Winter is Coming: Pittsburgh Pirates Offseason Outlook

First, a word on Wednesday: sighJake Arrieta and the Cubs completely shut down and killed the Pirates’ 2015 season, a result that was not totally unexpected (considering what Arrieta has done this season) but so crushingly sour. To again reach the postseason only to be eliminated as quickly as possible is… frustrating. It unfortunately overshadows 98 wins; the past three playoff exits overshadow 280 victories since 2013. 

Can they take the next step? Is a division title in the cards? A full postseason series? Dare I say a World Series? This was a good team. A great team, even. But there will be questions about the “window” of potential success closing, especially as the guy who plays center field gets older and draws closer to free agency.

This offseason should be an interesting one. The Pirates are losing quite a few names, and could part with other familiar ones. There’s still a solid core in place, but the front office will have to fill a few voids left around the roster.

Here’s a look at where the Pirates stand heading into the offseason.

The Retirees

A.J. Burnett
Aramis Ramirez

Burnett’s final season flew by, and A-Ram’s second tour in Pittsburgh went quickly and quietly. Two great careers, to be certain. There seems to be no intention for either to return to baseball in 2016. Ramirez, who came in handy after the club’s infielder injuries, won’t exactly need to be replaced as a starter, with Harrison, Kang, and Mercer all returning for playing time on the left side. A.J.’s arm, however, will be missed in the rotation.

The Free Agents

J.A. Happ
Joakim Soria
Joe Blanton
Antonio Bastardo
Sean Rodriguez

Beyond Burnett and Ramirez, the Pirates have a number of other pending free agents this winter. Three — Happ, Soria, and Blanton — were key deadline acquisitions to bolster the rotation and bullpen. Happ’s success, considering his previous body of work, was quite remarkable. He’s not the 1.85 ERA-pitcher that his 63+ innings indicated, but his peripheral numbers were great across the board and gave Pirate fans reason to want him back in 2016. Happ himself had this to say after Wednesday’s game, via Dejan Kovacevic: “I’d love to be back, if they’ll have me. I love everything about it, loved working with Ray Searage, everything.”

Meanwhile, Soria (2.03 ERA/1.93 FIP in 26.2 innings) and Blanton (1.57 ERA/2.11 FIP in 34.1 innings) provided solid innings out of the ‘pen. Lefty Antonio Bastardo, who posted fairly good numbers but in mostly low-leverage situations, will also be a free agent. During their stints in Pittsburgh, these three guys fit basically three different roles (Soria – setup; Bastardo – mostly middle relief; Blanton – mostly long relief), so they’ll potentially leave a sizable void in the ‘pen. The Pirates will be in the market for relief help again, probably on the buy-low end.

Other than Ramirez (and sent-home Corey Hart), the free agent bat will be noted cooler destroyer Sean Rodriguez. He finished the year with an ugly .246/.281/.362 line, and when his offense did come around, it came in BABIP-fueled bunches (he hit .406 with a .955 OPS in his first 24 games, and similarly .407 with a 1.022 OPS in 30 games from 8/1 to 9/8). But Clint Hurdle & Co. were clearly appreciative of his defensive versatility, and S-Rod seemed to be well-liked among his teammates.

The Arbitration Eligibles

Neil Walker (Free Agent post-2016)
Pedro Alvarez (FA post-2016)
Mark Melancon (FA post-2016)
Francisco Cervelli (FA post-2016)
Chris Stewart (FA post-2016)
Travis Snider (FA post-2016)
Travis Ishikawa (FA post-2016)
Tony Watson (FA post-2017)
Jordy Mercer (FA post-2018)
Jared Hughes (FA post-2018)
Jeff Locke (FA post-2018)
Vance Worley (FA post-2018)

The Pirates have 12 potential arbitration cases, and the first three listed there should be the most interesting. Neil Walker’s days as a Pirate are numbered, as has been well-documented in the past. Rob Biertempfel’s recent column on the matter included some interesting material, making it seem as though the end will come sooner rather than later. However, DK’s write-up made it seem that Walker, entering his final arbitration year, will return. I think we’ll see #18 again, even if it’s only one more year.

Pedro Alvarez, on the other hand, very well could have played his last game as a Pirate. Pedro’s power returned and he posted his best on-base percentage since his rookie year, but he was, to put it bluntly, the worst defender in baseball this season. Josh Bell is the future at first base, but how soon will he be here?

Mark Melancon is another interesting one. He’s been unbelievable for the Pirates over the past three years and has very much earned his money, but will they really pay in the neighborhood of $10 million for a reliever? Joel Hanrahan was entering his final year of team control when they dealt him for Melancon. Now they’re in the same place with the current closer. If someone offers them a strong package (at what is likely to be Melancon’s peak value), the Pirates will probably take it.

Francisco Cervelli, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, and Jordy Mercer will be tendered contracts.

Chris Stewart has been a great backup the last two years, but Elias Diaz is waiting in the wings. Unless they want him playing every day at Indianapolis, Diaz can most likely do what Stewart (who will turn 34 in February) has done for a million dollars less.

The final four are a little tougher to predict. The Pirates obviously liked both Travis Snider and Travis Ishikawa enough to bring them back this season after both briefly departed, but they’re definitely non-tender candidates. If the Pirates see fit to roster either player, they’re capable left-handed bench bats. Further, Jeff Locke’s pitching frustration continued this year, while Vance Worley seemed to fall out of favor. Again, depends if the Pirates see fit, this in terms of pitching depth.

The Core

Locked in with guaranteed contracts for at least the next two seasons:

Andrew McCutchen (through 2017 with a team option for 2018)
Francisco Liriano (through 2017)
Jung-Ho Kang (through 2018 with a team option for 2019)
Josh Harrison (through 2018 with team options for 2019 and 2020)
Starling Marte (through 2019 with team options for 2020 and 2021)

That’s still a great group to build around. The most important pre-arbitration eligible players at the moment are, of course, Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco. Cole won’t hit free agency until 2020, and Polanco until 2021.

Charlie Morton ($8 million) and Michael Morse ($8.5 million; unknown amount of money provided by Dodgers via trade) have contracts for next season. Morton just finished another frustrating year, and based on reactions from around the internet, Pirate fans have seen enough. Morse, after an atrocious few months in Miami, was fine down the stretch and might have to stick around to play some 1B until Bell arrives.

The Prospects

Some of what the Pirates do this winter may depend on how they feel about their top line of prospects. Tyler Glasnow, barring injury, should join the rotation at some point in 2016… but probably not until June. By losing Burnett, possibly Happ, and the uncertainty of Morton/Locke, the Pirates have some decisions in the rotation. Glasnow’s on the way, but will likely be held down to avoid eventual Super 2 status. Jameson Taillon has lost the past two seasons to Tommy John & hernia surgeries, and Nick Kingham missed most of this year after Tommy John. Those two will eventually return to AAA, but won’t impact Pittsburgh until later in the season, if at all.

In Glasnow’s case, the same goes for Josh Bell, and his progress could dictate what happens with Alvarez/Morse at first base. Alen Hanson seems to have stalled in the minors a bit (and it didn’t bode well that he wasn’t recalled in September), but could make the jump if they part ways with Walker (or if they simply decide to carry him as a backup). And again, Elias Diaz could dictate what is done with Chris Stewart.

There also needs to be space on the 40-man roster for Rule V draft protection. There are some obvious additions — including Glasnow, Bell, Harold Ramirez, and Pirates’ minor league player of the year Max Moroff — and other cases can be made.

The outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco will be back and hopefully better than ever. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano headline the rotation. Neil Walker and Mark Melancon will cost more next season but would be welcomed back. If not, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and Jung-Ho Kang (when healthy) will return to the infield; Tony Watson and Jared Hughes to the back of the bullpen.

There’s work to be done and the typical roster turnover is expected, but it’s time for Neal Huntington and his group to put a plan together to keep the club competitive with St. Louis and Chicago in 2016 and beyond.

* Pittsburgh Pirates Depth Chart, Offseason Edition *

The 2015 Pirates in Five Charts

Six months of baseball are in the books, and they were six good ones: the Pirates’ 98 wins leave them as one of the best regular season clubs in franchise history.

Pirates OverUnder .500

As good as they were through the summer, the 94-win team of 2013 finished that year with .500 ball down the stretch (24-24 in their final 48). Last year, they were only three games over (71-68) during the first week of September. This year, despite another slow start, the Bucs went on quite a remarkable run: they won 80 of their last 122 games, a .656 winning percentage since May 22nd that no other team in baseball came close to.

Of course, it still wasn’t enough to take the crown from St. Louis. The NL Central was a division for the ages, a true race-to-100 that came down to the final week:

NL Central 2015

The final standings:
1. St. Louis (100-62)
2. Pittsburgh (98-64)
3. Chicago (97-65)
4. Milwaukee (68-94)
5. Cincinnati (64-98)

Chicago finished on an eight-game winning streak. The young Cubs and their confident ace will be a tough task for the Bucs in Wednesday’s do-or-die Wild Card game. The Reds, meanwhile, dropped 14 of their last 15 games and will take next year’s #2 overall draft pick for their futility. The 68-win Brewers weren’t far behind and will select fifth. For finishing with the three best records in MLB, the Cubs, Pirates, and Cardinals will have the final three picks.

So, how’d the Bucs get to where they are? Their offense was solid:

National League Batting

The team’s non-pitchers — notably led by Andrew McCutchen, Jung-Ho Kang, and Francisco Cervelli, among others — collectively posted a .333 OBP (3rd in NL) and scored 4.22 runs per game (4th). By wRC+, they were 7% better than league-average as a whole, good for third-best.

Arguably the key to the Bucs’ success was once again strong and steady pitching. Led by Gerrit Cole, the starting rotation ranked among the best throughout the season:

National League Starting Rotations

You’ll notice a strong trend between ERA/FIP and team winning percentage in the National League. All five playoff teams were the five best by ERA: Cardinals, Dodgers, Cubs, Mets, Pirates.

The starting performances wouldn’t have mattered as much if they couldn’t hand the ball over to a reliable bullpen. The Bucs’ 2.67 relief ERA was the best in all of Major League Baseball this season:

National League Bullpens

Mark Melancon. Tony Watson. The Pirates were 79-1 when leading after seven innings.

All in all, this was a special season featuring one of the most well-rounded Pirate clubs we’ve seen. Hopefully it doesn’t end Wednesday night.

Go Bucs

Clinched: How the 2015 Pirates made it back to Buctober

It’s official: with a victory over the Rockies on Wednesday night, the Pirates have sealed their third consecutive playoff berth. Yes, it’s the third year in a row that the Bucs have clinched on September 23rd. Turning into the best day of the year.

Further, it’s now the third time that the Pirates have appeared in the postseason three years in a row:

Pirates Consecutive Playoff Appearances
(The playoff format expanded to two rounds in 1969… Three rounds in 1994… And expanded Wild Card in 2012.)

In 2013, the feeling was pure joy; finally, the playoffs were back in Pittsburgh. Last year, it was almost relief; the Pirates hovered around .500 for more of the season than we would have liked (they were only three games over on September 3rd), but a late run proved that the previous season wasn’t exactly a fluke. This team had what it took to be among the league’s best.

This season, though, the feeling is a little different. They expected to be here. They’re not celebrating as much yet, at least not publicly all-out. Chasing the Cardinals all year has, once again, been unsatisfying, and the thought of another do-or-die Wild Card game is not exactly flattering. This team, despite having the second best record in all of Major League Baseball, has spent exactly zero days in first place. That’s just too bad: they could finish with or near triple-digit wins to be the best Bucco club since at least the early 1990s.

Still, many teams would love to be in the Bucs’ position right now. It’s an awesome accomplishment. Regardless of what happens next month, this has been another great year for the team. Let’s take a look at how they got here.

Continue reading “Clinched: How the 2015 Pirates made it back to Buctober”

Appreciating Jung-Ho Kang’s Rookie Season

Unfortunately, there’s some bad news in the ‘Burgh: Jung-Ho Kang, the Pirates’ exciting Korean infielder, is out for the season. First reported by Dejan Kovacevic, Kang will be having surgery tonight to repair a busted-up left knee that was damaged by this Chris Coghlan takeout slide on Thursday afternoon:


It’s a shame to see Kang’s rookie season come to such an abrupt end, but it was a great rookie season nonetheless. Let’s not forget how it started: Kang came to the States chock-full of question marks, starting as a bench player after a bumpy Spring Training in which you couldn’t go a day without hearing how difficult it’d be for him to hit a fastball or fit in with his teammates.

Now, the four-year, $11 million deal to sign Kang looks like an absolute steal. By FanGraphs’ wins above replacement, Jung-Ho just had the best rookie season for the Pirates in decades:

Pirates Rookie WAR Leaders

Continue reading “Appreciating Jung-Ho Kang’s Rookie Season”

Baseball’s Best Starting Pitching Trios

liriano cole burnett

*Apologies for the lack of content as of late — I have recently started an internship at Baseball Info Solutions. Coverage here may be slow this summer, but we’ll try to update the site and our Twitter as much as possible.

If you paid any kind of attention to the Pirates-Mets series this weekend, you’ll know the team from Pittsburgh is in very good hands with the powerful arms at the top of their rotation. Yes, New York’s offense has struggled and featured a depleted lineup by Sunday, but the tone was set by Gerrit Cole on Friday, A.J. Burnett on Saturday, and Francisco Liriano on Sunday:

Cole has exhibited his ace potential all season to this point. Burnett has been better in his return to the Steel City than anyone could have possibly expected. Liriano shook off a couple of difficult starts, while still showing off some of the impressive peripheral numbers that made him successful in 2013 and 2014.

All told, this has been one of the best starting pitching trios in Major League Baseball through the first seven weeks of the season.

Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “Baseball’s Best Starting Pitching Trios”