What the Pirates Need to Go Right in 2017

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

With Pitchers and Catchers reporting this week it’s time to turn the page on the off-season and take a look at what we can expect from them in 2017.

The Pirates enjoyed relative success since 2013 despite their disappointing 2016. Despite this, they have been unable to win the National League Central Division. Things don’t appear to be any easier, as the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs are likely going to continue to contend for the next several years and the St. Louis Cardinals always have a good team.

Admittedly, if pressed for a prediction right now I would say the Pirates will finish behind the Cardinals and Cubs again this year. However, things are not hopeless for the Pirates in 2017. The Pirates need the following things to go right in 2017.

Gerrit Cole Returns to Ace Form

Gerrit Cole was undeniably an ace in 2015. An All-Star and Cy Young contender that year, the bottom kind of fell out in 2016. In 2015 Cole posted a stellar 2.66 FIP and 1.09 WHIP. Unfortunately, those numbers skyrocketed last season to 3.33 and 1.44 respectively. This combined with Francisco Liriano’s struggles spelled doom for the Pirates as they no longer had any true top of the rotation starters when they had expected to have two.

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Due his subpar season, McCutchen became the focus of trade rumors soon after the season ended. These only intensified and by winter meetings it looked like a trade to the Washington Nationals was imminent. In the end though, the Pirates were rightly not willing to part with their face of the franchise without getting a quality starting pitcher as part of any trade package. McCutchen will still be in a Pirates uniform, at least to start the season.

Just a moderate uptick in performance from McCutchen would be huge for the Pirates 2017 playoff hopes. Right now, McCutchen’s Steamer projections have him slashing .283/.378/.470 which would be in line with this. While these numbers would not return McCutchen to the MVP conversation, it is still a massive improvement. These numbers, combined with his move to Right Field where he won’t be required to cover as much ground and should hopefully be more successful, would be a boon for the Pirates.

Jameson Taillon Continues to Progress                        

Last season Pirate fans finally got to see Jameson Taillon on the mound at PNC Park. Taillon had been expected to make his debut back in 2014, but he missed the entire 2014 and 2015 seasons due to injury. In 2016 he was able to move past that, pitch well at the Triple-A level for the first two plus months of the season, and make his Pirates’ debut on June 8th.

Sep 28, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Jameson Taillon (50) delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pirates are hoping that they have another Cole-like ace in Taillon. Last season, Jamo turned in a decent rookie campaign, with figures similar to Cole’s rookie year in 2013. The only significant discrepancy between Taillon’s 2016 and Cole’s 2013 was in the rate of Home Runs given up (1.13 HR/9 for Taillon vs. 0.54 HR/9 for Cole). This was likely a big reason for his significantly higher FIP than Cole’s 2013 (3.71 vs. 2.91). Overall though, comparing his and Cole’s rookie year shows that the Pirates may have something special with Taillon.

Putting it bluntly, the Pirates need Taillon to take a step forward in his sophomore season. There is reason for optimism that Jamo’s Home Run rate will go down as his HR/FB rate in 2016 was 15.5%, which is considered awful. Luckily this is a stat over which a pitcher has little control over and his high rate can be chalked up to bad luck. Assuming his HR/FB rate reverts closer to the league average of around 10%, combined with increased seasoning at the Major League level, one can expect big things from Taillon in 2017. While he is already putting up the numbers of a quality starter, the Pirates need another ace if they are to compete with the Cubs and Cardinals.

Pirates Need to Stay Healthy

This point is admittedly kind of an obvious one. The teams that see the most success over the course of a season tend to be those that stay relatively healthy. Last season the Pirates had 14 players spend time on the Disabled List. Most notably, Gerrit Cole (as mentioned above), Jung Ho Kang, and Francisco Cervelli spent significant time sidelined during the season. Compare this to 2015 when A.J. Burnett was the biggest significant loss, but his production was replaced and even improved upon by the addition of J.A. Happ.

Injuries are unfortunately not something that can really be controlled. Oftentimes it comes down to luck, but any team that wins the World Series usually gets a little lucky. Additionally, it’s inevitable that teams lose players to the DL and the Pirates are no exception.

Sep 23, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher
Sep 23, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher /

Ideally when the Pirates do lose players to injury, it won’t be key players or at positions with little depth. For the latter this would probably be in the Outfield, the rotation, and at Catcher. The Pirates suffered injury at the rotation and Catcher last season and things did not exactly turn out well. In the Outfield, the Pirates do not currently have a true fourth Outfielder since Matt Joyce departed in Free Agency. If the Pirates can stay relatively healthy at those positions, they should at least do better than last season.

Take Care of Business within the NL Central

Despite the Pirates’ disappointing 2016 season, the Pirates have been a relatively successful team for the past several years. That success has not always come against National League Central Division rivals though. Since 2013, the year the Houston Astros moved to the American League, the Pirates have a .488 winning percentage intra-division compared with a .610 winning percentage against the rest of Major League Baseball. 2013 is the only season in this period in which the Pirates had a winning record against the NL Central (.592). Simply put, the Pirates recent success has come in spite of general lackluster performance against other NL Central teams.

Last season the Pirates were especially disappointing intra-division. Specifically, they were a dreadful 4-14 against the Chicago Cubs. Additionally, their 10-9 record against both the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers is unsatisfactory given their bottem-feeder status. Overall, the Pirates were 33-42 (.440) within the division, but had a winning record against the rest of MLB (45-41, .523).

Getting better results against the NL Central will go a long way towards the Pirates having a successful 2017. Unfortunately subpar play against these teams has been a trend in recent years. Even in 2015, when the Pirates won 98 games, the Pirates did badly against division opponents (34-42, .447). It will be hard for the Pirates to compete for the division without taking care of business within the division. This may seem obvious, but the Pirates haven’t been doing this in recent years and it likely cost them at least one division title since 2013 and possibly a playoff spot last season.

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Will all these things happen? It’s unlikely, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the Pirates to see an improvement compared to last season. I still think it’s more likely that the Pirates finish behind the Cubs and Cardinals. However, if 3 or 4 of these things come to pass the Pirates should have a winning record. They should also compete for a Wild Card spot and could even challenge for the division.

*Stats courtesy of fangraphs and baseball reference, Disabled List data courtesy of Baseball Heat Maps