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Rebuilding the 2020 Pirates

My first story for The Point of Pittsburgh was on July 1, 2016. The topic: trying to figure out what's wrong with Andrew McCutchen. It was terrible. Please, don't read it. I mean, I made and published these charts.

These are bad.

Sorry, Kevin and Steve. I was learning.

That 2016 team feels like a lifetime ago. Looking back on it now, it was an omen of things to come. That team had plenty of problems, but they were only two games under .500 and 3.5 games out of a wild card at the time of my first TPOP article’s publication. They were still in the hunt, and even if they fell short of the postseason, this was a 'bridge year.'

Yeah, remember that term? Before the days of already having a young Freddy Galvis or financial flexibility, we heard about how 2016 was a bridge year, connecting the success of a 98 win unit to future competitive teams. So far, it has not lead to anything. The 2016-2018 teams all finished within arm's length of .500, never getting much closer to the playoffs than being a couple of games out of a spot in July. The 2019 team followed a similar path through the first half of the season. Sure, their 4-24 stretch may have been an outlier according to 10,000 simulations, but that doesn’t mean there was only a 0.1% chance this team would fail. It just means there was a 0.1% chance they would fail so spectacularly.

The Pirates have not truly added to this team in years. The Chris Archer and Keone Kela trades were just that — trades. They gave up future value for present value. You can’t get change for a dollar and say you’re richer. They have signed five players through major league free agency since the start of the 2016-2017 offseason: Daniel Hudson, Ivan Nova, Jung Ho Kang, Jordan Lyles and Lonnie Chisenhall. Of course money is always a problem in Pittsburgh and they managed to add Corey Dickerson and Richard Rodriguez for little acquisition cost, but they relied too heavily on their core of young players. There has been gradual improvement from most of that core (at least before this year), but the Pirates’ veteran presence dilapidated at the same rate, needing to trade key players because of the threat of free agency. They treaded water.

Let's give Neal Huntington the benefit of the doubt and consider this a roughly .500 team and the injuries and a bad streak just caught up with them. If that's the case, this is a wildly unbalanced .500 team. There have been nine Pirates who have been worth 0.5 fWAR as a hitter this year. One is Dickerson, who was sold at the deadline. Another is Steven Brault. Not included are Colin Moran (0.3 WAR in 387 PAs), Elias Diaz (-1.0 in 269 PAs) or Erik Gonzalez (-0.3 in 82 PAs), three controllable players who figured to be in the Pirates' future plans. It's one thing that Melky Cabrera has dropped well below replacement level. It's another when your anointed future catcher of the future crumbles in his first real look as a starter.

The Pirates have become a top heavy team. Entering play Tuesday, Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Starling Marte combined for 7.7 fWAR. All Pirate position players this year had combined for…7.7 fWAR. With the exception of their top three, the Pirates have a replacement level position player core.

In three infield positions, the Pirates rank in the bottom five in baseball in WAR.

Catcher: -0.5 fWAR, 26th

Third Base: -0.2 fWAR, 29th

Shortstop: -0.4 fWAR, 29th

The pitching was supposed to be the team’s saving grace. It, um, hasn’t been. I just did a whole piece on the state of the staff, but in short, their 115 ERA- is the worst in the NL.

But in a way, if you're building to make the 2020 Pirates a playoff contender, this is actually almost preferable. There is a core of good players and some clear needs that need addressed. Adding a pedestrian player at the right position could noticeably improve the team, and an impact player can be a five or six win swing by himself. For example, the Pirates need to focus on pitch framing. Yasmani Grandal, who is second among catchers in framing runs (14.9) and is enjoying a fine season at the dish (119 wRC+), will be hitting the market again this offseason. Last winter, he had to settle for a one year deal with the Brewers after dangling in free agency for too long. He is Russell Martin 2.0, and while he will cost more than Martin did back in 2013, he can provide similar overall value.

If Grandal is too rich for the Pirates' blood, Mike Zunino — another solid framing catcher who is in a down offensive year — could probably be had for a song. Jason Castro has been injury bitten these last two years, but he has been worth 1.5 fWAR in 217 PAs. Even Alex Avila has picked up a cool win above replacement in 144 PAs. There are options to upgrade the backstop position.

There are pitchers available. They probably can’t afford a replacement for Jameson Taillon, but solid middle of the rotation arms will be well within reach. Same goes for infielders and bullpen guys, too. There is help available. They don’t have to rely on Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Cole Tucker to be the saviors in 2020. If they do, they’re jeopardizing one of their last chances with their core. Their “bridge year” core of players.

Blowing the team up and having a fire sale is probably the smarter move in the long run. It would suck for a couple years, but if the prospects pan out, the Pirates could emerge a better, deeper club. From his last interview on 93.7, it doesn’t sound like Huntington is eager to do that, though. (Assuming of course he will still be in charge at the end of the campaign.) If the Pirates don’t want to rebuild, they need to compete. You can’t hope that a .500 team overachieves and wins a wild card with three black holes in the infield and your best pitcher on the shelf for the year. They need outside help if they’re serious about 2020.

Eventually, the Pirates will need to be aggressive in an offseason, either to tear it down or build it back up. The only question that really matters is 'when

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

13 Comments on Rebuilding the 2020 Pirates

  1. I don’t know if this is bad luck, or something that NH has targeted, but the Pirates have far too many bad defense/serviceable bat type players; Polanco, Diaz, Moran are good examples. Before this year Adam Frazier and Josh Bell would have been on that list.

    Moran being the guy that the Pirates went out and acquired, probably because he had limited upside with his bad defense, yet ok bat. The rest are survivors of the Pirates development process.

    And the clear criticism of NH is that he won’t upgrade with free agents because they are tied to these marginal players. Whether they are tied to them because they are cheap, because they believe in marginal players, or both, its clearly a failure of GM alone.

  2. Thanks, Alex.

    I think Grandal will still be too rich for the Pirates. I would expect a target like Jason Castro could be ideal. He’s a LHH with above average framing and nearly average pop time. If you platoon him w/ Diaz.. it would limit Diaz’s exposure? IDK. If he’s 1/3 of the price for Grandal, that’d be in GMNH’s wheelhouse.

    As for the pitching aspect, Collin McHugh is having a down year, relatively. And if he’s an odd man out of Houston, his Baseball Savant stats all look strong, perhaps he’s your Happ/Volquez-type this year? Wade Miley could also be that type (although he’s probably too expensive based on his current season). Basically, if Houston lets someone go.. they should go get ’em. At worst, they can tell PIT about some cutting edge software or something.

    In June, I was all for propping open the Bell window. If they sold off future ‘assets’ to make a run in 2020-22, who cares? Neal could ride off into the sunset ‘completing the job.’ But that didn’t happen, as you know. They aren’t exactly postured to do anything in the near or distant future.

    Perhaps the biggest thing they need is a very critical self eval. To tell your fans that this is a team that can be built like the 2012-13 Pirates is borderline delusional.

    I ran my simulator 10,000 times and on this current path, this team is more likely to win 94 games total in 2020 & 2021 than be a contender next season.

    • At worst, they can tell PIT about some cutting edge software or something.

      Ok, this made me laugh. lol

    • Brad Inserra // August 22, 2019 at 11:48 AM //

      Accurate assessment of the situation. If tight pockets doesn't find guys like Fiers and Chacin in the free agent market, thi offseason, 2020 will be more of the same…

  3. I wonder whether Travis d’Arnaud could be a target or if his recent hot bat will attract the attention of other, less religiously frugal organizations.

    I’d be fine with Zunino I guess. He can’t hit but the terrible framing this season has been obscene. A good-framing catcher with a presumably improved defense (assuming Hayes & Tucker take over the left side of the IF at some point and Melky is no longer grazing in the OF) might go a long way to making the rotation watchable.

    Without a $120 million payroll though they will be garbage. There’s just not enough talent within the “cheap young core.” Alas.

  4. I remember a Pirate team that had a solid core– their catcher was a top 2 or 3 catcher in the league,and a bona fide number one starter. That was the 1985 club, and they lost 104 games. This club will lose somewhere between 90 and 95 games, which means they are somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 games away from being legitimate contenders. That would mean replacing the three weak spots you cite with All-Star caliber players plus adding a top of the rotation type or two. Look, this is a bad team, and yes it does have some good players–but, like the 1985 club showed, even bad teams have guys who are good enough to play for the better teams. The clubs of the early 90’s didn’t get to where they were until the Bucs blew it up and started over. Likewise, adding a Mike Zunino and a mid-rotation starter and Ke’Bryan Hayes won’t make this team 25 games better. It is time to rip out the rotting drywall and start again.

  5. Having a strong young core means absolutely nothing if you are unwilling to spend the money to get the other pieces that you need in order to go from decent to championship caliber. The Pirates won’t add what they need because they have the worst owner in the history of professional sports coupled with the worst gm in the history of professional sports.

  6. Great work as usual.

    I dont think nearly enough is made about how awful Diaz has been, and that he’s literally one of the worst framers in baseball.

    • Also, Castro seems like the perfect mix of “realistic” and “actual improvement”. Even better if they hide him vs lefties by using *stallings*

      Notice I did not say diaz.

      Side note, Stallings mashed lefties every year in AAA.

  7. Also, Castro seems like the perfect mix of “realistic” and “actual improvement”. Even better if they hide him vs lefties by using *stallings*

    Notice I did not say diaz.

    Side note, Stallings mashed lefties every year in AAA.

    • I dont know how I posted that twice.

      I guess the internet just agreed with my comment THAT much.

  8. Phillip C-137 // August 21, 2019 at 6:30 PM //

    We all have something that we “see”. For Alex and Kevin that thing is newer stats are more informative than older stats. While older stats like Wins and RBI’s may be flawed, they do tell us something and IMO don’t need to be mocked in order to make the newer stats shine brighter.

    For me, what I “see” is that tanking is not the answer. The Cubs and the Astros tanked, built it back up and then plugged their Pitching holes with MONEY. With MLB’s current version of “Calvin Griffith”* as owner, what makes anyone think at the end of a rebuild he’ll fork over the necessary cash to finish the rebuild?

    To me, tanking just gives us 5 lousy years and then we’re right back here again, but 5 years older. And like the Archer trade (which I hated), if they blow it up, there will be huzzahs and congratulatory back clapping for making the big move, but the cheerleaders will become critics after the passage of time when it doesn’t bear fruit.

    So Alex I appreciate today’s evaluation of where the Pirates are – “There has been gradual improvement from most of that core (at least before this year), but the Pirates' veteran presence dilapidated at the same rate. .” This is a bit simplistic, but it’s accuracy can’t be beat.

    * Calvin Griffith was widely known as a “cheap” owner. With a more vocal press BN could easily go down as this generations CG. JMO

  9. Catcher is another black hole of Pirate drafting and developing during the 12 years of NH and that has little to do with the spending habits of Bob Nutting.

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