Seriously, the Pirates can win the NL Central in 2021

The final acts of some MLB teams in 2020 has been to confirm once again that owners have little or no care about winning the World Series or even getting to the playoffs if it costs them too much money.

The WS finalist Tampa Bay Rays trading away their best pitcher after having refused a one-year deal for their second-best pitcher at below-market rate. In doing so putting their chances at another playoff run in serious jeopardy let alone making the grand stage again. I think there is a genuine case to say they are level with both the Red Sox and Blue Jays in the AL East now.

But that is not what we are here to talk about. The other firesale that has been going on has been in the NL Central with the Chicago Cubs trading Yu Darvish (and Victor Caratini) to San Diego for one year of a league-average pitcher and four prospects in the Padres 10th – 20th best range.

This can politely be described as a salary dump with the $62m that Darvish was owed being replaced by roughly $8m for Davies and a few more million for the prospects when they hit the 40-man. The Cubs have also non-tendered Kyle Schwarber, José Martínez and Albert Almora Jr, whilst putting both Kris Bryant and Javier Báez in the shop window.

Impolitely you could say that the owners are just reducing their expenditure for their real estate investments which seem to be what they care about most these days.

All of this has decreased the projected overall performance of the Cubs for 2021, with FanGraphs now has them having (by projected WAR) the worst starting pitchers in MLB, as 20th best team overall and the 4th team in the NL Central. The Cubs 2016 and beyond dynasty is all but dead and they look set to be a below-average team for 2021.

Urgh, the NL Central

At the time of writing FanGraphs projects all the NL central teams to be in the lower half of the league with the Brewers ranking best in 16th place across the MLB and 6th best in the NL.  They are slightly ahead of the Cardinals, the Reds and the Cubs but not by much. This sort of projected difference makes them all but equal for the 2021 season but none of them are any good.

There is a lot of time left before the season for these teams to make moves which could make them better teams, but should we expect that from any of them?  The Cubs are a no, the Reds have already traded away some of their better players from last season and the Brewers never really spend much money for free agents.

That leaves the Cardinals. They have made moves in the past few seasons so it wouldn’t be unexpected of them to make a move in the FA market but they have yet to signal any intent to do so. Not to even bring Yadi back yet.

Let’s talk about the Pirates

They just traded away probably their best player of the last few seasons in Josh Bell to Washington and they project to be nine wins worse than the Brewers and six/seven games worse than the rest of the division. Only better than the Orioles, Rangers and Rockies in MLB. Their team is not good, they have five separate fielding positions (1B, SS, RF, CF, LF) projected to earn less than 1 WAR each (2.2 WAR combined) but that does mean their team is easy to improve.

The Pirates are projected to spend just $47m on their roster next year having spent over double that back in 2015-2017. They have only one player on a multi-year deal, Gregory Polanco, with every other player in the 40-man being ARB or pre-ARB.

For me, they have some cash they could spend on short term free agents. So, are there some players out there which could increase the Pirates win projections by nine, would be willing to take one/two-year deals and cost Pittsburgh as little as possible? Let us have a look.

The bargain bin

To do this I am going to use the FanGraphs free agent tracker and the projected value and length of contract each FA will get. This is from the crowdsourcing project they do each year and has historically proven to be quite accurate overall.

First step is to remove any player that is projected to get more than two years in FA as that isn’t a player that Pittsburgh want in my scenario (Sorry no Bauer or Springer swoops here).  Secondly, we will look at just players projected to be worth 1 more WAR in 2021.

Let us start with the offense, here are my five replacements for those positions.

At $40.5m it wouldn’t be cheap, but this turns 2.2 into 8.9 WAR which would put them right in the mix with all the other teams in NL and just a bit behind the Brewers.

A further one-year $12m deal with Corey Kluber would give them two more projected WAR and put them right in line with the Brewers with a budget just under $100m.

The Pirates can be in the position to challenge for the NL Central if they were willing to spend $50m and you know what even if they didn’t have a good season, I would suspect one or more of the six FAs would outperform their projections and could be traded for prospects. Which is what I think the Royals are doing with the signings of Carlo Santana and Mike Minor.

Is this at all likely? Absolutely not but Pirates aren’t as far away from doing well in the NL Central than most people think.

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