Williams: Five Players Who Can Improve the Pirates the Most From Within

The MLB offseason has begun for the Pirates, although with the playoffs still going, we’re still a few weeks away from the MLB offseason officially starting. And then we’re about six weeks away from things really heating up on that front, to the point where we can start to see teams making moves to improve their 2018 chances.

Eventually, I’ll get to discussing the players from outside the organization who can help the Pirates improve in 2018 and beyond. That will probably take place once the official offseason begins, and we know which players will be available.

The thing is, the Pirates need more than just outside help. They have a young team with the chance for improvements at many different positions, not to mention some bounce back candidates who can improve the team. Before focusing on outside help, I wanted to focus on the players who can provide the biggest improvements for the Pirates in 2018 and beyond.

My focus was on players who have upsides that we haven’t seen before. Obviously the Pirates will need Gerrit Cole pitching like a top of the rotation starter in order to contend, but we’ve already seen him do that. We’ve seen Starling Marte as a 4 WAR player. We’ve seen Jameson Taillon show top of the rotation stuff for half a season. The focus here is on players who have yet to show the upside that the Pirates need in order to maximize their internal upgrades.

Let’s take a look at the list:

Gregory Polanco – The Pirates haven’t seen Polanco’s full upside yet, and they might never see that. He has maxed out at a 2.4 fWAR so far in the majors, which isn’t a horrible result. However, his power potential suggests that he is capable of much more. Unfortunately, injuries have limited Polanco so far in his career. This year, for example, it seemed like every time he started hitting, he would go down with an injury that would put him out for a few weeks, and derail any progress he was making.

The key for Polanco going forward will be his health. I don’t know if you can expect him to fully stay healthy, but I think you can hope for 500+ plate appearances, especially since he did that in each of the previous two seasons leading up to 2017. From there, you hope that the health allows him to progress his game enough to get closer to his upside as an impact player, or at least improve on the maximum production we’ve seen from him so far. Polanco provides the greatest potential for improvement in the Pirates’ offense, although that improvement is largely based on his health.

Tyler Glasnow – If Polanco provides the biggest chance for improvements to the Pirates’ offense, then Glasnow provides the biggest chance for improvements to the pitching staff. We saw this year how much the Pirates need top of the rotation starters. They had a rotation full of guys who were league average or slightly better, which obviously put them around a league average or slightly better rotation. They didn’t have anyone performing like a top of the rotation guy, which hurt them, especially in a year where they needed pitching to make up for their lack of offense.

The Pirates have top of the rotation options like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. But pitchers aren’t always consistent, which means you need several top of the rotation options to get a good shot of one working out. Glasnow has top of the rotation upside, but has largely been inefficient due to a lack of control with his fastball. I’d place the chances of him figuring it all out and becoming a top of the rotation pitcher much lower than the chances of Polanco staying healthy and becoming an impact hitter. But Glasnow is still young enough to make it happen, even if the odds are low, and even if the change might not happen overnight.

Josh Bell – Bell has made some steady improvements over the last year, both on offense and defense. He started showing off his power potential this year, hitting 26 homers and hitting for a .211 ISO. He saw improvements defensively at first base, going from a -32.8 UZR/150 in 2016 to a -2.9 UZR/150 in 2017. He also went from a -3 DRS to a 6 DRS in the same time, and went from 0 to 6 in Plus/Minus, showing improvements across the board. The UZR rating puts him below average, although DRS and PM both have him above average.

The question is whether Bell can continue to show improvements going forward. I think that’s possible, as he’s only 25 years old, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best from him offensively. The biggest thing holding him back this past year was a lower average. He got on base due to a 10.6% walk rate, but his average was only .255. He had a .278 BABIP, down from .294 last year, and well down from the .330 range he saw in the upper levels of the minors. I think we should definitely see a better hitter in the future, with the chance for more power. I also wouldn’t rule out further improvements to his defense, based on the improvements we’ve seen so far. While the previous two guys have one big thing to improve upon, Bell could provide an impact by showing further steady improvements on both sides of the ball.

Elias Diaz – As I wrote today, the Pirates don’t have an easy decision behind the plate going forward. Part of that is due to the fact that Elias Diaz has not become anything close to a starting catcher option the Pirates need to replace the injury prone Francisco Cervelli. Diaz has a lot of work to do to become a starter. His offense has always been inconsistent, but the tools have been there. The defense has shown up in the minors, but hasn’t translated to the majors.

I think that the defense will show up enough to make him a backup option in the majors, even without the offense making big improvements. The offense could show up enough to pair with the defense and make him a starting option. Even with that combo, the upside here is low. Diaz doesn’t compare to the previous three options as a potential impact guy. The impact here would be that he could allow the Pirates to move on from Cervelli, freeing up some money that would be put to better use elsewhere. They’d have to gamble on Diaz and hope it works out for this to be effective in 2018.

Austin Meadows – I’m not including prospects on this list, because the goal is to see where the Pirates could find improvements on their current roster. The one exception I’m making is Meadows. The Pirates expected him up by this point at the earliest, but he probably won’t arrive until next year at mid-season, at the earliest. He has been derailed by injuries, which has slowed his transition to Triple-A, to the point where he isn’t ready for the majors yet. Once he gets beyond that, he still has to make the successful jump to the majors, and that ignores the injury issues, which should still be a concern.

Meadows makes this list because he’s a special circumstance. The Pirates have guys in the minors who can replace current MLB players in the next year or two, like Kevin Newman or Cole Tucker for Jordy Mercer, or Kevin Kramer for Josh Harrison. But Meadows is the guy set to replace their current franchise player. It won’t take much for Newman/Tucker/Kramer to match the production from guys like Mercer and Harrison. It will take a lot more from Meadows to match the production from McCutchen. A key here is staying healthy. I don’t think you can expect full health, but you could expect something better than this year, which combined with the upside from his skills, could lead to an impact player.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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The Pirates could easily add 20 WAR with the exact same players


It’s a nice article, Tim, but the guy who concerns me the most is Polanco with his hamstring issues (same for Meadows). I hope he can have a good off-season training and that they put him through some intensive outfield drills in the spring to improve his atrocious fielding.

Scott K

Why again was Taillon not on this list? With all due respect, Taillon pitching for a full season like he’s capable of would make the biggest impact to the Pirates fortunes in 2018.

1B would be Tyler Glasnow. Although I personally think he should be slotted into the bullpen to start the year.


Taillon was a 3-WAR starter in 2017. That’s just a win short of a reasonable projection for him across a full season.


I’m still confused as to why anyone believes Meadows has much upside. He may top out at a 4WAR player if things go perfectly for him. A better bet would be 2.5 WAR, which makes him only above average.


Which ones exactly? He is fast, but not necessarily quick. He has an average arm. He doesn’t hit for much power. He doesn’t hit for much average, and recently, he has shown a much higher propensity to strike out. When you factor in the multitude of injuries on top of all that, IMO, it becomes quite a stretch to see him as an impact player.


Yeah, it’s more tools than skills with Meadows right now and that may be what Tim was trying to say.

Austin’s *impact* potential has always hinged on being able to stay in CF (skill) and maintaining plus hitting ability (skill) *while also* turning his plus raw power (tool) into game power.

Nobody reasonably thinks he’s a future star without the game power, and incorporating that into his performance without sacrificing the hit tool has been his struggle at the highest level.

He did it in ALtoona, though, and that’s why he’s deserving of the optimism at this age.

dr dng

I like the possibility that Bell will improve,
because he just seems to be so smart.


I think its important to remember how random baseball is sometimes. Jose Ramirez followed up a career year last year, with another career year. Jimmy Nelson went from a 5 FIP to a 3 FIP YoY. Marwin Gonzalez a 4 WAR player?! The Cardinals voodoo magic to have random players be pseudo stars for a season.

Crazy stuff can happen, and we just need one of those things to happen to us unexpectedly and then we have an exciting year. Should we bank on that? No – but odder things sure have happened.

Blaine Huff

Crazy stuff can happen…and it may have this season…

Did Kuhl and Williams just have seasons they can’t replicate and there will be another two holes at the back of the rotation in ’18?

Blaine Huff

I wasn’t predicting…in fact, I’m of the opinion they will be just fine holding down the 4-5 spots…but we won’t know until it happens. My point was, fluky results can and do happen for the team…but you can’t know that’s what happened until they aren’t replicated. For example, Travis Snider.

Bill C

Tim nice write-up. On Glasnow, has this offered a breakdown/analysis/diagnosis of why the massive drop-off from AAA to his disastrous MLB outings? Sorry if I’ve missed this — just wondering is it completely attributable to his lack of command, or are there other factors like velocity, pitch-mix, windup vs. stretch etc. ?

John W

Good list tim. Any of these guys turning into a 3.5-4 war player would really help.

Diaz doesn’t have that ceiling but even 1.5-2 war from him would be big boost if the get rid of cervelli


I’d love to see 34 starts of sub 3.50 ERA pitching from Taillon and Cole. I also believe Trevor Williams will exceed every expectation we have for him. He has continually gotten better and he always competes. That being said, I’m not worried about Bell. I think he’ll continue to make strides. Polanco and Glasnow are the 2 biggest wild cards in the organization. Both have superstar level talent but both have fragile egos (I also think Polanco needs to hit the gym harder). Those 2 reaching their potential would be huge for the Bucs. Meadows and Polanco need to go work out with Terrell Owens or Gary Roberts or something. Those kind of chronic injuries have a ton to do with physical fitness and Polanco doesn’t look muscular at all. I’m not saying he isn’t, he might be, he just doesn’t look it.

Buddy Turney

Terrel Owens is currently playing softball in Burbank, CA. So he is available to personally train Polanco and Glasnow


He trained Kris Letang this offseason too and it apparently helped alot.


Polanco is very muscular. It’s just stretched on a long frame, which frame could be why he suffers so many injuries. Tall people are often more susceptible to injury. All that length is itself a strain on joints at least (which explains the knees). The hamstrings can be explained, though, by the fact that he’s had hamstring injuries, and they get more frequent the more you have them.


He is 6’4″ tall, that is not exceptionally tall. That in fact, would make him a SG in basketball, which is one of the 2 most athletic players on a team typically, the other being SF, who is usually only slightly taller than a SG.

Adam Y

It’s pretty tall for a baseball player. Not sure what basketball has to do with it.

Bill Harvey

Read the comment above mine. It states that Polanco is very muscular and stretched onto a long frame, which may be why he suffers so many injuries. I was just stating that he is not exceptionally tall, and attempted to correlate that to basketball, because they have the best athletes on the face of the earth, who are of the same build, and don’t get injured nearly as much.


Maybe it’s just cause he’s a Pirate. Aaron Judge is 6’7 and looks as rock solid as can be. Who knows… maybe he’ll be an injury risk too cause Giancarlo Stanton is a monster and he’s struggled to stay healthy consistently.

joe s

Wishing and hoping will not make it happen. These players have to make the improvements in order for the team to succeed. Will they do it? NO way to know. I think it is time to move Cole, do you think we can get Baez and Happ from the Cubs for him? I don’t fear him being in our division, as he has not proven to me that he can be a number one starter, so what is there to fear. On the other hand Baez can play short or second and Happ can replace Cutch. It is a win for the Pirates, now only if the Cubs think more of Cole then I do.


That trade would never happen due to logistics. But, even if Baez and Happ played in the AL, that trade would never happen. Way too much value coming for 2 years of Cole.


Hudson Kuhl Cole

Blaine Huff

6. Kang


Marte, too, for the same reason.


This is the true toss-up – Marte or ‘Cutch. Marte continues to lack the plate patience needed from a #1 /2 in the order, and has yet to develop or show consistency in the power aspect needed for the #3 /4/5/6 spots in the order.

‘Cutch has made the adjustments at the plate to continue as a very feared batter, and is clearly the Leader of the team with nobody else even close.

Marte is a $10-$12 mil player under contract and ‘Cutch would be an $18-$20 mil player. For me, I cannot see the Pirates keeping both, and I am not concerned about the difference of $6 to $10 mil. Who brings more to the table for this team moving forward?


I just see Cutch being the one person on this team who can offensively carry the team. Bell might be that player. Marte never will. They need Marte, because they need good players. But Marte is replaceable.

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