This is a continuation of a series in which we look at how each playoff team can improve this offseason to get to the World Series next year. For more of an introduction, see the first article in the series about the American League Wild Card loser (Yankees). We’ll continue here with the National League Wild Card loser, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Once again, here are the cutoffs:
Last year’s recap:
Lost in Wild Card Game to the Chicago Cubs.
Total WAR: 41.8
Top 12 WAR: 39.1
Top 16 WAR: 43.9
The Pirates met all of our benchmarks necessary to be a team good enough to win the World Series, so this team doesn’t have to make too many changes to put a really good team on the field in 2015, but some of their starting pitchers outperformed their career norms and I am assuming that Burnett is going to retire, so I am making some changes anyway.
1. Trade Gregory Polanco to the Cleveland Indians for Trevor Bauer and Kyle Crockett
Why not start with the one that makes the least sense?
I came very close to using Danny Salazar as the pitcher going back to Pittsburgh, but I don’t think the Indians would accept that. I threw in Crockett because Polanco’s trade value is significantly higher than that of Bauer and the Indians might even need to throw in a player to be named later here. The Indians should be willing to part with Bauer given that they have significant needs in the outfield and they don’t have too much money to spend. They already have a fantastic front of the rotation in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. Behind that trio, T.J. House is returning from injury and had a very nice rookie season in 2013. The Indians would probably then go with Cody Anderson as the fifth starter. Anderson's numbers were a lot better than they should have been, but he would still be fine as a fifth starter. The other option would be Mike Clevinger who had a very nice year in Triple-A last season.
Bauer is only 24, so he won’t be easy to part with, but he has yet to fix his control issues in Cleveland. According to StatCorner, Francisco Cervelli rated as the top catcher in terms of pitch framing last year, and that just might be enough to help Bauer bring his walk rate down significantly. His stuff is still really good, and he still makes batters whiff, but Bauer needs to get that walk rate (nearly one for every two innings last season) in check. Otherwise, he will keep letting in runs that he could have prevented. Having Cervelli behind the dish is going to help him more than anything that Cleveland can do. The Indians would be better off trading him for a piece that they can do something with in Polanco. Last year, the Indians outfield consisted of a stud in Michael Brantley and a bunch of guys that are good backup players. Having Polanco there would improve the team’s outfield a lot, and would give them someone to plug in everyday in right or center that they won't have to worry about. This trade would also allow them to move Lindor down in the order, which is where he really belongs, if they feel that Polanco’s bat will pick up. Crockett could turn into a very good relief pitcher, but he is worth the difference in value between Bauer and Polanco. I believe that this is a trade that the Indians would feel comfortable making.
I still haven’t answered why the Pirates should give up Polanco, but one of the main reasons is that they would be pairing Bauer with Cervelli, as mentioned earlier. I know his numbers don’t match up to how good his stuff is, but his breaking pitches could be some of the most difficult pitches to hit if he is getting strike calls just off the plate. Crockett breezed through the minor leagues had a fantastic rookie season in 2014. He struggled in 2015, but his walk rate was much higher than it was all throughout the minors and in 2014, so that should come back down. Once that happens, he should go back to mowing down hitters, especially left-handed batters, who have hit .226 against him so far in the major leagues. The Pirates already have a pair of relievers in Tony Watson and Mark Melancon who take away the eighth and ninth innings for opposing teams. Crockett could turn each game into a six inning affair.
As for Polanco, I’m not convinced that his offensive production improves much during his career. I know his minor league stats were phenomenal, but when I watch him it looks like he’s out on his front foot a lot. Thus, he gets caught reaching for the ball instead of letting it come to him. That’s not an impossible fix, but usually one done much earlier in one’s professional career. He still has a ton of trade value now, which is why the Pirates should act this offseason and the team receiving him will at least be able to fall back on his good defense. The Pirates will have an easier time replacing Polanco in free agency than they will filling out their rotation. Bauer might even be able to add more to this team on his own than Polanco. The Pirates won’t trade a young player that they have under control for five more years, and they don’t need to make this trade to contend for the World Series, but it would make them a better team.
2. Sign Nori Aoki to a short term deal
Now that right field is vacant, Aoki would make be an ideal bridge between Polanco and Austin Meadows. Aoki started his career with two years of good fielding, then declined sharply with the Royals in 2014. He then proceeded to climb back up a bit in San Francisco in 2015. I’m not quite sure how to interpret that for how good a fielder he is, but he probably won’t be terrible like he was in 2014. An average year in the field is not unreasonable to expect. At the plate, Aoki does not strike out. In his career he has two more walks (171) than strikeouts (169), and he’s not exactly the type of player that opposing teams will pitch around. Aoki will hit for a much higher average than Polanco, while Polanco will hit more homers and steal more bases. In other words, there isn’t too big a difference offensively. Aoki is just a nice player who is capable of playing every day, won’t do too much on any given day, but won’t hurt you, either. The drop off from Polanco to him is much smaller than the difference between Bauer and whoever they would have signed as a free agent to fill A.J. Burnett’s spot. There is also no need to platoon here, as Aoki has hit .345 against left handed pitchers during the past three years, while most of his power output has come against right handed pitchers. The fact that the Pirates would not have to use two players to fill that one spot should be viewed as a plus. They like being able to move all of their infielders around to different positions, which is harder to do when multiple players combine to fill just one spot. Aoki will be a nice replacement for Polanco in right, and he will either be their leadoff hitter or hit well towards the bottom of the order, getting on for their big hitters towards the top.
3. Trade Jared Hughes and a low level prospect to the Dodgers for Enrique Hernandez
On the surface, there would be no reason to trade Hughes. He has posted a career 2.77 ERA and has been even better the past two seasons. The only issue is that he has struck out less than 5 batters per nine innings during the past two seasons, meaning that his ERA should start rising regardless of how few batters he walks or how few home runs he gives up. If you let the ball be put in play that often, some runs are going to cross the plate, and he can’t be used in situations with runners in scoring positions and less than two outs because there is such a low chance of him coming up with that key strikeout. What the Pirates have working in their favor is that Hughes has posted really good traditional statistics during the past two seasons, and they can use that to their advantage in trading him.
I have no idea if the Dodgers would have concerns over those same issues, but they need bullpen help in every way they can get it. On the other hand, they have way too many outfielders, and while Enrique Hernandez has been a throw-in in two separate trades that are actually significant (Colin Moran for Jarred Cosart and Dee Gordon for Andrew Heaney), he has never meant much to the team that has him. He doesn’t have much power, but profiles as a versatile backup who can play the outfield well and, like Aoki, doesn’t strike out much. He can back up all three outfield positions and would make a nice addition to this Pirates team that values versatility. Pittsburgh could also do worse in trying to get a pinch hitter for the pitcher’s spot here, as Hernandez has hit .285 in 323 career at bats, so he does bring something at the plate. The Dodgers are trying to get rid of Ethier by paying half of his salary, but I’m thinking they are going to have to eat the final two years of his deal if they want to move him. Hernandez makes for a much more intriguing option when they don’t have a spot for him and can make an upgrade in an area of need.
4. Re-Sign Joakim Soria to a two-year contract
This guy has had a really weird career. He started out shutting down anyone in his way for the first four years of his career en route to a 12.1 WAR in that time frame. In year five, he suddenly just didn’t have it, as he struggled before falling victim to the Tommy John epidemic. Since then, he has slowly worked his way back to being a really good relief pitcher again. He’ll never be the electrifying closer that he was in Kansas City again, but he can play a key role for this Pirates organization. Looking back on it, the only years that he would like to leave off his resume are the years right before and right after the surgery. Outside of that, he has been a reliable pitcher out of the bullpen. They already have Melancon, Watson, and Crockett on this team, so Soria would be in a middle relief role, but he would probably be one of the best in the game. He’s back to not walking batters and striking out around a batter per inning, so there is no reason to expect anything but great results from this guy. I also don’t think he’ll cost as much as he should. For starters, Pirates’ players seem to have this weird loyalty thing going on where they all return at some point and don’t want to take more money to go elsewhere. Secondly, I believe that others will have overblown concerns about whether or not he will keep up the numbers that he had last year. This guy is good and more teams should want him, but the Pirates will get him and be very happy that they did.
5. Promote Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, and Nick Kingham to the Major League Roster and start the first three.
It seems odd that a team that was so good to begin the offseason should be bringing up and starting so many rookies, but these aren’t the guys that the Phillies would throw out there because they have to try something. The trio of Glasnow, Bell, and Hanson are going to have an immediate impact for this club. Glasnow pitched at three different levels last year and struck out 48 batters in 41 innings in AAA. If they keep him down there too long, he might get bored striking out so many batters. Ideally, they would like to see him lower his walks a little before giving him the call, but in total he only walked 43 batters in 109 innings last year (although that rate was much higher in AAA). Besides, he’s not going to get a better catcher in the minors than he will in Cervelli. Cervelli is not the greatest defensive catcher, but he will help pitchers with control, as detailed above. Glasnow can pump high 90s fastballs into the late innings, and has a good curveball to complement it. He has the stuff to make major league hitters whiff now, even though he’ll only be 22 by April. Ultimately, I just don’t see the point in signing another pitcher to replace A.J. Burnett for one year when it sure seems like Glasnow is going to help them more now. Of course, they will want to limit his innings since he is so young, which brings us to Nick Kingham.
Kingham is a 24-year-old pitcher who started in the minor leagues, but should begin next year as the team’s long relief pitcher. If the Pirates follow the moves that I have set forth, then they will have a killer bullpen and they won’t need to just add more middle relievers. They would prefer to have a long man who can throw three, four, five innings, and preserve the rest of that ’pen when it isn’t needed. His numbers were deceptively good in Triple-A last season, as he stuck out 32, walking 7 and gave up only three home runs in 31 innings. His ERA stood at 4.31 and his WHIP was 1.31 because he let up more hits than his numbers indicated that he should have. Those hits will come back down next year, and he would be a good guy to have so that the Pirates can take Glasnow out an inning or two early and have someone ready to pitch for long stretches.
The other two rookies here are infielders, with Bell having more upside as a good hitting first baseman. He is below average defensively right now, which makes him a huge upgrade over Pedro Alvarez on that end, and he hit .347 with 18 walks in 35 games in AAA last year. I know it seems like I say this about every player, but he also doesn’t strike out. He actually had the same amount of walks as he did strikeouts last season (65). The Royals won the World Series in part because of their ability to just put the ball in play and not keep walking back to the dugout, so the Pirates could craft a team with that same skill. He only had nine home runs in 131 total games last year, but he did have 9 triples and 24 doubles, which is a lot for a guy who is around average speed. His power may develop over time, but it likely won’t be much right now. That shouldn’t really matter, though. With his ability to make good contact and draw walks, it would be a very curious decision to start some combination of Pedro Alvarez and Michael Morse over him. Bell’s patience at the plate makes him ready for the big leagues now, and the Pirates appear to be hoping internally that he wins the job this spring. I expect Bell to be the starting first baseman for Pittsburgh.
Finally, we get to Hanson, who was moved to second base last year even though he reportedly displayed the range needed for shortstop. Questions over his arm were the concern, but being able to get to the ball is more important than having a cannon of an arm. I would recommend starting him at shortstop between Jung-Ho Kang and Neil Walker, with Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison acting as potential backups to those three. Don’t worry about Harrison’s playing time, either. It’s the Pirates; they’ll figure out a way to use all of their players in a way that nobody thought possible.
Hanson’s average was only .263 last year, and he only walked 37 times in 117 games last year, but all of those games were in Triple-A. Getting him more time in the minors probably will not do much for his development. He stole 35 bases last year, and WAR does value that pretty highly. I also think his defense would still be good enough as a shortstop because of his ability to track down groundballs. The offensive production may be a little low in the traditional statistics, but speed and defense will make him an upgrade over Mercer. Harrison would be able to go back to his super-utility role in which he was best in 2014, so the Pirates may actually like the idea of bringing up a shortstop that allows them to tinker with lineups. Anyway, I think all four of these rookies could play key roles for this team in 2016 and succeed in them. Glasnow may struggle out of the gate, but they should stick with him and let him work with the major league catchers. Bell is probably the safest, given his ability to get on base even if he’s not hitting, but all four should do just fine if their minor league track records are any indication.
6. Get rid of Pedro Alvarez and Mike Morse. Then sign Mike Napoli to a one-year deal.
By get rid of Pedro Alvarez and Mike Morse, I mean that they can try trading either one but won’t get anything that can help, or they can just cut them. Putting either in the field creates a problem, and they don’t have that much value as pinch hitters who strike out a lot. Granted, Alvarez is always a threat to hit one out, but Napoli may be a better option. I wouldn’t quite recommend a platoon since Bell is a switch hitter and should get reps against both lefties and righties, but Napoli can steal cream anything coming out of a pitcher’s left hand. Over the past three years his slash line against left handed pitching is .286/.402/.524 with 24 home runs in 416 at bats. I would much rather have that than Pedro Alvarez coming off the bench, and although his fielding was down last year, he still saved his team runs at first base in 2015.
Napoli should provide a good fielding backup for Josh Bell, who can still hit and will be very useful as a player to go to for pinch hitting situations, especially against southpaws. There is the chance that Napoli signs somewhere else to a team willing to give him more years and more money, but Napoli is in an interesting situation. He is 34 years old and is coming off a year in which his numbers declined rapidly. I think it would make sense for him to try a one-year contract somewhere and see if he can improve those numbers to get a better offer in 2016. If not, I doubt that the money he would earn from that one year plus his next contract awaiting him in 2016 would get him much less (if at all) than the contract that he could sign this winter. Pittsubrgh is in need of a good bat of the bench and a backup first baseman, which is more of an ideal job for Napoli right now.
7. Sign Brandon Morrow to a minor league contract and have him compete with Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke for the fifth starter.
My guess is that Morton would win this competition, but Morrow is worth giving a shot anyway. I guess that the main point is that the Pirates shouldn't spend for a starting pitcher, but I think that they could get a better year out of one of these three than expected. Since Morrow would be the acquisition, let’s start there. Ability has never been the issue with Morrow, as he seemed to be someone ready to breakout every year for a while. Unfortunately, he has only had one year in which he threw over 150 innings, and three in which he threw at least 100 innings. During the past two seasons combined, he has thrown 66 and one-third innings despite being a starter when he was active. He has had countless major injuries, becoming a fixture on the 60-day DL, and yet I can’t shake the feeling that he still has something left. Given that injury history, the Pirates could get him for either a minor league contract or a one-year contract that they would not mind terminating before opening day.
When Morrow started pitching for the Padres in 2015, he cut down significantly on his walk rate from the year before, only surrendering 7 bases on balls in 33 innings. He won’t strike out 10 batters per nine innings anymore, but this guy did once have the stuff to be a number two starter. While Morton and Locke are more known entities, Morrow brings the possibility for someone who can outperform expectations by a wide margin and sneak into the 1.5 to 2 WAR range. I don’t think that will happen, but he is worth throwing into the competition for the fifth starter spot. This team already has Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Trevor Bauer, and Tyler Glasnow, so they don’t need to go out and get front end pitching. They may try to find a more reliable fifth starter in free agency, but given who they already have on board, they should just stick to in-house options or someone they can get for free. They won’t be able to do much better than Morton or Locke if they go to the bargain bin, so Morrow represents a good opportunity to take a chance on a guy with no risk.
Part of the reason it is a good idea to take a chance on Morrow is that they have good options if he doesn’t work out. Charlie Morton has never been great in his career, but he has had some solid seasons, and he didn’t pitch as badly last year as his numbers say he did. To begin with, he averaged 1.5 ground balls per fly ball, yet he saw an uptick in home runs. That should come back down, as his home run per fly ball ratio was way too high to stay there. He strikes out around 6.5 to 7 batters per nine innings, and walks less than three per nine, which is a solid ratio for a fifth starter. We should also note that his hits against number seems a little high at 137 in 129 innings, so that will probably decrease just based on luck next year as well. When all of this is factored in, we can expect an ERA in the high 3’s for 2016, which should be more than good enough for the Pirates. The rest of this team is so good that they could probably do well even if their fifth starter hurts them more than he helps, but I would be a bit surprised if Morton is any worse than an average fifth starter next year.
As for Locke, he is probably best kept waiting in the minors. He hasn’t improved his strikeout rate at all and still has some control issues, although he should give up less hits this year. He could play a valuable role as an emergency starter or long relief pitcher, but he doesn’t have to be on the major league roster to start the season. He will only be 28 by the season’s start, so if he improves on some of those issues then he might be a better candidate for the fifth rotation spot out of spring. However, that doesn’t seem likely, so the Pirates can just hold on to him until they need to use him.
The Final Team and Projections
Francisco Cervelli (2.1) – His WAR comes down because he isn’t hitting five triples again.
Chris Stewart (.4) – Still a nice backup.
Josh Bell (2.8) – His walk and strikeout rates will make him effective right away.
Mike Napoli (1.2) – Decent fielder who will crush lefties.
Neil Walker (2.5) – He’s been a really consistent performer.
Josh Harrison (1.9) – I think he’ll play a few more games this year, but don’t expect his 2014 numbers to return. He has only done that once.
Jung-Ho Kang (3.7) – May take him a bit to get back up to speed after the injury, but he quashed all concerns about his transition to baseball in the United States.
Alen Hanson (2.4) – His speed will make his WAR good even if he struggles at the plate.
Jordy Mercer (.5) – He won’t play as many games, but his defense is still fantastic.
Starling Marte (4.9) – His bat has gone up and down, but his glove remains among the best.
Andrew McCutchen (5.2) – When his strikeout rate returns to his career rate, watch out.
Nori Aoki (1.4) – The guy does not strike out.
Enrique Hernandez (.8) – Solid outfield defense with few strikeouts will make him valuable, but his batting average on balls in play has to go down.
Gerrit Cole (4.3) – His home runs per fly ball rate is due for an increase, but he may be earning the ace label.
Francisco Liriano (2.5) – His walk rate has to bring this down a tad.
Trevor Bauer (2.6) – Pitch framing makes a huge difference.
Tyler Glasnow (2.5) – Strikes out too many for Triple-A and doesn’t give up home runs.
Charlie Morton (.7) – The numbers say he will rebound from last season.
I have Brandon Morrow at .6 and Jeff Locke at .3.
Mark Melancon (1.4) – He doesn’t walk anyone, but more hits should come this year.
Tony Watson (2.3) – I am expecting more hits from him too, but his strikeouts should also increase to his career rate.
Bobby LaFromboise (.8) – Never really been given a shot, but he has 23 strikeouts and 5 walks in 22 innings.
Nick Kingham (.3) – Peripheral stats were really good in the minors.
Kyle Crockett (1.2) – When his walk rate is where it should be, this guy can be lights out.
Arquimedes Caminero (.8) – A bit unlucky last year, giving up 31 runs on only 63 hits.
Joakim Soria (.9) – Good control and a lot of strikeouts.
This team was a World Series contender last season and will be right there again next year. The Pirates would absolutely destroy the total WAR necessary to make the playoffs, and would have the top 16 WAR mark by a sizeable margin. They are a bit under for the top 12, but as I stated when I started this project, I don’t know exactly where the cutoff is for how many players I should be looking at. My guess would be that it depends on how many of their top players that team would use often in the playoffs. As Clint Hurdle has shown, he gets creative all throughout the season in figuring out different ways to play different players, and I would expect that to continue if this team were to go deep into the playoffs.
There is also the factor that Kang should be better by year’s end when he is well past the point of rounding into form after his leg injury. He posted a 4.0 WAR last year, and as he develops and plays more, he could become a 5 WAR player, which is much rarer than the Pirates seem to notice, already having two in the outfield. I may have underestimated or overestimated a few of these rookies, but with the team destined to make the playoffs anyway, what will matter most for these guys is how good they are as players in September and October. That’s another reason to start these guys at the major league level right away and get them accustomed to major league pitching or hitting now. They will have more time to adapt to it if they struggle out of the gate, and its not like any of these guys would really be considered “rushed” to the majors. They have all spent enough time in Triple-A to the point where they either won’t develop further there or showed that they are ready for the next step.
This team will be fun to watch, too, with their solid lineup from top to bottom combined with a really good defense and lights out bullpen. It is a shame that we only saw one postseason game from them last year, but they will be back and are in a much better position to advance deep into the playoffs than the Yankees are, who suffered the same fate last year. That doesn’t really mean anything to the Pirates, but what I’m trying to hammer home is that this was well above your average wild card team, and there is a good chance that this team could have won either of the other two divisions in the National League. However, they are still stuck in the National League Central, where we should expect three more playoff worthy teams next year, making that 8.3 WAR increase from last year’s team to this year’s team all the more important, because winning that division will be tough. If they are stuck in a one game playoff again, then WAR goes out the window since there is such a high chance for an unexpected outcome in just one game. If Pittsburgh wins the division, then they will have a good chance to reach baseball’s biggest stage next season.