30 in 30: Pittsburgh Pirates

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The last two-plus decades for the Pittsburgh Pirates can be summed up in one word, mediocrity. In fact, the Pirates’ 2018 record of 82-79 was only the franchise’s fourth winning record in 26 years. This mediocrity has left general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle searching for the right combination for a lineup that is absent of “star” power. A squad without big names, only players with potential. Potential (get used to this word) is not a word a franchise likes to hear about its players. Face it, the Pirates are a small market team in a division with big spenders like the Cubs, Cardinals, and even the Reds. The question remains whether or not the Pirates can challenge for a division title in baseball’s toughest division with minimal offseason moves and a low-end payroll.

Steel City Power Outage

A major concern facing the Pirates heading into 2019 is the lack of run production. The Pirates limped out of the season with only averaging 4.3 runs per game, 20th in the majors. Being in the bottom third of the majors in run production is directly related to a lack of the long ball in Pittsburgh. The Bucs ranked 25th in home runs with an abysmal total of 157 in 2018. Compare that to the NL Central-winning Brewers, who took advantage of Miller Park and to finish with 218.

New Hitting Coach

During the offseason, the Pirates’ front office decided to move on from hitting coach Jeff Branson after six years. It was time to find someone to inject some offense into the Steel City. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein and assistant Jacob Cruz are attacking the task head on this spring in Bradenton, Florida. The new faces on the coaching staff will use a combination of analytics and video technology to improve the Pirates’’ bats.

In a recent Fox Sports article Hurdle said, “I think we’ve really put two new men for us into place that have their finger on the pulse of the offensive game.” Hurdle went on to say, “They’re more proactive than reactive. The research both of these guys did as we went through the interview process, the experience they’ve had with analytics, with new technology, with new ways to measure, with new ways to instruct, with new ways to teach, it all just seemed like the perfect combination for us.” We should be able to get a read on their progress during Spring Training

Corner Production

Switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell hopes to be a positive result from the coaching change. Bell looks to rebound after a pedestrian 2018 season, one in which he saw his home run total drop from 26 in 2017 to only 12 last year. If Bell can regenerate some power and get his home run total back in the 20s, the Pirates will certainly put more runs on the board.

Third basemen Jung-Ho Kang and Colin Moran have the potential (there’s that word again) to make an impact in the lower third of the order as a platoon. With his legal troubles behind him, Kang has already put on a power display this spring. Moran lacks the power of Kang, but Eckstein looks to help him become more productive during scoring opportunities.

In the Middle

The Pirates look to second baseman Adam Frazier to be a spark at the top of the lineup as he replaces two-time All-Star Josh Harrison. Frazier flashed with the bat the last couple of seasons and will have the opportunity to contribute immediately for the Bucs. He should look over his shoulder for prospect Kevin Kramer if he is unable to produce.

Infielder Erik Gonzalez arrives in Pittsburgh via an offseason trade with the Indians. He is a slick fielder with an excellent arm and instincts. Gonzales is a work in progress at the plate and will need to lift the ball more and increase his .375 slugging percentage. But he is in the mix at any infield position, potentially (yet again) shortstop, in 2019.

Kevin Newman will also get a chance to start his first full season and showcase his talents at shortstop this spring. He is looking forward to a rebound from a disappointing first trip to the majors (.209 in 31 games). Huntington and Hurdle will undoubtedly use spring training to assess which shortstop will be there on Opening Day.

The experience and leadership from catcher Francisco Cervelli will continue to play a role in the Pirates’ dugout this season. Cervelli will be called upon to direct a talented pitching staff but could also see time at first or third base. At the plate, the ten-year veteran is coming off a career high in home runs (12) and his .809 OPS and a 2.6 WAR was near the top for the team.

The Outfield

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Perhaps the Pirates’ most productive weapon offensively is two-time Gold Glove-winning outfielder Starling Marte. In 2018, with the departure of Andrew McCutchen, Marte seamlessly made the transition from left field to center field. At the plate, Marte slashed 20 HR, .277 BA, .787 OPS, and 3.7 WAR and was the team’s most consistent threat offensively.

Left fielder Corey Dickerson (3.8 WAR and .300 BA in 2018) looks to build off his 2018 season and has potential (yes, again) to make an impact in the middle of the lineup. Dickerson is another prime candidate for Eckstein to evaluate and to return his home run totals back to the 20s.

The importance of a healthy return for outfielder Gregory Polanco cannot be understated. Last September, Polanco had surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder and torn labrum after an awkward slide. Polanco, 27, had the best offensive season of his five-year career in 2018, slashing .254/.340/.499 with 23 home runs in 130 games.

Until Polanco’s return, right field will be rented by newly acquired Lonnie Chisenhall. He is a competent veteran with postseason experience in Cleveland and could emerge as a silent leader within the clubhouse. Chisenhall also has the ability to contribute off the bench or at third base for the Bucs.

Pittsburgh Arms

The Pirates’ biggest asset is the starting rotation. The rotation has the potential (enough already) to be a top five in the major leagues. The entire staff is enough to keep the Pirates close in games, but can only do so much with minimal run support.

Pirates’ pitcher Jameson Taillon threw 133 innings in 2017.

With the trade of an aging Ivan Nola to the White Sox in December, the Pirates lost some experience on the mound. However, Opening Day right-hander Jameson Taillon is poised for a breakout year. His numbers in the second half of 2018 should not go unnoticed (12-6, 125 K’s, 2.63 ERA in 133 innings). Tallion is gaining confidence in a slider that he added to his repertoire. Add this to a fastball in the high 90’s, and a couple of knee-buckling off-speed pitches, you will find his name in the NL Cy Young discussion.

The Pirates are banking on the late-season acquisition of Chris Archer will pan out this season. Despite Archer’s lanky appearance (6’ 2” and 195 lbs.), he is a power pitcher averaging 200 strikeouts a season. Archer’s history shows both dominance and inconsistency, which never propelled him to the Rays ace. Maybe Archer’s inconsistencies could be hidden in a closer role. There is potential (I couldn’t resist) there for a move.

Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove will find it hard pressed to duplicate their success in 2018. However, they show promise (synonym of potential) and have a tendency to create soft contact. Williams was one of the league leaders in low exit velocity from batters. Meanwhile, you will be hard pressed to find a pitcher that attacks a strike zone more than Musgrove. Keep an eye out for top prospect Mitch Keller’s debut later in the year.

Call to the Pen

If the offense can muster run support, the bullpen has some talented arms. The Pirates have the capability to trot out closers from either side of the mound. Southpaw Felipe Vazquez and right-hander Keone Kela are a formidable duo that can impact a game late. But the question remains, will the Pirates score enough runs to get to this stage of a game?

The Pirates are a small market team swimming in a large market pond. The pitching staff will make them competitive within the division. However, the lack of star power will keep them looking up at the rest of the NL Central. The “P” on the Pirates cap will continue to stand for potential.

Final Prediction: 74-88

Team MVP: Jameson Tallion

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