BRADENTON, Fla. — I’ve spent a lot of time this spring at the intersection between the popular consensus and reality when it comes to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Pirates, as currently constructed, look to be a pretty average major-league team. The various projection systems and betting markets peg them to win somewhere around 75 games, with some Vegas books coming in on the low-end at 73 and PECOTA at 77 on the high-end.
But as Neal Huntington has professed over and over again, and I’ve written about many times this spring, teams can overperform projections. Specifically, the Pirates overperformed their PECOTA projections in each of their recent playoff seasons.
In each of the last two seasons, the second National League Wild Card team had 87 wins. So how would the Pirates squeeze another 10 wins over and above their current projections?
Here’s an everything-goes-right path that I think would send the Pirates down the road they’d need to travel to get close to a playoff berth. They won’t have to do all of these things, obviously, but this is, in my opinion, the most likely path.
Ivan Nova throws 200 innings
Nova is the Pirates’ only experienced starter, and while he experienced some ups and downs last year, he’s been pretty consistent over the course of his career. His career ERA is 4.27. In each of the last two seasons, he was 4.17 and 4.14. It’s pretty safe to expect an outcome in a similar range. ZiPS projects 4.03 for 2018.
The issue will be keeping him in the rotation. Last year, Nova hit a career high with 187 innings pitched. Before that, his previous high was 170 in 2012. If he can get to 200, it would both be an impressive personal achievement for Nova and provide some serious stability to the starting rotation.
Jameson Taillon is a breakout star
Taillon is in an interesting place in that he’s probably the player on the team that has the most to give above and beyond what he accomplished in 2017. Taillon finished with a 4.44 ERA in 25 starts. As a rookie in 2016, he had a 3.38 ERA in 18 starts. In Triple-A in 2017, he had a 2.04 ERA in 10 starts.
How good can Taillon be? There doesn’t really seem to be a limit at this point. If he can become the true ace of the staff, keep his ERA under 3.50 and take the ball every fifth day, he can blow his projected 3.1 WAR out of the water.
Chad Kuhl, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams stick
If Kuhl, Musgrove, and Williams can do enough to stay in the rotation most of the season, that’s probably good enough from these three. Kuhl is probably the highest variance player of the three, so his outcomes are certainly something to keep an eye on.
To the bullpen
Tyler Glasnow finds a role
If Glasnow can find a role, whether it’s in long relief, short relief, or in the major-league rotation, that will be a huge boon for the Pirates. In fact, it’s almost essential. ZiPS is projecting him for 2.3 WAR. That can be done in the bullpen, but it would take an incredible season. Felipe Rivero only had 2.1 fWAR there last year. So if Glasnow doesn’t provide serious value, the Pirates are going to have to make it up elsewhere.
Felipe Rivero stays hot and healthy
The Pirates do not have a replacement for Rivero at the back-end of the bullpen, and are probably going to work him in some four- and five-out appearances to preserve their overall lack of length. If they lose him for any given period of time, it could be disastrous. He’s had 73 and 75 appearances over the last two seasons. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 should do the trick.
In the batting order
Francisco Cervelli hits like it’s 2015 again
Cervelli had an awful year health-wise in 2017, and last week, I argued that he should probably play fewer games in 2018 in order to preserve his health.
But his rate stats also took a dive last year. If Cervelli is going to be the kind of catcher the Pirates are going to want to keep in the lineup, he needs to get close to pre-2017 on-base percentage, when he was at or above .370 for three straight years from 2014 to 2016 before nosediving to .342 in 2017. Some more power wouldn’t hurt either. He hit four home runs in Spring Training, one fewer than all of the 2017 regular season.
Josh Bell picks a path and takes it
Bell was a high-average player in the minors, hitting over .300 in three different stops. But he never hit more than 14 home runs at one stop. Last year, he hit 26 homers for the Pirates, but batted .255. He needs to make some progress in one place or the other — either embrace the power and hit 35, or get his average back up near .300 without sacrificing a ton. The combination of one or the other would lift his wRC+ up above 115 and make him roughly a two-win player after coming in at 0.8 last year.
Colin Moran is who they think he is
Moran doesn’t have a very high bar to clear to be a big improvement for the Pirates at third base. All he really has to do is what he did at Triple-A last year: kill right-handed pitching. His defense isn’t going to be great and he’s probably going to frequently be a late-game sub out option, and he might struggle with some left handers. But if he can approach his Triple-A .974 OPS against right-handers, he’ll be a huge boost.
Starling Marte is a superstar
In all of those seasons where they out-performed their projections, the Pirates had at least one player that had a four-win season. The Pirates best shot at that is Marte, and he has plenty of avenues to get there. Steal 40 bases? Certainly possible. Become the league’s best defensive center fielder? He has the tools. Turn on some power and be a 20-20 guy? He’s shown it in spurts. Marte has a lot of ways to get there, and that’s a good thing, because the Pirates don’t really have anyone else that can.
They get hot at the right times
This is an interesting one. The Pirates will probably need some trade-deadline type help to get to 87 games, even if all of the above goes right. That’s something that they were able to get in each of the years they made the playoffs.
But they can’t get too far behind the pace in July, or they won’t get that help. Instead, the club will be forced to shop veterans down the stretch and make it all that much more difficult for the Pirates to get there. They don’t necessarily need a hot start, but they need to be in striking distance at the break to get there.