The Pittsburgh Pirates have had a highly controversial offseason, which involved trading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, each of whom represented faces of the franchise. This had led to plenty of outrage from Pirates fans and the baseball community.
There is legitimate reason to question the direction the franchise went and Pirates fans have every reason to be upset, with much of that anger being directed towards owner Bob Nutting. Given that the players union filed a grievance against the Pirates, along with the Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, and Oakland Athletics, there’s good reason to believe Pittsburgh could’ve selected a different direction. The Pirates, who were National League Wild Card winners from 2013-2015, never once rolled out an Opening Day roster with a payroll over $100 million.
There is a negative image currently plaguing the Pirates, due to their lack of spending even when they rolled out playoff teams. With that said, the team isn’t in a disastrous position, and there’s reason to believe the club could be a dark-horse Wild Card candidate in 2018. The Pirates won 75 games last season and have only subtracted from the MLB roster, yet projection systems think they’ll actually improve this year.
PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus peg the Pirates at 78 wins this year, with FanGraphs projecting 76 wins. Neither of those totals are enough to push the club into playoff contention, but the crop of young talent means there could be a wide range of outcomes for 2018. The McCutchen and Cole trades brought in a collection of young MLB players (Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, Kyle Crick), meaning the Pirates could see immediate help from those trades.
The Pirates’ clear strength for 2018 is the starting rotation, which has a plethora of young, controllable starters. Ivan Nova, at 31 years old, is the veteran of the staff and is the oldest member of the unit by far. The remaining four spots will be filled by seven other options: Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, and Nick Kingham. All of them are 26 years old or younger and offer some intriguing upside for 2018 and beyond. FanGraphs projects the rotation to finish 12th among MLB rotations in WAR.
The position player group is far less promising, backed up by the fact that they finished with the fourth lowest fWAR (11.0) in 2017. While it’s likely the group is a below-average unit this year, due to the lack of a star-level player, there’s a reasonable chance several key players bounce back. Add in the trades for MLB-ready players and the group should improve somewhat this season.
Starling Marte (1.2 fWAR in 2017), Gregory Polanco (0.5 fWAR in 108 games), and Francisco Cervelli (0.9 fWAR) all had down years and should improve a bit. Austin Meadows and Moran, the latter whom was acquired from the Astros in the Cole deal, should get significant MLB action in 2018 and could push the needle a bit. Recently acquired Corey Dickerson (115 wRC in 2017) was a sneaky addition and he could be their best hitter in 2018. FanGraphs isn’t quite as optimistic about the group, projecting the position players to finish 24th in WAR.
The Pirates bullpen doesn’t have crazy depth, but 2017 breakout star Felipe Rivero (1.67 ERA) is one of the elite relievers in baseball. Feliz and Crick, who were acquired in the key offseason trades, both feature electric stuff and may have significant roles this year. With the surplus of starting pitchers, it’s feasible one or two of the rotation arms slide into a bullpen role, giving the Pirates a pretty intriguing collection of relievers. FanGraphs projects the bullpen to finish 15th in WAR.
As a whole, the Pirates don’t have the upside to pull off a 90-win season, but there’s a fairly high floor with the number of potential MLB-caliber players. It’s unrealistic to expect the club to win the division, given that the powerhouse Chicago Cubs, the up-and-coming Milwaukee Brewers, and forever competitive St. Louis Cardinals are in the division. With a little luck, however, the Pirates could find themselves in the Wild Card picture, a strange thought given what has occurred this offseason.