Which part of the Pirates needs an upgrade the most?

As the offseason looms, everyone has a theory on what part of the Pittsburgh Pirates needs an upgrade the most to get them back into October.

Some say the starters weren’t good enough. Other pointed to a bullpen that blew too many late leads. Then there was the offense, which only had a handful of true threats. But which Pittsburgh Pirates unit needs a shot in the arm the most?

Using Fangraphs, I looked at key stats for every unit from last year’s team and compared it to the rest of the league. Simply put, a team that has one of the 10 best rotations, bullpens, outfields and infields should be one of the 10 best teams in baseball and make the playoffs. How close were these groupings of Pirates to being near the top 10? Which ones should improve on their own, and which need outside help?

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Outfield

The outfield has been the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Pirates for years, but they under-performed in 2017.

To be fair, there were only a handful of games where Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco suited up together. Still, McCutchen was the only one to post a wRC+ above the league average.

Defensively the Pirates were one of the worst outfields for saving runs, but that may only tell part of the story. John Jaso and Jose Osuna had to play a lot of innings, and both struggled (-17 in right field alone). Marte had a tough time in center before excelling in left field again. McCutchen finished the year with -12 DRS, but that only tells part of the story. For one, it was a noticeable improvement from the -28 he posted the year before. Also, on Sept. 27, Clint Hurdle described McCutchen’s defense as “the best he’s played center field since I’ve been here.”

The future of the unit is going to come down to how often the “dream outfield” plays together next year. McCutchen’s future is up in the air, and his apparent successor Austin Meadows has disappointed in AAA. McCutchen, Marte and Polanco have been considered one of the best outfields in the league for years now, but they have not lived up to their combined potential yet. If all three can stay on the field, they can carry the offense.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Infield

The defense was the unquestioned strong point of this infield. Josh Harrison is one of the best defensive utility players around, and David Freese was just nominated for a Gold Glove. Even Josh Bell was +6 at first base last year. Francisco Cervelli had an off year at -3 DRS, but his injury bug likely played a role.

Offensively, they disappointed. Bell and Harrison did a little better than the league average, and Freese finished with an even 100 wRC+, but Mercer cooled off after a hot start and Cervelli failed to capture that 2015 magic. Together, the starters were close to the league average. The bench sabotaged them, with Phil Gosselin, Sean Rodriguez and Chris Stewart struggling through the worst offensive seasons of their careers. Rookies Jose Osuna, Max Moroff, Alen Hanson and Elias Diaz did not fare much better.

The absence of Jung-Ho Kang not only hurt the starters, but it took Freese away from the “overqualified bench player” role the Pirates signed him up for. There are some solid prospects in AA and AAA who could help in the near future, including Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker, but it’s clear that the outfield is supposed to carry the offense on this team.

Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Pitching

For as much grief as the Pirates took for their starting pitching last year, the unit as a whole was slightly above average. Everyone besides Tyler Glasnow finished with ERA a little better than average ERA, but none of the five most used starters had an ERA 10 percent lower than the league average. Their fWAR values were close as well, ranging from 3.1 (Cole) to 1.9 (Kuhl).

The good news is this unit very well could be in the top 10 next year. Taillon, Williams and Kuhl all have their first full year in the majors in the books. Taillon should be better now that he’s healthy. Kuhl should be better now that he has a dangerous fourth pitch with his curveball. Williams should be better now that he is stretched out as a starter again. Even if Cole and Nova stay steady with last year’s results, there should be an improvement in 2018. Unless the Cubs or Cardinals make a splash this offseason, the Pirates may even have the best in the division.

The bad news is while they could be a top 10 rotation, they are a ways away from being elite. Cleveland’s rotation was one of the best in baseball history, and the Dodgers would have been right behind them if they stayed healthy. The Nationals, Red Sox, Diamondbacks and Astros all have multiple potential All-Stars on their staff. The Pirates are going to need at least another year to grow to reach their level.

Pittsburgh Pirates Relief Pitching

The bullpen was a staple of the three playoff teams. This group still finished in the top 10 for ERA, it was the worst ERA Hurdle has had in his tenure here in Pittsburgh. They also had a harder time closing out games. Their win probability added was below zero for the first time in the Hurdle era.

Bullpens are becoming more and more strikeout focused as well, so while they struck out more batters than the playoff era teams, they have fallen to the back of the pack league wide. It’s part of the reason why the unit’s fWAR was so low. Rivero was worth 2.1 wins. Everyone else combined finished at 0.1.

The Pirates are going to need to find replacements for Juan Nicasio and Tony Watson this offseason. Whomever they get to bridge the gap to Rivero will determine if this bullpen can be a Shark Tank again.

So what needs upgraded?

The group that seems to need the most help is the infield. A healthy Rodriguez should be a boost off the bench. Another starting bat to help get Freese off his feet would also help. If you’re an optimist, Kang could be this upgrade, assuming he can get back in the country. There are also several affordable options in free agency and trade, ranging from Ian Kinsler to Eduardo Nunez.

The bullpen should be the easiest to get a boost for. There are plenty of intriguing free agents available (Reed, Neshek and Morrow are all going to be looking for a late inning job), and they could also try their luck with a reclamation project or trade. This could potentially be another quiet offseason, but expect at least one new reliever.

But the heart and soul of the team, the veteran outfield and the young starters, could improve in 2018 if they hold steady with the group they have. If they improve there, it may be enough to get the Pirates back on track.

Image Credit – Daniel Decker Photography

Alex Stumpf

Alex is a credentialed Pirates beat reporter with The Pittsburgh Sports Report. If you want to keep up to date on the team or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.