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Forecasting The NL Central: 5-Year Outlook For Pittsburgh Pirates

Starling Marte (L) and Gregory Polanco (R) are poised to be the new tandem leading the Pirates.

Over the past few weeks, The Point of Pittsburgh has been evaluating the 5-year outlooks for each team in the National League Central.  The final installment is our very own Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Cincinnati Reds’ outlookMilwaukee Brewers’ outlook, St. Louis Cardinals’ outlook, and Chicago Cubs’ outlook can be reviewed at your leisure.

This should be the easiest one for me to write.  I study the Pirates as intently, from majors to minors to the business side of things, than anyone that doesn’t draw a paycheck from 100 Federal Street.  But unlike the Reds (will be bad for quite a while), the Brewers (ascendant after a strong rebuild), the Cardinals (will be good, because that’s what they always are), and the Cubs (on top of the heap for the foreseeable future), the Pirates don’t really have a through line at this point.

Andrew McCutchen will be gone at some point in 2017, whether it’s in July or December, but is that even a big deal after his downbeat performance last year?  The Pirates’ farm system isn’t as robust in years past, but there’s still a couple of guys floating around down there that could be something.  The core of a very good team is still in place, and we might see it again this year with some better luck and health, but they don’t feel like they’re trending up or down right now.  They’re potentially competitive, but not in a place that you can say so with great certainty.

Last 3 Opening Day Payrolls (via Cot’s Contracts)

  • 2014 — $71.9M (88-74)
  • 2015 — $90.1M (98-64)
  • 2016 — $99.9M (78-83-1)

It wouldn’t be a Pirates’ offseason if there weren’t accusations about the Pirates being cheap and trading all their most expensive players.  It doesn’t matter if some of those players are coming off down years and not worth their contract (Josh Harrison) or simply coming to the end of the line in their Pirate tenure (Andrew McCutchen).  The Pirates don’t help themselves in these matters by being completely tone-deaf at public relations, either.

The Pirates flirted with getting Jose Quintana from the White Sox, but ultimately (as of this writing, at least) were not willing to part with the necessary permutation of impact prospects that would satisfy the demands of the rebuilding White Sox.  Getting Quintana would have been a game-changer for the short and medium-term future of the franchise, as Quintana would have transformed the rotation from ‘pretty good/middle-of-the-road’ to ‘one of the four best in the NL’.

For the first time during this competitive window, the Opening Day payroll is not going up over the previous year, as it is projected to be $98.2M.  Is this an indication of a theoretical payroll ceiling or just that the Pirates didn’t see a better use for their dollars, given the current composition of the roster and presence of some low-cost players?

Current Cornerstones

For the first time since his debut in 2009, Andrew McCutchen can no longer be considered a cornerstone of this team.  With this being his last guaranteed year of control and then a club option for 2018, the Pirates will be moving him at some point in calendar year 2017 so that his new team will get a full 2018 season out of him.

Jung-ho Kang can’t be considered a cornerstone, either, due to his recent legal scrapes and subsequent inability to get a work visa to enter the United States.  He’s under contract through 2018 with a club option for 2019 (at insanely affordable rates), but his future is murky at this point in time.  Even if he gets a visa for 2017, will the Pirates want him back?  Should they want him back?

The good news is that there are plenty of other impact players present and accounted for that will be part of the Pirates for the next few years.  The outfield grass is in good hands with Starling Marte under team control through 2019, with team options in 2020 and 2021.  If there’s a time for him to discover the extra gear that some have predicted he still possesses, now would be a good time with McCutchen looking to hand the torch to someone.  Perhaps Gregory Polanco is the one to be the torchbearer.  He’s under control through 2021 (with team options for 2022 and 2023) at rates that bench players will be getting by the time the end of his contract gets here.

It’s not a state secret that I’m less sanguine about Josh Bell than most (including the rest of the baseball writers here at TPOP), but he appears to be a contributor on offense and is under team control for the next six seasons.  Francisco Cervelli gets the name-in-bold treatment here, 2016 season be damned.  If 2015 Cervelli comes back in 2017, his contract is a steal.  If the injury-riddled 2016 version continues, his contract through 2019 may get a little prohibitive, but his defense and leadership should still make it buoyant.

The pitching staff has three cornerstones on it.  The first is the erstwhile ace from 2015, Gerrit Cole.  Much like many of his compatriots, Cole’s 2016 was ruined by injury.  I believe that the 2015 Cole is the true one and he’s here on arb prices through 2019.  (Technically, I think he’s traded after 2018 because Boras is his agent and he’s destined for free agency, but that’s not the nature of the exercise).  Jameson Taillon has been talked about forever.  He was drafted in 2010 and only debuted in 2016, so there was some prospect fatigue with him.  But he debuted last year and looks to be a groundball-inducing, #3-level pitcher at worst.  With some refinement to his changeup, he could become an elite #1/#2.  He’s here for six seasons, the first three at min-scale level salaries.  The Pirates used some sort of voodoo or mind control on Ivan Nova and his agent, getting him to sign for 3 years at $26M, a full $10M less than what I believed he could have received on the market.  I’m not anticipating a full season of his freakishly good pitching post-trade, but if he’s a #3-level stabilizing force behind Cole and Taillon for the next three seasons, that’s the basis of a good rotation.

2017 Top 100 Baseball America Prospects

  • OF Austin Meadows (#6, projected level in 2017 — AAA)
  • RHP Mitch Keller (#22, projected level in 2017 — A+)
  • RHP Tyler Glasnow (#23, projected level in 2017 — AAA/MLB)
  • 1B Josh Bell (#35, projected level in 2017 — MLB)
  • SS Kevin Newman (#55, projected level in 2017 — AA)

Here’s the rest of the Pirates’ Top 10, as per Baseball America.

Because I follow the Pirates the closest of any other team, I’m guilty of being too critical of the flaws of the prospects.  Meadows is too injury-prone, Glasnow doesn’t have good control/third pitch, Bell can’t play defense, and Newman has no power.  Only Keller has escaped my withering critiques, aside from the fact that he’s two to three years out from Pittsburgh.  These are prospects that other teams would want.  We’ve heard reports that the White Sox want a whole bunch of them (and maybe Taillon, too).

If the Pirates don’t flip these guys, or other non-Top 100 guys in their system, for current Major League players, the Pirates have a good slug of talent coming over the next two years.  Meadows can replace McCutchen in right field, Bell is already here, Glasnow could be here again at some point in 2017, and Newman could make Jordy Mercer expendable.  It’s a good fall back.  I do think the talent level drops off after these five, but there’s plenty of organizations that don’t even have that much.

5-Year Outlook

  • 2017 ($98.2M committed salary) — Personally, I’m predicting the Pirates for an 85-win season.  But it’s certainly not a stretch to see them getting a Wild Card with some luck and good performances here and there.  If they’re out of the playoff chase in July, McCutchen may go in a trade.  Otherwise, he goes in the offseason.  And if Josh Harrison continues to be nondescript at the plate, he’s probably the next out the door in the offseason.  The Pirates could try and overcome Adam Frazier’s defensive issues at 2B in favor of his more robust offensive profile.  If Kevin Newman continues to put bat on ball and display adequate enough defense at short, the Pirates could move Mercer and his one year of control remaining in 2018.
  • 2018 ($55.9M committed salary) — Even though I just shuffled a bunch of players out the door, I think the Pirates could reload on the fly and still be in the mid-80’s of wins.  Austin Meadows won’t replace peak-McCutchen production, but he’ll be a contributor.  Let’s hope that Glasnow has shown whether he’s a starter or a reliever full-time by 2018 and the Pirates can slot him in accordingly.  The 2018 season is the next-to-last year of Cole’s control, so the Pirates may look to move him in the offseason to recoup some value from him.  If Glasnow hasn’t become a high-end starter, that will leave a big hole in the rotation’s future.  I’ll predict that Felipe Rivero is the Pirates’ closer in the 2018 season.
  • 2019 ($38.9M committed salary) — As of March 2017, the 2019 season looks like the next decision point on the tree for the organization.  Cole (if he hasn’t already been traded), Nova, and Cervelli all have contracts up after 2019.  It’s not like the Pirates are going to be in on the mix of the epic 2018 offseason free agent class, so they’ll either have to replace them internally or via a trade, most likely.  If David Freese is still here on his 2019 option, that means something has gone drastically wrong with Jung-ho Kang.  Mitch Keller could sniff the Majors in July of this year, but more likely will debut in 2020.  The 2019 season is Taillon’s last before arbitration.  I don’t see him as an extension candidate, because he already got his life-changing money in the form of his $6.5M signing bonus, but maybe his TJ surgery has him thinking about locking up his financial future.  If Adam Frazier has figured out defense to the Pirates liking, maybe a very small extension is floated to him.  The Pirates will be on the periphery of the Wild Card hunt, but I think they’re more in the low-80’s of wins.
  • 2020 ($10.6M committed salary) — I would love to tell you that Taillon-Keller-Glasnow will be the top 3 in 2020, but that’s wildly optimistic at this point.  The team still has Marte (age-31) and Polanco (age-28) under theoretical team control.  Meadows will be fully hitting his stride and probably in his last minimum salary year before arbitration in 2021, so he could be an interesting extension candidate.  Felipe Rivero will be in his 3rd of 4 years of arbitration (he’s a Super Two), so with a resume full of saves (hopefully), he’ll be getting expensive here.  I could see the Pirates moving him after the 2020 season, as they’ve been willing to do in the past with relievers.  Unless their 2017 1st-round pick (thanks to their down 2016 season) is a high riser and not a potential bust like in recent years, the farm could be running bare on talent.  I don’t see them having a winning season.
  • 2021 ($11.6M committed salary) — Both Taillon and Bell are in the 2nd year of arbitration, so they’ll start to get Pirate-expensive.  It’s possible if the team is losing that both of them will be traded after the 2021 season so that their new teams can get one year of control out of them before they hit free agency.  Bear in mind that Bell is a Scott Boras client, too.  If Kevin Newman is still with the Pirates and shows well, he seems like the perfect candidate to get a team-friendly extension.  Depending on how the Pirates have gamed his service clock, Tyler Glasnow could be entering arbitration for the first time in 2021.  Even though the Pirates are a low-payroll team, there’s plenty of salary space to add with low-cost free agents to bolster the roster.  I’m having a hard time seeing this 2021 squad having a winning season, due to a farm that is not producing crops at the necessary rate anymore.

***

I’d like to think that Neal Huntington’s preaching of long-term sustainability is true and not just a corporate buzzword that has infiltrated the headspace of PNC Park.  I see them as playoff contenders for the next three years, but unless some players drastically uptick on performance it’s hard for me to envision them reaching lofty heights like the 2015 squad, which I will contend was the best team since the 1979 World Series Pirates.

About Kevin Creagh (259 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

5 Comments on Forecasting The NL Central: 5-Year Outlook For Pittsburgh Pirates

  1. I think a fair question is, with record/near record attendance the past few years, ticket price increases, revenue sharing, and a monstrous TV deal the past few years, why is the payroll lower (by over $5M) than season’s end last year?

    BTW, Great work on the site, Kevin and your staff.

    • Kevin Creagh // April 1, 2017 at 10:29 PM // Reply

      Thanks for the kind words. There’s so much money flowing into the game, including the burgeoning stream from MLB Advanced Media, that it’s a fair question to ask of many teams, including the Pirates.

      • Agreed, however, specific to the Pirates, this is a team a season removed from 98 wins, 3 straight playoff appearances, yet are currently sitting 23rd in payroll. (according to Spotrac)

      • BTW, how in the hack are the Padres retaining $37M in salary, more than their entire payroll? Is that accurate?

        How can they get away with their actual payroll in the $30 range…or am I simply looking too much into this?

        Thanks for taking the time to respond.

        • Kevin Creagh // April 1, 2017 at 10:58 PM // Reply

          The Padres foolishly tried to compete, failed, then sent contracts to teams w retained salary to get out of them and get Prospects back.
          I don’t like their rebuild or their key prospects at all. They’re 6 years out from being remotely competitive.

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