3 Stories: Pittsburgh Pirates

 

Between the years of 1993 to 2012, the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans endured losing season after losing season. It became a series others in the division looked forward to, as an opportunity to get back on a winning track, or if they lost to have a learning moment. Then in 2013, the Pirates finally broke out to the tune of 94 wins. A team that had been collecting some really good young players had a few good signings in the offseason, some players take a huge leap forward, and a weaker division to bolster their record. It looked as if this team was built to be competitive and contend for at least five years.

2016 brought that progress to a screeching halt. Players who peaked in 2013 have regressed slightly with age. McCutchen just isn’t the same player. Gerrit Cole has struggled to live up to the initial expectations and stay healthy. Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco haven’t quite reached the level many thought they would when they first arrived. The Pirates currently sit fourth in what has been a weak division, so hope cannot be entirely lost yet. However, the Cubs have a ton of young talent on the roster, and the Cardinals always find a way to make a push at some point. The Brewers, at least as far as the win column is concerned, seems legit this year. What does that mean for the Bucs?

1st Story: What’s up with McCutchen?

From 2012 – 2015, McCutchen was one of the most consistent players in the NL. He was consistently a darkhorse MVP candidate and didn’t hit worse than .292/.404/.488. In 2016, this run and his player overall took a dramatic step backward.

A look at some of the deep numbers suggests that some things simply haven’t changed. A look at the Fangraphs of his Hard %, Med %, and Soft % show that his numbers were out of line with his previous numbers in the date range mentioned above. His Soft % in 2016 rose almost 7 points from 2015, but he’s reduced it in 2017 so far. If he can continue to hit the ball a little bit harder, he should improve on last season’s results, and at least resemble the McCutchen the Pirates will need in order to make any sort of run in the so far weak NL Central.

2nd Story: Where is the strong pitching?

The Pirates had built their run from 2013-2015 on solid pitching, both from the starters and the relievers. Mark Melancon had been one of the most unsung heroes in baseball during that time, dominating at the back end of that bullpen. During that stretch, only 3 starts had ERA’s over 4.00. Melancon and Grilli combined for 104 saves. The only point at which there was concern was when Grilli struggled in 2014, which paved the way for Melancon to take the role on permanently. Tony Watson and Anthony Bastardo slid into the setup man role, still giving the Pirates a dominant back end of the rotation.

This year has not been that story. Tony Watson has not been able to flourish in the closer role, and Bastardo has an ERA over 16. Felipe Rivero has a sub 1.00 ERA in 2017 so far, and for his career has 176 SO’s in 162.2 IP, but hasn’t been given the closer role yet. Until he does, don’t expect the Pirates to be a team to fear in the 9th inning.

3rd Story: If they try to sell, will they have anything to sell high on?

It’s never a good sign when the second highest average on your team before the All-Star break is that of a first-year pitcher. Granted, he’s only had 16 AB’s, but the fact that Glasnow has a .313 average and nearly leading the team is a point of concern.

McCutchen is hitting .257, Polanco is hitting .241, and Kang has been dealing with legal troubles all year, keeping his bat out of the lineup. Marte, after years of building upon success, has only been in 13 games so far this season. Josh Harrison is the most attractive hitter at the moment, with a slash line of .298/.365/.456 and 8 HR. However, this kind of production would not net very good prospects, and Harrison’s play style and personality fit well with the Pirates fan base. Much like Braun in Milwaukee, you likely won’t get a return that’s worth losing a fan liked player.

Ivan Nova has been pitching very well so far this year and would warrant some attention from fringe contenders who could use a boost to their pitching staffs. Considering the Pirates are highly unlikely to move Taillon, the only other truly attractive pitcher right now, and Cole has not been able to return to what appeared to be his breakout 2015 after an injury-filled 2016, Nova remains the only real option to move at the deadline. If the division appears lost, expect the Pirates to entertain offers for Nova. Considering his three-year, $26M contract for the next three years, he would net a truly viable prospect in today’s market.

 

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