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2019 Pirates preview


Evan Ferguson, Sports Editor

The team may only rank seventh on The Athletic’s recently released MLB misery index, but one could argue that Pirates’ fans are the most jaded fanbase in all of baseball. They made three consecutive playoff appearances from 2013 to 2015, but were twice blanked opposing aces in the NL Wild Card Game, and did not win the lone Divisional Series they played in.

Meanwhile, let’s see what this fanbase has endured.

A World Series drought that will hit 40 years in 2019, barring a Cinderella Story. The Bucs haven’t appeared in the Fall Classic since the “We Are Family” Pirates brought home the franchise’s second title that decade, a 20-year playoff drought, one that saw the team finish last place in the NL Central nine times, one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, the Pirates have never opened the season with a payroll north of $100 million. Meanwhile, their owner says payroll is not “controllable.” As well as this, you could add the multiple cost-cutting trades, including one that saw the franchise’s best player this century unceremoniously shipped out of town last winter.

Those examples don’t account for all of the draft busts, mismanagement, and other tomfoolery that happened in the dugout and the front office over the years.

Now, after an offseason in which all four of their divisional rivals loaded up for the 2019 season, the Pirates are once again hoping that they can combine homegrown (cheap) talent, with under-the-radar (cheap) signings to create a team that wins far more games than projected (with little financial backing at the trade deadline if this does happen).

The team at a glance looks like this: Their 2019 farm system ranks 18th in the majors, Clint Hurdle is entering his 9th season as manager, key additions include INF Jung-Ho Kang, OF Lonnie Chisenhall, RHP Jordan Lyles, IF Erik Gonzalez, and LHP Francisco Liriano. Key subtractions include RHP Ivan Nova, SS Jordy Mercer, 2B Josh Harrison, and OF Jordan Luplow.

Only two National League teams hit fewer home runs than the Pirates last season, but they were still able to finish middle of the NL pack with 692 runs scored. They have been surprisingly good at scoring manufactured runs recently, ranking among the top six teams in baseball in this category four of the past six seasons. By mixing productive outs with a few sneaky base-stealing thieves – notably, outfielder Starling Marte – the Bucs have been able to keep scoring, despite a lack of power.

Maintaining this, however, may prove difficult, though. Marte is another year older, and was caught stealing a league-high 14 times last year. Gregory Polanco will miss the first two months of the season more than likely, as he recovers from shoulder surgery, and the team may be reticent to push him too aggressively on the base-paths early on. Adam Frazier is a better overall player than Josh Harrison, but J-Hay is a far better baserunner. First baseman Josh Bell is a large individual, but not very fast. And if Jung Ho Kang gets a lot of at bats, which he will, that’s another plodder on the bases.

Strangely, their best bet will be to hope the power shows up. Bell, Kang, Marte, Corey Dickerson, and Colin Moran all have plenty of raw power, and Frazier basically doubled his professional home run total in 352 plate appearances with the Pirates last season. Francisco Cervelli also added double-digit dingers in 2018. It will take a team effort – the Bucs need almost everyone to beat their statistical projections – but it’s possible they creep above average offensively.

During the Pirates’ run of three consecutive playoff appearances, pitching coach Ray Searage could do no wrong. He turned reclamation projects like Francisco Liriano, who was just recently brought back to Pittsburgh after a stint with the Detroit Tigers, A.J. Burnett, and Jason Grilli – Jason Grilli! – into above-average pitchers who helped the club win 280 games in three seasons.

Because the Pirates refuse to spend money on free agents, they will have to rely on finding innings off of the scrap heap once again.

The Pirates have been able to consistently churn out high-level prospects over the past several years, even beyond top-10 draft picks like Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, and Jameson Taillon. That is no different in 2019, as the Bucs have a fairly top-heavy system at their disposal. Top prospect Mitch Keller will join the league rotation at some point this season if things go well, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes is now a top-50 prospect (No. 49 on Baseball America’s list) after a big year at Double-A Altoona in 2018.

A player to watch this season is RHP Chris Archer. It doesn’t seem right to say that one player will make all the difference for a team projected to finish last place in the division, but Chris Archer feels like the X-factor for the 2019 Pirates. Now 30, Archer has enjoyed a somewhat up-and-down career, one that (perhaps unfairly*) has always felt like it is missing something. Getting out of the AL East last year didn’t help; he posted a virtually identical ERA in 10 starts with the Pirates, and gave up a few more home runs than before.

If the Pirates are going to make a run at the postseason once again in 2019, they will need a lot of different things to go right. One of those will certainly have to be Archer, who the team paid a high price for last summer. Archer has looked like an ace at times –- including a full three-year run as that guy from 2013-15 – but his ERA has only gone up over the past few seasons. While his age is trending in the same direction, his velocity has held steady, with an average fastball velocity of 95 miles per hour. It will be interesting to see how he transitions to pitching with the Pirates for a full season. The Pirates have gotten off to a good start so far in 2019, and look to continue that success throughout the months of April and May to put them in a good position to compete even after the All-Star break and in a position to bolster their roster at the trade deadline.

This should be fun.