A lot of things need to go right for the Pirates to contend in 2018
The Pirates disappointed in 2017. Will 2018 be any different?
The Pirates have been eliminated from postseason contention, and not long ago they ensured a second-straight losing season. Given the recent baseball renaissance in Pittsburgh, that's a disappointing outcome. Will 2018 bring better fortunes? That's the matter at hand.
The structural problem for the Pirates is that three teams -- the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals -- are better off in the here and now and likely have rosier outlooks for 2018. The Cubs still have that championship core of position players, and they're flush with the resources necessary to fortify the rotation on the free-agent market. The Brewers arrived a bit ahead of schedule in 2017, and their impressive crop of young talent should keep them in contention for the foreseeable future. The Cardinals' young 2018 rotation of Carlos Martinez, Luke Weaver, Alex Reyes, and Jack Flaherty should do the heavy lifting in St. Louis. All of that is a challenge for the Pirates as we ponder their chances in 2018.
Speaking of which, a lot of things need to happen in order for the Pirates to matter in the NL Central next season. Consider what follows to be a non-exhaustive list ...
The front office needs to pony up for McCutchen
As for what they can control, the most basic decision is Andrew McCutchen's club option for 2018. The Pirates can bring the franchise icon back at a cost of $14.5 million, or they can buy him out and allow him to become a free agent for $1 million. This season, McCutchen has improved over his disappointing (but still not that bad) 2016 season. However, he's still a good ways from his peak, and now that he's into his thirties said peak may not be coming back. Still, relative to last season McCutchen has improved his strikeout and walk rate, cut down on his percentage of weakly hit balls, and made contact at a higher clip. All those things bode well for the near-term. The question is whether McCutchen's 2018 outlook is worth $14.5 million to a frugal team like Pittsburgh. If they're angling to contend next year, then they should probably take the hit, move 'Cutch to an outfield corner, and hope the bat remains playable. Maybe if top outfield prospect Austin Meadows didn't have such a disappointing and injury-sapped season, you let McCutchen walk. However, Meadows is anything but a known quantity right now. Thus, the need for McCutchen, and this doesn't even get into his value to the franchise as a beloved figure.
Marte and Polanco need to get back to 2016 levels
Outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco both turned in quality seasons in 2016. This year, however, each has regressed significantly. Marte, of course missed roughly half the season serving a PED-related suspension and has put up surprisingly poor numbers at the plate since his return. Polanco at this writing has an OPS+ of 85. As noted above, Marte needs to be the center fielder in 2018 (struggles with the bat aside, he remains the team's best defensive outfielder), and he needs to find his pre-2017 level once again (he had a career OPS+ of 118 coming into this season). Polanco, meantime, needs to rediscover the upward trend that moved the Pirates to sign him to a $35 million contract in April of last year.
So what's a reasonable early indicator of what the Pirates might be able to expect going forward? Let's take a look at the Steamer rest-of-season projections available at FanGraphs and see how the system expects Marte and Polanco to perform over the remainder of 2017 ...
Steamer forecast for rest of 2017
That would be the sort of thing the Pirates need from this duo in 2018. Let's see if they hit those numbers the rest of the way.
Jung Ho Kang needs to return
Kang in his first two stateside seasons batted a highly productive .255/.355/.483 while averaging 25 homers per 162 games played. He did all that while manning a capable third base and even seeing occasional duty at short. Kang's current straits, however, are deeply complicated. Following a third drunk-driving conviction in Kang's native South Korea, he's been unable to obtain the visa he needs to enter the United States. His actions have cost him the 2017 season. As for 2018, here's what Pirates GM Neal Huntington had to say earlier this season about Kang's uncertain status (via MLB.com's Adam Berry):
"That's been an unfortunate reality from the outset that he may never get a visa again. We worked the process, worked the process again and have not gotten a different result. We'll attack it in different ways again the next time through and hope there is a different outcome. We do need to begin to prepare as if he's not coming back."
That's not an especially optimistic tone. The Bucs, though, must hope that things change. Kang's still likely to be productive, and he's owed just $3 million for the 2018 season. That kind of return on investment is vital for a small-market squad such as this one.
The young starting pitchers needs to level up
In terms of long-term ceiling, not many organizations can match the one-two young punch of Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. The Pirates, though, will need them to take the next step in 2018. This season, Taillon's 90 ERA+ and 2.56 K/BB ratio isn't bad, especially considering that.
As for Glasnow, he's allowed 58 runs in 57 big-league innings this season. That said, MLB.com called him a top-10 overall prospect coming into this season, and he looked dominant after being dispatched back to Triple-A. Improved control and further cultivation of his changeup will be key. A learning curve is to be expected of almost any young starter, even those with glowing scouting reports. Glasnow's no different.
Mitch Keller's another one to watch. The former second-rounder is a consensus top-50 overall prospect, and he pitched well after a promotion to Double-A. Keller could force his way into the Pittsburgh rotation at some point during the 2018 season. Also, 25-year-old Chad Kuhl and his hard sinker-slider combo could be a mainstay. Throw in ace Gerrit Cole and Ivan Nova, and the Pirates could be in good shape on this front. Taillon and Glasnow need to be there, though, and give the team league-average innings or better.
That's not all, of course. For instance, the middle-relief corps needs to be rebuilt (the decision to cut bait on Juan Nicasio). That said, there's a core here, and the roster won't be hit very hard by pending free agent losses. The Pirates certainly won't be playoff favorites heading into the 2018 season, but the x-factors above break in their favor, then a return to postseason play will be a likely outcome.
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