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A Deeper Look at the Pirates

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Does the probable last place team deserve to be called “the last probable last place team?”

Pittsburgh Pirates v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Here is my final look at an NL Central team’s organizational depth by going through every position and seeing how deep the team is. In case you missed the others, here’s a quick shortcut to those posts:

Cubs

Brewers

Reds

Catcher

2020 represents a new era for Pirates catching. Since 2015, the plan has been to let Francisco Cervelli catch for as many innings as he could, which lately wasn’t much. Cervelli played in over 100 games just three times with the Pirates: he combined for 10.9 WAR in those years. Sometimes being money conscious and trying to field the best team converge into a result that makes sense. Jacob Stallings might represent that, largely due to his framing numbers. He was the 8th best framer in baseball last year. His bat is weak, but for a good defending catcher, survivable with an 80 wRC+ projection. He may hover around league average, but he’s gonna need to see zero dropoff from his framing numbers, which is questionable thing to rely on in my opinion.

His backup, probably, will be Luke Maile, also considered a good framer, but with an absolutely horrendous bat. Maile has been a 1 wRC+ hitter in a season with 136 PAs, and a 14 wRC+ hitter in a season with 129 PAs. His career wRC+ is 48. He has a 52 wRC+ projection. John Ryan Murphy has been around since 2013 but only has 3.122 years of service time. Andrew Susac was once Buster Posey’s backup, but hasn’t seen more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues since he was last with the Giants in 2015. Both were signed to minor league deals.

Unlike every other NL Central team, there are no real catching prospects in sight. Deon Stafford was Fangraphs 25th ranked prospect in 2018, but his bat has steadily gotten worse. He’s 24 and will probably spend the year in AA. Grant Koch is considered a potential role player in the future, I assume because of his defense, since his bat hit for a 75 wRC+ in Single A and he’s already 23. Eli Wilson was a 2019 16th rounder who had a solid debut in rookie league ball. That’s about all they got.

First Base

Josh Bell has finally delivered on his potential. Well, sort of. The problem with Bell is his defense is absolutely horrific. Last year, he was a -16.4 UZR/150 defender at 1B, and for his career he’s -9. I believe this means he’d be better off being a DH. I mean he was a 135 wRC+ hitter, played a full season, and was only worth 2.5 WAR. His backup is mostly Jose Osuna, who played 31 games at 1B last year. Osuna now has over 600 PAs of being a below replacement player and I’m curious how long they stick with him.

They have a former prospect near the MLB as well. I assume we’ll be getting to actual prospects soon. Will Craig was the 19th ranked Pirates prospect by Fangraphs for the 2019 list, but Craig had a 92 wRC+ season in AAA as a 24-year-old. He’s been added to the 40 man, but will probably play something other than 1B in the majors. The 16th ranked Mason Martin has otherworldy numbers but is that low because 1) position and 2) never showed anything close to this before 2019. And “this” is a 164 wRC+ in Single A and a 155 wRC+ in High A. He’s 20. I’m going to have a hard time not thinking this guy should be higher, 1B or not.

Second Base

The former utility man Adam Frazier played every game last year at 2B. And he was a perfectly capable starter. Frazier seems to epitomize average player. He was a 2.2 WAR player last year and is projected for 2 WAR this year. Trying to take Frazier’s place as the utilityman turned 2B is Kevin Kramer, whose bat isn’t currently good enough to take that role and may never be. In 90 career MLB PAs, he has a 41.1 K%.

In High A, the Pirates have two - TWO - 2B prospects. South Korean Ji-Hwan Bae hit for a 145 wRC+ in 380 PAs in Single A, but I have to point out the .417 BABIP, .107 ISO, and 0 homers. He did that at 19 though, which tends to wave away those concerns. Rodolfo Castro is another 20-year-old 2B prospect. His season started in A ball (131 wRC+), and he finished the year with a 99 wRC+ in High A. Given his age, he’ll probably start 2020 in High A too. That covers the 11th and 12th ranked Pirates prospects of 2020. Poor 20-year-old Yoyner Fajardo merely had a 124 wRC+ in the GCL.

And Juan Jerez is the 35th ranked prospect, although you have to realize that Fangraphs - if they must choose between a potential role player in AA or a teenager in the DSL - they’ll choose the teenager every time. Jerez seems more questionable than most of these choices, just because he only hit for a 114 wRC+ in the DSL and it came with a 5.5 BB% AND he’s considered a 2B/3B long-term. None of those facts seem to add up to actual prospect to me. Just way too far away, not especially dominant stats, and not at a premium position.

3B

A sure sign of non-competing is continuing to start and play Colin Moran, who briefly seemed like he might be a thing. If he was ever a thing, last year killed it. He walked less, struck out more, relied more on BABIP, and was a worse hitter last year than he was in his debut season. He’ll get league minimum one more year, and then the Pirates will get rid of him as soon as he makes any money. Count on that.

Which, in in the interest of fairness, also has to do with #1 overall Pirates prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes. He’s also the 30th ranked prospect in baseball by FG. Hayes spent all of last year in AAA and was actually disappointing, with a 92 wRC+. But he’s still just 23 and will probably see the majors at some point in 2020. Dylan Busby is in the unusual category of someone who had a really good 2019 that in no way indicates he could be a major leaguer. He had a 129 wRC+ in High A, but it came with a 36.4 K%. He’s also already 24.

72nd overall pick in the 2019 draft, Jared Triolo, had an above average season in Low A, but he dropped from the 13th prospect to 22, becuase there’s nothing really remarkable about him. Alex Mokica is a 17-year-old who had a 182 wRC+ in the DSL. More walks than strikeouts too. He’s Fangraphs 32nd ranked Pirates prospect.

SS

You can see that the Pirates are reasonably well set up for the future in the infield - Bell has three more years of team control, Frazier has three as well, and 3B will surely be manned by Hayes for a few years whenever he’s called up. Kevin Newman, with 2.4 WAR last season and with five years of team control, would seemingly give them four locked-in starters for the foreseeable future. His projection of 87 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR would indicate it’s not so sure a thing however.

For 2020 though, there’s no question it’s Newman. The Pirates, for the moment, still have Erik Gonzalez, who may have only survived the whole year because he was hurt from May until early August, and well, he only had to stay on the roster another month at that point. In 53 games, he had a 59 wRC+. With a negative WAR projection, I imagine he’s not staying on the Pirates for long. The Pirates also gave a MLB contract to JT Riddle, who had a 54 wRC+ last year and was not good enough for the Marlins to keep. They signed him presumably, because Cole Tucker had a 61 wRC+ in the majors last year.

That covers everyone on their 40 man except one man, O’Neill Cruz, who also has the pleasure of being the #2 overall Pirates prospect and being the #32 prospect in baseball. It is a little concerning that the Pirates have two prospects within the top 35 who are both very close to the MLB. Cruz appears to have had an injury-shortened 2019, but he had a 154 wRC+ in High A before a promotion to AA, which produced a 120 wRC+. He’s only 21. That’s another reason Newman’s spot as the future SS is tenuous. The actual future one is not far behind.

2018 3rd rounder Connor Kaiser had an average line at Single A, but he did it weirdly. His BABIP was just .247, but he managed to walk nearly 15% of the time. Still though, a 22-year-old with a .247 BABIP in Single A? Probably can ignore that guy. The Pirates received Liover Peguero, the 98th prospect by Fangraphs, for Starling Marte. Peguero is very far way though. Just 19, his highest level last year was Low A, where he had an average hitting line. And in another case of Fangraphs being goofy with the DSL guys, they ranked Luis Tejada, 81 wRC+ hitter in the DSL, 36th. He was 16 last year, but come on guys. How is this guy a prospect yet?

OF

No more Andrew McCutchen, no more Starling Marte. Still here? Gregory Polanco. He signed a 5 year, $35 million deal with two club options prior to the 2017 season. He sandwiched a 2.5 WAR season with a 0.6 one and a -0.2 one following that deal. Looking like a good deal for Polanco, because the Pirates would have definitely let him enter free agency after this year had that deal never been signed. (He has one year until eligibility if not for that deal). Replacing Marte is Jarrod Dyson, signed to a one year deal, and despite his defense, clearly better as a bench player than starter. In LF was the surprising emergence of Bryan Reynolds, who batted .314 and had a 131 wRC+ last year. He had a .387 BABIP, so expect that average to go way down in 2020.

On the bench is Guillmero Heredia, who was let go by the Tampa Bay Rays. Listen Pirates, it’s really not a great sign that your entire bench is guys who other cheap teams have given up on. The only other OFer on the 40 man is Jason Martin, a 24-year-old who was in the Gerrit Cole trade. It was this guy, Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, and Michael Feliz. We can see how Moran worked out, and Martin doesn’t appear much better. He reached AAA and then just stopped hitting. A 59 game sample of 65 wRC+ last year and a 101 game sample of 83 wRC+ hitting this year before a 40 PA sample of not hitting in the majors either.

A better regarded prospect that will likely be his teammate is Jared Olivia, the Pirates 9th ranked prospect. He spent last year in AA and hit for a 123 wRC+ by being solid at just about every aspect, but not great at any aspect. They signed former Card prospect Charlie Tilson and former DBack Socrates Brito to minor league deals. 23-year-old Chris Sharpe also made it to AA last year and hit for a 105 wRC+ with just a .250 BABIP. And Pablo Reyes, who actually saw quite a bit of MLB time last year, was suspended for testing positive for PEDs and if you saw his MLB line, you’d understand why he did it.

In AA, we have yet another top 100 prospect, this time in the form of Travis Swaggerty. He’s the Pirates 4th ranked prospect and 61st overall. He spent last year in High A and hit for a 120 wRC+. He’s only 22. Someone whose stock has dropped is Cal Mitchell, who was also in High A and didn’t end up hitting for a much worse line (110 wRC+), but who had a 28.8 K% and walked less than the year before. He’s the Pirates 14th prospect after being their 8th in 2019. Bligh Madnes was skipped to High A in 2018, where he was below average, but they sent him to AA this year anyway, where he improved his numbers (106 wRC+)

Here is a player who exemplifies the weirdness that is Fangraphs ranking system: Lolo Sanchez. Sanchez, who signed out of the Dominican Republic way back in 2015, was 18 and had a 90 wRC+ in 114 Single A games in 2018. He was the 11th ranked prospect. Last year, he had a 75 wRC+ upon repeating that level and was promoted to High A for the end of the year, where he had a 142 wRC+. And he fell to 29th. The writer references his exit velocity being low, so I guess that’s it. 2018 30th rounder Jack Herman is the rare high schooler to have signed that late and who had a 134 wRC+ in 75 Single A games. He’s ranked 27th.

2019 37th overall pick Sammy Siani hit 107 wRC+ for the GCL Pirates. He’s their 15h overall prospect. 2019 57th overall pick and the 34th ranked prospect Matt Gorski hit for a 96 wRC+ in Low A last year. Juan Pie is the 39th ranked prospect who had a 91 wRC+ in the GCL. And most absurdly, here are three prospects who spent time in the DSL who all ranked among the Pirates top 42 prospects: Rodolfo Nolasco (17th, 133 wRC+), Sergio Campana (41st, 110 wRC+), and Osvaldo Gavilan (42nd, 64 wRC+).

Starting Pitcher

The Chris Archer trade was probably never going to look good, but Chris Archer has not remotely helped with the perception of that trade. After a down year last year, the Pirates did exercise one of his two club options and hopes he rebounds. ZiPS thinks he will, with a 2.6 WAR projection. Joe Musgrove, mentioned in the above Cole trade, has at least worked out. He had a 3.3 WAR last year and a 2.7 WAR projection. He has three years of team control left. Trevor Williams, also with three years, finally stopped outpitching his peripherals last year, with a 5.38 ERA. Oh look here’s another top 35 prospect: Mitch Keller. Keller struck out 65 batters in 48 innings in the majors last year, but his ERA was 7.13. His peripherals were.... way better than that (3.19 FIP). He might be a problem.

The other guy, Jameson Taillon, will be out for what may very well be the entire 2020 season. He had Tommy John in August of last year. Because of that, Steven Brault may take the fifth spot. Brault started 19 games last year and wasn’t very good. You have three probably good starters and two not very good starters in this rotation. Also on the 40 man? Chad Kuhl, who isn’t any better than Brault, and JT Brubaker, the 25th ranked Pirates prospect who is already 26. The Pirates 10th prospect is Cody Bolton, a 21-year-old who reached AA last year. He wasn’t any good there, but 21.

Max Kranick was the Pirates 27th ranked, but after a season in High A of not striking out anybody, he was not on the 2020 list. 42nd overall pick in 2017 Steven Jennings is ranked 23rd after an unspectacular season in Single A. Then we get to a truly ridiculous amount of starting pitching prospects, who will start in Single A or lower. Tahnaj Thomas is the 78th overall prospect and 5th in the Pirates system. He’ll turn 21 in June and as a 20-year-old last year, he struck out 10.99 batters per 9 innings in Low A. The 18th overall pick in last year’s draft, Quinn Priester, is the 7th ranked prospect. He struck out over 10.00 per 9 innings in the GCL last year.

33rd overall pick in last year’s draft Brennan Malone, also in the Marte trade, barely compiled any stats last season, and is the 8th ranked Pirates prospect. The 68th overall pick in the 2016 draft, Travis MacGregor, struck out over 10.00 batters per 9 innings in Single A last year at 21-years-old and is the 19th ranked Pirates prospect. The 51st overall pick in the 2018 draft, Braxton Ashcraft, is the 24th ranked prospect, but didn’t have a very good year in Low A last year. There’s the 18th ranked, soon-to-be 20-year-old, Santiago Florez, who has never at any point in his short career had good stats, so I guess that’s scouting getting that ranking. 20-year-old Michael Burrows had a solid season in Low A last season and is the 21st ranked prospect. Lastly, Andy Maldanado, who spent last year in the DSL and walked twice as many as he struck out, and is serving a 70 game suspension, was worthy of the 40th ranking.

Bullpen

Felipe Vazquez is currently on the restricted list and is facing 21 charges and has essentially admitted he did this thing I’m going to make you google, so he’s probably not pitching in the majors again. Clay Holmes fractured his foot, but may be good to go again by the time baseball starts. Keone Kela has exactly one year left until he reaches free agency. Kyle Crick is the infamous fellow who egged on Amir Garrett and then hid behind teammates and his play last year did not back up the extreme confidence he smacked talked with. Richard Rodriguez looked more like a normal reliever last year than he first flashed. Michael Feliz is a replacement reliever who strikes out a lot of people for being a replacement reliever.

Nick Burdi is the 26th ranked prospect and with 2 years of service time and at 27, he’s an unusual one. He spent most of the last year two years on the IL, but he struck out 17 out of possible 40 batters in limited time last year. Former Giant Chris Stratton is there to eat innings and start a game if necessary. It’s unclear if they’ll keep Dovydas Neverauskas, who is out of options and not particularly likely to be good. Derek Holland was the frontrunner for the 5th rotation spot, so I guess I should have put him there, but he’s also signed to a minor league deal, so he might not even make the team. Edgar Santana is probably making the team somehow, someway, because he had a 3.26 ERA in 66.1 IP with peripherals that were close enough to it.

And of the 40 man options probably destined for the minors, there’s more than a few. Yacksel Rios has already been option to the minors, and who has a 6.20 ERA in 65.1 career innings. 26-year-old Geoff Hartlieb managed excellent numbers in AAA, but upon promotion, allowed 35 runs in 35 innings last year. 24-year-old Blake Cederlind was added to the 40 man over the offseason after a great year in AA. They added soon to be 26-year-old Cody Ponce despite missing most of 2019. And they claimed 27-year-old Sam Howard from the Rockies last October, who struck out a few batters last year, but had a 6.63 ERA.

13th ranked prospect Nick Mears is also relief only, and he started last year in Single A. He struck out 41% of batters there, so they promoted him to High A where he struck out 35% of batters. He ended the year in AA and he only pitched 5 innings there, but he struck out 7 of the 23 batters he faced. Given his fast ascent last year, he could be in the big leagues by the end of 2020. Fangraphs ranked Yerry De Los Santos 30th, largely because he struck out 38% of batters in Single A over 50 innings of work. And they also included Yordi Rosario, who probably shouldn’t be ranked, who had normal good stats in rookie ball.

For 2020, it’s hard to see how they would finish higher than 5th. There’s just not a whole lot of upside here. They have, by my count, four above average starters. Of those four, two of them have below average projections by ZiPS (Reynolds and Newman), Bell’s defense will significantly limit his upside, and Frazier, who seems like a very dependable average player but not much higher. After that you have the unreliable Polanco, the no bat Dyson, the hope he’s average Stallings, and Moran until Hayes comes up (whose 92 wRC+ in AAA wouldn’t suggest he’d be immediately good anyway). So they’ll be relying on their starting pitchers, of which they only have three good ones thanks to the Taillon injury.

In 2021, you can see the potential to be dangerous. Hayes and Cruz could potentially upgrade two positions, and Taillon returns and makes it a dangerous starting four pitchers. Still feels like they need one of those two prospects to really hit it big and for one of their OF prospects to be ready by then as well. But you can see it. Archer leaves after 2021, and Musgrove and Taillon become free agents after 2022, so they’ll also need to replace a lot of their starting staff in the next few years, so the longer term question of the Pirates is: will these SP prospects currently in A ball or lower, be ready by 2023.