The Pittsburgh Pirates Might Not Be Headed For as Bad of a Season as You Think

This doesn’t look like it’s going to be a good season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Every projection and season prediction that I’ve seen has the Pirates finishing last in the NL Central with a 100-loss season.

That makes a lot of sense, considering this is a team that is opening with a lot of post-prospects on their roster, and very little production that can be considered guaranteed.

When I did my ZiPS analysis back in December, looking at how this team might fare, the results were surprising. The Pirates at the time were projected for 77 wins on the season, which would exceed pretty much everyone’s expectations, while still falling well short of the playoffs. That’s the land the Pirates are in right now, where they can massively exceed expectations while still missing the playoffs by a good bit.

There have been a few changes to the roster between then and today, which is Opening Day. With the roster pretty much set for the start of the year, I wanted to repeat the ZiPS analysis to see if there is still some reason for optimism with the Opening Day lineup.

Below are the projections for the 2022 Pirates.

BASELINE

Generally the accepted baseline for a team of replacement level players is anywhere from 45-50 wins. The average usually falls around 48. We’ll start with that figure.

WAR: +48.0 (48.0)

CATCHER

Roberto Perez will be the starter this year, and the Pirates don’t seem to have a strong priority for the backup position. Perez is projected for 1.2 WAR in 303 plate appearances. The new backup, Andrew Knapp, is projected for -0.1 WAR in 168 plate appearances. I gave the rest to Michael Perez, who added 0.3 WAR, which would be a huge improvement over last year. The Pirates are banking on Perez being a regular starter the entire season, and would benefit if that happens.

WAR: +1.4 (49.4)

FIRST BASE

Yoshi Tsutsugo is projected for an 0.2 WAR in 439 plate appearances. The Pirates obviously hope that he can play the full season and produce at the same level that he did at the end of 2021. This is one of the biggest potential areas to find a boost on this roster.

I’ll be saving the remaining plate appearances for all positions for the bench section.

WAR: +0.2 (49.6)

SECOND BASE

I’m giving Cole Tucker the nod here, just out of simplicity’s sake. He’s projected for an 0.9 WAR in 462 plate appearances. That would make him one of the top performers on the team, and I’m guessing he could get that type of time this year as a super utility type.

Again, all extra time will go to the bench players.

WAR: +0.9 (50.5)

SHORTSTOP

Kevin Newman is projected for a 1.0 WAR in 566 plate appearances. Oneil Cruz will eventually take over, but I’ll cover him in the bench area. Newman could also shift over to second base, but I think he’s less likely to remain on the team all season with this level of production. I’ll sort this out in the bench section.

WAR: +1.0 (51.5)

THIRD BASE

Ke’Bryan Hayes is projected for 471 plate appearances and a 2.5 WAR. The remaining playing time will go to the bench.

WAR: +2.5 (54.0)

LEFT FIELD

Jake Marisnick is projected for 254 plate appearances and an 0.8 WAR. That’s a solid rate, and the Pirates could be getting a sleeper if he can maintain such a rate over the course of the entire season. The rest of his playing time will go to the bench.

WAR: +0.8 (54.8)

CENTER FIELD

Bryan Reynolds is projected for a 3.9 WAR in 636 plate appearances. The Pirates would love it if Reynolds could repeat being a 5+ WAR player again.

WAR: +3.9 (58.7)

RIGHT FIELD

Ben Gamel gets the nod here, with 388 plate appearances and an 0.5 WAR.

WAR: +0.5 (59.2)

DESIGNATED HITTER

In my original analysis of this team, there was no designated hitter. That’s going to take up a bulk of the bench time from before. Daniel Vogelbach gets this time, with 416 plate appearances and a 1.0 WAR.

WAR: +1.0 (60.2)

BENCH

The bench contains Michael Chavis (397 PA, 0.8 WAR), Hoy Park (442, 1.3), Diego Castillo (466, 0.6), and I added Oneil Cruz (361, 2.5) and Travis Swaggerty (41, 0.1) to round out the extra playing time.

WAR: +5.3 (65.5)

STARTING PITCHING

The starting rotation could be flexible this year, with some piggyback situations and shorter outings from a few starters. Most of the pitchers, both starter and reliever, are projected for low innings totals. I kept those intact.

Here are the projections for the expected Opening Day rotation.

SP: JT Brubaker (115.0 IP, 1.3 WAR)

SP: Mitch Keller (133.3 IP, 1.2 WAR)

SP: Jose Quintana (103.0 IP, 1.2 WAR)

SP: Zach Thompson (81.7 IP, 0.8 WAR)

SP: Bryse Wilson (131.7 IP, 1.1 WAR)

I’m adding full projections from Roansy Contreras and Cody Bolton, plus a partial projection for Max Kranick, adding another 2.2 WAR to this total. My guess is a lot of guys in the bullpen will also factor into the starting mix.

WAR: +7.8 (73.3)

BULLPEN

The Pirates have a few guys who can be traditional lockdown relievers, but this group is loaded with potential starters who should get innings this year. I gave the projected starters their starter innings, due to the uncertainty with the rotation.

CL: David Bednar (60.7 IP, 0.7 WAR)

RP: Chris Stratton (88.3 IP, 0.8 WAR)

RP: Duane Underwood Jr. (82.7 IP, 0.1 WAR)

RP: Anthony Banda (76.3 IP, 0.0 WAR)

RP: Dillon Peters (93.7 IP, 0.6 WAR)

RP: Miguel Yajure (73.3 IP, 0.4 WAR)

RP: Wil Crowe (118.7 IP, 0.2 WAR)

RP: Heath Hembree (50.7 IP, 0.1 WAR)

With all of those starters, there aren’t any additional innings remaining.

WAR: +2.9 (76.2)

2022 PROJECTION

When I did the original projection before the lockout ended, the Pirates ended up with 77 wins. They haven’t made significant changes to their roster since that last projection, but perhaps surprisingly are still in line for a solid season.

Here’s where I’ll throw a wrench into the mix. After that last projection, I did a feature that looked at how much playing time a team typically gives to replacement level or negative WAR players. My expectation is that the Pirates will be in the 25-35% range this year.

If we do some dirty math, the Pirates are projected for 76 wins, thanks to 28 WAR from the playing time listed out above. If we take 25% off that total, the Pirates drop to a 69-win season. If we take off 35%, the Pirates drop to a 66-win season.

Both of those win totals would exceed a lot of the projections going around about the Pirates. They also seem a bit more realistic with what to expect for this team.

That said, the Pirates do have a sliver of a chance to contend. Sleeper free agents like Tsutsugo, Perez, Vogelbach, Marisnick, Quintana, and Hembree all have more potential than listed above. The farm system is ready to start churning out prospects to Pittsburgh. And if the Pirates can get some breakout performances from some of the 1.0 WAR guys, they’ll be in good shape.

This might not be a winning team, but it’s going to be a more interesting team to watch than most think.

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