It was a pretty widely held belief in the pre-season that if the Pirates were going to contend, they would need a lot of things to go right. They didn’t need absolutely everything to go right, but they needed improvements from several players on their existing roster, plus some help from the outside and help from the farm system.
Through the first month of the season, they’ve seen some good results in that regard.
One of the best stories so far this year has been Francisco Cervelli’s rebound. He has already been worth 1.3 fWAR, which is more than his 1.0 WAR in all of last season, and approaching his 1.6 WAR from 2016. The hope in the pre-season was that he could improve upon his projection of around 1 WAR, and he’s already done that through the first month of the season.
What is even better is that his backup, Elias Diaz, has been worth 0.7 WAR. Together, the Pirates’ catchers have been worth two wins above replacement, which is more than the last two seasons combined, due to the backups in those years providing negative value to detract from Cervelli’s value.
Another player who has bounced back has been Starling Marte. He has a .286/.365/.446 line so far this year, which is very close and slightly better than his career totals of a .288/.345/.439 line. Marte has been consistent through most of his career, averaging around a 4.0 WAR. He already has an 0.9 WAR this year, and looks like he’s back to his old self after a down year last year.
Then there’s the big outside addition, Corey Dickerson. He has been a massive boost to the offense, putting up a .313/.358/.515 line in 109 plate appearances, and has been worth a 1.2 WAR. The Pirates traded away Andrew McCutchen, their face of the franchise, and have easily upgraded over him with the addition of Dickerson.
Finally, there have been some surprises in the rotation. Ivan Nova is looking closer to the pitcher he was in 2016 with the Pirates, rather than the pitcher in 2017 who was around league average. He has a 3.32 ERA and a 3.63 xFIP in six starts this year. Trevor Williams has been putting up outstanding surface numbers, with a 2.29 ERA, and his 3.69 FIP isn’t bad. His xFIP is 5.04, suggesting that he will see some regression when his 2.6% HR/FB rate normalizes.
The Pirates are also getting some depth help, with Nick Kingham stepping up in a big way on Sunday with seven shutout innings, and remaining in the rotation going forward, at least until Joe Musgrove returns.
That’s a lot going right, not to mention other guys performing up to their expectations. It might not always be this way. Any one of the above players could see their fortunes turn, and see a decline in their performance in the coming months.
What encourages me is that the Pirates have managed to contend so far with a lot of guys who aren’t exactly performing well. The encouraging thing is that most of the guys who are struggling are showing positive signs that they will turn things around. So while some of the guys above might see a decline in their production, the Pirates have so many more players who could potentially see an increase.
Let’s start with Jameson Taillon. He was expected to be the ace of the staff, but currently has a 4.83 ERA in 31.2 innings after last night’s start. He does have a 3.42 xFIP, so there should be some regression in the positive direction going forward. If the Pirates can get Taillon back on track, then they could off-set any declines from Nova or Williams.
I would add Chad Kuhl to that equation as well. Like Taillon, his numbers are down on the surface, with a 4.55 ERA. However, he’s got a 3.87 FIP and a 4.09 xFIP, showing slightly above average numbers in those regards if he can get back on track going forward. He won’t provide the same impact as Taillon can, but he can help improve the rotation.
The pitching has several other players who can help going forward. Tyler Glasnow is another guy with a high ERA (4.70) and a low xFIP (3.28) and he keeps making improvements and adjustments to his game. Joe Musgrove starts his rehab tonight, and should get a chance to show what he can do by the end of May.
Then there’s the bullpen. The Pirates got some horrible results from that group early, but things might be coming together. Michael Feliz hasn’t been lights out, but he’s looking pretty reliable as a late inning guy. Kyle Crick has been outstanding so far, although that’s only in a sample size of 6.1 innings. And Edgar Santana is another guy with a high ERA (4.50) and a lower xFIP (3.05) while showing some promise at times on the field. Pairing those three with Felipe Vazquez should lead to a better group than we’ve seen early in the season, and I think we’ve already started to see that.
There are some guys on offense who I think could be performing better than they have been so far. Gregory Polanco has shown flashes of being an impact hitter, but so far has been replacement level due to his streaky play and his low average. Colin Moran has shown a good ability to hit and get on base, and I think there’s more power that we haven’t seen, and he should improve over his .134 ISO. I think Josh Bell can, and will improve in a lot of areas.
Josh Harrison will provide a boost to the team again when he returns. I didn’t think the Pirates would ever get Jung Ho Kang back, so any production from him this year would be a bonus, and if he returns anything close to his former self, that would be a huge boost.
And we have barely touched on the prospects. Kingham made a big impact on Sunday, but the Pirates have more help on the way. Mitch Keller could make his way to the majors this year, giving a boost to the rotation down the stretch. Austin Meadows can provide some depth if an outfielder goes down with an injury, currently showing an .833 OPS in Triple-A. Jose Osuna could give the Pirates an extra bat off the bench if they get back to five bench players. And I think Kevin Kramer, Kevin Newman, and/or Max Moroff could get to a point where they could help the big league club this year (Moroff is obviously up right now, but isn’t playing like he did the final two months last year).
There have been a lot of good stories and things that have gone right for the Pirates so far this year. If I would have told you that Francisco Cervelli was looking like his 2015 self, Ivan Nova was looking like his 2016 self, Starling Marte was back to normal, Corey Dickerson was looking like an impact performer, and Trevor Williams and Nick Kingham were putting up good starts, you probably would have guessed that the Pirates were having a good season.
It’s pretty amazing that the Pirates are doing so well without a lot of help from Taillon, Polanco, Bell, Kuhl, Glasnow, Moran (from a power standpoint), Harrison (while he’s been injured), the bullpen (early in April), or the top prospects who have yet to arrive.
The good performances might not all last. But the bad performances won’t all last either. This doesn’t look like a team over-performing, waiting for the bottom to fall out. It looks like a legit contender, and a team that we might not have seen the best from yet.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.