Can someone out there explain to me just what in the world happened to the Pittsburgh Pirates last season? How did a team with so much young talent and experience fall off to a record five games under .500? Going into the season, they appeared to have just about everything you could want. They had a solid, albeit unspectacular, starting staff led by Gerrit Cole. Their bullpen was deep and talented, anchored at the back end by Mark Melancon. And their line-up was strong, from top to bottom, led by Andrew McCutchen.
Needless to say, no team was as shockingly disappointing to me as the 2016 Pirates. That makes them difficult to project this season. They’re still really talented. Andrew McCutchen had a really down year by his standards in 2016. His career low 106 wRC+ was 16 points lower than the next lowest mark, 122, that he posted in 2009. And defensively, his performance earned him a move to right field, the easiest of positions to play at PNC Park.
The Bucs are hard to pigeon hole this year. They could be really good again, competing for a playoff spot in a division that figures to have two sure fire contending teams. Or, they could go the other way and start to move off some of their veteran players, like McCutchen, who they explored moving last season. It’s hard to tell which way this team goes in 2017.
The Pirates have a lot of talented players. Starling Marte is a star that nobody knows about because he plays in Pittsburgh next to Andrew McCutchen. He posted a 4.0 fWAR in 2016, which could be easily considered a down year, with only 9 HRs. The .380 BABIP was a career best, and helped fuel him to a .311/.362/.456 slash line. He’s never been one to take many walks, but he’s kept his strike outs under 20% the past two seasons. His ability to get on base enabled him to steal 47 bases in 2016. It’ll be interesting to see if his power can recover to the traditional 13-19 HRs he put up in years past. It isn’t a stretch to say he is the Pirates’ best player right now with the uncertainty of Andrew McCutchen’s performance after a really disappointing 2016.
A portion of their struggles in 2016 can be pinned on injuries. Gerrit Cole, Jung Ho Kang, Tyler Glasnow, Chris Stewart, Jameson Taillon, Josh Harrison, and Starling Marte all spent time on the disabled list in 2016. The strength of this team remains its talent base. There is a lot there to work with, with Josh Bell entering the mix, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows each being top 10 minor league prospects reaching a point where they have debuted or can debut, and Gregory Polanco continuing his development.
The Bucs just struggled last year. Look at the bottom third of the NL in just about every meaningful statistical category and there they are. 12th in HRs. 11th in ISO. 10th in slugging. Middle of the pack in strike outs. The pitching was middle of the road in FIP, 10th in HR/FB ratio, and 12th in BABIP allowed. Defensively, they were 13th in team UZR in the NL and 10th in defensive runs saved.
Those are obviously some cherry picked stats, but a team who was third in the NL in on-base percentage, 6th in stolen bases, 4th in BABIP, and 6th in runs scored in the NL had other problems. They struggled all season long with consistency. Injuries were a factor, but it isn’t the whole story. The Pirates just didn’t play well in 2016. At least not up to their talent level. Why that happened is tough to figure out, and really tough to figure if it happens again.
2017 Is a Success If…
Regression to the mean. If the Pirates figure out what happened in 2016, have fixed it, and play to their talent level, they’ll be competitive again. This is a team, with young talent and prospects in the pipeline that should be and remain competitive for a while. 78 win seasons should be few and far between for a team this good. They had one last season. It shouldn’t happen again. It seems like everyone had a down year in 2016 and it cost them an opportunity to compete for the opportunity to play in another Wild Card Game. This season will be successful if they rediscover their consistency and win the 86-92 games they’re capable of winning.
2017 Is a Failure If…
They repeat 2016. We’ll know pretty quickly if that’s the destiny, too. If the Pirates fall too far back early on, they could move Andrew McCutchen by the July trade deadline and start to reload around some of their healthy farm system. The other sure fire way to tell is if Clint Hurdle is unemployed before July. He earned himself the opportunity at redemption in 2017 by helping revive the franchise, but if things start heading south early on, he may get shown a quick exit. Desperation is a pungent cologne, and if the Pirates try to make a quick fix, the manager is the easiest way to go. None of this is to pin 2016 on Hurdle, but it’s far easier to change the face at the front of the room than the faces that fill in the room. And nothing says lost season quite like changing managers or coaches in the middle of a season.
Projected Record: 81-81
I don’t know. They could be really good. They could be pretty bad again. They’re talented. But they were talented last season. Andrew McCutchen can’t possibly put up another replacement level season. But Andrew McCutchen couldn’t have possibly put up a replacement level season last year before he did. I’m riding the fence here because I love the talent level on the roster and in the organization, but I saw what they did last year and have no idea how it could have happened. So, we’ll see.