Gajtka: Vanilla Veterans Limit Pirates’ Potential More Than Youth

If a time traveler from six months in the future approached me, I would be curious about a great many things, most of them not involving sports.

However, I would make sure to inquire about how the 2018 Pirates season turned out before this visitor decided to converse with actual interesting people. You see, as I sat down this week to consider what I expected to happen this year, I realized I would believe a wide variety of outcomes.

Eighty-eight wins and a berth in the wild card game? Optimistic as all get out, but not entirely implausible with all the players on the front sides of their primes.

Seventy-two wins and a season-long fight to stay out of the National League Central cellar? Considering the trajectory of the franchise over the past two years and the competition, I wouldn’t be shocked.

Eighty-one wins and another year in Major League Baseball’s answer to purgatory? Given the mix of young and old, rising and fading, promising and disappointing, this is a safe prediction.

But in the end, if I had to put money on a return to winning baseball, I’d want odds. For all the (justifiable) talk about the inexperienced pitching staff, the need for Gregory Polanco and Starling Marté to rise up, and the corner questions surrounding Josh Bell and Colin Moran, there are still several thirtysomethings that will be counted upon to deliver.

I wrote about one last week in christened setup man George Kontos, who will easily be the most veteran member of the bullpen, but there are plenty more around the diamond.

Iván Nova. Josh Harrison. Jordy Mercer. Francisco Cervelli. Sean Rodríguez. David Freese.

It’s not sexy or exciting to discuss these players, but if all stay healthy, we’re talking about 30-plus starts on the mound, plus three regular position players. Depending on how Moran performs and whether Harrison is traded, all six of those names could figure prominently.

And that’s the main problem with this team, at least for me.

Before we get too far down Negative Street, I should level a few caveats. I think Nova is both a bargain and an asset. I believe Harrison to be the same. You could do worse than Mercer, offensively and defensively. When Cervelli is healthy, he can contribute on both sides of the game.

However, there is virtually no star-level potential from any of these vets. That’s not just because of their age, although all of them are likely in the decline phase of their careers. I say that because of their past precedents.

For instance, Nova has a career ERA+ of 99, so he’s produced at almost exactly a league-average level in his eight major-league seasons. Clint Hurdle called Nova “a perfect fit for us” based on his workhorse demeanor, but he’ll be unlikely to contribute an late-career A.J. Burnett-like season in the near future.

Speaking of average, Harrison (100 career OPS+) and Cervelli (99) are also right at that benchmark, too. Harrison kept his career viable with a rebound 2017, but that five-win 2014 is looking increasingly distant. Cervelli’s main task will be to stay on the field, an issue he believes he has addressed with changes in training and diet in the offseason.

“I feel like a little kid again,” Cervelli said in the middle of a promising spring in which he hit .405/.488/.838 in 15 games. “It’s amazing. … I try to put the right gas (in) my car, because I am a Ferrari. I want to treat my car the right way.”

As Alan Saunders wrote this week, getting the 2015 version of Cervelli will be a near necessity for this team to have a winning season.

Betting on past glories to return is always risky, but at least Cervelli and Harrison have a season to point toward as theoretically possible. Mercer’s only above-average season was more of a part-time deal, when he posted a 117 OPS+ while sharing time with Clint Barmes in 2013.

Since taking over the starter’s role, though, Mercer has been good with the glove but deficient with the stick. Last year’s .255/.326/.406 line was dead-on consistent with his career relative to league mean (92 OPS+). The 31-year-old has durability going for him — one DL stint in five years — but that might be his best quality.

Add it all up and you have a veteran core to support all the up-and-comers, but a veteran core with limited ability to move the needle. The Cubs and Astros have reminded us that young talent can take a team all the way, but the Pirates’ twentysomethings don’t have that collective ceiling … and they’re working without much of a safety net, too.

And so, as the Pirates open in chilly Detroit, it’ll be intriguing to see how the Taillons, Bells and Riveros of the world continue to develop (or not), but their impact will likely be limited by the vanilla vets.

Cervelli is planning to defy that thought, but even the Pirates’ proud backstop seemed to hint that the onus will be on the younger half of this roster if there’s any hope of Meaningful September Baseball in 2018 A.D.

“These guys, they’re hungry,” Cervelli said, nodding toward the Bill McKechnie Clubhouse wall that included the lockers of a few starting rotation members. “They got a lot of talent, but we got people here who just want to eat the stadium. They can’t wait to be in Detroit.”

He paused, then finished his thought.

“Those kids are special.”

They’re going to have to be.