The Pirates began the season on an absolute tear. Through the first 15 games of the season, the Pirates were 11-4, which led to them having a 2-1/2 game lead in the NL Central.
In and of itself, a division lead two weeks into the season is pretty meaningless. However, the Pirates hadn’t had a 1.5 game lead in the NL Central since August 20, 2013. They’ve also never, in their entire franchise history, managed to build a 3 game lead within the first 10 games of the season.
Sure, it was early into the season. But the Pirates really did look good.
Colin Moran, one of the core pieces of the Gerrit Cole trade, was certainly going to be under a microscope. But in his first at-bat at PNC Park, Colin Moran hit a grand slam. He couldn’t have started his Pirate career any better. Reason for optimism.
Through his first 11 games of the year, Gregory Polanco had smashed 5 HR. Polanco was coming off a down year, and there was a lot of talk around his offseason training program changing to try and get him back on track. He certainly looked like he was in the best shape of his career, and he managed to hit nearly half of his 2017 HR total within the first week and a half of the 2018 season. More reason for optimism.
And then there is Corey Dickerson, the former All-Star the Pirates acquired for Daniel Hudson and Tristan Gray. He was not only hitting .300+, but he was also fielding extraordinarily well. He had made a few key defensive plays, despite people saying he had played poor defensively previously in his career. Even more reason for optimism.
Really, top-down, it was a phenomenal start. The first couple of weeks of the season were great. Since then, though, it’s been an absolute roller coaster.
Back in January, I don’t think anybody actually expected the Pirates to make the playoffs. Heck, I don’t think anybody in April really expected the Pirates to make the playoffs, even after their hot start to the season. But it gave the fans hope. Pittsburgh is desperate for a winning baseball team, and who knows, it seemed like 2018 could be the Pirates year.
The optimism quickly faded as the team dropped out of 1st place during the middle of April. The team was still above .500, but went on a 1-7 run, going from a 2.5 game lead in the division to 2.5 games back in the division. They regained some steam in the middle of May and retook the division lead. Things were trending in the right direction, but they quickly let that slip away, losing 18 of the following 24 games, sending them into a steady downtrend before the All-Star break.
This leads us into July, a month in which Neal Huntington essentially called out his players, saying they need to play remarkably well over a short period of time to show that this club could be a legitimate contender. They played so well, in fact, that Huntington felt compelled to trade for Chris Archer and Keone Kela, moves that will not only have a big impact on the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates, but should also help in 2019 and beyond.
That brings me to the point of this post. The Pirates have been a roller coaster. The Pirates have gone on insane stretches, winning and losing. When the front office was forced to commit to a direction, the team was trending up, so they chose to buy. Ever since, the team has trended way down. At this point, it doesn’t look like there is a possibility of a playoff berth in 2018. But what about in 2019?
Neal Huntington has now shown he is willing to take the plunge on a big name player. That’s a good start, but heading into the offseason, it needs to be just that — a start.
Taking a look at the potential 2019 roster, it seems fairly obvious that Sean Rodriguez, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, and even Jung Ho Kang will not be returning. In total, this should clear roughly $25,000,000 in salary. If the team wants to get even more aggressive, they could decline David Freese’s option, clearing an additional $5,500,000.
Let’s just say, as a rough estimate, the Pirates will clear $20,000,000 next year by getting rid of some of these guys. This year, $20,000,000 might be able to go a long way.
Last season, I believe we saw a permanent shift in player spending. Teams are not going to spend as much on aging, good-but-not-great talent. Teams are getting smarter and are becoming more conservative in their spending.
The biggest need will be middle infield. There will be a plethora of options during the offseason. There is top end talent like Manny Machado, Brian Dozier, and Daniel Murphy. And then mid-tier talent like Asdrubal Cabrera, Jose Iglesias, Eduardo Escobar, and DJ LeMahieu. I think Huntington adding Archer was a good thing. But only if it was the beginning of something more. This team, by nearly every metric, is average. This team is young, but it isn’t very young. Some players should improve, but it won’t be enough to bring this team to 90+ wins.
Big additions need to be made, and this offseason is lining up to be a perfect opportunity. I would be surprised if Machado didn’t receive a contract of nearly $40,000,000 AAV. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like Asdrubal Cabrera or Jose Iglesias sign shorter term deals with an AAV of $6,000,000. That would be a perfect opportunity that Huntington absolutely needs to take advantage of. A Newman/Kramer middle infield is intriguing, but Newman didn’t exactly tear up AAA and Kramer looks like a utility guy more than a starting 2B.
The Pirates are 63-65. They have given up 562 runs and have scored 557, a -5 run differential. They are 17th in ERA, and 17th in wRC+. They are 15th in UZR/150. This team hasn’t gotten lucky. This team hasn’t gotten unlucky. This team is an average team, at least right now. Adding onto the 2018 roster was a good start, but it can’t end there. The Pirates should have at least $20,000,000 to play with this offseason. If that money is used properly, and that is a big if, the Pirates could become a top team again in the NL Central. There is blood in the streets, the time for the Pirates to buy is now.