I’ve been beating this drum for a while now. The Pirates failed to reach the playoffs in 2016 not because of lack of depth or a weak bottom of their rotation. It was because their stars and average players failed to perform at the level the team needed them to. Starling Marte led the team in fWAR but still fell one short of the 5 fWAR I use to delineate between above-average and stars. No lineup is chalk full of stars and most playoff bound NL teams have 1-2 of that ilk. For the 2016 playoff teams, this was actually down slightly compared to years past at 1.2 stars per line up, with the Mets lineup sneaking in without a star hitter. The Pirates actually had more 1 WAR or better WAR performers than every team who made it in expect for the Cubs and Giants.
Not surprisingly, the five teams who represented the senior circuit in the playoffs ranked 1-5 in all of baseball in runs allowed last year. The Pirates ranked 22nd. The offense without its elite performers performing in elite ways did little to overcome the poor pitching. Still, there wasn’t any star power on the mound, either. Each of the playoff teams, save for surprisingly the Cubs, had one pitcher eclipse 5 fWAR. The Cubs made up for it with some near misses and overall solid depth with three pitchers exceeding 3.5. The Pirates didn’t have any of those, including Gerrit Cole who went from 5.4 fWAR to 2.5. He still led the team.
The Pirates have some options internally to make the jump to stardom or return to it this year, but the ZIPS projection doesn’t have them with any. Of course that’s not likely to turn out perfectly and it also doesn’t consider a possible position change. Marte has yet to eclipse the 5 WAR mark but a move to center field could make that considerably easier. Assuming comparable defense to Dexter Fowler, he likely would have eclipsed the NL leading center fielder in fWAR, thanks to his comparable OPS, slightly lower K rate and and plethora of extra stolen bases. The road back over the 5 WAR hump for Andrew McCutchen could be slightly more difficult if he moves from center to left. Even if he returns to his career norms at the plate and plays average defense for the position, he should come in just ahead of the 4.4 fWAR Christian Yelich posted last season. He’ll be close, but Marte will be the team’s best bet.
Further down the depth chart, Josh Harrison has one 5 fWAR season under his belt in 2014, thanks to a big spike in ISO and a much smaller spike in BABIP. Though he’s been slightly below average since and has failed to come close to the power numbers, there is potential for more in his age-29 season. Maybe not star power, but he can get closer. More likely, Gregory Polanco will truly break out or Jung-ho Kang will fight through a myriad of distractions to realize some of his monster potential at the hot corner. Polanco got out to a quick start last year and had a sub-par second half. Not terrible, but not good either, posting an .862 OPS in the first half and a .682 in the second. Had he kept it up, he’d have been the best RF in the league and he’d have had numbers similar to Curtis Granderson in 2015 that netted him a 5.1 fWAR. Kang didn’t make it to 5 fWAR his first season, but given a full season of plate appearances and that atrocious, but brief adjustment period he had, it’s not inconceivable to think he could get there provided he sleeps with only willing, lucid partners and someone downloads the Lyft app for him.
So that’s five guys who have potential for star power in the lineup, which honestly is a wealth of depth. Likely, one or two will get there, but it’s also five guys who the Pirates should rely on for those average performances over the course of a season. If all five got there, they could get to a sixth average performance from Francisco Cervelli, Josh Bell, David Freese or even Jordy Mercer. That would be a pretty potent lineup.
Problem is the pitching, which ultimately is the NL’s annual postseason gate keeper ,even if it’s sexier to talk about the lineup. They likely won’t have the depth of the rotation that the Cubs, Mets and Nats had last year, but they could follow a similar path to the Dodgers or Giants. No, Gerrit Cole is not in the same stratosphere as Clayton Kershaw and no, Jamison Taillon at least for now is no number two alá Johnny Cueto. However, both the Dodgers and the Giants rotations were still a mess after their top two until the trade deadline. If Cole rebounds (ZIPS doesn’t think he will) and Taillon can reach the 3 fWAR plateau, the Pirates may have a little more stability and depth in the back of the rotation to be good enough. Nova is not an ideal three, but he’s a safe bet not to melt down completely. At his absolute worst, he’s still a competent major leaguer who can eat some innings. I’ve got a good feeling about Chad Kuhl, though he’ll need to command his sinker as well as control it better this year. He may not have been high on the prospect radar, but he wouldn’t be first pitcher to outperform his minor league expectations. Then there is the hodgepodge at 5 with Chad Hutchison and Tyler Glasnow currently leading the way to fill that spot. If you haven’t checked it out, Michael Bradley had an interesting analysis that pointed to patience with Glasnow as other tall pitchers have been late bloomers. He may be best to leave in the minors, but if he’s sent down his arbitration clock likely won’t be the issue. Hutchison is guilty by association with the Liriano trade, and he will likely break camp with some role for the big league club. Of course, having a five who has shown the ability to pitch up a little in the rotation won’t be the worst thing in the world. If he doesn’t work out, the Pirates will have some options after him like Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Steven Brault. They could even dig a little deeper if need be.
Still, the stars will need to perform. The Pirates rotation has depth, but not the upside to make up for another pedestrian season from Cole. We don’t hear much about him anymore, but Jose Quintana is still in play. Adding him would put the Pirates in a very strong position and provide Cole insurance. However, it’s not inconceivable that the rotation in its current form is good enough to get the Pirates into the playoffs. Cole needs to show that 2015 wasn’t an outlier and Taillon needs to replace some or all of the good version of Liriano’s production for them to even have a chance.
More likely than not, this is a good team that had a bad year. It took a lot to go wrong to end up with the product the Pirates put on the field last year, but a lot will need to reverse course to straighten things out this year. Players bouncing back or realizing their potential is essential to get the ship moving forward again. It’ll need to happen at the plate and on the mound. They have the depth to support. Now they need the stars to shine.