First Pitch: How Far Away Are the Pirates From a Winning Record?

It’s time for my favorite article of the year. FanGraphs released their ZiPS projections yesterday, which means today is the launch of my ZiPS-based win analysis for the 2020 Pirates.

I’ve been doing this article since before the 2013 season. It’s not aimed at being a projection that gets the win/loss total right in the end. Instead, it’s aimed to break down the expected playing time and see how close the Pirates appear to contending.

It was difficult doing that process this year. My previous depth charts have been based on everything I knew about how the Pirates operated under Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle. We know very little about how things will go under Ben Cherington and Derek Shelton.

Below is my best guess, based on what we’ve heard so far. Since the season is still two months away, there’s time for this to be finalized with a new depth chart on Opening Day. Spoiler alert: The Pirates aren’t projected for a winning record in 2020, and I don’t think time will make that change.

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

The Pirates look to be going with a combination of Jacob Stallings and Luke Maile behind the plate. They also have John Ryan Murphy as an option. Stallings is projected for 1.2 WAR over 282 plate appearances. Maile is replacement level over 198 plate appearances. Murphy is worth 0.2 WAR over 270 plate appearances.

I gave Stallings and Maile their full projections, and Murphy got the remaining playing time. The total of the group was 1.3 WAR.

The ZiPS projection has Stallings repeating his season from last year, with not much help from the other two. This obviously puts any upside on the shoulders of Maile and Murphy to get extra value. Stallings isn’t a long-term option, as he’s 30 this year and will be a backup at best when the Pirates are ready to compete again.

With a lack of catching in the organization, the Pirates appear to be going for defensive options to get them by this year.

WAR: +1.3 (49.3)

FIRST BASE

Josh Bell is projected for 608 plate appearances and a 2.6 WAR. This would be a repeat of his 2019 season. Bell is the biggest hope for an impact bat. He had an MLB career best .378 wOBA and 135 wRC+ last year, along with a .292 ISO and 37 homers, which were also career bests. The defense and base running have held him back, so Bell is going to have to take his hitting to another level to get any additional value.

WAR: +2.6 (51.9)

SECOND BASE

Adam Frazier is projected for a 2.5 WAR over 577 plate appearances. ZiPS was a believer in Frazier last year, projecting him for a 2.0 WAR following his 1.9 WAR in 2018.

Frazier has gotten some attention for his defense at second base, which has steadily improved in the last year and a half. His offense actually dropped last year versus his 2018 numbers. It’s possible Frazier could have more value than this projection if the defense is legit and the offense sees a boost. Even if he repeats another 2+ WAR season, he’ll add more value and make a nice trade piece next offseason for whatever we’re calling the non-rebuild.

WAR: +2.5 (54.4)

SHORTSTOP

Kevin Newman is projected for a 2.0 WAR in 589 plate appearances. That’s slightly lower than his 2.4 WAR last year in 531 plate appearances. I don’t know how much room Newman has to improve over his results last year. His .138 ISO was the highest of his pro career. He hit for a .308 average off a .333 BABIP, which is in line with his career numbers. His walk rate, which was 5.3% last year, is the main area he could improve. His base running could produce some value as well.

It’s hard to see Newman going much higher than this level. The current projected level of a 2.0 WAR would be fine for him to remain the starter going forward.

WAR: +2.0 (56.4)

THIRD BASE

Here’s the fun spot. Colin Moran is the expected starter on Opening Day, and ZiPS has him projected for an 0.8 WAR in 492 plate appearances. ZiPS is also high on minor league free agent Phillip Evans, who gets a 1.6 WAR in 504 plate appearances, making him the better Opening Day option to Moran.

The best option is Ke’Bryan Hayes, who is projected for a 2.2 WAR in 512 plate appearances. I don’t expect him up on Opening Day, but I could see him arriving by mid-season.

So how to handle the Moran/Evans dilemma? Moran was inherited by Cherington, and has done nothing to lock down the starting role. Evans was a minor league free agent, and really the only reason to go with him is the high projection.

I’m going to go with Moran for 300 plate appearances at 0.5 WAR, and Hayes with 350 plate appearances for 1.5 WAR. If Moran does better, or if Evans lives up to his projection, then there’s obvious room for improvement here.

WAR: +2.0 (58.4)

LEFT FIELD

Cherington seems to prefer Bryan Reynolds in left field, even after the Starling Marte trade. Reynolds is projected as a center fielder in ZiPS, with a 1.7 WAR over 568 plate appearances. ZiPS doesn’t like his defense in center, and you could expect his numbers to go up in left field. I’ll leave the projection as-is for now.

Reynolds was worth 3.2 WAR last year, so this is an obvious area where the Pirates could see improvement if he repeats those numbers.

WAR: +1.7 (60.1)

CENTER FIELD

Right now this spot is wide open. Guillermo Heredia seems like the best bet to either be the starter or be in a platoon if no move was made. Cherington has already expressed interest in getting a center fielder, so you can expect a move. Heredia is worth 0.1 WAR over 351 plate appearances, so there’s a lot to improve upon from the outside.

WAR: +0.1 (60.2)

RIGHT FIELD

Gregory Polanco’s stock has fallen, to the point where he’s projected for a 1.2 WAR over 399 plate appearances. Due to his injury history, I wouldn’t want to give him more than that. I’m also still a believer that we haven’t seen the best of Polanco, but I admit that he’s getting to an age where the best might never come.

I’ll make up the rest of the playing time in the bench section.

WAR: +1.2 (61.4)

BENCH

There are 1535 plate appearances remaining for the bench. That breaks down in the following way:

Infield: 384

Outfield: 820

DH/Pinch Hit: 331

I’m going to tackle the outfield with 410 plate appearances each from Socrates Brito and Jason Martin. Keep in mind that one of these guys would lose playing time to Heredia if the Pirates add a center fielder from the outside. This duo gives 0.9 WAR.

The infield time will all go to Cole Tucker, who is projected for a pro-rated 0.7 WAR.

I’ll give the rest of the time to Phillip Evans, giving Cherington some benefit of the doubt from his early signings. That adds another 1.1 WAR to this group, bringing the total to 2.7.

WAR: +2.7 (64.1)

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: Chris Archer (140.3 IP, 1.7 WAR)

SP: Mitch Keller (144.7 IP, 1.6 WAR)

SP: Joe Musgrove (154.3 IP, 1.9 WAR)

SP: Trevor Williams (146.3 IP, 1.7 WAR)

SP: Chad Kuhl (95.7 IP, 1.0 WAR)

There are 132 innings remaining for the starters. I’ll give Steven Brault his full 106 innings here, and put the rest of the innings in the bullpen. That adds another 0.5 WAR, bringing the total for the group to 8.4.

The Pirates could look to add a starting pitcher from the outside, which could improve their depth by pushing Kuhl and Brault to bullpen roles. They could also see improved production from Archer and Keller with a new approach. Musgrove has been worth 3.3 and 2.2 WAR in the last two years, so there appears to be room for some improvement on his numbers as well.

Even with room for improvement, this looks like a weakness of the team. Last year’s group started with a 10.9 WAR projection, for perspective.

WAR: +8.4 (72.5)

BULLPEN

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

CL: Keone Kela (39.7 IP, 0.5 WAR)

RP: Kyle Crick (55.0 IP, 0.3 WAR)

RP: Richard Rodriguez (67.3 IP, 0.2 WAR)

RP: Edgar Santana (53.0 IP, 0.0 WAR)

RP: Robbie Erlin (81.3 IP, 0.2 WAR) *From San Diego projections

RP: Hector Noesi (65.0 IP, 0.5 WAR)

RP: Chris Stratton (70.0 IP, 0.3 WAR)

The bullpen looks weak right now. There are players who could be primed for a much better season than their ZiPS totals indicate, but I doubt the Pirates would get enough pitchers exceeding their projections to put them in a spot to contend.

There were still 219 innings remaining. I gave time to Michael Feliz, who had an 0.3 WAR. The remaining options were around replacement level.

This group has a 2.3 WAR, which is the lowest I’ve seen since doing this article.

WAR: +2.3 (74.8)

2020 PROJECTION

This is the lowest win total I’ve seen since starting this analysis. It should go up by Opening Day with the addition of a center fielder and possibly a starting pitcher. I just can’t see it getting past 80 wins, if it even gets that high.

This is not a position where the Pirates should look to contend this year. They’d be better served finding a one-year option for center field and the rotation who they could possibly flip at the deadline. They also could look for a younger, bounce back type guy who could help in the future.

2020 is not the year for the Pirates.

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THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

By John Dreker

Four former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus one major trade of note.

On this date in 1959, the Pirates traded pitcher Whammy Douglass, outfielders Jim Pendleton and John Powers and third baseman Frank Thomas to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for catcher Smoky Burgess, third baseman Don Hoak and pitcher Harvey Haddix.

Burgess was just about to turn 32 years old at the time of the trade. He was a left-handed hitting catcher who got plenty of pinch-hitting appearances. In 1958, he hit .283 with six homers in a part-time role, but he had hit as many as 21 homers in a season and batted over .300 twice in his career. Haddix was a 33-year-old lefty, who went 8-7, 3.52 in 184 innings in 1958. He won a combined 38 games for the 1953-54 Cardinals. Hoak was just shy of his 31st birthday and had hit .261 with 50 RBIs in 1958, a down year compared to his 1957 season when he led the National League with 39 doubles and hit .291 with 19 homers and 89 RBIs.

The Reds were getting a 29-year-old slugger in Thomas, who had at least 23 homers with the Pirates in each of the last six seasons. Douglass was just 23 year old and went 16-10, 3.35 in Triple-A in 1958. He pitched briefly for the Pirates in 1957, his only Major League experience. Pendleton spent nearly all of 1958 in the minors. He was a 35-year-old outfielder with only 262 games of MLB experience. Powers was 29 years old and had just 90 games in the majors, all with the Pirates spread out over four seasons. He was a .190 hitter. He would go on to play 43 games for the Reds, almost all off the bench (47 plate appearances total) before they sold him after the 1959 season. Douglass never made the majors again and Pendleton played just 65 games in Cincinnati before he was sold to the expansion Houston Colt 45’s. Thomas was supposed to be the big piece in the trade for the Reds, but he hit .225 with a career low 12 homers. They shipped him off for three marginal players after the season.

As for the Pirates return, they got more value out of each players than the Reds got out of all four combined. Burgess ended up playing six seasons in Pittsburgh, making three All-Star games, hitting .296 with 265 RBIs and more walks than strikeouts. Haddix pitched five seasons for the Pirates, going 45-38, 3.73 in 166 games, 100 as a starter. Hoak put in just four years with the Pirates, but finished 2nd in the MVP voting to his teammate Dick Groat during the 1960 season when the Pirates won the World Series. It goes without saying that this deal helped them greatly to get to that title.

Hipolito Pena, pitcher for the 1986-87 Pirates. He was originally signed by the Brewers in 1981, but they released him by mid-season 1983. Nearly a year later he signed with the Pirates. He pitched ten games in the Gulf Coast League in 1984, then split the 1895 season between the two full season A-ball teams, pitching 45 games total, seven as a starter. He went 7-4, 3.55 at Double-A in 1986, earning a September call-up. In ten games for the Pirates he went 0-3, 8.64 in 8.1 innings. He began 1987 in Triple-A, though he would be up with the big club by late April for a month, then make two more brief stops in Pittsburgh before finishing the year in the minors. He went 0-3, 4.56 in 16 games. Right before the start of the 1988 season he was traded to the Yankees in exchange for first baseman Orestes Destrade. Pena pitched 16 games in relief for the Yankees in 1988, then finished him career in the minors, last playing in Independent ball in 1996.

Matt Alexander, pinch-runner/outfielder for the 1978-81 Pirates. He spent nine seasons in the majors, played in 374 games, but came to the plate only 195 times in his career. He was a decent minor league hitter over the years, batting .288 total, but in the majors he hit .214 with no homers and four total RBIs over those 195 plate appearances. It is a little odd the Pirates never gave him a chance to bat more because he hit .444 (12-27) for them over those four seasons he was in Pittsburgh. His specialty was speed and he actually stole more bases (30) than he had at-bats (27) with the Pirates. He has the odd career stat line of 36 hits with 111 runs scored and 103 stolen bases. In his nine-year career he played a total of 17 complete games and his name was only in the starting lineup 37 times.

Vin Campbell, outfielder for the 1910-11 Pirates. He had played just one MLB game (1908 Cubs) prior to being purchased by the Pirates in late July 1909 out of the minors. He didn’t play a game for the World Championship team that year, but the next season he received plenty of playing time. He would go on to hit .326 in 97 games with 42 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. He was poor defensively, especially early in his career due to changing positions often, so he had trouble finding decent playing time on a strong Pirates team. In 1911 he hit .312 in 42 games, half of them as a pinch-hitter. Campbell’s problem was that he was a business man as well as a baseball player, something that would severely shorten his career. After the 1911 season he was traded to the Boston Braves in exchange for Mike Donlin, a 34-year-old who was a .333 career hitter, but just like Campbell he was also known to just leave baseball on a whim for long periods at a time. Campbell would play three more seasons in the majors, batting .310 career before retiring.

Charlie Heard, pitcher/outfielder for the 1890 Alleghenys. He was just 18 years old at the time Pittsburgh brought him to the majors on July 14,1890. The team was on a ten-game losing streak that put their record at 16-51, but things would get worse and Heard had a hand. He made six starts before August ended and lost all six games. His first four starts all took place in his hometown of Philadelphia, Pa., and he never actually pitched in Pittsburgh. He also played another six games in the outfield and hit .186 with no RBIs in 43 at-bats. Heard had a sore arm after his third start and stayed home to rest. When the Alleghenys returned to Philadelphia, he rejoined the team and pitched the first game of the series. There were rumors that he was released, but he was just given time to recover according to the Pittsburgh owner, J. Palmer O’Neil. Just over a week later, he played his last game, a 7-3 loss to the New York Giants. The team finished with a 23-113 record and Heard never played in the majors again.

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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