They’re contenders! Or wait, they’re not. No, they actually are! And… it’s gone. In 2018, the Pirates experienced a season of dramatic highs and lows only to end up with basically a .500 record, as if Odysseus had endured war and other dangers simply to end his journey at an Olive Garden.
In a lot of ways, the Pirates are a bit of a cautionary tale for rebuilding teams. You can be smart, careful, forward-thinking, but if too many things go unexpectedly awry or you don’t push ahead at the right moment, your team’s peak can still be rather short-lived.
That’s not to say the Pirates are without accomplishment, having made three straight playoff appearances from 2013 to -15, the team’s first since they were giving a regular paycheck to a prime-age slugger by the name of Barry Lamar Bonds. The team of Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington largely reversed the effects produced by 15 years of mismanagement from the Dave Littlefield and Cam Bonifay eras. Even when the team struggled in 2016-17, they never descended to the level of hapless joke, as had previously been the case.
When the Pirates went and won 94 games in 2013, it felt like the start of a long, competitive run. After all, the organization had cultivated a wonderful farm system by this point and yet had reached the postseason without requiring much use from minor-league reinforcements. In 2014, they’d gave a full season of Gerrit Cole, while players like Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow, Alen Hanson,Dilson Herrera, Austin Meadows, Gregory Polanco, and Jameson Taillon looked likely fill in the holes as they came up.
In the end, the Pirates really didn’t get as much out of this group as they expected. Taillon was finally healthy and a borderline ace… in 2018. Hanson’s now a solid role player for the Giants; we’re still waiting for Herrera to become a major leaguer; and we’re still talking about Glasnow as if he’s a prospect, even though it’s five years later. (He’s also a Ray now, anyway.) Bell and Polanco are established in the majors, but Bell looks more like a James Loney-esque fringe first-base starter than a pillar of the lineup, and Polanco doesn’t look like he’ll ever develop into a true star — and never was the glove man to push McCutchen out of center field for good.
Even Gerrit Cole, the biggest and quickest success in this group of players, was a minor disappointment for the Bucs. A solid pitcher, sure, but also one who produced just a single star-level season in Pittsburgh. After the trade of Cole to Houston and the right-hander’s subsequent success with the the Astros, there has to be a feeling in the organization along the lines of, “How come we couldn’t unlock this?”
Without these Plan Bs coming up through the system, the parent team’s disappointments proved to be very hard to rectify. Pedro Alvarez very quickly went from above-average player to barely hanging onto the majors, and Andrew McCutchen went from MVP candidate to just “a guy” before he even turned 30. Jung Ho Kang, one of the team’s smartest pickups and a borderline All-Star in his rookie year, was charged with driving drunk and leaving the scene of an accident, and had his visa revoked — only finally getting back to the United States and (hopefully) clean just a few weeks ago.
The team’s payroll increased from $70 million to around the $100 million mark, but the club still made mostly value signings and only spent as much as $15 million in MLB free agency on just two players, Francisco Liriano and Ivan Nova. Pittsburgh did a canny job getting value for their money, but the fundamental problem with value is that, if you have a team of two-win types whom you’re paying like one-win types, you have a very efficient roster that will finish 10 games out of the playoffs.
Nor did they cash in many of these prospects to bring in big names for the playoff years. Yes, the Pirate model meant that prospects were extremely important to the continued success of the team — more than for a large-market team better able to paper over holes with cash — but you can’t win on just value. You also need tempo, to find the best point to punch through the enemy’s defensive line or push your chips or capture a white pawn in a risky fashion… or any other relevant analogy.
The 2013-15 Pirates never made a significant July-deadline pickup, either, their stretch additions also generally amounting to value pickups, players like John Axford, Marlon Byrd, or post-star Justin Morneau. Smart acquisitions, sure, but none of them moved the needle much.
To go back to the chess analogy, Pittsburgh’s model, so long as they’re unwilling to assume a $130-$150 million payroll in their peak years, is akin to a chess player who always has to play the black pieces. White starts off with an advantage, which means black generally can’t win so long as it’s content just to pull even with white. There are lots of safe openings for black that lead to fairly equal positions, but to win with black, it’s necessary to create imbalances and ,frequently, be aggressive from the start in order to avoid draws. That’s why the Sicilian Defense (responding to a king’s pawn opening with the c-pawn), the Nimzo-Indian (pinning white’s c-pawn knight aggressively just three moves in), and the Benko Gambit (pushing the b-pawn to tempt a white pawn on c4) are so popular among fighting players.
Or, more succinctly, sometimes you have to risk giving away a draw — or even a loss — if you want to win.
Compare how the Pirates have been run compared to the Astros in recent years. Like the Pirates, Houston was competitive slightly before expected, with a lot of prospect talent still developing in the minor leagues. Instead of sitting back and counting on the core, the Astros have generally taken these chances to try and put an even better team on the field. The trades for Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the first of whom is a big reason they won a World Series, represent the kinds of gamble the Pirates never took.
Entering 2018, this is kind of the theme with which the front office was working. After two bland-but-not-horrific seasons in 2016 and 2017, the club did some minor retooling by cashing in McCutchen and Cole and taking a wait-and-see attitude for 2018.
ZiPS wasn’t terribly optimistic about the club’s ability to replace Cole and McCutchen’s performances while also adding to their 2017 win totals otherwise. The projection was for a 75-87 season, the team staying in fourth place, above what the computer expected to be a slowly-but-steadily improving Reds team.
Pittsburgh finished at 82-79, but anyone who says they didn’t make it interesting is a filthy, filthy liar. The team started 11-4, holding onto first until late April, then retaking the top of the division after a five-game winning-streak in mid-May. At 23-16, they had defied the expectations of most analysts, including myself.
The team dropped out of contention quickly after that, going 19-33 as they approached the All-Star break, getting as far out of first place as 12.5 games in early July. But then the team won 11 games in a row, cut the gap in the NL Central in half, and were only three games out behind the second Wild Card (Arizona at this point).
Then the Pirates did something I never expected them to do based on past seasons, something which I had been hoping they’d do every year from 2013 to -15: they rolled the dice. They took a huge chance on an immensely talented, but underperforming, pitcher in Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer, a player who could be around until after the 2021 season if all went well. It took trading Glasnow, Meadows, and Shane Baz to do it, but the team finally made an upside play that risked cost-controlled talent. They also picked up Keone Kela, another established player who wouldn’t hit free agency for years, at the risk of Taylor Hearn hitting his upside for another team.
After a 17-9 July, the Pirates went 26-27 the rest of the way to finish at their 82 wins.
What Comes Next?
Contrary to what some were saying about the Archer/Kela acquisitions, they weren’t really win-now moves, but win-soon moves. It may sound from the tenor of this piece that I don’t like the Pirates’ front office. To the contrary, I think they’re an extremely smart, competent group, just one that is sometimes missing some red-blooded aggression — and is contending with an ownership from which it is still hard to pry pennies.
I have little doubt that the front office knew at the time of the trades that the team’s odds of reaching the playoffs remained long. Pittsburgh still had weaknesses and was fighting in a very competitive National League that had some underperforming contenders that could take off at any moment (like the Cubs, Dodgers, and even the Nats).
The reason I liked the trades is that it showed that the team was willing to swap a significant amount of “win-later” for “win-now” and “win-soon.” If the organization is willing to mortgage some of the future to win in 2019-21 and — a very big question — if ownership is willing to boost the payroll significantly in the short-term, this could be a dangerous Pirates team for the next few years.
Way-Too-Early Projection – Jameson Taillon
One of the big questions remains whether Jameson Taillon’s breakout is real. While I’m a bet-hedger by nature with pitchers, I suspect the answer here is “you bet your sweet bippy he is.” The question was always health more than his abilities, and Taillon and the Pirates, rather than settling for just him pitching cancer-free and Tommy John-free, were willing to tinker with his repertoire.
Mostly out was the circle-change — already becoming an afterthought in his arsenal — and in very suddenly was a hard slider that was on the borderline of becoming a cutter. According to the Pitch Info data, Taillon mixed in a handful of sliders against the Reds on May 22nd — the first ever classified as such in his MLB career — before it became a permanent part of his game plan starting with his next start against the Cardinals.
From that start against the Cardinals on, Taillon went 12-6 with a 2.71 ERA in 22 starts, striking out 131 batters in 139.2 innings. The ZiPS projections for Taillon are of a very good pitcher. I think there’s a significant chance that he’s even better than this, possibly much better.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.