Pirates begin 2019 with eye on postseason

Club counting on pitching staff that took shape in second half

March 26th, 2019

BRADENTON, Fla. -- On the final day of last season, manager Clint Hurdle summarized in three words how he felt about the Pirates’ 82-79 campaign. The 2018 season saw Pittsburgh start off strong, slump for an extended stretch, buy big in the July leading up to the non-waiver Trade Deadline, fade in August and still finish above .500 for the first time since '15.

Those three words? “Pleased, not satisfied.”

The Pirates were accused of tanking after they traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole last winter, so their modest success in 2018 was indeed a pleasant surprise for some. They were legitimate postseason hopefuls when they acquired Chris Archer and Keone Kela last July 31. Their pitching staff proved to be formidable.

But a winning record alone will not satisfy the Pirates this year, either. They are hoping to get back into the postseason, difficult as their path may look with a lower payroll and a loaded division.

“It’s a core group that loves to be together and hates losing. I think we’re ready to turn that around,” starter said. “We showed last year that we have the ability to finish with a winning record, and I think we can only go forward from there.”

What's the goal?
General manager Neal Huntington set up the stakes quite clearly while addressing fans at the club’s annual PiratesFest convention in January: “If we don’t win a World Series, we have not accomplished our goal. That’s why we’re here.”

Whether or not that’s realistic, it shows the Pirates are aiming higher than 82 wins this year. They haven’t reached the postseason since losing the 2015 National League Wild Card Game to the Cubs at PNC Park. They haven’t been to the World Series since 1979, and they’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of that team this year.

The Pirates expect to be back in the postseason mix, but they’ll have to take a significant step forward to make it happen.

What's the plan?
The Pirates are counting on a pitching staff that took shape in the second half of last season. The rotation is led by Opening Day starter Jameson Taillon, Archer and right-handers Joe Musgrove and Williams. The bullpen is backed by All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez, Kela, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez.

That group is the foundation upon which the Pirates are built. They believe their starters will keep them in games, and they expect their top four relievers to lock down wins when they get ahead. They also have productive units behind the plate (Francisco Cervelli and, when healthy, Elias Diaz) and in the outfield (Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and, when healthy, Gregory Polanco).

But will they hit enough? That remains the question. Pittsburgh is hoping for positive contributions from newcomers like Lonnie Chisenhall, Erik Gonzalez and Melky Cabrera. Adam Frazier will get a chance to prove himself as the everyday second baseman. The Bucs will openly admit that third baseman Jung Ho Kang is a wild card after being out of the country most of the past two years, but they are optimistic he’ll provide power to a lineup that sorely needs it. More than anything, they’re hoping to get more out of their returning players -- namely Josh Bell and Colin Moran -- under the watch of new hitting coach Rick Eckstein and assistant Jacob Cruz.

What could go wrong?
The Pirates don’t have much margin for error, but they do have a number of unanswered questions. The biggest one: What if their lineup doesn’t make the meaningful improvement that they’re expecting?

The left side of the infield is unproven -- Gonzalez as an everyday player, Kang as a Major League player since 2016 -- so anything could happen there. The Pirates are optimistic about Bell, but what happens if he doesn’t rediscover his '17 power? Polanco has breezed through his shoulder rehabilitation thus far, but their outfield depth would be tested if that process stalls or Chisenhall’s calf injuries flare up again.

There is more certainty on the pitching side, but the Bucs aren’t necessarily built to withstand the loss of a core pitcher. What if a few starters or back-end relievers regress or get injured? They have options to fill the fifth spot of their rotation coming out of camp, but they probably can’t afford to have top prospect Mitch Keller struggle again in Triple-A, either.

Who might surprise?

The Pirates are betting on the idea that essentially nobody on their roster has reached his peak, so any number of players could be the answer here. There is risk throughout Pittsburgh’s roster, but also upside.

Gonzalez could emerge as a dynamic defensive player, and Kang could immediately shake off the rust to wield a powerful bat. Maybe Bell will bounce back with 20-plus homers or Frazier will fulfill former teammate David Freese’s prediction and win a batting title. Maybe Chisenhall can combine good health with his recent offensive turnaround and thrive like Dickerson did last season.

Taillon could get even better, and Archer could return to “ace” form. Williams could prove that his second half was no fluke, and Musgrove could be better than expected as long as he stays healthy.

Is all of that likely? Probably not. Is it possible? Sure. The Pirates are banking on their talent and believing enough will go right to make them contenders for the first time since 2015.