What is up with the Pirates?

Photo Credit: Frank Jansky | Getty Images

by Andy Zsiga @zsiga_andy 

This past offseason was slow going in a lot of ways, but one thing I thought was happening was that the Pittsburgh Pirates were beginning to waive the white tanking flag. Boy, was I ever wrong! A few weeks ago, I decided I needed to take a deeper look into the statistics of the Pirates roster, and I noticed they had a very good core group of players, thus their run seemed less surprising to me than it did shortly before.

This led to some natural questions, what made this core pretty good? I thought they were selling, how did they get this core? Is it possible this team will be real contenders in the near future? I found the narrative I had about the Pirates offseason was misinformed, but then baseball got really funny on me, and the Pirates started making deadline moves. 

They gained controllable young talent by using resources slightly blocked by their current young talent. Let’s take a look at the young and talented roster, try to see if they are set to succeed for a few years, and find how they quietly retooled the last few years. It has been widely noted that the Pirates had twenty years of a losing record finally being broken in 2013. They had winning seasons in 2013, 2014, and 2015, but losing records the last two years.

Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole were traded this offseason, thus it looked like the Pirates must have been giving up. The problem with that thought process is that the Pirates were actually going out and trading for a better outfielder than McCutchen in Corey Dickerson (currently on the 10 day DL); they definitely gave up decent players, but this deal actually opened up more room in their bullpen to try out some of their young pieces.

In the McCutchen deal, the Pirates received their current set up man Kyle Crick, who has pitched very well, and a minor league outfielder bolstering the depth of their minor league system. Crick’s battery mate, Felipe Vasquez, is also the product of a great trade. In 2016, the Pirates saw their playoff hopes diminish, and traded two months of Mark Melancon for their current closer Vasquez, and Taylor Hearn; this year, the Pirates swapped Hearn and a PTBNL for Keona Kela, the Texas Rangers closer. The Pirates made a flexible, young bullpen out of Melancon and McCutchen. The last three innings of any game should be safe for the Pirates for quite some time, but then again it is impossible to tell what is going to happen with a bullpen.

The core position players for the Pirates are young and injury prone, but there are a lot of them with more waiting to come up from the minor leagues. The current outfield consists of Dickerson(29), Starling Marte(29), and Gregory Polanco (26); all have battled injuries in their career, but they all have a current WAR of 2 or higher. Polanco’s defense definitely leaves something to be desired, but overall this group is an excellent core outfield. The Pirates just traded a young and talented fourth outfielder as a part of the Chris Archer deal, which probably was hard to do, but with the relative youth and production of the current outfielders and the other outfielders in the minor leagues, it was smart to switch him out for a top-tier pitcher. 

The Pirates catchers impressively combine for 2.6 WAR, and it looks like the Elias Diaz is ready to be a productive starting catcher once Francisco Cervelli's contract ends next year (or more likely before when the Pirates trade Cervelli to save money). So, the Pirates seem set in the outfield and at catcher, what about the infield? First base is manned by the Josh Bell (25), and he has lost some of his power this year but is still an excellent talent who hit 26 home runs last year with an .800 OPS. Bell is currently injured but seems to be an excellent part of this young core. Second and short are covered by solid veterans, and third base is covered by Colin Moran (25), a young player who had played 16 games in the Major League before this season.  

Moran was brought over in the Gerrit Cole trade. This gave the Pirates two and a half major league players and a fourth 22-year-old outfielder that is currently holding his own in AAA. While Gerrit Cole has looked outstanding this year, it seems that the Pirates were able to create starting third basemen, a decent starting pitcher in Joe Musgrove, and a mop-up relief pitcher in Michael Feliz (recently optioned for Keona Kela). I actually like this haul for the Pirates, but I understand that many do not think it was good because it left their young pitching staff without a true ace.

While Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow are tough to let go for Chris Archer, they really were expendable due to the fact there are four young possible starting pitchers (Jameson TaillonTrevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, and Nick Kingham) on their staff and two top 100 starting pitching prospects in the minor leagues. The Pirates are so deep that their top two prospects from last year were expendable, and Huntington was wise enough to know their value and obtain the top available starting pitcher this year. So, if the Pirates really are deep at the starting pitcher position, why did they need to get Archer (a guy who may or may not be regressing)? The answer is simple, all their starting pitchers project well, but they needed a horse and veteran to help these young guys along (no Ivan Nova, while useful, was not that guy).

So, will the Pirates be real contenders this year? Quite possibly, but they still have some games to make up. Do the Pirates look to set up for success for the next few years? An overwhelming yes is necessary here!  A talented mostly young outfield, young legitimate starting corner infielders, a veteran middle infield, two legitimate hitting catchers, a group of lockdown seventh, eighth, and ninth inning pitchers, and a solid young pitching staff. 

Don’t forget the Pirates still have several good players in the upper minors, and they seem to be a few steps ahead of the court of public opinion.  
I am going to go out on a small limb here and predict that the Pirates will be World Series contenders in the near future, and their window will be open for four to five years at least. Injuries and player progression could hamper my predictions, but when I look at the Pirates overall, I see youth, talent, and depth. What an enviable position the Pirates look to be in!

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