The 2019 campaign didn’t go as plan for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now it’s time to start looking beyond 2020 by reshaping the club. With a brand new front office behind the wheel, here’s a look at what they can do.
It has certainly been a rough ride for Pittsburgh Pirates fans since 2015. After trading several stars over a number of seasons, stars like Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, and Gerrit Cole, the Pirates have found themselves worse off.
Despite the obvious upside of the McCutchen trade, Neal Huntington failed to put together a competitive club. The organization’s reliance on developing talent has failed. The whole organization has found itself backwards, no better than when NH took over 12 years ago.
Now it’s time for a new GM to do it all again.
With Huntington gone and a new GM on the horizon, it’d be a mistake for the Pirates to not sell this winter. Let’s start by looking at the position players and examining what they have and what they can do to improve. (To keep things simple, I’m not going to look further than 2025).
Diaz had a strong season in 2018 as Cervelli’s back up. It even seemed a possibility that the pirates would trade Cervelli before the season began. As the full-time catcher for the team, Diaz has not gotten it done.
In fact, the catching was so bad that Jacob Stallings, who had never hit a home run in the Major Leagues, ended up with twice as many as Cervelli and Diaz, who had a 41 and 65 OPS+ respectively.
As I’ve wrote previously, Stallings has certainly proven he could be a strong MLB backup. He led the team’s catchers in wRC+, WAR, and DRS in what is essentially his first full season as a backup. His +9 DRS ranked within the top 5 among catchers in baseball. This guy is legit.
Can he be a starter though? That one’s tough to say. With a catching market that seems pretty strong this winter, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Pirates brought in a veteran catcher. Even on a rebuilding team you’re going to need veteran players to help mentor the younger stars. Guys like Austin Romine, Jason Castro, and Travis d’Arnaud provide interesting cases; reuniting with Russell Martin or Cervelli would certainly be exciting.
Despite it being a necessary expense, the Pirates shouldn’t look for a long-term solution. a 2-year deal for one of these free agents should give the new front office plenty of time to add catching talent and depth in the minor leagues.
There is a lot of upside for the infield. In terms of MLB level players, the Pirates have two solid infielders who are just entering arbitration this off-season: Adam Frazier and Josh Bell. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Frazier is projected to receive $3.2M while Bell will receive $5.9M.
Since Kevin Newman locked down the starting shortstop role with his performance in 2019, Frazier could factor in as the everyday second baseman. Ideally, however, the team will have both Cole Tucker and Kevin Kramer pushing the door next season so it is possible that Frazier could be traded at anytime.
Newman and Frazier are both relatively similar players, producing 2.4 and 2.2 fWAR respectively. Newman seems to be a better hitter, but it is unclear which version of him is the true one, as he had a 122 wRC+ in the first half versus a 100 wRC+ in the second half.
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Frazier, on the other hand, posted a 97 wRC+ in both halves. Outside of a great second-half last season, Frazier has been consistently average at the plate. His improvements on defense still give Frazier value; however, is it worth paying $3M+ for a league-average player on a rebuilding team?
Since the Pirates have two extra years of control on Newman, it makes sense to trade away Frazier this off-season. With a Gold Glove nomination under his belt, Frazier could certainly generate a great deal of interest. Whether at short or second Newman projects similarly to Frazier over the next couple seasons and with the youth movement on its way, Frazier should be moved.
As for Bell, his improvements at the plate this season are certainly promising. Now entering his first year of arbitration, Bell turned himself into a slugger. While his defense is still an issue, Bell’s performance at the plate makes up for it. The Pirates also have Will Craig, who could provide better defense but not the same power.
Bell has always been an above-average hitter who only suffered through lack of power. The Pirates should be expecting to be competitive within Bell’s three remaining years of control, so, to obtain long-term success, they must extend his contract past 2023. Since we’re not looking past 2025, the Pirates should strongly consider a 6 year, $70 million contract extension for Bell this off-season.
There is still plenty of time to see where Craig fits in the team’s future. He certainly is a trade candidate this winter and heading into next season, but potential platoon role in the majors could be on the horizon in 2019. With his power and defense, expect the Pirates to find a role for him before any trade.
Now, at third base the Pirates will be returning Colin Moran to compete for an everyday spot in 2020. After another year of terrible defense and average hitting, can the Pirates waste a third year on Moran?
Despite adding a little bit more power, Moran still ranked among the bottom of third basemen. His defensive metrics were far worse. Moran ended the season with a -0.3 WAR, and barring any significant change in defense, will continue to be a replacement level killer. It is past time for the Pirates to give another look at the problem of third base.
The free agent market doesn’t provide a lot of hope; however, Ke’Bryan Hayes can and should be that guy. His superior defense should force the Pirates hands this spring, as they rank among the worst in all of baseball with the glove. Keeping Moran as a short-term option at third before the coming of Hayes is the most likely route.
Along with Hayes and the other young infielders are utility players Pablo Reyes, Jose Osuna, and Erik Gonzalez. Osuna had a strong season at the plate in 2019, showing strong power and contact ability. Gonzalez was strong defensively but wasn’t really stellar at the plate, and the same can be said about Reyes. All these guys will have to earn a spot this spring and show more consistency to stay on the team.
As for that infield of the future, an infield featuring Hayes, Tucker, Bell, and Newman is one that shows more potential than the Pirate infields of the past decade. Expect these guys to man the infield until 2025, hopefully beyond.
Finally, the last piece of the position player puzzle is the outfield. The Pirates have always made the outfield their strength on offense, with players like McCutchen, Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte, and many other cameos appearing over the years, like Marlon Byrd. Thankfully, the outfield continues to be a strength.
Don’t give up on Gregory Polanco yet. Polanco essentially missed this past season dealing with a shoulder injury that came on a slide back in September of 2018. Despite the injury, Polanco showed he could still hit at a league average rate. While his defense fell through the cracks without his cannon arm, a healthy Polanco is as good, and could be even better, than Dickerson or Byrd, and he could be around until 2022.
Mix Polanco with emerging star Bryan Reynolds and now you have a stellar start on a strong 2019 outfield. The only piece of the puzzle is who to put in center. Certainly Marte is in the mix, but with a strong offensive showing this past season entering the final lengths of his contract, it seems more reasonable to trade the veteran outfielder.
The Pirates have many options to construct an outfield around Polanco and Reynolds. Jason Martin, Osuna, Reyes, and Kramer all have experience out in the outfield and all deserve playing-time over the replacement-killer Melky Cabrera. Reynolds also has plenty of experience in center field. If the Pirates are going to rebuild, the outfield will have to be constructed using these guys. In my opinion, a platoon left-field is the best option, letting Reynolds take over the starting role in center.
Now, back to Marte. While Marte never grew to be the MVP level player McCutchen was, he certainly has proved to be one of the better outfielders in baseball. Last season was no exception, providing some of his best offensive numbers in his career. Many teams in baseball need an upgrade in center, so Marte can be that guy. When it comes to his return, look for him to bring back a similar, if not better package than Cutch did (which we all know worked out).
As for that gap after Polanco’s contract is up, the Pirates have many young stars in the making, such as Travis Swaggerty, that could make an impact then or before.
Rebuilding is a tough thing to do, but with a new GM and front office looking to improve this team, the best option has to be a rebuild. Unless more money begins to move into the payroll, not committing to a full rebuild would be a mistake.
Picture this lineup:
That lineup can certainly be better than the one we saw in 2019 featuring the likes of Moran, Cabrera, and Diaz. Factor in the trade returns from Marte and Frazier, now you’re looking better off than you have been since 2015.
Certainly by mid-2020 this lineup could (and should) be the reality. The amount of potential in the young core featured in that lineup should certainly make any Pirates fan feel better about the future, which isn’t so far off.
Expect the Pirates to roll out a fairly familiar roster come Opening Day, but don’t expect to see both Marte and Frazier in the same lineup as Diaz. If that happens, it’s 2016 all over again.