Welcome back to the complex adaptive system known as baseball! The 2019 Pirates baseball season kicked off last Thursday in Cincinnati. The Pirates came out of the opening series 1-1, thanks to an ill-timed rainout, and now are set to entertain the masses at PNC Park for another season, starting today.
If you’ve read TPOP for more than one hot minute, you know that we think the payroll is embarrassing at around $75M in the face of the BAMTech payment last year, the shortstop position is probably going to be a black hole, and that the Pirates should have taken advantage of a depressed free agent market to snag a player.
Among TPOP writers, the informal range of expected wins is very tight — 81 to 85. None of those predictions will likely result in the Pirates making the playoffs.
Personally speaking, I think the pitching will be excellent in the key areas. Yes, the 5th starter spot can charitably be described as a ‘work in process’, but I like the mix from SP1 to SP4; Taillon in particular seems poised to have a big year. And the back end of the bullpen (Vazquez, Kela, Crick, Rodriguez) should be among the peak of all of MLB. Nick Burdi struck out the side on opening day, so my thoughts on him last week may be rounding into focus.
But what does the rest of the NL Central look like in 2019 ? Let’s take a capsule look at the other teams.
Things to like: The Brewers have a good offense all in their prime. The reigning NL MVP, Christian Yelich, leads the way. That’s strange to say on a team with Ryan Braun, but his career has fewer opening days ahead of it than behind it. Two other players, Lorenzo Cain (7th) and Jesus Aguilar (16th), finished in the Top 20 of NL MVP voting, as well. The Brewers took advantage of both a shallow market and poor foresight on his part by signing Yasmani Grandal to a 1 yr/$18M deal to bolster a weak spot.
Things not to like: Among the five starters with the most starts last year, the Brewers put up WAR’s of 2.4, 0.4, 1.6, 0.9, and 1.4. That’s a whole bunch of #4 and #5’s. They’re turning to youth in the form of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta, but aside from Burnes none of them really impresses me. (Burnes uses exit velocity to suppress contact, much like what Trevor Williams did last year). The 2018 Brewers were buoyed by the ridiculously good trio of Josh Hader (2.7 WAR), Jeremy Jeffress (1.8), and Corey Knebel (1.0 WAR). Gaps were filled in by midseason pickups like Joakim Soria and the aforementioned trio of young pitchers now starters. Soria has departed and Knebel is on a collision course with Dr. James Andrews, so the backend is getting a little sparse. There’s also no way Hader and Jeffress can both be that good again, too.
Things to like: The Cubs had a very solid offense, especially considering that Kris Bryant missed chunks of time and was not himself while there. Javier Baez was the NL MVP runner-up to Yelich and produced a wide array of highlights. Anthony Rizzo continues to produce results as the steady cog in the machine.
Things not to like: The rotation is getting very old and very injury-prone as each season passes. Jon Lester (35) and Cole Hamels (35) are both getting close to their ‘sell by’ date and Yu Darvish (32) has been constantly beset by injuries in recent years. Jose Quintana hasn’t been his earlier edition self since moving across town. There’s no more talent in the pipelines, either. It’s either all here or playing for other teams (Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez).
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Things to like: Death, taxes, Cardinals in the mix for a playoff spot. In what passes for a down year for the Cards (88 wins, no playoffs), they were able to unearth some diamonds in the rough in SP Miles Mikolas and OF Harrison Bader. Bader, in particular, dazzled with his glove to such a degree that multiple Gold Glove wins are being forecast for him. Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong both drove the offense. And then the Cards went for it in the offseason — not only did they get soon-to-be free agent 1B Paul Goldschmidt, then they convinced him to give up potential free agency after the year and sign a 5 yr/$130M contract.
Things not to like: One of these days, wunderkind Alex Reyes will pitch for them, but it wasn’t last year again. Luke Weaver went west to Arizona in the Goldschmidt deal. Carlos Martinez was plagued by injuries last year and is already on the 10-day IL for shoulder issues, which should cause a shortness of breath for Cards fans. That leaves a lot of pressure on Mikolas to not be a one-hit wonder, Jack Flaherty to continue his growth, and Michael Wacha/Adam Wainwright to stay upright one more year.
Things to like: In an effort to ‘shake things up’, the Reds went out and signed a bunch of names that would be exciting in 2015. Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Sonny Gray, and Tanner Roark are all in the Queen City to bolster the team. The Reds had a nice core on offense, led by the immortal Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez, and Jose Peraza. Closer Raisel Iglesias is very, very good.
Things not to like: 2B Scooter Gennett was part of that offense last year and he’s now out for 8-12 weeks with a groin injury, which always linger on. Top prospect Nick Senzel was disgruntled about being sent down (probably for service time reasons) and is now injured (a common occurrence with him). After this year, all of the ‘new dudes’ except for Gray, will be free agents. This may leave the Reds with not much other than a post-party hangover to show for it.
Including the Pirates, all of these teams have strengths, but deep flaws too. I’m personally thinking that the division is going to be extremely tight this year from top to bottom, a rarity for any division. One man’s forecast on the final division standings:
- Cardinals 89-73
- Cubs 87-75
- Pirates 83-79
- Brewers 82-80
- Reds 79-83
Fangraphs had an even tighter spread in their projections, from 87 wins by the Cubs to 78 by the Pirates.
It would be quite a leap in logic to think that the Reds were going to join go from 67 wins to a division title, but there’s more than a small minority of people that believe that. I think the Brewers are going to regress big time, due to their pitching and not having Yelich/Cain both white-hot again. The Cubs are going to sort of do their thing, but maybe not expend midseason cash to address needs. The Cards made the power move for Goldschmidt and I think they’ll be rewarded for it.