I get it Pirates fans. You’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore. The Pirates have fallen so far behind the Cubs and Cardinals that the 2016 season should be forfeited, right?
Maybe not so fast.
While I don’t troll the internet for a ton of local Pirates opinion stories this time of year, in large part because most have one foot off the bridge already, I haven’t seen a concrete comparison where the Pirates actually stand against the perceived NL Central contenders. Mostly, I see a lot of people jump past any real analysis to the conclusion that the Pirates are punting in 2016 thanks to their unwillingness to overpay Scott Kazmir. I decided to break down the top three position by position, assigning letter grades all around the diamond. While I don’t want to make this about wins above replacement, a C-grade would roughly translate to a 2 WAR with each grade roughly 1.5 WAR plus or minus.
From there, I break the letter grades down like a high college / college GPA. Here’s the formula that I’ll use to bring it all together at the end.
AVG (C,1B,2B, SS, 3B, RF, CF, LF)*.45 + (SP*.7 +BP*.3)*.55
A few caveats before I begin. Yes, this is subjective and yes, these are projections. I’m not giving players any lifetime achievement awards. I’m taking my best guess at where these guys rate in 2016. Not 2012. Not 2018.
I am also a Pirate fan myself. My knowledge of the team and who projects to play where will be stronger for Pittsburgh for the other teams. While I’ve been keeping close tabs on the rest of the division, it’s possible I’ll make a mistake. As I look closer at the situation, it appears the rest of the divisional contenders’ lineups may actually have more question marks about who plays where. I’m also looking where teams stand right now and I acknowledge that a lot can happen between now and April. Because the benches and bullpens are likely far from finished, I will only look at the starting lineups and the back end of the bullpen. I will take platoons into consideration if they’re likely.
Here we go. I’ll start with Catcher.
- Pirates – Francisco Cervelli – B –
- Cardinals – Yadier Molina – C+
- Cubs – Miguel Montero – C
A couple of years ago, the NL Central had a couple of the best performers at the catching position in baseball, but it’s since fallen off a bit. Russell Martin departed for the AL East and Molina has started to show signs of decline. As a whole, this group is still solid. The Pirates lead the way with Cervelli having broken out in 2015. He’ll likely fall short of a true repeat at the plate thanks to an unsustainable BABIP, but the defense (especially pitch framing) should remain strong. I do expect Molina to rebound, but I doubt he bounces back all the way to the MVP contender Cards fans grew accustomed to. Montero as an average catcher could be a bit generous, but I do think he should be decent again.
- Anthony Rizzo – A
- Matt Adams – C –
- John Jaso / Michael Morse – C –
Rizzo has become one of the NL top bats and he’s head and shoulders better than the rest of the guys in the division who wear big gloves. 1B is up in the air for the Cards with Matt Holliday working out there recently. For now, I’ll assume Adams has not lost his job. The Slippery Rock slugger struggled with injuries in 2015. While he doesn’t have an extensive track record, I’ll assume he finds his way back to his 2014 form when he turned in a roughly average season. The recently signed John Jaso gives the Pirates one of the best left handed platoon bats in the league. He will need to adjust to first base, but if he hits righties at an .800 plus OPS clip, no one should give a crap about that. Morse is the wildcard in the tandem. He closed the season well in a Pirates uniform, so it’s possible that he could bounce back, but how far?
- Ben Zobrist – B
- Josh Harrison – B
- Kolten Wong – B –
My second base evaluation could lead to some confusion and hurt feelings. Please allow me to explain. Harrison finished in the top ten in MVP voting in 2014. He got off to a rough start in 2015 and just as he was beginning to get it going at the plate, he got injured. If I’m going to give Adams the benefit of the doubt to rebound injury free, I do think it’s fair to assume Harrison will rebound part of the way. While I’m not dreaming of another star season, I do think Harrison could finish well above average. Wong is a good, well rounded player and he should continue to develop. He’s solid already, only age-25 and has more than a cup of coffee under his belt. Here’s where people stop liking me. Ben Zobrist isn’t getting any younger. His offense remains strong but his defense declined in 2015. At 34, I’d expect another small step back, but still be solid.
- Matt Carpenter – A
- Kris Bryant – A
- Jung Ho Kang – A –
It doesn’t get hotter than the hot corner in the NL Central. Every single team has star power at third. All three should hit for big numbers, but I would put Carpenter and Bryant a step ahead of Kang. Kang’s injuries are the big question here, but it seems like he’s progressing well.
- Addison Russell – B
- Jhonny Peralta – C
- Jordy Mercer – D +
Russell is still über young and played excellent defense his first year. The bat still has room to develop and I wouldn’t be surprised if he surpasses my 2016 expectations for him. Peralta will without question be the best paid of the group. He’s historically been up and down, but at 34 you have to question how many more ups he has left. Mercer’s value revolves around his glove, and early slumps offset solid late season success at the plate. He could do considerably better if he has a hotter than expected spring.
- Stephen Piscotty – B –
- Gregory Polanco – C +
- Chris Coghlan /Jorge Soler – C –
The NL Central has some solid prospects in right who still have a few miles to walk before they reach their potential. Piscotty looks like the best hitter currently and projects to have the best year of the three. Polanco hit a ton of balls hard for outs and his above average base running and defense picked him up for his bad luck last year. He could break out in a big way or he could stagnate. Soler could develop into a star but he’s far from established. He’s toolsy as hell but many of those tools haven’t translated so far. Coghlan, who I still don’t buy in spite of two solid seasons in a row, will help take pressure off Soler.
- Andrew McCutchen – A
- Jason Heyward – A –
- Randall Grichuk – C
Andrew McCutchen doesn’t need much explanation here. Heyward should be solid, but will his well-above average corner defense translate to center enough to float his overall value? This might be a little controversial, but I’m not entirely sold on Grichuk. His K-rate and elevated BABIP make me feel like he’s more likely to take steps backward than forwards.
- Starling Marte – B+
- Kyle Schwarber – C+
- Matt Holliday – C
Remember in my opening when I said that I was rating players on how they would produce in 2016 not 2012 or 2018? I had left field in mind when I made that statement. I think Kyle Schwarber is going to be an excellent bat and star in the majors for years to come. That said, I’m fully expecting a bit of sophomore slump. He trended down month over month after a stellar June debut and began looking more like the left side of a platoon. On the other side of equation, Holliday has entered the still useful, but clearly declining portion of his career. Neither he nor Schwarber defend the position particularly well.
Starling Marte isn’t likely as good as Holliday was or Schwarber will be, but he is likely the best left fielder of the three right now. He’s well established and just entering his prime. He’s a complete player and his defense and base running will help offset that he’ll likely be just an average or slightly above average hitter for the position again this year.
- Cubs (Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Kendrick, Hammel) – A
- Cardinals (Wainwright, Wacha, Martinez, Leake, Garcia) – A –
- Pirates (Cole, Liriano, Niese, Locke, Vogelsong) – B –
The NL Central is stacked in the pitching department. The Cubs might have the best rotation in all of baseball from top to bottom. When John Lackey’s the weakest link, you know you’re in good shape. Adam Wainwright will likely bounce back from his Achilles issues and even though they don’t have an obvious two, the rest of the rotation is stacked. While the Pirates starters are some way off their division mates, they still have an above average group. The front end is as good as anyone, but there are questions from three on. If Niese and Vogelsong bounce back, the gap could get considerably smaller.
- Pirates – A
- Cubs – B+
- Cardinals – B
Keep in mind, I’m looking entirely at the back end of the rotation here. Too much is still in flux with the rest of the pieces and chances are they won’t be set until the final week of April. The Pirates have one of the most successful back end of the bullpen tandems of the past few seasons. While it’s possible the party could still come to an end with Mark Melancon traded, the Bucs are set for now and the addition of Neftali Feliz gives them options in the seventh inning with Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero. Hector Rondon chalked up 30 saves for the Cubs in 2015 and the rest of the pen combined for 18. Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm could help shorten games. Based on the numbers, I know Trevor Rosenthal is solid, but I have to take him down a peg because he always looks shaky in Pittsburgh. Seung-hwan Oh should help solidify the mix.
So when you calculate the weighted grades, the Cubs come in on top at a B+, the Cards come in at a B, and the Pirates comes in at a not so distant B-. As it turns out I project the Pirates to have the best group of position players, but the starting rotation proved to be the big sorting tool. In truth, pitching is the most important piece of the puzzle and the Pirates good rotation is up against two great ones.
That said, the season is by no means hopeless and all three teams are close enough that any team could win the division. As we saw last year, the teams that takes the field in April likely won’t be the same as the one that finishes it. Injuries, trades, disappointments, surprises, and promotions could dramatically change the outlook for any of the three. They have to play the games and as always, they’ll play a whole lot of them.