Williams: The 2018 Season Will Be a Rebuilding Year on Many Levels For the Pirates

This article originally appeared in the 2018 Prospect Guide, which is now available and includes reports on every prospect in the Pirates’ system. You can order your copy here.

Neal Huntington said this offseason that the Pirates aren’t using the word “rebuild” to describe their actions after trading Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen. He doesn’t want to use that term for the sole reason that the word implies that the team is five or so years from contending again. The Pirates believe they are closer than that.

If you remove the timeline implications of the word, and just focus on the pure definition, then it’s clear that the Pirates are definitely rebuilding. They’re rebuilding in more ways than one. They’re rebuilding a team at the majors that put up one of the best records in baseball from 2013-15, but that has fallen off since then. They’re rebuilding a farm system that was one of the best in baseball a few years ago, but has since graduated a lot of top prospects, and is now middle of the pack.

The 2018 season will be a rebuilding year for the Pirates on multiple levels. And the farm system is going to play a big role in that rebuild.

At the major league level, the Pirates have graduated a lot of top prospects in recent years, giving them a young team. They will be relying on guys like Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, Josh Bell, Adam Frazier, and others who have made the jump to the big leagues in the last few years, not to mention recently acquired guys like Colin Moran and Joe Musgrove. The Pirates can’t solely get by with their farm system. They’re going to eventually need help from the outside. They do still have more help on the way from within.

Mitch Keller is the top prospect in the system, and the most likely player to provide an impact for the Pirates in the future. He could arrive in 2018, depending on how aggressive the Pirates want to get with his development in the upper levels. Keller should join Taillon at the top of the rotation, giving the Pirates a solid one-two punch.

The Pirates will soon need replacements at their middle infield spots. Fortunately, they have a wealth of middle infield prospects. Max Moroff has already made the jump to the majors, and is a potential starter at second base. Kevin Kramer is an alternate option, and will start the 2018 season with Indianapolis. Jordy Mercer has one more year under contract, but Kevin Newman is starting the year in Indianapolis, and Cole Tucker is right behind him.

Colin Moran will step in right away to fill the vacancy at third base, and Ke’Bryan Hayes is another option in the wings, starting the year in Altoona. They need an outfield replacement for Andrew McCutchen right now. They have Jordan Luplow as a short-term option, and Austin Meadows in the wings with more upside, assuming he can stay healthy enough to get close to that upside.

There are players who can help out in the upper levels of the minors, with a lot of those options set to arrive in 2018, and set to lay the foundation for the Pirates to compete again. There are some players in this group who could play big roles in that quest to contend. The Pirates will need to supplement that group with help from the outside, either through trades or by adding free agents, and they’ll need prospects to trade if that is going to happen.

The other rebuild in the system could help in that department. This farm system is very similar to the one the Pirates had in 2011-12. They didn’t have a lot of high-end prospects in the upper levels after graduating the few guys they did have in previous years. They did have a lot of high upside guys in the lower levels, with the chance for some breakout prospects. And that eventually led to them having a top farm system, and graduating many of the players who either helped them win in 2013-15, or who are key players on the current roster.

The current group has a lot of upside in the lower levels, with a lot of breakout potential. The Pirates went prep heavy in the 2017 draft, leading off with right-handed pitcher Shane Baz in the first round, and taking prep pitchers like Steven Jennings and Cody Bolton, and prep hitters like Cal Mitchell, Conner Uselton, and Mason Martin in the middle rounds. They went with a lot of prep pitchers the previous year, with some promising guys in Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, and Travis MacGregor.

The Pirates have been increasing their efforts on the international side, signing a lot of players in each of the last two years, and starting to see another wave of international talent making it through the system. Lolo Sanchez had a bit of a breakout year in the GCL last year, and could emerge as a top 100 prospect by the end of the 2018 season. Sherten Apostel, Samuel Inoa, and Jean Eusebio lead a talented group of position players who will make the jump to the GCL, and who could repeat the success that Sanchez had last year.

Then there’s the trade front, where the Pirates have added some power hitters in recent deals. They traded Tony Watson for third baseman Oneil Cruz, who instantly has some of the best raw power in the system at the young age of 19. They got Jason Martin in the Gerrit Cole deal, giving them an outfielder with a lot of raw power at the Double-A level. They added Bryan Reynolds in the Andrew McCutchen trade, providing an outfielder who doesn’t have the same raw power as the previous two hitters, but does have a well-rounded bat.

Just like with the rebuild at the majors, the Pirates can’t settle for only the guys currently in the system. They will need to continue adding players, either via rebuilding trades, or through the draft and international signings. They have the tenth pick in the 2018 draft, and another large international bonus pool to work with, so they should be able to add to the lower-level prospects in a significant way.

The Pirates are rebuilding, and the 2018 season will be important for that rebuild. They need prospects at the top to arrive and help get them back to being contenders. They need prospects in the lower levels to step up and help elevate their farm system toward the top again, which will help them either with trades, or with more players who can help when they’re ready to contend again. That might just make the Pirates’ farm system the most important thing to watch during the 2018 season.

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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“Hey guys this is Colin Moran our new 3rd baseman. He’s a lot like you all as he’s a fading type prospect like Neil sends us. Reason he’s gonna talk to you all is we didn’t hit many homers last year and he’s got an idea. Now l want you all listen up here cause power is important and scarce especially now that Andrew’s been traded to the big leagues. All you pitchers go see Ray…he’s gonna fix you.
David’s running laps”.
….Hurdles opener to the team.

Bryan J

“…..but does have a well-rounded bat.”

One of those sports phrases I always get a chuckle out of.


Hurdle said they want Musgrove to start the season in the rotation, as expected, and that means there’s no spot for Glasnow. I really really would prefer to see Glasnow pitching as a starter though… getting games every five days. Why wouldn’t we trade Harrison and Nova? :/


Hurdle also said Glas is *not* going back to AAA….Nothing more to learn. It’s BP or bust.


Allow me to be the first irrational spring training commenter, but does anyone see Glasnow’s stride shortened in the instgram video Tim posted?


He def looked very loose and athletic… Hopefully he can carry some of those traits to the mound when it counts. One can only hope….

michael t

They fit nervous racehorses with blinders.They have to fit Glasnow with some sort of psychological blinders when he takes the Major League mound…..or something more radical.


Ehh. Idk. Yea, he gets nervous, but who doesn’t when your a young prospect who has dominated at every level and hasn’t had success in the majors yet. I just think he needs to get his mechanics down more and improve his command. I think that’s the most glaring part about his game. Second is his mentality. But I could be wrong… It’s not like he has posted excellent walk rates in the minors and hasn’t replicated in MLB.

michael t

We all want the kid to succeed. I hope they quit tinkering with him and he finds a groove and cuts it loose. He is sending the right signals about being himself and getting back to what worked before(downward plane,etc.)


Yea, everyone can agree we want him to succeed. I just think his mental part of his game is just overblown. He just doesn’t have great control and command which he has displayed every year he has been a pro. Major league hitters aren’t going to chase balls out of the zone the way minor league hitters will… That’s why I am in the camp of, he needs to find a delivery he can repeat and improve his command if he wants to have success in MLB.


Kid is still 24, until August. Lot of pressure and high expectations. Perhaps maturity is still to come.


comment image

(i was never actually out. but this came to mind.)


I know it’s only a bullpen, but did he look more consistent?

And has he always stepped a little closed? Is he now, or was I tricked by parallax?


I thought he looked more direct and less limb-y, which might have been the consequence of a shortened stride.

Scott K

You’re the resident scout on this message board. I’d trust your opinion more than anyone else.


Let me present you with your first mistake… 😉

joe s

AS the saying goes there is always tomorrow but tomorrow never comes because when it arrives it is today.


Interesting saying Confucious!


Huge development year for the 2015 and 2016 drafts, in general.

Ke’Bryan is as safe of a future contributor as they come, but Newman needs to reestablish his potential as a Major Leaguer and Kramer needs to show he can pair the hit and power tools together. Outside of those three there’s little potential from the 2015 draft.

2016 is far more dire; *someone* needs to step up and establish themselves as legitimate prospects to begin with. My money would still be on Oegle.

EDIT: I think JT Brubaker has earned himself a nod from the 2015 draft as well; I lump him in with the 2014 bunch for some reason.

Blaine Huff

Not to be a nit-picker, but every time you type Hughston’s first name, you spell it incorrectly…

It’s C-A-S-E-Y, not K-E-B-R-Y-A-N.

Brian Z

I’m with you…just not excited about the middle infielders coming up. I’m hoping Moran never lets Hayes see the field (that means he’s doing great at the MLB level) and maybe they can flip Hayes for other deficiencies.


I’d rather Moran hits and Hayes still forces his way onto the field, and the Pirates find another home for Moran because his bat is too good not to find another home for.


I’m gonna convince you on KeBryan one of these days!

Brian Z

Oh I’m starting to come around on Ke’Bryan (even though he spells the Bryan part of the name wrong). I want him to bust through his ceiling AND still not get to see the field due to Moran becoming the next Kris Bryant or something…again WTF is up with these Bryans? But I like Darkstone’s thought as well. Having them both playing wouldn’t suck.


Waddell for 2015?


I just don’t see the combination of stuff and command ever forcing the issue; what’s Steven Brault with a half grade less on the stuff?

My take could be just plain wrong of course, but it’s not an era where the Brandon Waddell’s of the world seem to be having success.


I think he’ll prove you wrong. He seems to have a brain. By that I mean he seems to be a bit crafty whereas Brault just seems to let it rip. Brault could work great as a setup man.


I pretty much agree. I think Waddell is essentially a low ceiling prospect. Just wasn’t sure if you intentionally or unintentionally (like Brubaker) left him off.


Waddell will never gain any sort of traction as a prospect, but I expect him, like Stallings, to force his way into being a Major League contributor someday–even a minor one–by continuing to produce inexplicably.


What is inexplicable about production? Waddell pitches well under pressure and has won at every level so far. He’s a competitor. So what if he doesn’t throw over 95 mph.


There’s no way to actually explain how or why he pitches so well, is what I mean about inexplicable. He doesn’t have velocity, a ton of movement, or great secondary pitches; he’s not known to be especially deceptive, either. He just gets outs, and you just have to throw your hands up and say, “I guess he’s good,” and never really know exactly what he’s doing well to make you say that.


Wasn’t sure if NMR omitted him initially in same fashion as Brubaker.


I’ll be interested in how the lineup looks going into the season. From looking at previous seasons, the Pirates see around 120-130 games against right handed starters. If they can click (and stay healthy), a 3 through 5 of Polanco, Bell, and Moran could potentially give opposing starters heartburn. NL Central itself will have roughly 16 of 20 rotation spots being righties.

But a rather completely unrelated question. If Keller does progress well this season, could you see the Pirates pushing for an early long term contract with him? Which may or may not play a part in whether he debuts this season or next?


With switchhitters Bell and Moroff and lefties Frazier. Meadows. Moran, Polanco and Nada to platoon with righties Harrison, Freese, Luplow, Mercer and Marte, catcher becomes the only exclusively right handed hitting position. This gives Clint incredible potential to adjust his lineup, especially when facing a pitcher with splits such as the old Charlie Morton.


Definitely. I wonder if it was part of their offseason plan, as even the prospects they grabbed were lefties or SH (Martin and Reynolds). Even the rumors of them seeking Nimmo for J-Hay, appears they’re trying to get a lot more lefty sided.


Makes sense fo 80 games at home. Im perplexed why they have not gotten more LH starting pitching.

Scott K

The thing I’m looking forward to seeing from this year’s team is the growth and development of the young talent on the roster.

With Meccage’s promotion to Pittsburgh to assist Searage, I’m cautiously optimistic the pitching staff will be better than expected. Especially Glasnow, Kuhl, & Williams.

The offense is going to be inconsistent for sure. The season will succeed or fail on how the bats will either surprise us or disappoint us.

As for the future, the Pirates will have a ton of money to spend on payroll starting in 2019. How they navigate the waters of next year’s Hot Stove season will determine if this is a reload or a rebuild.


As for the future, the Pirates will have a ton of money to spend on payroll starting in 2019

For the Pirates, this is never a relevant aspect. The next time they spend on payroll (see any time after 2015 when they promised to spend) outside of some ‘cheapies’ will be the first time.


just to outline… the only players who they have committed money to in 2019 are…

Marte, Polanco, Cervelli, Rivero, Nova are the only commitments.

i think that’s 39.5 million committed.

Feliz and Kontos go to arbitration. Feliz will still be cheap. Let’s just say 1 million. Kontos will probably be let go.

gives us 6 spots costing 40.5 million.

Harrison, Freese, Kang all gone.

that leaves 19 roster spots making the pre-arbitration salary. let’s ballpark that as $600,000. 19 * $.6 Million is 11.4 Million.

That’s a roster that’s gonna cost $51 million. There’s absolutely no way that MLB lets that fly.

and there won’t be enough bad spots on the team to just buy like… four $5 million players.

this will almost have to come in the form of one $20+ million player.


Why would MLB care? Teams are avoiding the luxury tax. The luxury tax funds 100% revenue sharing, right? The MLBPA will care. However, they allowed the owners to create a salary cap without a salary floor. Nothing can be done about that till the next CBA is negotiated. Attendance should drop again this year decreasing the Pirates revenue.


Right. I meant mlbpa. Good call.


Bref’s estimate with actual arb projections is $64m without any options exercised, FWIW:

Either way, Huntington’s own self-imposed dogma is going to make it difficult to sniff $100m. He’s not gonna sign anyone making 20% of payroll and he’s gonna beat any competitors for 3+ year contracts.

There’s only so much good salary you can take on with those limitations. That’s why *this* year was the time to begin wading into the market.


i’m still holding out for that last minute 1 yr deal for Jon Lucroy 🙂


When other are fearful, be greedy!

2 yr/$18m deal with a team option, front loaded.


hell, two years guaranteed… 17 mil in year 1, 1 mil in year two.


I’m not in on Lucroy, but a deal like that, with like $14MM in the first season, would be worth the risk he is, in fact, washed up.


i mean it’s unrealistic to think he’ll return to 2016 4.5 WAR form. but i dont think i buy that his days as an above average player are done.

I’m pimping Lucroy because i think he’s one of the last interesting FAs that actually improve the team while not blocking an actual interesting young player.

i’m the low man on Diaz.

This team isn’t bad enough to not spend the money that it clearly has.

i’ll never forgive them if a lot breaks right for them, they miss the playoffs by one game, and are left sitting on $15 million unspent


Yeah I totally understand the warning signs with Lucroy that point to the bat being shot, but he’s also a heck of an athlete yet to turn 32.

It would hardly even register on the radar of strangeness for him to bounce back to a league-average hitter and I’m fully unconvinced that his drastic drop in framing runs is indicative of a change in skill.

This is honestly as close to a 2012 Russell Martin-type signing as they’re ever going to find.


I like the idea of a 1-year deal or a 2 year deal for small money in year 2, because I’m still holding out hope for Yasmani Grandal.


Can Lucroy play RF? Most recent Catcher that comes to mind is Doumit. Get him 50 starts behind the plate and 60 in RF keeps both him and Cervelli fresh.


I don’t know what you mean here either, but I REALLY hope that you aren’t saying the Bucs would be better with a return by Ryan, Damnit than with Lucroy! That’s the type of logic that got my namesake somehow re-signed here for the 2016 season, despite his career <2.5 WAR coming into his final year of "baseball"!!


If we’re bringing in Lucroy to play RF, we’re bringing in Lucroy for the wrong reason.


“Most recent catcher that comes to mind is Doumit”

what does that mean haha


I hope he can recognize that a contract which is 20% of the paryoll in 2019 won’t be 20% of the payroll anymore in 2020 and beyond, and be consequently willing to break his own rule.

michael t

But he could be technically truthful on his rule while ignoring the reality so evident to the fan base. That is a zone they are quite comfortable operating in. By the way, where did the Marte and Kang savings get spent?


Where should it have been spent. With those guys out, Tallion’s cancer, Cole’s underperformance, were we a contender in July? I dont see that we were. Just because you have $20 doesnt mean you should spend it on Loto tickets.

michael t

The team did not have a legitimate third outfielder when Polanco went down and was still in contention. Jay Bruce was being given away but rather than compete we did nothing and then dismantled. My point Tony is that NH said they would spend the money to address the missing pieces and never did. Not early when he made the statement and there was plenty of time to fill the holes or late when vets were available for a pittance.


I didn’t realize past profits cannot be invested in future payroll…


Correct my aging, bourbon-riddled mind if I’m mistaken but didn’t the whole 20% rule narrative surface around the AJ Burnett Qualifying Offer debate prior to the 2014 season?

Actual payroll in 2014 was…$76m.

Don’t hold your breath, folks.


And how did that work out for them? I mean, one hopes lessons can be learned.


88 wins and a wild card.

I don’t disagree with you a bit, just less than optimistic that Huntington viewed that as a mistake and not *justification*.


Didn’t they have to make a series of desperate attempts to fill the rotation to get there, though? I mean, a lot had to break right for them.


interesting. just looking really quickly… seems like BR has higher values for some of the under-contract guys. I was going with P2 numbers… which in a small spot-checked sample… matches reported values on Fangraphs.

i did make the assumption that Harrison and Freese would be dealt, and wouldnt have to be bought out. Assumed Kang will not be paid.

i suppose we’re a whole year out, and i dont want to overthink something for an entire year… but my god if he drops that 15%-20% on one player excuse when the team around that player is going to be almost absurdly cheap… and quite good for the price that that team will be! (but not quite good enough on its own…)… then i’ll probably freak and i’ll finally be fully on team anti Huntington.

Scott K

I totally agree! That 20% of payroll on one player theory better not come into play next year.

Scott K

I agree this is the year to start spending, and it’s still not too late to bolster this roster. Not holding my breath though.

Sure is pleasant dreaming about reading Pirates surprise the MLB world by signing Alex Cobb to a deal. Alas, it’s only a dream.


he doesnt mean that payroll will jump to 130.

what i think he means is that they will have to spend significantly just to get payroll back to even a paltry 80 million.

The team next year is shaping up to be absurdly inexpensive.

my back of the envelope calculations have payroll around $50 next year.

there’s no way MLB would let payroll be that low. they’d almost literally HAVE to buy a significant free agent or two.

One of those free agents’ names is Yasmani Grandal.

he’s not saying that payroll will jump above what it’s ever been. The point is that just to get payroll back to 80% of their proven max payroll, they’ll HAVE to spend a lot.


True…they may spend a lot, but I doubt very seriously, just based on history, that it’ll be blown on one player.

There might be an extension or two that will eat it up and some of those arb cases (Bell, Taillon, et al) may cost more than you think, too.

But, I wouldn’t dream too much about Grandal coming to Pgh. 🙂


Bell and Taillon aren’t going to arbitration until *after* 2019.

Feliz and Kontos are literally the only two arbitration eligible guys after the 2018 season!


Btw, to be clear, my ‘adding to payroll’ is meant more for those years when (if?) we get back into contention and they spring for a guy that’ll put us over the top, not unlike what the Brewers, Indians and Royals (all small markets) have done.

They did nada after ’95.


fair enough!

the original poster had mentioned 2019 so i thought that’s all we were talking about.

i dont necessarily disagree with you about the longer term.

Scott K

Perhaps NH realizes the errors of his ways and will take a different approach when the opportunity arises again.


And the most fun. The big league team will be interesting, for sure, but I think Altoona and, maybe, Morgantown, are the two most interesting teams at least at the start of the season. So much potential you’ve got to believe that at least a few of the guys on both squads are going to emerge as potential impact players. The pitching should be okay – we’ve got a ton of good prospects and at least a couple should emerge this year. The bats are the most intriguing for me. Will O’Neil Cruz put it together? Will Mason Martin turn out to be the real deal? Will KeBryan Hayes start to show some serious pop? How fast will Lolo Sanchez rise through the system? Sherten Apostel, Bryan Reynolds and Jason Martin, Cole Tucker. We’ve got some real possibilities. Going to be a great season to watch the minor league clubs.


If Altoona will be good, Wabbit, who lives near there, will be very happy.

Scott K

Having some power bats emerge and climb the ranks of the minors is going to be fun to watch this year for sure.


Power is what the MLB team is most obviously lacking compared with peers. They’ll have to either see a lot of improvements from the likes of Polanco, Moran, LF or expect turnover to new players who can knock the ball out of the park.

La Pirate

Great post. I just hope we play the younger guys at the major league level to see what we have

Scott K

I suspect one of the reasons CH was retained is his ability to communicate with and energize young players. He had success building a winner in both Pittsburgh and Colorado. Sustaining success is another matter.

I expect if team falls out of contention after the first 50-60 games, CH better be playing guys like Moroff, Luplow, and Frazier over SRod, Nava and Mercer more often than what he did the first part of the season.


That’s one of the problems though, CH doesn’t play the younger guys. He loves the vets.


Rumor has it that John Jaso has ditched his boat and is ready to sign to be the regular third baseman with Moran being relegated to occasional pinch hitting duties.

Mike G

Cap’t Ron never gives up the ship!

Scott K

If team is doing ok through first 1/3 of season (right around .500), than I expect we’ll see more vets getting AB’s, but if they’re stinking up the season, he better be playing the young guys.


2/5 of the rotation last season were young guys/rooks, along with a rookie starting first baseman, a young fraizer getting a ton of at bats… Clint plays young players but they have to prove they belong by producing… even Moroff saw a ton of time the last month and a half. Plus Glasnow would have started the whole year if he didn’t crap the bed every time he went out last year


Key being that no vets were *available* to compete with those players.

I think the Hurdle-vets narrative is slightly overblown but it’s also pretty clear that his nature as a manager is to reward veterans when he’s given them as an option, and I don’t think this is even something that makes him different than the vast majority of managers out there.

Key is not to give him the option in the first place.


I totally agree with not allowing him the option to have vets compete with these young guys. That def eliminates any potential playing the young guys issue. That’s even more especially true for this year… We need all the young guys playing as much as possible to see who we can count on for 2019/2020

Kerry Writtenhouse

That’s the key. If you give a manager a bunch of low ceiling vets, when the rookie hits a wall, he’d much too quick to play the the seanrod’s of the world.

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