The Pirates have had notable success over the last three seasons, averaging 93 wins, and even contended the two seasons prior to that before succumbing to epic collapses late in the season. Unfortunatly, the players that built towards that success are fading out quickly. Russell Martin departed via free agency prior to 2015 and AJ Burnett, who was in Philly in 2014, has retired. Neil Walker and Charlie Morton have already been traded and Pedro Alvarez was cut loose as a non-tender. A handful of others have come and gone at the trade deadline. All of these players provided contributions to winning baseball in Pittsburgh for the first time in 20 years. None of the above will be in Pirate uniforms in 2016.
It’s very possible that the Pirates will go through a transitional year in in 2016. What I mean when I say “transitional year” is that they might take a step back in the winning department, but it might also lead to bigger things down the road. This is different than a rebuild. Of course, coming off a 98 win season stepping back was pretty likely anyway. The group of players signed and drafted under the previous regime and developed by the current front office are gone as noted above or nearing the end of their Pirates control. Only Starling Marte has more than three seasons remaining. Even some Neal Huntington draft picks like Jordy Mercer have entered arbitration, while plenty of trade acquisitions and free agent contributors have come and gone. In short, the first wave of prospects moving through the system are veterans now (arrived between 2009-11) and starting to leave, and the second group that supplemented the first wave, like Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco, have established themselves (arrived between 2012-14). Thanks to a myriad of injuries to the top pitching prospects, no one arrived in 2015, but starting this season the third wave could begin replacing the first.
Like any prospects, not all of these players will make it in the major leagues. Some will fail to reach their full potential. Some will fall well short and bust entirely. However, if one or two can reach their ceiling, it could help the Pirates extend their winning ways well after the first group departs, including Andrew McCutchen.
Right now, the Pirates are accumulating a ton of prospects at the AAA and AA levels. They have a number of high-ceiling prospects and more depth that could supplement the top prospects than they did in 2009. Many of these prospects would have been called up earlier then than they would now. Fortunately, there’s more talent in the majors now and this group can spend more time in the minors for development. Thanks to the extra time, they should be more major league ready by the time they’re actually given the call, but they will still need to adjust.
The first to arrive could be Alen Hanson. It’s not out of the question that he’ll be the Pirates’ opening day second baseman now that Walker’s been traded and Jung-ho Kang mends his busted knee and leg. I have doubts about the true ceiling of his bat in the majors, but I do think he can serve as a solid, defense-first second baseman who fits the system better than his predecessor. His defense could provide a huge boost to the ground ball oriented pitching staff by scooping ground balls Walker didn’t have the range to haul in. While the Pirates might sacrifice some runs produced using Hansen at second to start the season, he could save some runs with his glove. When everyone’s healthy, he can go back to the minors and hopefully, improve his bat.
Several others could arrive by midseason. Josh Bell looks primed to take over the first base role that’s been a black hole for the Pirates since… I seriously don’t know when. I didn’t live in Pittsburgh the last time they got solid production there and I’ve been here for fifteen years. Bell still has some defensive kinks to work out, but he has huge offensive upside especially if you can add a little bit of power to the plus-rated contact skills. Of all the prospects, he feels the safest for me and could be their next middle of the order anchor.
The rotation as it was composed with Jon Niese and without Charlie Morton needed another warm body in it. Ryan Vogelsong probably wasn’t the first name on anyone’s mind, but the path to the majors for Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon looks a lot clearer. Both have top of the rotation stuff, and it’s unlikely that the Pirates will sign anyone of that caliber in free agency. Their ceiling exceeds that of Scott Kazmir, a popular name appearing on the Pirates fan’s 2016 wish lists. Both could help at the major league level this season and getting them experience is important. While I’m not a big believer in their competitive window truly closing, Glasnow and Taillon could push the Pirates over the top while the last of the first wave are still contributing and keep it open past their departure. Starting pitching looks ugly now, will likely take a step back overall in 2016, but could allow for the Pirates to close 2016 with more upside than they did in 2015. It could also lead to a bizarre scenario where two mid-season call ups push Niese to a playoff bullpen for the second year in a row. In my opinion, this highlights that transition doesn’t always have to be a four letter word. It could make the Pirates better now, but they’ll need to endure April – June.
Looking past 2016, Austin Meadows could arrive in Indianapolis by July or August. While he has a long way to go to reach his Jay Bruce comparisons, he should be knocking at the door by 2017, even if he won’t likely be needed until 2018. Simply put, he’ll be working out any issues he still might have in the minors, rather than in the starting lineup with his service time accruing.
Beyond the elite core the Pirates have, there is depth well beyond what they had when Andrew McCutchen arrived in 2009. Players like Max Moroff and Adam Frazier simply didn’t exist the first time around and get overlooked. Both provide excellent line drive strokes with solid contact and excellent defense in the middle of the infield, while providing Alen Hanson insurance if he flops. They’ve also got a couple of catching options in Elias Diaz and Reese McGuire.
There is considerable pitching depth as well. Some might turn into fringy 4th or 5th starters in the major league rotation. Chad Kuhl has quietly shown solid control paired with an excellent ground ball rate in AA this past season. He’s a very strong dark horse to replace a pitcher at the back end of the rotation. Others, like what Tony Watson did, may transition from starter to bullpen. Nick Kingham is the first one that jumps off the list, as he was a former top 100 player, but will be recovering from Tommy John surgery this season. He could still start but he could easily find a home in the back end of the rotation allowing him to progress a little faster and take some stress off his brand spanking new elbow. Pitchers like Zack Dodson and Jason Creasy probably don’t have a future in the rotation, but they could be converted to relief in Indianapolis. John Holdzkom, who looked like a stud in 2014 before hitting the shelf for much of 2015, could also be a factor. If he recovers, he can very easily become a stalwart late in the game.
The transition will likely result in fewer wins in 2016, but it’s unlikely that 98 wins would have been matched even without any change at the major league level. That’s a hard feat to duplicate two years in a row with the same team. It’s also unlikely that it’ll take 99 to win the division again or 97 to make the wild card game. I expect some fall off next season, but it’s not out of the question that the Pirates can stay competitive while they build towards the future. If they can’t close on the pennant next season, it might lead to some frustration, but it should set help set the table for continued winning well beyond the first perceived window.