Pittsburgh Pirates to remain stagnant in 2019 season


Nuccio DiNuzzo | TNS

Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Corey Dickerson (12) catches a fly out by Chicago Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber (12) during the fourth inning of their game at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.

By Dominic Campbell, Staff Writer

With March coming to an end and the season of spring coming into full bloom, the Pittsburgh Pirates will once again begin their regular season.

The Pirates are coming off an 82-79 record in the 2018 season — an improvement over their previous two seasons that saw them finish below .500. Despite the winning season, Pittsburgh still finished fourth in the National League Central and did little this offseason to improve upon that record.

The Pirates added shortstop Erik Gonzalez and two pitching prospects in a trade with the Cleveland Indians, dealing away outfielder Jordan Luplow and infielder Max Moroff in the process. Although a utility player for most of his time in Cleveland, Gonzalez was named the starter at shortstop for the beginning of the season, so he may prove to be a valuable, cheap pickup.

The team also added utility outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall, who also played for the Indians previously. Chisenhall will likely be the starting right fielder this season because regular starter Gregory Polanco tore his labrum last August and isn’t expected back until May at the earliest. If Chisenhall also finds himself on the injured list, former All-Star Melky Cabrera, who was added this offseason, could find himself in that starting position.

Other lackluster additions include pitcher Jordan Lyles, a journeyman pitcher throughout his career. His stats won’t get Pirates fans excited, as he owns a 31-52 record and 5.28 earned run average.Still, he figures to be the fifth starter in the rotation, replacing Ivan Nova who was traded in the offseason. Unless pitching coach Ray Searage can work some magic with Lyles like he has with previous pitchers like Nova and A.J. Burnett, it will be another rough year for the veteran.

Aside from Lyles, the rest of the pitching rotation looks to be solid, even verging on elite. Leading this crew will be Jameson Taillon, coming off his first full year as a starter in the majors after being the No. 2 draft pick in 2010. He was 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA last season, and was especially incredible down the stretch, finishing with an 11-3 record and a 2.27 ERA in his last 14 starts.

Trevor Williams also was fantastic at the end of last season, allowing just 11 runs in his last 13 starts for a 1.29 ERA and 7-3 record. Williams will have to show that last season wasn’t a fluke if he hopes to be the No. 2 starter this season.

The Pirates acquired Chris Archer and Joe Musgrove in trades last season to help round out possibly one of the best starting pitching rotations in the National League. Musgrove was one of four players picked up in the trade with the Houston Astros for former Pirates All-Star pitcher Gerrit Cole, and Archer was picked up at the trade deadline from the Tampa Bay Rays. Musgrove wasn’t incredible last year, going 6-9 overall with a 4.06 ERA, and Archer was average with a 3-3 record and 4.30 ERA. But they both improved toward the end, with Archer posting a 2.70 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 30 September innings and Musgrove only allowing a .240 batting average in his last 13 starts.

The bullpen should also be a strong point for the Pirates, if last season was any indication. Closer Felipe Vasquez made his first All-Star team last season and had the sixth most saves in the MLB with 37. Helping Vasquez will be set-up man Keone Kela, who had a 2.93 ERA in that role, and Kyle Crick, who had an impressive 2.39 ERA in 60.1 innings. Richard Rodriguez will also be a part of this great bullpen as he was named the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates Rookie of the year after having a 2.47 ERA and striking out 31.5 percent batters he faced in 69.1 innings.

The Pirates’ biggest question marks heading into the season come on the offensive side. While Pittsburgh didn’t allow many runs, finishing 14th in the MLB with 693, they were toward the bottom of the league in runs scored, finishing 20th with 692.

The outfield duo of Corey Dickerson and Starling Marte will highlight the Pirates’ offense. Dickerson was a NL Gold Glove winner last season and also hit .300, while Marte has been an All-Star and and hit .277 with 20 home runs and 72 runs batted in. Polanco, who will be out for a considerable amount of time, had his ups and downs last year, but still hit the most home runs of his career with 23 and had great months of June and July where he hit more than .300.

The infield cast, however, is what will make or break Pittsburgh’s hitting ability. The biggest story for this upcoming season will be Jung Ho Kang. Kang hasn’t had significant playing time since multiple DUI charges in his native South Korea stalled his U.S. visa in 2016. He then had trouble staying healthy and only had six at-bats at the end of last season. If he can return his 2015 and 2016 form where he hit 15 and 21 home runs, then he could prove his worth as a quality major league player once again.

With the losses of second baseman Josh Harrison and shortstop Jordy Mercer, Gonzalez will fill into shortstop, while Adam Frazier, who has spent the last two seasons as a utility player playing anywhere from infield to outfield, will start at second base. Frazier is a decent hitter, batting .277 last year and driving in 35 runs off the bench.

First baseman Josh Bell will also be a major x-factor. Bell hit only 12 home runs last season after hitting 26 as a rookie, and his slugging percentage decreased from .466 from .411. Bell has worked with new hitting coach Rick Eckstein and will hopefully return to hitting at least 25-plus home runs, which will be necessary if the Pirates hope to compete.

As a team, the Pirates must drive in more runs overall. They were third-worst in the NL and fifth-worst in the MLB with only 157 home runs last season. Eckstein will need to get not only Bell but everyone else on the team to be more powerful as the lack of home runs is a huge missing piece of a successful team.

The problem with the Pirates is that they’ll play in one of the best divisions in baseball. The rest of the NL Central includes last year’s division champion Milwaukee Brewers, fresh off a National League Championship Series appearance, and the Chicago Cubs just three years off a World Series victory in 2016. The St. Louis Cardinals were also just a few games off the NL Wild Card last season and the basement-dwelling Cincinnati Reds added a load of new stars to the team this offseason, including outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers and 2015 AL Cy Young winner Sonny Gray with a trade from the New York Yankees.

The Pirates don’t seem to be moved to spend money in free agency, even if it could bolster a formidable roster with ample potential. This laziness in free agency will likely come back to hurt a team that many fans have lost faith in after owner Bob Nutting has consistently cut back costs despite increased share revenue from the MLB.

In all likelihood, the Pirates will win 85 games at best and 72 at worst. They should hover at about the .500 mark once again, considering they made virtually no moves in the offseason, which will only be good enough for a fourth- or fifth-place finish playing in the star-studded NL Central. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result — if that’s the case, then Nutting must be truly nuts.