To the casual or semi-casual fan, the outlook for the Pittsburgh Pirates might elicit a shrug and an “eh”. But to be clear, the Pirates ranking of 23rd overall can easily be viewed as having the arrow pointing up. Though fans might be glum about the departures of Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, the Pirates have assets up and down the levels of the organization, and on both sides of the ball. First, let’s take a look at the Major League club.
Though the McCutchen era has ended officially in Pittsburgh, the Pirates still have plenty of bats to be optimistic about. While McCutchen’s skills were declining with age, Gregory Polanco is just entering his age 26 season. On and off shoulder Injuries have dampened Polanco’s 2016 power breakout, but Polanco still has all the tools to play an all-star level right field. He also is signed to a very team friendly contract for the next four seasons. Meanwhile, though Starling Marte was busted for PED use last year, the 29 year old is under team control through 2021 if his team options are picked up, and before last year’s suspension-shortened season, the athletic leftfielder was good for close to 5 WAR for each of the seasons 2014-2016. People may be sleeping a bit on these two men due to their down 2017’s, but given their age and contracts, and their tools and career performance, there is still reason to expect great things from Polanco and Marte.
Meanwhile, Josh Bell hit for more power than anyone would have thought in his rookie season last year, and will be looking to repeat as the Pirates full-time firstbaseman in 2018. The young switch-hitter launched 26 long balls last year, and still has the reputation for great natural hitting skills. If Bell put his plus hit tool to even better use going forward, look for Bell to further solidify himself as the Pirates long-term answer at firstbase.
In the trade of Gerrit Cole to the Astros over the winter, the Pirates have clearly committed to the gains made by thirdbaseman Colin Moran in 2017. Whereas Moran, the former 6th overall pick in the 2013 Amateur Draft, always boasted a plus hit tool and can play a competent thirdbase, 2017 saw him make concerted changes in his swing, and began hitting for impressive power. Always thought to be present in his 6’4 lefthanded swing, Moran will project as an everyday corner infield option if he shows his swing adjustments and unlocked power continue to take.
On the pitching side, there are plenty of intriguing arms. Jameson Taillon finally stayed healthy and had a very successful debut in 2016 and continued it for the most part in 2017. Joe Musgrove stands out for potentially elite command, and will be given the opportunity to reach his ceiling as a 2-3 WAR starting pitcher. Tyler Glasnow continues to get work as a starting pitcher, but everyday seems to be bringing him closer to his inevitable role as a lights out power reliever. Felipe Rivero excelled as the closer last year down the stretch and Michael Feliz shows the electric swing and miss stuff to follow in his path. Josh Smoker and Kyle Crick bring the heat from the rubber later in games and also look to be part of a dynamic Pirates pen going forward.
But really, let’s be honest, there is likely not enough here to be anything more than a .500 ball club in 2018. Luckily, there is ample depth at all levels of the minor league system, and the next core good Pirates team might not be that far off.
Minor League Talent
Austin Meadows remains the centerfielder of the future for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Laden with tools such as 60-grade speed, and ability to hit for power and average, Meadows name has graced the very top of prospect lists for a couple of years now. While some prospect fatigue might be setting in, Meadows has been slowed by both leg injuries and fighting through continuously making swing changes. That being said, Meadows still possesses all-star caliber centerfielder upside. Look for a fully healthy and successful offensive season from Meadows in triple-A Indianapolis as the biggest positive development for the Pirates organization in 2018.
With Jordy Mercer set to hit free agency after this season, the door might be wide open for Cole Tucker to walk through in 2019. Tucker had an offensive breakout of sorts last season and possesses sneaky gap power and plus speed. The 2014 1st round pick out of HS projects average defensively, but could grow into an above average bat for his position. Meanwhile, 2015 1st rounder Kevin Newman has an advanced hit tool and provides good insurance as a utility infielder. A tad further down the line, Ke’Bryan Hayes, son of former MLBer Charlie Hayes, held his own offensively as a teenager in the Florida State League. The elite defensive thirdbaseman has plus running speed and the potential for an average-to-plus hit tool. If the hit tool develops, the defense is that good that he will be a good regular. Speaking of exciting teenage bats, Lolo Sanchez, 18, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, has gotten tons of helium as a breakout prospect, boasting plus speed, defense and hit tools in centerfield. Just as deep as this system is in bats, there are some nice arms to go around as well.
Mitch Keller pounds the strike zone with his mid 90’s fastball and plus curve. Though he doesn’t own a good changeup, many scouts think he’ll get enough groundballs off his two power pitches that he’ll be a good #3 starter. While Keller might be ready in 2019, 2017 1st round pick Shane Baz is a little farther off. Taken out of the prep ranks with a mid-90s fastball, hard cutter, and plus curve, Baz needs to time to refine his command of his impressive arsenal. There is clear potential for a good mid-rotation starter if the command comes. Meanwhile, Taylor Hearn comes at you with an imposing 6’5 frame and nasty arsenal from the left side of the rubber, featuring a mid-90s heater and plus slider. Luis Escobar is another power arm that has the chance to pitch high leverage innings.
Buttressed by a minor league system that boasts an impressive blend of depth and high end potential, the dip that the Pirates might experience in 2018 should not be for long. While Gerrit Cole never blossomed into an ace in Pittsburgh and Andrew McCutchen began to age a little more quickly than expected, the next exciting young Pirates core can already be seen this year in the likes of Josh Bell, Colin Moran and Joe Musgrove. With more talent percolating, the Pirates will have to continue to draft and develop their talent in order to compete with the much larger budgets in their division, such as the Cubs and Cardinals. As it stands now, the Pirates come in at 24th of 30 MLB organizations.