If you’ve read Jeff Passan’s The Arm, you root for Daniel Hudson. The book details the pitcher’s two Tommy John surgeries, both coming after he turned down a contract extension that could have set his family up for generations. He comes off as thoughtful and honest during the brutal period, and that made me feel good about his two-year, $11 million contract with the Pirates, even though I don’t know the guy. So I’m pulling for him.
I can’t imagine defining an entire offseason with him, though.
Hudson was the Pirates’ offseason. There are good reasons to think he was unlucky last year, from his FIP to his xFIP to a general nod toward the rough Diamondbacks’ defense. He’s almost certainly better than his 2016, and he could be a fine signing. He also looks like he could be the only different player on the entire 25-man roster. Which is remarkable.
The Pirates finished 78-83 last year, breaking a three-year postseason streak. While they still haven’t won the NL Central since Barry Bonds was on the team, they won 98 games in 2015, and their overall youth gave them a good chance of continuing this newly established golden age. The stumble in ‘16 caught the organization off guard, and considering the team just finished a stretch where they finished under .500 for 20 straight seasons, you’ll excuse the fans if they seem jittery.
Here’s the entire Pirates offseason:
- Signed Lisalverto Bonilla to a one-year deal
- Signed Daniel Hudson to a two-year deal
- Re-signed Ivan Nova to a three-year deal
There were a few waiver claims and Rule 5 shenanigans mixed in, but that’s the entire offseason for an ostensible contender. Oh, also, Bonilla was designated for assignment and lost on waivers to the Reds.
The message, then, is that the players on the 2016 Pirates need to play better. That’s the plan, the strategy. It’s not that the Pirates are cheap — their payroll will be over $100 million, and they did invest in Nova — it’s that they’re comfortable. As long as the baseball men baseball better, everything should be fine.
Is this logical, though? We’ll sort the Pirates’ roster into three categories.
Should be better
I’m not sure what to make of Josh Harrison, either, but even if we shouldn’t expect his 2014 season again, he’s probably a little better than he was last year.
Andrew McCutchen is the easiest call to make for this category. It’s possible that he was bitten by the same wraith that got to Dale Murphy decades ago. History suggests, though, that it’s much more likely that his down year was an aberration and a total hiccup. And the outfield defense as a whole should be better, with McCutchen moving to right field. He really did look overmatched in center.
Jung-ho Kang’s production might not improve — especially considering his legal troubles and state of mind — but he should get more than 370 plate appearances next season, which would help the Pirates quite a bit.
I’m bullish on both Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco just because of their youth and tools. Marte might have hit his ceiling, but I still think there’s something left to unpack. And Polanco will be just 25, and he’s improved every year he’s been in the league.
Josh Bell has been a top-100 prospect for four years now, and he had more walks than strikeouts in his major league debut. A full season from him instead of John Jaso should be a net positive.
Gerrit Cole went from finishing fourth in the NL Cy Young voting to an injury-marred season that made him an ordinary pitcher instead of an ace. Not only should he be better, but a full season from Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova should make the Pirates feel better, too.
There are reasons to be skeptical about Chad Kuhl and Drew Hutchison, but it would be hard for them to be worse at the back of the rotation than Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano were last year, even if the move to ditch Liriano still seems silly. There’s also a chance that top prospect Tyler Glasnow emerges and thrives, giving the Pirates a wicked top four.
Should be worse
Tony Watson isn’t as good as Mark Melancon, but he’s pretty good. The rest of the bullpen feels thinner with Melancon gone and Watson moved up.
The bench isn’t going to get the same kind of production it enjoyed from Sean Rodriguez and Matt Joyce last year, just because no bench is likely to get that kind of production.
And that’s it.
Wait, I’m starting to get it ...
Should be about the same
Everyone else, really. That goes for David Freese as the overqualified reserve, Francisco Cervelli, who is more of a freaky on-base machine than an All-Star-caliber hitter, and Jordy Mercer, who is perfectly acceptable, if a little underwhelming.
That’s about a dozen names in the first section, including all of the most important players on the roster. The bullpen and bench are question marks, true, but I don’t think I was overly generous with any of the players who I’ve pegged to improve. You could slide Marte and Polanco into the “should be about the same” section if you’re feeling grumpy, but these aren’t huge quibbles, considering they’re already quite good.
Before you make a homemade “2017 NL Central Champs” sweatshirt, though, you should note that the computers aren’t quite as optimistic. FanGraphs does have the Pirates getting better, but improving only to 83-79 and not in position for a Wild Card. Baseball Prospectus is surlier, having them claw back just to .500, though that would be good enough for second place. There are reasons to think the Pirates might get better, but don’t just assume they’ll improve by 15 or 20 wins.
Still, if you were wondering why the Pirates had the dullest offseason in baseball, here’s why: There are reasons to be optimistic. The Great McCutchen Trade Scare is over, and the team should be better than last year, if only because it would be hard for a bunch this talented to get worse. There are pitfalls and booby traps, and they’ll still be clawing for a Wild Card spot, while having to play the Cubs 18 times. But it’s not ludicrous that the Pirates didn’t do anything this winter.
It’s just a little boring.