It’s OK to be cautiously optimistic about the 2018 Pirates right now. That could obviously change depending on how this offseason goes, but at the moment, it looks like they could compete. Fangraphs’ win-loss model projects them to finish with a winning record, and ESPN has them as the 13th best club in their “way too early” 2018 power rankings. That’s not quite playoff worthy, but it puts them on the cusp.
The outfield should get better if they hang onto Andrew McCutchen and get a full season from Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. The rotation is growing nicely and should take another step forward in 2018. Even the bullpen has some young fireballers that should help out next year.
The area of this team that seems the most desperate for an upgrade is the infield. Last year, all of the Bucs’ infielders combined for an 87 wRC+. They were the second worst offensive infield in all of baseball. Their combined value came out to 6 fWAR, which was 27th in baseball. There were five infielders who were worth more than that by themselves (Jose Altuve, Anthony Rendon, Kris Bryant, Joey Votto and Jose Ramirez).
The first choice is obviously Jung-ho Kang. Every attempt to get him back in the country has been a swing and big ol’ miss so far, but they wouldn’t have put him in the Dominican Winter League if they thought he would never play again.
So let’s check in on how he is doing.
Out of 32 players who qualify for league leaders in Dominican, Jung-Ho Kang ranks 31st in AVG, SLG, OPS, 32nd in OBP & 1st in K's #Pirates
— John Dreker (@JohnDreker) November 5, 2017
Even if Kang can get back in the country, there is no way he will be ready for opening day. He would need a lengthy stay in AAA just to get the rust off. Even if he is in their plans for 2019, the Pirates need to come out of this offseason with a shiny, new infielder for 2018.
Let’s throw some names against the wall and see what sticks. The Tigers are going to try to trade Ian Kinsler this offseason, but he’s 35 and coming off a down year. The Athletics are apparently going to shop Ryon Healy, but the best case scenario for him is to be another Pedro Alvarez. Billy Beane said he will not trade Jed Lowrie. Even if Lowrie does get swapped, the price tag will be high and he’s only under control for one year.
MLB.com writer Jim Duquette has the Pirates winning the Zack Cozart sweepstakes. If his 2017 wasn’t a fluke, that would be a major upgrade over Jordy Mercer. If he reverts back to his career norms, he won’t be worth the money and the infield would still be looking for another bat. It’s the type of high risk, high reward signing that the Pirates usually stay clear of.
There’s Eduardo Nunez. Yawn. Howie Kendrick? Double yawn. Brandon Phillips? Triple yawn, and add a quadruple yawn for good measure. Sure, they could all be had for a two year deal, but they are all at best lateral moves for the current group. They need an upgrade.
The Pirates need someone with power. Someone who can play second and/or third. Someone who could platoon with David Freese while still being able to take over an everyday role if necessary.
They need Pittsburgh baseball’s prodigal son: Neil Walker.
Walker has done pretty well for himself since leaving the ‘Burgh. He’s missed roughly half a season since 2016 with back injuries, but he still was worth 3.7 WAR in 2016 and 2.1 last year. If he had been healthy last offseason, he would have scored a three or four year deal. He decided to take the safe money and accepted a $17.2 million qualifying offer from the Mets. It was a mini-gamble that will hurt him this winter.
With his injury history, he will likely being seeking a multi-year deal, even if it’s a lower AAV. MLBTR predicts that he will get a two year, $20 million deal this offseason. That is great news for the Pirates, who bungled their way to tens of millions of free money since Disney is buying BAMTech. Some of that HAS to go to the payroll, and a projected $10M to Walker sounds perfect.
Walker and Freese would be a killer platoon, with Josh Harrison bouncing between the two positions. Walker had an .854 OPS and a 127 wRC+ against righties. Freese had an .839 OPS and 125+ wRC+ against southpaws, and those numbers would probably improve since he wouldn’t be overworked anymore. Fangraphs’ Steamer projects Walker to hit 22 dingers next year, too. Twenty-two may not be a ton, but he, McCutchen, a growing Josh Bell and a healthy Polanco would be the most dangerous heart of the order since the 2012 team.
Sure, Walker has an injury history, but so does Harrison. If one goes down, there’s an overqualified replacement ready to pick up the slack. That injury bug is what is keeping him in the Pirates’ price range. Cross your fingers and hope a slight reduction in playing time will have a positive impact on health.
Bringing back Walker would also address the Pirates greatest problem in selling their product: likeability. Fan morale is worse now than it was when the Bucs were in the middle of their two decades of losing. They want to root for likeable personalities on a winning team. Walker comes with a cult following of yinzers. A cult following that can help boost plummeting TV ratings, right in time before they negotiate a new broadcasting contract next year. He would be the type of marketable name they need, right beside Cutch and Bell. It’s Pirates: Generations.
But this reunion won’t happen. Neal Huntington screwed up royally when he flipped the Pittsburgh Kid for Jon Niese, but their relationship was on thin ice before then. The Pirates offered him a laughably bad contract extension before 2015 (reportedly three years, $27 million, according to the Tribune-Review). He said no, and the Pirates stopped the talks. They went into arbitration, and the Pirates didn’t hold back any punches. By that point, Walker “lost all faith in the organization” (credit again to the Trib).
Let’s hope the two are on talking terms now that some time has passed, because Walker is the guy the Pirates need. He addresses their greatest weakness at the moment. The 2.5 projected fWAR Fangraphs’ Steamer has him pegged for in 2018 is the difference between the Pirates’ current projected standings and a wild card spot. He’ll bring fans back to the stadium and to AT&T Sportsnet at a time when the club really needs those eyeballs.
He can bring back faith to the organization.