Against some expectations after the trades of Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutcheon in the off-season, the Pirates pleasantly surprised with an 83-79 record in 2018.
The milquetoast end result masked fascinating highs and lows. There was the abysmal series in Los Angeles and Philadelphia where the Pirates looked like a premier AAA franchise. Responding to Neal Huntington’s remarks after them, implying the team would be sellers if they didn’t get strongly back into the race, the Pirates won 13 of their 14 games around the All Star break. That included a five game sweep of the future division champion Brewers.
Instead of selling, they bought: most notably to fill the hole of Cole, Chris Archer. They further bolstered the bullpen with Kela. Indeed they’re going into the season with one of the best bullpens in baseball now. I thought the upside of the prime trade bait in Glasnow was worth keeping, and Meadows would be a major upgrade for right field now.
Despite the trade deadline moves, there was no follow through in the offseason. As usual the same enthusiastic embrace of a financial death spiral (weak results -> lower attendance -> weaker results). After being outbid for Machado and Harper (let’s pretend they were in for either) the big offensive splash was Lonnie Chisenhall, an anemic (.268 career hitter, little power) bandaid until the return of the injured mercurial Gregory Polanco. The power in the lineup is hoped to come from corner infielders: a returned Gung and revived Bell.
The starting pitching appears above average, with a high variance. Who really is the real Trevor Williams, after a phenomenal and under-recognized second half? Can Taillon’s solid season repeat, can Archer return to a higher standard?
One question begets another at virtually every position save for catcher, though the patterns of injuries raise questions there as well. The Pirates managed last year to go 14 games over .500 against the Brewers and much improved Reds. That’s not happening again. The National League central is intense, and will likely be a tight race. Every other team in the central has geared up, while the Pirates leadership of Harrison and Mercer is gone (what Pirate batter has the record or potential of Puig or Kemp on the previously hapless Reds?)
The Pirates will likely cruise below .500 with some hopeful spikes. The great bullpen, having few leads to protect, will be disassembled for another round of prospects at the trade deadline while divisional rivals fishing for wild cards buy.
My 2019 Pirate prediction: 72 wins.