While predicting win totals is normally message board fodder, it has become a staple of my annual Pirates off-season calender. My methodology has held up fairly well. I missed by a game in each of the 2011 and 2012 season. I didn’t fare quite as well in 2013 with the Pirates blowing away my expectations and they finished a handful games below what I expected in 2014.
While there is still a quite a bit of time before pitchers and catchers report, I feel like the Pirates have very few remaining question marks on the roster. The lineup looks set with an outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. If Pedro Alvarez was not in the Pirates plans for this coming season, I suspect he’d have moved on by now. Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison are locked in as well. Francisco Cervelli will be the Pirates catcher if he can mange to make it through an entire month and a half in Bradenton unscathed. It’s possible that the Pirates will add another piece to the bullpen, but I doubt it will amount to anything significant. They appear to have finished their shopping for a starting pitcher. Really, the only questions left is whether or not Charlie Morton will have recovered in time to get in the rotation the first or second time through and whether or not Jung-Ho Kang will be on the bench.
For those who haven’t seen it before, I’ll look at the team position by position and compare them to what they had in terms of wins. When I say wins, I’m not talking specifically about WAR, but I’m at least using the somewhat subdued approach to the amount of impact one player has on any one single game. Impact is cumulative over the entire season and that will be the tact I take here. I’m not talking about any one position specifically winning or losing a game. Full disclosure, however, this projection is mostly subjective and entirely for fun. That said, I don’t approach it with a number of wins in mind that I feel compelled to arrive at it, or even whether or not I previously expected they would be a better team.
I might as well begin with what could amount to the most controversial off season decision heading into 2015. Without question, the Pirates got worse behind the plate when they failed to sign Russell Martin, but it’s difficult for me to see Martin repeating what he did in 2014 anyway. Sure, his defense will still likely be great, but his .832 OPS was the second highest of his career and only the second time it had an eight as the first number. Expecting his bat to fall off in the .750 – .775 range wouldn’t be unreasonable. Even if he had returned, I’d have rated the position at 1 win less.
It’s also highly unlikely that Chris Stewart repeats what he did at the plate with his extreme BABIP, but if his spike in the number of line drives he hit proves even somewhat legitimate, he shouldn’t regress to his career norms before this past season. That said, I would also expect the defense to get better and for him to play a bigger role. All in all, I think 2015 Chris Stewart can be better than 2014, but he will still be some way off of Russell Martin when taking some of his playing time.
The wild card is Cervelli. If he hits to his number over the last two years, he’ll roughly match the productivity the Pirates could have expected from Martin. If he can do that over more than 100 games, they should call it a win. I suspect he’ll hit somewhere in the low to mid .700’s of OPS, while providing decent defense for the position over about 75 games. That puts a lot of burden on the Pirates depth which thankfully they have a lot of with Stewart, Tony Sanchez and Elias Diaz in the wings. I think they should be able to serve adequately in the remaining 87 games. So the Pirates should get near anticipated Martin level production for about half the season with weaker, but still acceptable production the rest. That said, the position is still probably 3.5 wins less.
Every year, I come into the season saying it can’t be much worse than last year and every year, first base proves to be about the same or worse. For the first time I can recall, the Pirates have real upside from both sides of the plate at first base. Of course, they also have some risk. While I’m in the minority, I still think Alvarez has the potential to break out as a decent all-around hitter. His opposite field stroke and decreased strikeout rate in 2014 stood out as signs of hope in an otherwise dismal year. Corey Hart has always been a favorite of mine. I need to keep my expectations in check here, but the Pirates got so little out of the position last year, that I can conservatively say I think they could be 2 wins better.
My word count is already in the 840’s so I better be brief. Neil Walker is what he is, though depth behind him is better thanks to Sean Rodriguez and potentially Kang. Therefore, the position is 0.5 wins better.
Pass for now. Trust me, it’ll be better after I do Cutch.
I’m a lover of good food, good company, creating a better world for children and their children, and Jordy Mercer’s potential. In his third full season, I like his chances of breaking out and making the Pirates 1 win better.
Most years, I’d say ‘see first base’ here, but RF did get considerably better last year. It’s certainly has more upside and is clearly deeper than it has been. Polanco should lock the job down, but if he doesn’t I’ve seen enough encouraging signs from Travis Snider to suggest he might finally be reaching his potential. While it won’t be a popular thing for me to say, the Pirates could also dig deep and go to insurance policies like Jose Tabata and Andrew Lambo. The Pirates will put their eggs in the youth basket to begin the season, but they have short term options if Polanco fails. Long term is a different story. At worst, I think this position is -0.5 because they actually have something to lose here, but I think it will be about 1 win better.
Every year I say McCutchen will fall off by a little and he has defied me. This year, I give up. You win, Andrew. You’re now a push.
While Josh Harrison played the everything position last year, I count most of his productivity at third base in my brain. This is clearly wrong but I can’t compartmentalize Jay-Hay in any rational way. Sorry, I’m just not that smart.
Anyway, I’m shifting my McCutchen logic to Harrison this season. I couldn’t possibly expect him to repeat what he did last year, and he will have to repeat what he did two more times before I’ll finally give up and say he’s one of the best in the game at what he does. That said, I do think he’ll still be pretty good. If he can’t even match that, the Pirates have insurance policies in Kang and Rodriguez. Not even considering Pedro flopping to open the year, I’ll rate third base and Josh Harrison 2 games worse.
I’ll let Kevin’s piece on Marte improving year over year speak for itself. He’s both under appreciated and still getting better. I think we’ll see an outrageous career year from Marte at some point. I don’t know if it will be this year, but I could still see improvement on the horizon and 0.5 more wins from the left field position.
Of all the positions on the team, starting pitching seemed to be one of the most inconsistent and overall disappointing. Most got off to rocky starts, with Wandy Rodriguez faring so poorly that the Pirates elected to simply eat the money owed on his option. Francisco Liriano looked like he might end up a one year flash in the pan before he got it together midway through the season. Gerrit Cole missed a considerable amount of time with injury. Charlie Morton pitched well enough until his annual major injury took him out. Thankfully, the Pirates’ depth bailed them out for a second year in a row. Vance Worley returned to his pre-injury form and Brandon Cumpton proved a more than adequate eighth man. Jeff Locke quietly ate 131 innings, even if his production did fall off.
My heart loves the return of AJ Burnett to the Pirates, but my head is a little concerned with him in the top three of the rotation. He may rebound from the hernia he played through last year, or it might turn out that he was just 37 years old. It could be a match made in heaven if Burnett can hold down the fort and eat early season innings until Morton is truly healthy or one of the Pirates young guns like Nick Kingham or Jameson Taillon is ready for the show.
The Pirates have seven starting pitchers and five spots to fill to begin the season if Morton is healthy to begin the season. That number should expand as the season goes along. I’m not expecting any to implode like Wandy did and this year could be the year Cole truly steps forward. The other six probably are what they are. With any luck, they’ll pitch their role from the start of the season. If they don’t, the Pirates have options to replace them. I like the rotation to perform about one win better.
No aspect of the game has more possibilities heading into spring than in relief. There is a lot to dream on, but not a lot of proven blue chips. Closer and eighth inning set-up are locked in with Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. The seventh inning role and middle relief are completely up in the air. John Holdzkom looks like the guy from high school who made motorcycle noises running up and down the hallway, but his stuff and story make him my feel good front runner. Jared Hughes is in the picture but he could easily become a specialist. Antonio Bastardo was acquired for a reason and he could easily be the seventh inning guy.
Middle relief is another story and a less interesting one so I’ll just list names. Stolmy Pimentel, Radhames Liz, the loser between Locke and Worley.
Jason Grilli and Justin Wilson are gone, but there are plenty options. The thing to take into consideration is that Melancon and Watson could also fall back down. I suspect the Pirates will find something that works out due to their depth and options even if they do. I see the pen as one win better.
I don’t know if you noticed a theme here but I used the word depth or a synonym fairly often. The Pirates have a considerable amount of it, which means they have Plans B, C, and D in case Plan A fails. They’ve had these kind of options at starting pitcher the last two years, but it has proved to be lacking at catcher and the middle infield recently. Many of the names on the roster will be familiar but a year older. In most cases, that’s a good thing. Catcher is weaker, but there are opportunities to get better at other positions. I’d project them all around to be one or two wins better putting them at 89 or 90 wins, which means Pittsburgh should be in line to host another wild card game.
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