The Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2019 core could not compete with the top teams of 2020, even with additons. Ben Cherington made the right decision to go down a rebuilding path with the Pirates.
Nobody likes a rebuild. Who enjoys watching their favorite team trade away their best players only to be in the bottom of team records across the game? No one. That’s who.
But it’s a necessary process every team from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Boston Red Sox needs to go through. It’s kind of like the life cycle of a competing baseball team. New general manager Ben Cherington made the right decision to start a team rebuild with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Currently, the team’s roster was not going to compete with most of the rest of the National League Central. Last year, the Pirates ranked 23rd of 30 MLB teams in team batting fWAR at 10.9… and offense was the team’s strength in 2019. That was last in the NL Central, and the closest was the Reds at 11.1. The median team fWAR was right around 19, and the Pirates were far off from that. That was before the Reds added Nicholas Castellanos, Shogo Akiyama, and Mike Moustakas, to an already very solid core that would see full seasons from Nick Senzel and Aristides Aquino. While the Cubs nor Cardinals got much better, the Bucs still had a lot of catching up to do to even come close to them. Both the Cards and Cubs outranked the Pirates in batting fWAR by over 10, and pitching fWAR by over double.
In terms of overall offensive value, the team was mostly below league average. They slashed for a .265/.321/.420 line which all falls around league average, but their wRC+ was below league average at 92. Now, sure, it wasn’t the worst, but it wasn’t impressive enough either as they ranked 19th in baseball.
Next was their pitching. Last year it was awful. Yes, there were injuries. You can’t deny that. But the Bucs would be relying on a handful of arms to rebound from rough 2019 seasons. More specifically Trevor Williams and Chris Archer. While I do expect both of them to have better 2020 seasons, neither are really ones to be ace-level. 2018 was Williams’ best season, and he pitched to a 3.11 ERA, and 1.18 WHIP, but he had a 3.86 FIP, 4.38 SIERA, and 4.28 DRA. While he did regress by much more than estimators predicted and will likely pitch better in 2020, he still isn’t going to pitch to an ace level in 2020.
Same with Archer, who was about league average from 2016 to 2018. One of the largest blows to the rotation was losing Jameson Taillon to Tommy John Surgery. This will make him miss all of 2020 with his 2021 status not fully confirmed as well.
The team’s farm system could have also used some work. It wasn’t the worst in the MLB, but it was far from top notch. It was very top-heavy, with Mitch Keller, Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Travis Swaggerty and Quinn Priester among their top prospects, but, overall talent, especially close to MLB ready, falls off a cliff once you reach Will Craig and Kevin Kramer. Both of which ranked as the team’s top 12 prospects at the end of 2019.
Clearly, it needed a boost, and Starling Marte provided said boost. Marte brought back two quality pieces, both of which were ranked as top 10 prospects in the Pirates’ system. One being 2019 first rounder Brennan Malone and the other one being Liover Peguero. The only below average grade MLB.com has given Peguero is his power, but is given at least 55 ratings for his hit, run, field, and arm too, as well as a 60 grade for his running ability. He is very well-rounded, and not too many shortstop prospects have 55+ ratings for all but one of their stats. Malone’s best pitches are his fastball (60 grade) and slider (55 grade), but his curveball and changeup are still effective enough for him to keep.
Marte also would not have been part of the Pirates’ future, even if they extended him. He was already 31, and was declining in terms of defense. When I say he was one of the worst defensive center fielders in the MLB, it isn’t an exaggeration. Marte ranked last in UZR (-7.6), defensive runs saved (-9), UZR/150 (-8.3) and range runs (-9.5). It was also all by a fair margin as well.
Now going back to the Major League roster, there weren’t many upgrades the Pirates could pursue with confidence they would sign them. What I’m saying is, the Pirates would not be a player’s choice destination, and would seriously consider elsewhere even if the Pirates were the highest bidders. Even if the Bucs outbid the Chicago White Sox for catcher Yasmani Grandal, it would have to be a considerable overpay. Even if you consider Bob Nutting cheap, that would make most general managers and owners think twice unless they became extremely desprate.
The White Sox have a much better 2020 outlook than the Pirates. When service time comes up for Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal, the White Sox will have two former top 5 prospects in Robert and Eloy Jimenez in their outfield. Madrigal is ranked as a top 40 prospect, and rarely strikes out. He’ll join Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, and Jose Abreu/Edwin Encarnacion to make what could be one of the best infields in baseball. Michael Kopech, who is returning from Tommy John Surgery, will make a formidable 1-2 punch with Lucas Giolito atop of the team’s rotation.
Now, another upgrade at catcher you could say is Jason Castro, but he isn’t an upgrade over Jacob Stallings whatsoever. Sure, last season Castro batted a solid .233/.332/.435 with 13 home runs, but it was the first time since 2013 he was above league average, and it was across only 275 plate appearances. From 2014 to 2018, Castro was your proto-typical defense only catcher. He batted .218/.299/.368 in this time span, and was in the bottom 10 of wRC+ (86) and OPS (.667). But he racked up 4.2 dWAR, and a +29 DRS in this span. Plus his 2019 numbers are boosted by two great months. Essentially in the past six seasons, Castro has had two great months.
Cherington made the right decision to start a rebuild. There were too many ‘what-if’s’ and other questions to go for it. Most of the team’s success was relying on questions like could Archer bounceback? Could Josh Bell keep up his 2019 production? Could Williams bounce back? What about the bullpen? How are Edgar Santana, and Chad Kuhl going to be after missing all of 2019? Are Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick going to be their 2019 selves, or their 2018 selves? Will Gregory Polanco come back and produce like he did in 2018, and can he stay healthy after a rough 2019?
At what point does it become too many questions for the team to confidently go into 2020 saying “we can do it this year” even with new, and impactful addtions? Cherington trading Marte, and heading into 2020 with the current core was the best option he had, and it has set up the Pirates for a much brighter future. They probably won’t compete in 2020, but they’ll start to show more life by the end of 2021, and should be in consideration for a Wild Card by 2022, with the future still looking brighter.