It was refreshing to see a team actually go for it at the trade deadline. Although the Pittsburgh Pirates failed to reach the postseason; they should be admired for their tenacity.
Having led the division for much of April and May, the Pirates were still three games above .500 when they made the uncharacteristically aggressive move of paying top dollar to acquire Chris Archer on deadline day. Spluttering prospect Austin Meadows, hard-throwing Tyler Glasnow and former first-round pick Shane Baz went in the opposite direction to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Three days after the trade, the Pirates slipped to fourth in the division, and they never got better than four games above .500 for the rest of the season. Pittsburgh finished 2018 with an 82-79 record. It was a better winning percentage than the Nationals (second place in the NL East) or the Diamondbacks, but it was still only good enough for fourth in the NL Central.
The division looks fantastically exciting again in 2019. The Brewers led the way last year with an NL-best 96 wins, but will once again face stiff competition from the Cubs. Perennial heavyweights, the Cardinals, look serious contenders with the additions of Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller.
On paper, it looks like a tough year ahead for the Pirates, although it was interesting to hear their own assessment that they have the best rotation in the NL.
Archer is rejoined at the top of the pitching staff by Jameson Taillon and likely be supported by Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove and Nick Kingham. The mightily impressive Mitch Keller will be waiting in Triple-A for the call.
Chisenhall will get starts in the outfield while Gregory Polanco recovers from shoulder surgery. The return date for the career .253 hitter is unclear, with speculation ranging from early May to late July.
Despite enduring a dreadful first two months of the season, Polanco turned his fortunes around and finished by leading the club in home runs and RBI. His bat will be sorely missed, although maybe his glove won’t. 2018 represented his worst ever season defensively.
At the opposite end of the fielding spectrum, Corey Dickerson is coming off a Gold Glove year. Despite hitting four home runs in consecutive games, he failed to reach 20 homers for the first time in three seasons. The 29-year-old, who becomes a free agent at the end of the 2019 season, hit over .300 and will likely get flipped if the Pirates fall out of contention.
The outfield trio is led by the Pirates star player. Starling Marte hit 20 home runs with 33 stolen bases, and led the team with 3.7 WAR.
If their outfield is an asset, then the infield is a liability. Josh Bell failed to deliver the required power and was one of the worst first basemen defensively. Adam Frazier will get the opportunity for everyday at-bats and could be useful at second base. The hot corner will be manned by Colin Moran, fresh from his 0.7 WAR debut campaign.
There is a void at shortstop which will likely be filled by one of the numerous uninspiring free agents: Alcides Escobar, Freddy Galvis, Jose Iglesias, Asdrubal Cabrera or Adeiny Hechavarria. There is talk of a trade with the Diamondbacks to acquire Nick Ahmed.
Bizarrely the Pirates led the league with production from behind the plate. Francisco Cervelli, a free agent next season, is arguably the team’s best trade chip. He was a top-5 catcher last season with 12 home runs, .809 OPS and an elite 12.6% walk rate. Elias Diaz looks a solid replacement if Cervelli is dealt.
Although the ranks can still be reinforced with free agents, it is difficult to find many reasons for optimism for the Pirates in the tough NL Central, but here goes:
- The back end of the bullpen is elite with Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela. Even Kyle Crick looked fantastic in stretches last year. The Pirates will need these guys to be secure at the end of tight matches.
- Starting pitcher Jameson Taillon could take the step up to become an ace. He made 32 starts with a 3.20 ERA, but the 27-year-old has developed three legitimately effective pitches, so 2019 should be even better.
- Off the field, the Pirates have upgraded their front office by hiring former Rangers’ manager Jeff Banister and 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein. If anyone can get the most out of limited resources, it is the diminutive former infielder.
- The reacquisition of Jung Ho Kang is a wildcard. Perhaps he could be the player they originally acquired back in 2015 when he was coming off a jaw-dropping season of 40 home runs and a slash line of .356/.459/.739 in Korea.
And finally, Ray Searage, the pitcher whisperer, is a coaching maestro. Maybe the Pirates will have the best rotation in the NL after all.