2015 Pittsburgh Pirates fantasy outlook
By Jon Anderson
If you’re a fantasy baseball player like myself, one of the ways you cope with the long winter and early spring months of waiting for Opening Day is by studying up on the fantasy game and preparing for your March drafts. The Pittsburgh Pirates fantasy ranks haven’t always been very competitive, but that’s changing quickly. Most of the Pirates “future” talent has turned into “right now” talent and they are a very relevant ball club in the fantasy game. Let’s take a look at how the Pirates are stacking up early on.
Rankings, based on ESPN top 300:
Andrew McCutchen (#2 outfield, #2 overall)
If it weren’t for Mike Trout, McCutchen would be the most popular #1 overall pick this year. While he plays the deepest fantasy position on the diamond, you’re just not going to pass up the virtually guaranteed .300+ batting average, .400+ on-base percentage, 20+ home runs, and 15+ stolen bases he’s going to give you. And those are basically minimums. Nobody would be shocked if Cutch was a 30/30 guy this year and competed for a batting title to boot.
Starling Marte (#14 outfield, #38 overall)
Marte is a top five outfielder in terms of talent, but the fantasy experts like to see consistence in the boxscores before they rank based on the talent. Marte probably won’t be hitting for a super high average this year as he still has to work on his strikeout issue (24% K rate in 2014), but he’s going to improve at the plate and will be a force on offense. He’s a bit of an anomaly when it comes to his batted ball profile, which makes it even harder to judge his fantasy worth. There could be streaks, but ESPN has him projected for a .279/.340/.438 triple-slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) , 14 home runs, and a near league leading 36 stolen bases. Those steals are a big reason he’s ranked as high as he is, but in the next few years we expect him to be ranked even higher based on other aspects of his game. I think Marte is ranked low this year and is worth grabbing if he’s there around where ESPN says he should be.
Gerrit Cole (#21 starting pitcher, #76 overall)
In my eyes, Cole is the biggest snub of the group, which makes him a possible high value pick. Cole’s 11 wins, 3.65 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 9 K/9 in 2014 didn’t signify that he’s a top tier fantasy pitcher, but it was Cole’s first full season in the majors. He has top tier stuff and has been improving since he debuted. The Pirates improving offense and Cole’s continued progress make him a pretty good bet to improve his win numbers, and you’d think a 3.65 ERA is about as high as his ERA will ever be in his career. He’s still not a finished product, but he’s definitely getting closer. ESPN has him projected for 13 wins, a 3.18 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and 8.23 K/9. They also have him ranked below guys like Sonny Gray, James Shields, and Jeff Samardzija, which I just think is dumb. Cole could be a steal.
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Mark Melancon (#4 relief pitcher, #88 overall)
Relievers aren’t much fun to talk about in the fantasy game. They’re not as valuable, and the best strategy seems to be to not worry about drafting top ranked relief pitchers and just look to get your pitching stats from your starters and try to steal some saves by picking up backups when a closer gets injured or loses his job. Melancon is the #4 closer in the fantasy game, but you’d probably be better off letting someone else waste an early pick on him and continue to sure up your starting staff and your infield.
Josh Harrison (#14 third base, #123 overall)
Harrison is probably the most interesting fantasy player on the Pirates this year. This will be the first year he’s drafted in even 1% of leagues, and he’ll actually be in starting lineups in most leagues. He was a top five fantasy third baseman after he got every day playing time, however that is more of a testament to the position he played. There just aren’t many offensively productive players at the hot corner these days. You know how valuable Harrison was to the Pirates last year, but that value does not transition over to the fantasy game very easily. J-Hay will hit for average (projected at .291), score some runs with Marte and Cutch hitting behind him, and might steal 20 bases, but there’s not much else there. He’s not a power hitter, doesn’t have a huge on-base percentage, and won’t drive in runs. The other problem is that most people would say that Harrison is still unproven. He started just 116 games last year in his first year ever even being mentioned in the fantasy world. If you’re later in the draft and need a boost in batting average or runs scored, you might take a flier on Harrison, but I’m avoiding him this year.
Gregory Polanco (#34 outfield, #129 overall)
If you were in a deeper league, Polanco was probably a popular name in your league last year. Whoever was the one to claim him got very excited when he hit .338/.416/.441 over his first 16 games. However, he probably found himself back in the free agent pool when he hit .201/.272/.311 over his next 73 games. The raw talent has him back in the fantasy mix this year, but it still might be too early for him to really make an impact. He shows good signs and will more than likely be an all-star caliber player at some point in his career. His strikeout and walk rates were right around league average last year, which is good to see for a first year player. He has power potential and will stay in the lineup so long as he performs even in streaks. He’s a sleeper player. He’s still a year or two away from my consideration, but if he falls far enough he might be worth a shot.
Francisco Liriano (#45 starting pitcher, #155 overall)
Liriano is back with the Pirates this year after being signed to a three year deal. He was average at best in fantasy last year and you wouldn’t expect too much more than that this year. His ERA was right on track with his FIP, his BABIP was average, and the other advanced metrics don’t suggest any spike in performance this year. The seven wins were a product of bad fortune and more should be expected there this year, but Liriano just isn’t at the point in his career where he’s going to surprise many people (especially since he’s not pitching for a contract anymore). He’ll be a solid pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he’s nothing more than a back-end fantasy starter in 2015.
Neil Walker (#14 second base, #191 overall)
Second base is always a tough position in fantasy. It’s top heavy this year with Robinson Cano once again being the runaway #1. Jose Altuve and Anthony Rendon pushed themselves into the second tier with big performances last year, but after that there’s just not much to get excited about. Neil Walker won’t be a starting second baseman in many leagues this year, but provides some value with an above average power bat for the position. He’s past the point in his career where you could expect a break out year, and he’s consistently an injury risk. That said, his 23 home runs and .271 batting average last year were definitely worthy of a starting role in standard leagues. That’s probably near the peak of his performance, but if he can replicate those numbers I think he’s better than the #14 guy at the position, could be a good value pick if you wait to get a second baseman, which I don’t recommend.
Pedro Alvarez (#21 third base, #240 overall)
Pedro’s been up and down the fantasy draft boards like a yo-yo in his career. He came in last year as a top ranked third baseman after he led the National League in home runs in 2013. However, he hit .231 with 18 home runs last year after losing his starting job due to defensive struggles and only playing in 122 games. That has him awful low on the fantasy radar, as it should, but it could make him a really good value pick later in the draft. Alvarez has a steady job at first base. He will probably platoon at that position, but being the left hander in a platoon gives you close to 75% of the starts anyway. He’s always had a high HR:AB ratio and there’s no reason that that would change this year. Don’t expect his batting average to climb, but he’s going to be available late and he’s a possible 30+ home run hitter.
Tony Watson (#46 relief pitcher, #290 overall)
Watson would be worth talking about if he were a closer, but most fantasy leagues operate in the sense that relievers are only worth owning if they get saves. Watson will post a great ERA, WHIP and K rate, but it won’t be enough innings to make a difference. The only reason you’d want to own him is if something happens to Melancon. Unless you’re in some insanely deep league or you have a holds category, don’t worry about Watson in the draft.
Jung-Ho Kang (#21 shortstop, #300 overall)
Another guy only worth talking about in really deep leagues. Kang doesn’t even have a starting job. Even if he did have a starting job, he wouldn’t be drafted high just because nobody has any idea how he’s going to perform after transitioning from the KBO. He has potential, a lot of people love him, but the at-bats aren’t going to be there right away to be worth drafting in an average depth league. Keep an eye on the Pittsburgh Pirates and be ready to move on Kang in case of an injury, but that’s really all you can do on Kang at this point.
My personal strategy in drafts is to fill third base, second base, and shortstop right away to get value there. The Pirates don’t have anything for me in that sense. However, if I have a #2 pick, I’m taking McCutchen. There’s also a good chance I’ll own Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole this year just because I think they’re ranked too low, and let’s face it it’s way more fun to own players that you watch every night. Pedro Alvarez might get a look from me if he’s still there really late, but that’s pretty much all I’m interested in from these Pittsburgh Pirates this year in terms of fantasy.