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2017 MLB Offseason Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

There are a lot of different directions the Buccos could go in.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals
Andrew McCutchen and Josh Bell were two bright spots for the Pirates in 2017, and the front office will look to build around them.
Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates: 75-87, 4th in NL Central

Free agents: John Jaso, Wade LeBlanc, Chris Stewart, Joaquin Benoit

The Pirates weren’t necessarily expected to contend in 2017, but it was definitely a disappointment to the team and fans alike to see Pittsburgh finish 12 games under the .500 mark. Gerrit Cole was healthy for the season, but took a step back from his excellent performance in prior years, posting an ERA, FIP and DRA all north of 4.00. Starling Marte was popped with an 80-game suspension for PEDs, and his season OPS was over 100 points lower than 2016's. Francisco Cervelli took home $9 million and was only healthy enough to play in 81 games. Ivan Nova faded badly in the second half. Jung Ho Kang was on the restricted list the whole season. And while he made a triumphant return, Jameson Taillon was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Almost everything that went wrong for the Pirates did.

A few things went right, though. Felipe Rivero broke onto the scene as one of the most dominant relievers in the game, striking out 29.33% of the batters he faced to go along with a 0.889 WHIP. Josh Bell mashed 26 homers while showing great plate discipline. And most importantly, Andrew McCutchen bounced back, slashing .279/.363/.486 while also showing improved (albeit still far below replacement level) defense.

All of the players above will be a big part of the team’s plans in 2018, and neither of their four free agents had much of an impact (Jaso, in fact, may opt to retire), so they’ll be returning essentially the same team while hoping for improvement and bounce-backs.

Of course, the team can’t just sit back and expect a 12+ win swing based on player improvement and hope to win. However, they’re not going to have much money to spend, so they’re going to have to be creative. With the optionsfor Andrew McCutchen picked up, and factoring in arbitration salary projections, the Pirates will have roughly $103 million committed to 2018, a slight increase from the $101 million that their 2017 payroll ended at. And without a trip to the postseason in 2017, they won’t have extra money to spend, in all likelihood.

Let’s examine each aspect of the team and whether it needs to be improved.

The offense

The Pirates' main offensive core will remain intact in 2018, anchored by outfielders McCutchen, Marte and Gregory Polanco, along with Bell and second baseman/super utility-man Josh Harrison. If everyone stays healthy and Kang returns to post numbers in line with those that he put up in his first two years in the majors, this offense should be all right.

The biggest story for the Pirates this winter will be McCutchen, who is back in tow after the club exercised his $14.75 million option. The longtime Pirate will be one of the top outfielders available on the trade market if the team decides to shop him, likely drawing interest from clubs that miss out on signing J.D. Martinez and Jay Bruce in free agency.

McCutchen was briefly on the market last winter and drew interest from teams like the Rangers and Mariners, so expect his name to be a prominent one in trade rumors as the winter meetings approach.

Starting pitching

This is where the Pirates are probably going to sit back and just hope for improvements. Behind Cole, Taillon and Nova, the team has four legitimate options to fill out the last two spots in its rotation: Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault, along with swingman LeBlanc. The team doesn’t have much money to spare, so throwing more money at a depth option or even a pitcher who’d be guaranteed a spot in their rotation seems unwise.

The bullpen

So the Buccos should definitely be throwing down some cash to fix this mess. Behind Rivera, it’s just a bunch of question marks. Daniel Hudson keeps allowing homers, and George Kontos and A.J. Schugel aren’t exactly household names. The team would be best served setting its sights on some low-cost but reliable options, such as Brian Duensing, Matt Albers or Blaine Boyer. With perhaps $3-5 million to spare, the bullpen is the easiest place to spend that while getting high-quality innings.

Ultimately, the Pirates will be facing quite a tight budget this offseason—even tighter than usual. It’s likely that they’ll have to explore trades instead of free agency as their primary measure to improve their team without taking on too much cash, and may even have to trade from their strong prospect pool. It’ll be fascinating to see who could be on the move.