the bench.
WAR: +2.3 (63.3)
I’ve saved a lot for the bench here. There are 1365 plate appearances remaining. That breaks down in the following way:
DH/Pinch Hit: 251
I’m going to start with the outfield, because it is easier. Bryce Brentz looks to be the fourth outfielder. He is projected for 427 plate appearances and an 0.2 WAR. I’m going to give him 300 plate appearances, which would prorate to an 0.1 WAR.
I’m going to give Austin Meadows 200 plate appearances. He’s projected for 401 and a 1.8 WAR, so that gives him a prorated 0.9 WAR.
Next we’ve got the infield. Adam Frazier is projected for 472 plate appearances and a 1.3 WAR. He had 454 and a 1.1 fWAR last year, so I’d say this is in line with what we’ve seen. I’m giving him the full projection.
Frazier would be the top bench option across the board. Sean Rodriguez would be next, and he’s projected for 244 plate appearances and an 0.4 WAR. I’m giving him the full amount as well.
This leaves about 200 plate appearances remaining for David Freese, between the infield and DH/PH sections. Freese is projected for a 1.3 WAR over 459 plate appearances. This gives him an 0.6 WAR.
The overall bench combines for another 3.3 WAR.
WAR: +3.3 (66.6)
The Pirates saw one big change to the rotation, with Gerrit Cole being traded away and Joe Musgrove being the likely addition to the group.
I typically don’t adjust the pitcher innings, but I made one exception here. Jameson Taillon was projected for 145.2 innings and a 3.1 WAR. He pitched around 165 innings in 2016, with most of that coming in the minors. He missed time in 2017 due to his cancer treatment, but still ended up with around 147 innings. I don’t think he should be docked in the future for missing that time in 2017. Because of that, I adjusted his innings up to 165, which is still conservative and leaves room for injuries, or improvements if he stays healthy.
Here are the projections for the expected Opening Day rotation.
SP: Jameson Taillon (165.0 IP, 3.5 WAR)
SP: Ivan Nova (149.7 IP, 2.2 WAR)
SP: Chad Kuhl (147.3 IP, 0.8 WAR)
SP: Trevor Williams (133.7 IP, 1.0 WAR)
SP: Joe Musgrove (117 IP, 1.7 WAR)
That gives us 712.2 innings and a combined 9.2 WAR. That’s a drop of one win from the projection with Cole.
The starters last year had 894.2 innings. That was an improvement on 2016, but down from around 970 innings in 2014 and 2015. I’m using the lower total, with the note that the Pirates could add improvements if their rotation stays as effective and pitches as many innings as they did in prior years.
There are 182 innings remaining. Because of the way the bullpen is shaping up, with starting pitching depth stashed away, I’m going to save those innings for the next section.
The total from the starters is 9.2 WAR.
WAR: +9.2 (75.8)
The Pirates added a lot of options for the bullpen. Below is my best guess for the Opening Day group.
CL: Felipe Rivero (73.3 IP, 1.8 WAR)
RP: George Kontos (60.7 IP, 0.7 WAR)
RP: Michael Feliz (71.0 IP, 1.0 WAR)
RP: Steven Brault (136.7 IP, 1.3 WAR)
RP: Tyler Glasnow (149.7 IP, 2.3 WAR)
RP: Kevin Siegrist (51.3 IP, 0.1 WAR)
RP: Kyle Crick (57.0 IP, 0.0 WAR)
I gave Brault and Glasnow extra innings, figuring they’d go in long relief roles, and be used as rotation depth.
There were 128 innings remaining. I typically give those innings to the remaining rotation depth options. That would be Nick Kingham in this case, adding a prorated 1.3 WAR.
This year’s projection is at 8.5 WAR.
WAR: +8.5 (84.3)
UPDATED 2018 PROJECTION
The projection for the Pirates is about 1.0 WAR less than the projection at the start of the offseason. So not much has changed overall in the process of so many things changing on the team. Here’s why there’s not much of a difference:
The Pirates did trade their two biggest contributors in Cole and McCutchen, which led to a big drop. However, they have added a lot of MLB talent across the board.)
Cole was set for a 3.4 WAR. His trade brought back Joe Musgrove (1.7), Michael Feliz (1.0), and Colin Moran (1.4). Those three replicated his value in the aggregate. Moran was replacing David Freese, who had the same value. However, this allowed Freese to move to the bench, creating a much stronger group.
McCutchen was also set for a 3.4 WAR. His trade didn’t bring back the same value, as Kyle Crick is at a replacement level projection. However, the Pirates added his value back in other moves.
The biggest one was this week’s addition of Corey Dickerson, which added 1.8 WAR back. The addition of Bryce Brentz doesn’t do much for the bench, so the Pirates are still losing some value on the position player side in terms of replacements in the outfield.
They’re making up a lot of ground with the new look for the bullpen. ZiPS has Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault projected high, and the Pirates will use both as depth options for the rotation this year, as well as long relievers. Obviously if Glasnow doesn’t perform to his lofty ZiPS projections (which would make him the second best pitcher on the team), then the Pirates see a hit in their overall chances. My previous projections had Brault as strictly a reliever, and Glasnow as a depth option out of Triple-A, which is why there was such an increase in the bullpen value.
The MLB help brought back in the Cole trade, plus the addition of Dickerson and Brentz, plus the new look bullpen and bench has worked to almost replace McCutchen and Cole’s value.
In the last projection, I discussed how the Pirates have very little upside, and their projection here was assuming everyone would play up to their career best numbers, with no drop off.
There is still some of that going on, including some projections that have players performing better than they’ve ever performed before (Glasnow being the biggest). But the Pirates have added more potential upside.
That starts in a big way in the bullpen. I went with Siegrist and Crick for the final two spots, since they were replacement level, along with many of the other guys competing for spots. But the Pirates have a lot of talent guys, with the chance that one or two of those guys can step up and become better than replacement level. I think the depth added also avoids the potential of having a lot of below-replacement level guys dragging the team value down. The Pirates lost two wins last year from guys used as depth options, or in smaller roles throughout the year. Reducing that loss with better depth options will help keep the team closer to their projections.
There are some upside guys across the pitching staff. Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams are projected below their 2017 results. Jameson Taillon is projected pretty high, but has reached those totals before, and could take a step forward. Joe Musgrove is a wild card, with a chance to do more if he can establish himself as a starter.
The offense also has some upside. Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco provide the most promise, with the chance that they could bounce back to their old production levels, or higher. Corey Dickerson is projected for almost a win less than his value last year, so there’s a chance for more added value. I like Colin Moran as an upside guy to be worth more than his current projection. I think Josh Bell could also take a step forward this year, especially since there’s more power in the lineup to protect him.
That last part is a key. The Pirates added Moran and Dickerson to boost their power. Marte should bounce back to his previous levels. Gregory Polanco showed power in 2016, but fell off last year due to injuries. Five of their eight position players can be a threat in the power department, making this a much more dynamic lineup than what they had last year.
The bench is also deeper, which should work out the same as the bullpen to try and reduce loss by having replacement level guys at the least, rather than guys who will lose value.
This still looks like a team that could contend for the second Wild Card at best. Their chances look a little better than before, since they have more guys who could exceed projections, making up for players who will likely fall short of their projections. I’d like their chances a lot more if they added another guy for the top of the rotation, giving them a stronger starting five, along with a stronger bullpen, and better depth.