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Checking In On the Pittsburgh Pirates

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A new coaching staff and plenty of question marks

MLB: Washington Nationals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates had a stretch of three solid years from 2013 to 2015, in which they won a combined 280 games (just over 93 per year). They made the playoffs each year during this stretch; they fell in the Wild Card game twice and lost in the NLDS once. The Pirates playoff appearance in 2013 snapped a 20-year drought, where, not only did they fail to make the playoffs in any year, but they failed to post a winning record in any year.

After the team was eliminated from the playoffs in 2015, the Pirates finished with a record of 78-83 in 2016, 75-87 in 2017, and 82-79 in 2018 before falling off in 2019 (69-93). Due to this, it has been a quiet offseason for the Bucs, but they did make some notable changes to their front office and coaching staff. However, they remain conditioned for another finish at the bottom of the NL Central next season.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Additions (position, 2019 fWAR): Sam Howard (RP, -0.2), Hector Noesi (RP, -0.3), Luke Maile (C, -0.3), Guillermo Heredia (OF, 0.3), John Ryan Murphy (C, 0.2), Socrates Brito (OF, -0.7)

Subtractions (position, 2019 fWAR): J.B. Shuck (OF, -0.1)*, Rookie Davis (RP, -0.2)*, Steven Baron (C, -0.1)*, Corban Joseph (2B, -0.8)*, Melky Cabrera (OF, -0.7)*, Lonnie Chisenhall (3B/OF, 0.0)*, Francisco Liriano (RP, 0.3)*, Alex McRae (SP/RP, -0.8)*, Dario Agrazal (SP, -0.1), Elias Diaz (C, -1.5), Pablo Reyes (OF, -0.5), Parker Markel (RP, -0.4)

There are no exciting transactions on this list. The most surefire big league player that the Pirates have brought in is Guillermo Heredia, while they only lost one player who finished 2019 with a positive WAR (Francisco Liriano). However, the most significant moves that the team has made includes firing manager Clint Hurdle as well as general manager Neal Huntington.

Former Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has been named GM, while former Twins bench coach Derek Shelton has replaced the outgoing Hurdle. This will be the second time that Cherington has been a GM in the MLB after he served in the same role for the Red Sox from 2011-2015. In his time in Boston, he won a world series in 2013, but also finished last in the AL East in 2012, 2014, and 2015. After getting fired in Boston he eventually went on to serve as the vice president of baseball operations for the Toronto Blue Jays before joining the Pirates.

New Manager Derek Shelton is a former minor league catcher who played two years in the Yankees organization in early ‘90s. After retiring, he became a minor league manager for three seasons with the Yankees where he got to coach players such as Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang. After leaving the Yankees, he became the hitting coach for the Indians for five seasons and then accepted the same position with the Rays in 2009. He was fired in 2016 and became a quality control coach for the Blue Jays in 2017 before becoming the Twins bench coach for 2018 and 2019. He will have a tough job in 2020, but his roster is not completely devoid of talent.

First baseman Josh Bell remains a big bat in the lineup and is coming off a season in which he clubbed 37 home runs and finished with a 135 wRC+, Another bright spot is shortstop Kevin Newman who impressed in his first full big league season, posting 2.4 WAR. He was an above average hitter (110 wRC+) and a good fielder at second, but a below average fielder at shortstop. Second baseman Adam Frazier also proved to be a solid option at second base with a 2.2 WAR.

Another promising player is outfielder Bryan Reynolds who broke out in his rookie season to the tune of a 131 wRC+ and 3.2 WAR. Aging center fielder Starling Marte is also fresh off a 3.0 WAR season while right fielder Gregory Polanco was injured for much of last season but tallied a 123 wRC+ and 2.5 WAR in 2018. This is not a terrible lineup, and it is one that could surprise some people considering the Pirates are (rightly) picked by everyone to finish last in the NL Central. However, for a bad team, this is not an awful lineup. There are six above average hitters and 2.0 WAR or higher players in the lineup. There were a lot of internal problems with last year’s team that likely led to under-achievement, however, if rookie manager Derek Shelton can create the right environment, this is a team that could improve by a couple wins or more from last season.

On of the main problems from the last regime was an inability to develop Chris Archer after trading for him. He finished last season with a 5.19 ERA, 5.02 FIP, and 4.36 xFIP. His days of being a very good pitcher are not too far behind him as he tallied 4.5 WAR in 2017 and 5.1 WAR in 2015. He clearly has a capable arm, but it is up to the new staff to get it working to its full potential. Joe Musgrove also had a solid season last year (3.82 FIP, 3.3 WAR) and could form a solid 1-2 punch with Chris Archer if he can get things figured out. The rest of the rotation is filled with question marks as is the bullpen, however Keone Kela is a good player with which the team can anchor the bullpen. The source of the Pirates struggles will likely be the pitching staff next season, however, if things break right for them they could be the beneficiary of a couple breakout seasons on the mound, while the lineup should actually be pretty decent. However, the Pirates are not ready to contend yet, even though they could see an increase from the 69 wins that they finished with in 2019.