I’m a Pittsburgh Pirates apologist.
No, not really. I just see things a bit differently than the “fans” who call themselves “maniacs.” I attempt to look at the big picture and interpret things objectively. I did believe when the Pirates traded the under-appreciated Ivan Nova this winter they would utilize those payroll savings and reinvest them into the team. Thus far, that has not happened. Whether they’re still sifting through the market and exploring opportunities, I’ve no idea. A few weeks ago I would’ve said, “Of course they are.” Now? I think yes, but only if someone can be found on a short-term deal for great value. There are still players available, so it’s possible. But, it’s looking more likely my optimism was wrongly placed.
This is going to be a brief and generic overview. I hope in coming weeks to delve into specific topics a bit more in-depth to defend my reasoning, but here I’m just going to highlight themes.
I’m fine entering the season with Erik Gonzalez or Kevin Newman. Either one will be at least as good as Jordy Mercer. Nobody on the market outside of Manny Machado would’ve been a significant upgrade and no, they couldn’t afford Machado.
Adam Frazier is an immediate upgrade over Josh Harrison. Harrison is almost 32 years old and descending while Frazier is 27 years old and ascending. Harrison’s OPS last season was .656 while Frazier’s was .798 in 352 AB’s. The team is better with Frazier starting and another bench player replacing Harrison on the roster. I anticipate Frazier to be a poor man’s Jose Altuve. Altuve hit 21 HR’s in his first four seasons combined in over 2,000 AB’s. Frazier has 13 HR’s in less than 1,000.
I expect Jung Ho Kang to be every bit as good or better than David Freese and Colin Moran in 2019 to be better than Moran in 2018. Moran’s much maligned 2018 campaign was actually solid for a rookie. OPS of .747 is unspectacular, and needs to be better for a defensively below average corner infielder, but it isn’t a train wreck. His numbers against RHP, however, were respectable: .295/.354/.436/.790 (AVG/OBA/SLG/OPS). His pinch hitting numbers bring a lot of value to the bench. In 29 plate appearances as a PH he hit .423/.500/.615/1.115.
I anticipate Josh Bell to be improved, not just over last season, but improved over both seasons and establish himself as a solid cleanup hitter. All the tools are there plus the desire to improve.
Everyone agrees the 2019 Pirates will only go as far as their pitching takes them. Here are some basic things to remember. Last year’s team’s season opener was Ivan Nova. That alone is an indicator how far this team has come. Other players who pitched in last year’s opener are Josh Smoker, George Kontos, Michael Feliz, Steven Brault, and Dovydas Neverauskas. This year’s opener should see Feliz, Brault, and Neverauskas likely working on improving their game in the minors, and Kontos and Smoker are gone. The only concerns are the middle innings with Nick Kingham, Nick Burdi, and one yet to be determined. Kingham hasn’t looked good this spring, but Burdi has. Burdi has 11 K’s and only 3 BB’s in 6.1 innings pitched while sporting a 2.84 ERA. Francisco Liriano will likely take the final spot. He’s had control issues this spring, but he and Kingham should be guys who can mop up innings in blowouts or eat up some innings if a starter gets knocked out early.
The fact last year’s starting rotation at the beginning of the season included Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, and Steve Brault while those guys are replaced this season with Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove, and Jordan Lyles is a good indicator this year’s team is better. Their starters have more skill, their youth have more experience, and their bench is deeper.
Last year’s opening bench consisted of Elias Diaz, Adam Frazier, Sean Rodriguez, and David Freese. This year’s team is likely Jacob Stallings (Diaz), Melky Cabrera, Moran, Pablo Reyes, and JB Shuck. When Gregory Polanco returns Lonnie Chisenhall will go to the bench and Shuck will likely be gone unless there’s been injuries or he finally hits major league pitching like he has AAA’s.
The last reason I think this season’s team will be better is their new hitting philosophy and hitting instructors. I always caution reading too much into spring training stats, but I was curious if the new hitting philosophy translated metrically from last season to this one. I took 2018 spring training HR stats from Bell, Francisco Cervelli, Corey Dickerson, Frazier, Newman, and Moran and compared them to 2019’s. Here are the results: 2018 = 1 HR per 26.8 AB’s, 2019 = 1/15. That’s a 44% improvement. If the Pirates improved their HR’s by even 30% last year, instead of finishing 25th in HR’s in MLB, they’d have finished 12th. A 40% improvement and they’d have finished 4th. I’m not saying… I’m just saying…
Let’s Go Bucs!!