This is the latest post of MLBTR’s annual Offseason in Review series, in which we take stock of every team’s winter dealings.
The ever-patient Pirates are again in wait-and-see mode after spending much of the offseason on the sidelines.
Major League Signings
- Jung Ho Kang (re-signed), 3B: 1 year, $3MM
- Lonnie Chisenhall, OF: 1 year, $2.75MM
- Jordan Lyles, RP/SP: 1 year, $2.05MM
- Total spend: $7.8MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired SS/UTL Erik Gonzalez, RHP Dante Mendoza and RHP Tahnaj Thomas from Cleveland for OF Jordan Luplow and IF Max Moroff
- Acquired RHP Wilkin Ramos from Oakland for RHP Tanner Anderson
- Acquired RHP Yordi Rosario and $500K in international spending capacity from the White Sox for RHP Ivan Nova
- Claimed RHP Aaron Slegers off waivers from Minnesota
- Claimed RHP Jake Barrett off waivers from San Francisco
Notable Minor League Signings
- Francisco Liriano, Melky Cabrera, Tyler Lyons, Nick Franklin, Rookie Davis, Brandon Maurer, JB Shuck, Vicente Campos, Roberto Gomez, Steven Baron, Patrick Kivlehan
The mid-decade Pirates, bursting at the seams with full-burn stars and depth for days, as well as a top-end farm system, were as well-positioned as any in recent memory for the Big Move, a three- or four-for-one swap that would have catapulted the team to the top of the National League. It never came. Fan clamoring fell on deaf ears in the team’s front office, which preferred to lean on its then-renowned player development system to unveil its next crop of new-wave talent, already, it often seemed, in full bloom.
Struggles followed. Stalwarts Starling Marte and Jung-Ho Kang were sidelined with off-field issues, Andrew McCutchen was an avatar of his former self, and the top end of the rotation looked more like the middle. The team’s vaunted Shark Tank bullpen had been drained. Nascent cornerstone Gregory Polanco had hit the skids. The window, suddenly, seemed closed.
But as the team plodded through a mediocre 2018 season (and after McCutchen and Gerrit Cole had been sent packing in the months prior), the brass finally showed its sword, sending out multiple top prospects in deadline deals for late-inning reliever Keone Kela and peripheral ace Chris Archer. It felt like Pittsburgh, so often content to fold, may finally be primed to throw its chips into the middle.
Alas, as the offseason’s nears its end, the Pirates are still playing coy. The team didn’t spend more than $3MM on a single free agent this offseason. Its only major trade – an attempt to shore up shortstop, its weakest position in recent years – brought back a 27-year-old utility player in Erik Gonzalez as its headliner. Gonzalez, who’s slashed .263/.292/.389 in just 275 career MLB plate appearances, will get short’s first crack this season.
Another former Indian, Lonnie Chisenhall, was brought in on the cheap for corner-outfield insurance; the team will cash in the policy immediately, as Gregory Polanco, who finally broke out in ’18, will miss at least the first few weeks with a shoulder injury. Chisenhall’s last two seasons have been marred by injury; they’ve also been fueled by rockets, as the 30-year-old has posted successive career-highs in hard-hit rate, OBP, and wRC+, and appeared finally to be fulfilling his early-career promise when on the field.
Jung Ho Kang, the soon-to-be 32-year-old third baseman, is the real wildcard here. The team would like to find regular at-bats for Colin Moran, but Kang, who’s posted a team-best 129 career wRC+, could anchor the lineup if he can somehow regain his form. After multiple DUI arrests in his native Korea, and a sexual assault charge levied in his brief time in the states, Kang’s leash will be short – too long, still, for some fans, but the Pirates clearly know what they have in the former MVP of the KBO, and will be over the moon if he can at least approximate his mid-decade output.
Under-the-radar bullpen pickups Lyons, Maurer, Barrett, and Liriano (once a key figure in the team’s renaissance) endeavor to give the unit the depth it lacked in recent years. If even one can be righted under the mystical tutelage of pitching coach Ray Searage, the Tank may yet be full again.
Jordan Lyles will bring his steadily-climbing fastball velocity and much-improved curveball to the battle for the fifth rotation spot. Prolonged stretches of effectiveness have thus far eluded him in his eight-year MLB career. By effectively swapping him in for Ivan Nova, the Pirates shaved over $6MM of payroll but parted with Nova’s steady (if unspectacular) output.
The outfield unit is set and could be a fairly good one if Chisenhall is healthy and Marte and Corey Dickerson can repeat their 2018 efforts. Melky Cabrera is presently battling with J.B. Shuck, Patrick Kivlehan, and Nick Franklin for a roster spot and a reserve role. They’ll have to beat out 40-man members Pablo Reyes and Jose Osuna for a seat at the table.
Catcher (Francisco Cervelli and Jacob Stallings, pending the return of Elias Diaz) and first base (Josh Bell) are settled. Otherwise, there are even greater questions in the infield but also quite a few possibilities. Third base will be covered at the outset by a Moran/Kang platoon, while Adam Frazier will factor heavily at second and Gonzalez figures to have the inside track at short.
It’s not hard to envision changes at the 4-5-6 positions throughout the season. Shortstop is the real issue here, but the team, with its grounder-heavy staff, has never much seemed to care about offense at the position, instead entrenching sure-handed gamers like Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes there in the last few seasons. Gonzalez is cut from similar cloth. Former top prospect Kevin Newman – who once ranked as high as #23 overall on Keith Law’s list – is hot on Gonzalez’s heels, though he hasn’t hit much after a midseason promotion to AA in 2016. Kevin Kramer is another well-regarded middle-infield prospect; he has served mostly at second base in the minors. Kramer struggled in his first taste of the majors last year, but only after turning in an eye-opening run at Triple-A. Reyes may also factor in the infield mix. Top prospects Cole Tucker (shortstop) and Ke’Bryan Hayes (third base) are nearing MLB readiness and could force their way up during the season to come.
The back-end of the rotation could be a problem: Joe Musgrove, though possessing of the ideal command/sink combination that drives the organization wild, has a checkered injury history and again dealt with multiple ailments last season. Trevor Williams has solidified his spot, but he rarely misses a bat (his swing-and-miss rate was the league’s third-lowest last season) and ERA estimators (xFIP, in particular) are not optimistic. If either falters, or misses significant time, the Pirates better hope that Nick Kingham (torched in limited action last season) or top prospect Mitch Keller is ready to make the jump. You have to squint to see Lyles as a suitable replacement for Nova, leaving the Bucs heavily reliant upon their preexisting collection of young arms.
What to Expect in ’19
The NL Central looks to be a thresher. The best-case scenario still has the Pirates contending for the Central crown, but it’s perched atop a heap of ifs: Archer returning to his dominant 2013-15 form, the back end of the rotation staying healthy and delivering quality innings, Polanco making a swift recovery and showing no ill effects, Frazier serving non-believers a season-long taste of crow, one of Moran, Kang, or Chisenhall emerging as a middle-of-the-order threat, and good health abounding. The likeliest outcome is that the Pirates hover in equilibrium, still stuck an arm’s-length away from the elusive treasure.
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