It’s over. Six grueling months of the nothingness known as the Pirates’ offseason is finally over.
Instead of either shipping off Andrew McCutchen and Tony Watson to rebuild or making a big splash trade, the Pirates pretty much stayed the course. Re-signing Nova was a good move and Daniel Hudson came in at a reasonable price. Besides that, a few very minor moves, and Jung-ho Kang becoming the most hated Korean since Kim Jong-un: bupkis.
That isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Almost half of the 2015 Pirates are still on the roster, including six starting position players. Even after a bum year and the new baseball overlord Chicago Cubs in the division, they should at the very least be in the mix for a playoff spot.
So I whipped up a list of six things that might make or break the Pirates’ season. What separates a 98 win Pirate team from a sub-.500 one? What needs to happen to make 2016 a mulligan instead of the start of a trend?
I’ve gone into detail with some of these points before, so think of this as the Tl;dr version. Obviously a playoff berth is not riding on all six of these things happening, but these are what I feel are the 2017 Pirates’ keys to success.
Rebound seasons from McCutchen and Gerrit Cole
McCutchen and Cole were worth 8 less fWAR in 2016 than they were in 2015. The Pirates finished eight games out in the loss column for a playoff spot. I can’t help but feel the two are related.
Cole already has a leg up from last year because he had a healthy offseason and pitched in spring training. His increased walk rate and reduced strikeout clip were most likely due to his bombardment of injuries, especially to his elbow. Playing through pain, he was still a good starter. If healthy, he can be a Cy Young contender.
McCutchen finished the year strong at the dish, and I wrote in February that history has been kind to center fielders being shifted to right. In TPOP’s roundtable in November, I made a bold-ish prediction by pegging Cutch as a 5-6 win player again. I’ll stand by that. This is his “man on a mission” year.
There’s no way the Pirates can make the playoffs if both their superstar and their ace have bum seasons. Getting strong seasons from them is better than any trade or signing they could have made.
Hold their own against the Cubs
This one is short and simple: the Pirates went 4-14 against the Cubs last season. They need to improve that record or any hopes to be competitive for a division crown are gone.
If they somehow go win 14 or 15 games against them, they’ll win the division. 11-13 wins should put them in good position for Buctober. Eight to 10 should put them in Wild Card contention. Seven or less and they are in trouble.
Make the bridge year count for second year pitchers
2016 was almost destined to be sacrificed so some top prospects could get accustomed to the majors. The idea is the front office can prevent lengthy rebuilds by punting a year or two. It may not have been a popular move, but there’s no denying the 2017 club can benefit from the playing time those youngsters received.
Jameson Taillon seems the most likely candidate for a breakout season. If he could match his peripherals from last year but go 160-180 innings, he’s the perfect #2-#3 starter this team needs.
Chad Kuhl made 30 starts between AAA and the majors last year. He may have looked overmatched at times, but he grinded through some tough opponents. He’s going to fit right in at the back end of the starting five. If Tyler Glasnow can put everything together and pitch to his potential, all of a sudden the rotation goes from a weakness to a strength.
Josh Harrison and/or Francisco Cervelli return to former glory
Harrison and Cervelli both had career years in their first look as starters and parlayed that into contracts the following year. That next year, they become league average bats, and in Harrison’s case, sub-par the season after that.
There’s $16.5 million tied up between those two players. Even though they both provide good defense, that’s way too much to pay for average hitters. Both of them showed a little life in their lumber the second half of the season, but they will need to carry that over the whole season.
Someone emerges to give good middle relief
Watson’s jump to closer may have been shaky, but like I said in September, it was because he was shaky all year, not because of the pressure of the job. He should provide good late inning work again. Daniel Hudson and Felipe Rivero may both be feast or famine pitchers, but they should fit in nicely as setup men.
How they get to that trio is still up for debate. Kevin talked about how Juan Nicasio could be a “midgame closer” back in January. It’s an interesting notion that I think is worth exploring, but I don’t know if fireman relievers will ever catch on again in the NL. The pitcher needs to hit, and there is always going to be at least a one in three chance his spot in the order is coming up if he’s asked to go multiple innings.
Nicasio would not be enough, anyway. Antonio Bastardo, Trevor Williams, Wade LebLanc or someone from Indianapolis needs to stand out from the rest of the pack and deliver when the starter bows out early or the game goes extras.
Get busy at the trade deadline
Last but certainly not least, the Pirates will need to address one or two holes at the trade deadline to stay competitive.
Finding another buy low starter makes sense. I’m not convinced Baltimore can continue to be successful , and if they collapse, I think Ubaldo Jimenez could be a good fit. Clay Buchholz, Clayton Richard and Ricky Nolasco are other guys who should come cheap that would be worth keeping an eye on.
But this might need to be the year Huntington parts with a high-ranking prospect to get the guy he needs. The most obvious example is Jose Quintana, but there is a hole in the infield with Kang missing. The White Sox have a few players they will likely try to trade, and the Tigers and Royals are likely going to rebuild if they aren’t in a playoff spot by the deadline. They all have infielders that would be great fits, including Todd Frazier, Ian Kinsler and Mike Moustakas.