Every year for New Year’s I do an article to the theme of [XX] things that can lead to the Pirates winning in the year 20[XX]. The article started in 2012, looking ahead to the 2013 season, and all of the high-upside guys who could get the Pirates their first winner in 20 years. It continued over the years with a focus on returning to the playoffs, getting back to being a winner, and now getting back to the playoffs again.
The article is difficult to do as the years go on. It was easier to find 13 high upside guys for 2013. It’s more difficult to find 19 in 2019, and so on. Rather than continuing the high upside trend, my focus this year was on situations where the Pirates either need repeat production from last year, or improved production. I’ve also got some prospects and upside guys, keeping some of the original theme.
It’s also more difficult the last two years to do this type of article on New Year’s, as more and more moves are happening in January and February. If anything, this article shows where the Pirates still have some needs, along with an early view of how they stack up and what strengths could get this team back to the playoffs.
With that said, here are the 19 situations that can lead the Pirates back to the playoffs in 2019. I hope everyone has a safe and Happy New Year!
19. Richard Rodriguez/Kyle Crick – The Pirates have Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela for their late innings. Last year they saw Rodriguez and Crick emerge as MLB relievers with seasons around a 1.0 fWAR performance. Relievers are volatile from season to season, and for every Felipe Vazquez, there are several players like Rodriguez and Crick who have a good year and never follow up on that. If the Pirates can get similar production this year from Rodriguez and Crick, they’ll have a solid bullpen, or some good backup options for their main guys.
18. Nick Burdi – The Pirates had Burdi on the disabled list for most of 2018, which means he didn’t fulfill his Rule 5 requirements. He will need to be on the active roster for two months at the start of 2019 before the Pirates will be able to send him down. There’s a reason the Pirates went with him, knowing that they’d be carrying him for two seasons as a Rule 5 guy. He’s got the upside of a late inning reliever, and if he can be more than a Rule 5 pick and have a season like Rodriguez or Crick last year, then he’ll only add to the already strong looking bullpen depth.
17. Elias Diaz – We don’t know yet if the Pirates will be carrying Francisco Cervelli in 2019, or if they’ll trade him this offseason. In either case, they’ll be relying on Diaz to follow up on his strong year from 2018. Diaz looked like a starter when he played in 2018, which is probably why the Pirates are considering dealing Cervelli. We’ve only seen half a season of success from Diaz, and while the success matches expectations for him, it’s not a guarantee that he’ll match that production going forward. They’ll need him to look like a starting catcher again, either if he’s the starter, or if he’s splitting time with Cervelli again.
16. Gregory Polanco – The obvious thing to point out here is that Polanco will be injured at the start of the 2019 season, and could be out until the middle of June. When he returns, the Pirates will be hoping that he finally shows that impact bat they’ve been hoping for. It may have already quietly started to happen. Polanco had his best year of power production in 2018, with a .245 ISO and 23 homers. He also saw his walk rate increase to 11.4%, leading to a .340 OBP, despite a .254 average. Polanco’s ISO ranked 17th out of the 144 players with 500+ plate appearances last year. His .353 wOBA ranked 43rd in that group, and his 123 wRC+ also ranked 43rd. Polanco will be in his age 27 season in 2019, and if he can repeat or improve on the numbers from last year, he could be a big boost to an offense that needs it.
15. Lonnie Chisenhall – While Polanco is out, Lonnie Chisenhall will be the starter in right field. Chisenhall is an interesting upside play. He had a .321/.394/.452 line last year, although that was in a small 95 plate appearance sample size. The year before he hit for a .288/.360/.521 line in 270 plate appearances. His issue has been remaining healthy, and fortunately the Pirates only need him to stay healthy until Polanco returns. If he can do that while putting up similar numbers to his small sample from the last two years, then he’ll be a strong addition to the offense, along with a good depth option or Plan B for another spot once Polanco returns.
14. Corey Dickerson – When this article was written last year, Dickerson wasn’t on the team yet. The Rays were still in the process of unsuccessfully shopping him, and the Pirates added him in February in a trade after he was finally DFAd. What followed was surprising. Dickerson not only put up strong offensive numbers, but also saw huge improvements to his defense, winning a Gold Glove award in left field. The Pirates could use the same from him in 2019, especially since they might end up trading one of the two position players (Francisco Cervelli) who finished higher than him last year in WAR.
13. Josh Bell – The biggest area of potential improvement on this team could come from Josh Bell. We have yet to see Bell come close to his offensive upside in the majors, although there have been some promising signs along the way. He had a .211 ISO in 2017, which was his first full season in the majors. The hope was that he would follow up and improve on that in 2018. Instead, he declined with a .150 ISO. He did see better strikeout and walk rates, along with a slightly higher average. If he can get the power to bounce back, and maybe even improve on his 2017 numbers, then he’ll be a much needed boost to the offense. If he doesn’t bounce back, and if Will Craig follows up on the numbers he’s had over the last year, then we might be discussing a potential replacement at first base at this time next year.
12. Colin Moran – Moran’s story is similar to Bell’s in terms of the needs the Pirates have for offense at the corners. The key difference is that Bell has some previous success in the majors, while Moran was near-replacement level during his rookie season last year. He’s got a lot of raw power potential, but that didn’t show up often. If there’s one sign of hope, it’s that he had a better second half than his first, and finished strong in September with a .296/.375/.537 line, along with a .379 wOBA, a 140 wRC+, and a .241 ISO. That is obviously a small sample size, and September samples aren’t much to extrapolate into future years. At the least, that performance should give Moran another shot before the alternative options step up to replace him if he struggles again.
11. Jung Ho Kang – The first backup option at third base is Jung Ho Kang, who was brought back on a one-year deal. The Pirates would obviously love to get Kang back to where he was in 2015-16. I don’t think that’s likely, as he has struggled when he has played the last two years, and will be in his age 32 season. The Pirates won’t need Kang to be exactly like his 2015-16 self though. If Moran repeats his 2018 numbers, then the Pirates would only need half of Kang’s old production to get an upgrade.
10. Ke’Bryan Hayes – Eventually the third base position will belong to Ke’Bryan Hayes, regardless of how Moran and Kang perform. If both struggle in 2019, and Hayes performs well in Triple-A, then we could see the switch by the end of the 2019 season. Hayes has the best defense at third base in the system, and is a Gold Glove quality defender. He’s shown improvements to his offense, including some power in the last year. He’s got the chance to be an above-average starter, and maybe better as he progresses with more time in the majors. He’s Plan C at third base for the 2019 season, and if it reaches that point, that would mean the Pirates probably got replacement level production from Moran and Kang.
9. Adam Frazier – The Pirates will see if Frazier can be a starter in 2019, giving him the second base job after a strong second half. Frazier showed good offense and improved defense at second base. He’s following the same path that Josh Harrison followed toward being a starter. The upside is probably about the same, being an average starter at best. There is cause for concern though, as Frazier only has limited success on both sides of the ball. He’s also half a season removed from being demoted to Triple-A. Frazier has earned a shot at a starting job, but he’s far from a guarantee, and if the Pirates can get below-average to average starting production, it would be a nice boost from Harrison last year.
8. Kevin Kramer – If Frazier doesn’t work out, the Pirates will have Kevin Kramer to take over. Kramer’s upside is much better than what he showed in his limited debut in the majors in 2018. He’s got the ability for positive defensive value at second base, plus good power from the middle infield, and good hitting abilities. He’s got a chance to be an above-average starter in the future, and if Frazier doesn’t work out, he could get his first real shot at taking that future starting role.
7. Pablo Reyes/Erik Gonzalez – Regardless of what happens at second base, the Pirates will need someone to step up and replace the production lost from Frazier on the bench. They will need their next super utility player to emerge, and Reyes and Gonzalez are the top options at the start of the year. Reyes put up great numbers in his debut last year, although those numbers were better than any other level in his career, and unlikely to continue at that pace. Gonzalez was acquired in a trade this offseason, and has the inside track at the utility role at the start of the year. He doesn’t get on base at a great rate, but has shown some power potential, and if he can hit for average with that power, he could be a good utility guy, with the ability to also play shortstop.
6. Kevin Newman – The Pirates might need a better option at shortstop in 2019, as Newman didn’t look ready in his debut in 2018. He’s also had questions about his upside, with little power production and a declining walk rate. If the Pirates do stick with Newman, they’ll obviously hope that he can quickly adjust to the majors. They will need someone like Gonzalez to step up as a backup plan if Newman doesn’t work out. The upside with Newman is a below-average starter who gets most of his value from a high average and speed on the bases, while not losing any value at shortstop. He’s more likely to end up a utility infielder. The Pirates will either hope for the higher upside, or seek out a replacement option. I didn’t include Cole Tucker in this article, but if he has a big first half in Indianapolis, he could be an option for the second half. I had Hayes as the more likely option, considering where each player is at in his development, but Tucker deserves a mention here.
5. Nick Kingham/Clay Holmes – The Pirates didn’t get good results from Kingham and Holmes in 2018 when both were used as depth options. They each had some good outings, but weren’t nearly consistent enough. Kingham is out of options, and should start the 2019 season in a long relief role in the majors. Holmes should go back to the Triple-A rotation to start 2019. Both have more upside than their 2018 performances, and considering the current rotation depth options at the start of the year (these two, plus Steven Brault), the Pirates will need them to get closer to their upsides if an injury occurs.
4. Trevor Williams/Joe Musgrove – Williams and Musgrove will be the number three and four starters in the rotation, coming off a year where they both had 2+ WAR seasons. Musgrove only pitched 115 innings and had numbers slightly above the league average. Williams had a much better ERA, but his advanced metrics suggest some regression, with the amount of regression depending on whether you think his home run rate will regress to the league average, and his average prior to 2018. With so many questions on offense, the Pirates will need strong pitching, and having 4+ WAR combined from the third and fourth starters would be a good boost to the overall team.
3. Jordan Lyles – The Pirates bought into the strategy of throwing fewer fastballs and your best pitch more often in 2018. They’re buying in even more in 2019 with the addition of Lyles. He saw some success with that approach in 2018, especially toward the end of the year as he bought into the approach more with a greater usage of his curveball. That strategy worked in the bullpen, and now we’ll see if it can translate over to the rotation. The Pirates need Lyles to be their number five starter, and you could make an argument that his adjustments last year could already have him on track to be a successful reclamation project. He looks to me like he could be more of a wild card like the previous reclamation projects, and less like the low-upside guys like Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong.
2. Mitch Keller – This is the year that the top prospect in the system should make his debut. As I’ve pointed out, pitching will be very important for the Pirates. Keller gives them a guy who has the upside of a top of the rotation starter. Prospects don’t usually enter the majors close to their upsides, and can have rocky transitions. Keller has the chance to be more like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, with the stuff to make a good transition to the majors and provide some good value in his rookie year when he arrives. Expect to see him in the second half, either as an injury replacement, or to replace a struggling member of the rotation.
1. Jameson Taillon/Chris Archer – You could argue that the best players on the 2019 club could be these two guys. Taillon started looking more and more like a top of the rotation guy last year after adjusting his approach to pitching, adding a new slider, and reducing the usage of his fastball. If that trend carries over to the 2019 season, then we could see a 4+ WAR player in 2019. That’s not difficult to imagine, as he was a 2 WAR player in the second half of 2018. Archer didn’t have the best debut with the Pirates, struggling in August after being acquired from the Rays. He was much better in September, posting a 2.70 ERA and a 3.19 xFIP, and looking like the old Chris Archer. He has been a 4-5+ WAR player in the past, and the Pirates need him to help lead the rotation and get back to those levels. The Pirates had a 17 fWAR from their rotation during their big 2015 season, and had a 13 fWAR in 2013. If they can get 8+ WAR from Taillon and Archer alone, that would go a long way toward being a very competitive rotation, and one that could lead the Pirates to the post-season again.