The Pirates Look Like an Above .500 Team, But Might Not Have Enough to Reach the Playoffs

Every year I do a ZiPS analysis, using the ZiPS projections along with my playing time analysis for the Pirates to come up with a projected win total. The last few years, I’ve been updating that analysis at the start of the season, once the actual roster is set and the picture becomes more clear.

The pre-season analysis is meant to look at what the Pirates need, and how the team looks during the offseason. Nothing really changed this year from that pre-season analysis to now in terms of big additions. There have been some injuries and some playing time changes. The biggest factor has been changes to the ZiPS projections, which always seem to go down between their first release and at the start of the season.

The original analysis had the Pirates between 86 and 87 wins. They’re now at 82 wins in the update, due in large part to the decline across the board for ZiPS, but also due to some injuries (Lonnie Chisenhall) and ZiPS being low on a few guys who made the team (Melky Cabrera is replacement level and JB Shuck is below-replacement level).

Below I have broken down each position, including pointing out where the Pirates could exceed or fall short of their projections, along with some overall team analysis at the end.

BASELINE

Generally the accepted baseline for a team of replacement level players is anywhere from 45-50 wins. The average usually falls around 48. So we’ll start with that figure before we look at any individual players.

WAR: +48.0 (48.0)

CATCHER

Francisco Cervelli has a 1.7 WAR over 379 plate appearances. Elias Diaz has a 1.2 WAR over 325 plate appearances. The Pirates had 667 plate appearances at catcher last year, which is 37 less than the total of these two projections. I adjusted Diaz down slightly, giving him a 1.1 WAR. The combination here is a 2.8 WAR.

Jacob Stallings is obviously going to get playing time, as Diaz started the year on the injured list. The drop off from Diaz to Stallings isn’t much, as he has an 0.8 WAR in 299 plate appearances. If we gave him 20% of the playing time for Diaz, it would amount to about 0.1 WAR less. I’m going to leave the totals with just Diaz and Cervelli, with the note that this would reduce slightly if Diaz misses significant time, and even bigger if Cervelli misses significant time (beyond what they are currently projected for, which is already low for each player).

WAR: +2.8 (50.8)

FIRST BASE

Josh Bell is projected for 602 plate appearances and a 1.3 WAR. There were 680 plate appearances at the position last year. I’m going to give Bell all of his appearances, and will save the remaining plate appearances for the bench.

WAR: +1.3 (52.1)

SECOND BASE

Adam Frazier is projected for a 2.0 WAR over 498 plate appearances. There were 705 plate appearances at second base last year. I’ll save the rest for the bench.

As I noted in the pre-season article, Frazier’s ZiPS is basically believing in his 2018 second half totals. He had a 1.9 fWAR last year in 352 plate appearances, with most of his production coming in the second half of the season. By this analysis, there will be no room for a decline, and the final win projection in this article will already have a Frazier repeat built in to the totals.

WAR: +2.0 (54.1)

SHORTSTOP

This one was difficult to project in the pre-season. I predicted that Erik Gonzalez would get the job in that original projection, but that conflicted with the ZiPS projections, which are high on Newman and low on Gonzalez.

Since Gonzalez did get the job, we’ll go with his 0.3 WAR in 364 plate appearances. I’m not going to project a switch, just leaving a note that ZiPS projects better results if Newman were to take over.

The shortstop position had 618 plate appearances last year. I’ll save the rest for the bench, and give Newman time in that area.

WAR: +0.3 (54.4)

THIRD BASE

I originally had Colin Moran as the third baseman, and Jung Ho Kang as the backup plan. That situation is now reversed, with Kang as the starter, and Moran as a backup to first and third base. This didn’t matter much, since they were both projected for around the same WAR. Kang has a slight edge, so the Pirates are helped out by these projections.

Kang is projected for a 1.8 WAR over 373 plate appearances. That’s a good pace (2.5 WAR over 500 plate appearances), although lower than what Kang was at in his previous MLB time. I like the conservative-ish projection here, because Kang has shown some promise with his power this spring, but I wouldn’t project him to be fully back to his old self based on that amount of playing time. This is another area where the Pirates could see some upside, and I’m seeing less risk with his production holding up than I did before the season.

There were 653 plate appearances at third base last year. I’ll save the rest for the bench, and address Moran there.

I’ll add a disclaimer here that Ke’Bryan Hayes is also projected well, although lower than Kang and Moran on a WAR/PA level. I’m not going to project him making the majors, since that would require horrible results from Kang and Moran, with neither projected for that.

WAR: +1.8 (56.2)

LEFT FIELD

Corey Dickerson is projected for 553 plate appearances and a 2.5 WAR. The Pirates had 699 plate appearances last year in left field, and the extras will go to outfielders on the bench.

Just like with Adam Frazier above, this is a spot where ZiPS is believing in the big season that Dickerson had last year. That doesn’t always happen with a breakout season, meaning that there’s no potential for upside here, unless Dickerson can find a way to exceed his 2018 totals.

WAR: +2.5 (58.7)

CENTER FIELD

Starling Marte is projected for 568 plate appearances and a 3.0 WAR. Marte’s ZiPS projections are always lower than the actual results. Last year it was a win lower, although he was coming off a down year and a PED suspension. This year’s projection is more than half a win lower than his totals last year, and his totals last year were lower than some of his previous totals. What I’m saying is that the Pirates might be able to pick up a half a win or more in extra value from Marte.

There were 715 plate appearances in center field last year, and the extras will go to the bench.

WAR: +3.0 (61.7)

RIGHT FIELD

This has become a tricky situation. Lonnie Chisenhall was signed to start until Gregory Polanco returned, although Chisenhall went down with a broken finger after getting hit by a pitch. That will put him out for a month to a month and a half, which has him returning around the time Polanco is set to return.

Melky Cabrera will get the playing time that Chisenhall was supposed to get. In the pre-season, I had Chisenhall getting 1.5 months of playing time, and Polanco getting 4.5 months, with 708 plate appearances for the position. I’ll keep Polanco where he is at, but will give Cabrera one months, and Chisenhall half a month, with more time coming for both in the bench.

Polanco is projected for 2.3 WAR over 538 plate appearances, and will get the full amount. That leaves 170 plate appearances between Chisenhall and Cabrera, with Cabrera getting the benefit of a 2:1 split. He’s projected for close to replacement level production, while Chisenhall is projected for 0.7 WAR in 336 plate appearances. The combo amounts to 0.1 WAR. The injury to Chisenhall hurts the Pirates a bit, taking them down by about 0.2-0.3 WAR.

WAR: +2.4 (64.1)

BENCH

There are 1418 plate appearances remaining for the bench. That breaks down in the following way:

Infield: 818

Outfield: 293

DH/Pinch Hit: 307

Kevin Newman and Colin Moran haven’t been factored in above, and along with Pablo Reyes, will get the bulk of the infield time.

Newman is projected for a 1.4 WAR over 561 plate appearances. He’s not going to get that much with Gonzalez starting, but 350 is reasonable, and that amounts to an 0.9 WAR. I’m projecting him for most of the remaining time in the middle infield, which leaves 111 plate appearances for those two spots.

Moran is projected for a 1.5 WAR over 473 plate appearances. I’ll give him all of the remaining time at first and third base, which is 357 plate appearances. This gives him a 1.1 WAR.

Reyes is projected for an 0.5 WAR in 490 plate appearances. I gave him the remaining middle infield time, plus some of the pinch hit time to get him to 300 plate appearances. That amounts to 0.3 WAR.

This leaves 411 plate appearances for the outfielders, and that will go to Cabrera, Chisenhall, and JB Shuck. I already addressed the starting time for Cabrera and Chisenhall above. This section will look at the bench projections for these guys.

When Polanco returns, Chisenhall will be the top backup, and Cabrera will be the number five option (assuming he’s still on the team, which would require him exceeding his ZiPS projections). Until then, I’ve got JB Shuck as the top backup for a month, Cabrera as the top backup for half a month, and Chisenhall as the top backup for the final 4.5 months.

It’s not very scientific, but I’m giving 50 plate appearances a month to the top backup. That gives 50 to Shuck, and 225 to Chisenhall. Cabrera would also get 25, but those would be at replacement level value. Shuck is actually below replacement level, which amounts to -0.2 pro-rated WAR. Chisenhall’s time gives him 0.5 pro-rated WAR, giving this trio an 0.3 WAR off the bench.

This leaves 111 plate appearances, and the Pirates have some strong depth projections for ZiPS. I’ll give the final section 0.2 WAR for the remaining time.

The total for the bench is 2.8 WAR.

WAR: +2.8 (66.9)

STARTING PITCHING

I don’t adjust playing time in most cases with pitchers and their ZiPS projections. If the pitcher is projected for lower than his previous totals, I chalk that up to the injury risk that comes with all pitchers, and leave it as an area where the Pirates can exceed projections.

Here are the starters and their projections:

SP: Jameson Taillon (173.3 IP, 3.0 WAR)

SP: Chris Archer (169.3 IP, 3.4 WAR)

SP: Trevor Williams (155.3 IP, 1.7 WAR)

SP: Joe Musgrove (126.7 IP, 1.8 WAR)

SP: Jordan Lyles (93.3 IP, 0.3 WAR)

That gives us 718 innings and a combined 10.2 WAR. The starters last year had 887.1 innings, which was almost similar to the 2017 total of 894.2 innings. This leaves 169.1 innings remaining.

I’m going to give Mitch Keller his full projection, which is 129.3 innings and an 0.7 WAR. I think the Pirates will call him up in the second half at the latest, and I project him as a guy who won’t have any issues adjusting to the majors and remaining in the big leagues, which is why I agree with the ZiPS projection. If he can match what Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon did in their rookie campaigns, then the Pirates can get some extra value here.

I’m saving the final 40 innings for the bullpen, since a lot of those guys could factor in as starters or in an opener strategy.

The total from the starters is 10.9 WAR. I see room for improvement on these numbers with almost every pitcher above, and the rotation could be the fuel to the Pirates competing for a playoff spot this year if things turn out well.

WAR: +10.9 (77.8)

BULLPEN

Here are the projections for the bullpen, with analysis below.

CL: Felipe Vazquez (71.7 IP, 1.2 WAR)

RP: Keone Kela (51.0 IP, 1.1 WAR)

RP: Richard Rodriguez (71.3 IP, 0.6 WAR)

RP: Kyle Crick (60.3 IP, 0.3 WAR)

RP: Steven Brault (107.3 IP, 0.3 WAR)

RP: Francisco Liriano (53.3 IP, 0.1 WAR)

RP: Nick Kingham (76.0 IP, 0.2 WAR)

Not much changed here from the pre-season projections, although ZiPS now has lower projections for everyone for some reason. The only difference was swapping out Tyler Lyons for Francisco Liriano, which didn’t make much of a difference.

Once again, I left Nick Burdi out of this because he was projected for 14 innings. He needs to be on the team for the first two months of the season or he has to be returned as a Rule 5 pick. So I’m just deducting 14 innings from the remaining total. His WAR is -0.2 in those innings (it was 0.0 before), and he’s already exceeded that by striking out the side in his first inning. Overall, I’m treating him as a non-factor, and a guy who could provide some upside to the team if he shows more of what he showed that first game.

There are 81.2 innings remaining. I’m going to use Clay Holmes as the placeholder here for those innings, giving the bullpen a pro-rated 0.3 WAR.

This year’s projection is at 4.1 WAR. I could see room for improvement here, whether that’s from Vazquez, Rodriguez, and Crick putting up totals similar to last year (which were higher than their projections this year), or more innings from Kela, or surprise performances from some of the middle relievers or depth guys (similar to last year with Rodriguez, Crick, and Edgar Santana).

I’ll also note that I saw room for improvement in the pre-season when the projections were a 5.9 WAR with the same players. So there could be even more room for improvement here.

WAR: +4.1 (81.9)

2019 PROJECTION

In the pre-season, I had the Pirates projected for 86-87 wins with largely the same roster. There were a few things that changed, whether that was ZiPS lowering their projections for a lot of players (this happened on a wide scale last year in my start of the season update), or due to injuries (Cabrera and Shuck hurt the projections compared to just Chisenhall).

They’re projected for 82 wins in this updated projection, which would match their win total in 2018.

I think that’s more what Pirates fans expect from this team, compared to being a win or two out of the playoffs. I think there is room for improvement on this team with these projections, but I’m not sure I’d be comfortable projecting them above that original 86-87 win range. At best, and without any additions, I see this team ending up just shy of the post-season.

The one X-factor could be the new offensive approach. That could provide a big impact to guys like Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco, who have yet to reach their offensive upsides, as well as younger guys like Kevin Newman, Erik Gonzalez, and others who are just breaking in to the majors.

The pitching side also saw some changes last year, with Jameson Taillon and others throwing more breaking pitches, or more accurately, throwing their best pitches more often. The team also added Chris Archer and Keone Kela at the deadline. They’ll now get a full season of those two, plus a full season of the new approach. That, combined with projections that are lower than previous results, is why I see room for a lot of improvement in the pitching projections.

Ultimately I think the pitching will carry this team, although the offense could surprise if the new approaches allow the Pirates to catch up to some of the other teams who have been ahead of the trend with the new approaches.

I could see the Pirates being in the same situation they were in last year at the trade deadline, where they’re on the outside, needing a boost to the team to help their chances down the stretch. I could also see them being in a better position to make the playoffs if they do get another mid-season boost this year. Keep in mind that this would have to be an outside boost, separate from any prospect impact, since that is mostly figured in to this analysis already.

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