If you talk to a lot of Pirates fans, the outlook for the team in 2018 and beyond is bleak. Every day I hear that this is a team that will be one of the worst teams in baseball. They’re not going to win again for 20 years. There are no prospects in the system, and no hope for the immediate future.
I know the definition of the word hyperbole, but these claims are actually believed, rather than a sarcastic exaggeration.
I’ve been down this road before. I defended the Pirates back in 2011 and 2012 when the same claims were made about how they’d never win, and how they didn’t actually have any prospects. I viewed the organization then as a team close to contending, and with a future on the rise. I received my unshakable “apologist” label at that point, and it didn’t matter that I was right about the team having a positive outlook, or that I’ve been critical of the team when warranted every step of the way (and that has been increasingly warranted the last year or two).
So I hate to defend the Pirates against the most exaggerated claims, but the feeling of doom and gloom is so widespread that I feel the need to point out that they’re not really a horrible team. FanGraphs has them projected for 77 wins, which is one less than the Brewers, despite Milwaukee having a flashier offseason. That win total isn’t something to celebrate for 2018, but it is a good starting point when you consider that they are rebuilding and have a group of prospects on the way, not to mention a very young roster that could see improvements.
You’ve got a team that’s not horrible in 2018, will probably be in third or fourth place in the NL Central, and has an outlook that trends up, and not down.
On the flip side of this, you’ve got Neal Huntington saying the Pirates believe they can contend this year. You’ve got players on the roster believing that they can contend. You want that from the team. You don’t want players who will throw in the towel, in any scenario. But the General Manager has to be realistic.
This isn’t a team that can contend in 2018. Not with the current roster they have now. It could be a team that contends in 2018, but that would require some additions from the outside. That doesn’t mean Daniel Nava additions. It means a guy with top of the rotation potential and an outfielder that can provide an impact. The irony here is that they had that with Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, and they were projected as fringe contenders with those two. Even with two additions, they’re still going to need help from the young guys and guys already on the roster.
The Pirates could add to the roster with all of the free agents available. They’d actually look really smart if they traded Cole and McCutchen for some immediate MLB help, and then signed replacements who can come close to matching their values at reduced prices. But I’m skeptical that this is their plan. That’s mostly because there are very few free agents who would be locks to be upgrades, and I don’t think the Pirates are signing those guys for their prices, even if they are still available in mid-February.
Instead, I believe they will be going into the season with mostly the roster they have right now, giving opportunities to the younger guys in the rotation and starting lineup, and having veterans on the bench. This means they’re giving the usual lip service about competing, while not actually doing anything significant toward that goal, outside of a hope and a prayer that everything clicks right this year.
The problem I see with this is that it leads to certain questions about the roster. Questions that conflict with the rebuilding process.
For example, why is Ivan Nova still on the team — under control through the 2019 season — when the Pirates are otherwise choosing between Joe Musgrove and Tyler Glasnow. Those are two pitchers who could help the team beyond 2019, when the Pirates are more likely to be contenders.
Why is the bench made up of David Freese, Sean Rodriguez, and probably Daniel Nava, when the Pirates will most likely be sending two of Jordan Luplow, Max Moroff, and Jose Osuna down to Triple-A? I can see Freese being on the team, as the Pirates had him under contract long before this offseason. I can even see Rodriguez, even though he was added last August to specifically play for this season. Maybe you can give them the benefit of the doubt that they believed they could contend at that point, then reassessed their chances in the offseason. But Nava was just added, and seems to have an inside track to the roster, blocking one of the younger players.
And why is George Kontos a lock for the bullpen? He’s not a bad reliever at all, but this is another situation where you’ve got a guy who is only under control through 2019. Meanwhile, you’ve got several young and talented relievers who will be left back in Triple-A. Again, you could take the same approach as Rodriguez, and assume that they had a different plan when they added Kontos. But what about the more recent addition of Michael Feliz, who was acquired in a trade, despite only having four years of control remaining?
The Pirates are showing conflicting signs here. They’re rebuilding by trading away their two best players, but saying that they plan to contend in 2018. They’re partially acting like they plan to contend in 2018 by adding short-term pieces like Nava and Rodriguez, and keeping short-term pieces around like Nova and Josh Harrison. And this is where I say that they seem to be stuck in No-Man’s Land.
There’s also the thought I have that none of the above moves really matter.
It might not matter that Tyler Glasnow goes to the bullpen. It might help him ease his way into the majors, similar to how Carlos Martinez made his jump to the majors with the Cardinals.
It might not matter that two of Jordan Luplow, Jose Osuna, or Max Moroff get sent back down to Triple-A. In each case I see a chance to be an average starter, but a more likely scenario of being a bench player. And in each case, there’s a better player in the system behind those guys. So if they are starters, they’d be starters for a very short time.
It might not matter that George Kontos gets a bullpen spot, and someone like Edgar Santana or Kyle Crick goes down to Triple-A for a bit. The one thing I’ll say here is that I’d want to keep Jordan Milbrath around for as long as possible to give him a real shot. But there is no reliever from the remaining list who I feel definitely needs to be on the roster on Opening Day, and I think anyone who deserves to be on the roster in 2018 will make it up at some point this year.
The Pirates aren’t blocking any prospects who could play a big role in their future. They’re giving Colin Moran the third base job. They’re going with a mostly young rotation. When Kevin Newman and Austin Meadows are ready, you better believe a spot will be created for them to get playing time. It’s the same story for Mitch Keller, whenever he’s ready to arrive.
And that brings me to the larger point here. I don’t think anything the Pirates do with their Opening Day roster will really change their future outlook. They are an upper-70s win team with prospects on the way, and younger players on the roster. They’re a team that will be trending up. They will eventually need some outside additions like they did in 2012-13 with A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, and Mark Melancon. But those additions will be needed after the upper level prospects arrive, and that hasn’t happened yet.
The Pirates definitely aren’t contenders this year. They’re also definitely not as bad as Pirates fans make them out to be. But we’re in a holding pattern right now, waiting for the bigger prospects to arrive. That’s going to be when they start moving toward a team that really has a chance at contending. The only thing they could do wrong right now is making moves that would take a step back from their future chances of contending, which means blocking potential key contributors like Moran, Musgrove, or Meadows and Newman when they’re ready. I don’t see the Pirates doing any of that right now, which is good.
So this year will be mostly be about watching for hope for the future, and paying attention to the progress of the bigger prospects who can help the team get back to contending. If you’re hoping for the team to actually contend this year, then you’re probably going to be disappointed. If you think the Pirates aren’t even good enough to reach 77 wins, and that they’ll be one of the worst teams in baseball, then — well, you’ll probably still be disappointed if they reach 77 wins, because the only thing that will make people happy is winning.
I think any decision made this spring will be minor, and won’t really have an impact on the Pirates in the next few years when they’re ready to compete again. Unless the Pirates do something crazy in either direction, like blocking a key prospect, or making a big addition from the outside.