The perennial losing of the Pittsburgh Pirates stretched from when they made the playoffs in 1992 all the way until their next postseason berth in 2013. They would qualify for three consecutive NL Wild Card games from 2013-15 but were not able to advance past the NLDS in any of these playoff runs. Pittsburgh still has not won their division since the ‘92 season; this drought most certainly will not be ending anytime soon.
The Pirates have shown no remorse in abandoning their fanbase in favor of saving a few bucks, as ownership’s refusal to spend on the club has become more and more evident in recent years.
Prior to the 2018 season, the Pirates traded pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Astros for a package that even at the time was viewed as lacking. In retrospect, the deal looks even worse; Cole turned into an absolute superstar during his time in Houston. The flame-throwing righty carried this success into earning a massive $324 million free-agent deal with the New York Yankees this winter, which was the largest for a pitcher in the history of the sport.
The fact of the matter is that the Pirates never had any intention of retaining Cole, even before he increased his own value exponentially with his stellar two-year stint in Houston. As an Astro, Cole started 65 games, and recorded an ERA of 2.68 (2.67 FIP), along with a whopping 602 strikeouts in 412.2 innings pitched.
To give up an elite pitcher like Cole for little more than scraps was simply unacceptable, yet the Cole deal was remarkably not the worst trade that the Pirates gave completed in the last few seasons.
In what could very well go down as one of the most one-sided trades in baseball history, the Pirates parted with outfielder Austin Meadows and pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz in return for Chris Archer. This 2018 deal with the Tampa Bay Rays was scrutinized at the time, but it has turned out far worse for Pittsburgh than even the most pessimistic of fans could have imagined.
Archer, a starting pitcher who was once considered an ace, has absolutely fallen apart as a Pirate. He was at least decent during the second half of ‘18 (4.30 ERA, 4.00 FIP), but was downright dreadful in ‘19, as he was blitzed by the league to the tune of a 5.19 ERA (5.02 FIP). To make matters even worse for Pittsburgh, Meadows, and Glasnow each exploded in ‘19, as they performed spectacularly and morphed into stars. Meadows was selected as an All-Star; he mashed 33 homers and was worth 4.0 fWAR. If not for injury, Glasnow would have been a serious contender for the AL Cy Young award, as his fiery fastball and devastating curveball helped him post 2.3 fWAR in just 12 starts.
Depleted of talent and barren of hope, the Pirates’ Major League roster heading into 2020 is likely to be one of the worst in baseball. Trading away outfielder Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks in January leaves Pittsburgh with even fewer viable lineup options, as the only notable addition the Pirates made this offseason was the light-hitting Jarrod Dyson.
Despite finishing 69-93 in 2019, the Pirates did receive some pleasant surprises in terms of contributions from position players, which may keep the club somewhat competitive, at least occasionally. Josh Bell’s career-year saw him finish with 37 homers and a .277/.367/.569 slash line; however, his lackluster defense and baserunning limited him to 2.5 fWAR, far too little to carry an entire team – especially one as awful as these Pirates. Bell’s alarming second-half decline in ‘19 (.780 OPS, down from 1.024 in the first half) should be a major concern for Pittsburgh as well.
The duo of Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman also showed potential in 2019, as they posted 3.2 and 2.4 fWAR, respectively. Yet, as it always seems to go with the Pirates, there is a rather obvious negative caveat to the success of these two young players. Reyolds’ BABIP in ‘19 was .387, which is significantly higher than the league average, and indicates that a statistical regression in the future is likely. Newman’s lack of power and subpar on-base skills are problematic as well; as such, Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections expect both Reyolds and Newman to decline markedly in 2020.
The rest of the Pirates’ lineup will be made up of a combination of Gregory Polanco, Adam Frazier, Jacob Stallings, and Colin Moran. The return of Polanco should provide some power to the group, assuming he can stay healthy. Frazier is a capable contact hitter, as is Moran. Stallings is a fine catcher.
The pitching staff beyond Archer is, to be blunt, awful. It would be a shock to see the talented Jameson Taillon take the mound in 2020 after he underwent Tommy John surgery last August. Joe Musgrove, acquired in the aforementioned Gerrit Cole trade, could be serviceable at the very least; he was worth 3.3 fWAR in 2019, and his 3.82 FIP was fairly respectable.
Trevor Williams, who had a fluky run of dominance in 2018 (3.11 ERA despite a 3.86 FIP and tiny 6.64 K/9 rate), felt a full dose of regression hit last season, as his 5.38 ERA and 5.12 FIP would indicate. Steven Brault is probably a better hitter (.333 batting average in ‘19) than he is a pitcher.
The Pittsburgh bullpen is just as desolate as the rotation, as elite closer Felipe Vázquez probably will not ever pitch again due to various charges of sexual assault – a disaster of a situation that is certainly. befitting of the Pirates’ organization as a whole. Kyle Crick and his filthy slider may take over the closer’s role come the new season.
The Pirates’ farm system is not very deep but does feature some promising talent. Mitch Keller (#39), Ke’Bryan Hayes (#41), and Oneil Cruz (#64) are the names that have been included on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list. They will be able to help Pittsburgh eventually – that is, if the Pirates do not trade them for a bag of peanuts first.
Projected Divisional Finish (AL Central):
Projected Opening Day Lineup and Rotation (Fangraphs 2020 fWAR Projections for each player in parentheses):
Adam Frazier 2B (2.0)
Bryan Reynolds LF (1.3)
Josh Bell 1B (2.0)
Gregory Polanco RF (0.9)
Kevin Newman SS (1.6)
Colin Moran 3B (0.5)
Jacob Stallings C (1.1)
Jarrod Dyson CF (1.0)
Joe Musgrove (2.7)
Trevor Williams (2.3)
Chris Archer (2.6)
Mitch Keller (2.4)
Steven Brault (0.8)