Pittsburgh Pirates: The Essential 2019 Season Preview

Opening Day has always been one of my favorite days of the year. It serves as a definitive line between winter and spring. Early sunsets and abundant sunshine. Most of all, Opening Day provides that tiny sliver of time where hope meets action. For many Pirates fans, this past offseason didn’t inspire hope and it certainly lacked in action. Nevertheless, Idiotville provides Erie-based content, the Pirates are one of our local MLB teams, and I’m a Pirates fan.

I’m a massive Pirates nerd. I was cursed with this unfulfilling hobby when I was able to watch those fantastic early 90’s teams as a young child. I cried when Sid Bream beat the tag. The 2013 Wildcard game still gives me goosebumps. Everybody has their thing. This is mine. Still, I don’t expect our readers (or even most of the Idiotville team) to care as much as me. This preview is for you. I won’t provide a bunch of links to fangraphs or confuse the casual fan with a bunch of advanced metrics. What I’ll provide is the primer for the casual and curious.

Despite a winning season in 2018, fan morale remains low. Attendance dipped to a 20-year low last season. Fans staged boycotts and Pirates social media is filled with negativity. Pittsburgh sports media edgelords produce as much negative Pirates content as possible knowing that it will appease an angry fan base. All of this happens despite the fact that the Pirates surpassed expectations last year and stayed in contention until mid September.

How did it get to this point? Ownership. After three straight postseason appearances, the Pirates made some questionable moves heading into the 2016 season. They went from 98 wins in 2015 to 78 wins in 2016. That number dipped to 75 in 2017. After that season, star players Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole were traded for prospects in what was perceived as a salary dump. In a few short seasons, the Pirates went from legitimate World Series contenders to a below-average pushover and it all seemed to be for the sake of owner Bob Nutting’s wallet.

Pirate fans have lived through this in the past. In fact, they endured 20 straight losing seasons starting in 1993 and ending with the magical season of 2013. A quickly-closing window seemed to signal the beginning of another 20-year era of futility. Fans felt helpless and used by an owner they believe only cares about the bottom line. They see Nutting as a billionaire that cries poverty while collecting record profits. Any statement Nutting releases to the press comes off as delusional or condescending, so that also doesn’t help to endear him to fans.

So why should you watch the Pirates this season? What has changed from last year? What should be expected from this year’s team? Glad you asked.

He’s Gone:

  • Jordy Mercer: The long-time Pirates shortstop left this off-season for Detroit on a one-year deal. A league-average hitter, some fans were upset to see him go believing that he was a superior defensive player. Those fans were wrong and likely haven’t watched a game in 4 years. He could make a play on what was hit to him, but was seemingly incapable of doing anything else.
  • Josh Harrison: A two-time All Star, JHay went from being a utility player at the end of the bench to a key piece to the 2013-15 pennant races. He was getting old, but his contributions will be remembered and celebrated. He also went to Detroit where Tigers fans are talking themselves into believing that he and Mercer are the new Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. The Tigers are obviously in worse shape than the Pirates
  • Ivan Nova: The former Yankees starting pitcher came on strong when he came to Pittsburgh at the 2016 trade deadline. He re-signed with the team to a multi-year deal after the season and fans believed that they were getting a solid 3rd starter. They were wrong. Nova is a solid 5th starter and was miscast in his 2017 role. When the Pirates finally found good 1-4 starters, they traded Nova to the White Sox for seemingly no reason.
  • Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff: These guys were both traded to the Indians. Fans liked them in theory, but felt personally attacked when manager Clint Hurdle actually put them in the lineup. They’re probably AAAA guys (too good for the minors and not good enough for the majors) but Pirates fans have been burned by these trades enough times to fear that they’ll be perennial All Stars.
  • A.J. Schugel, Ryan Lavarnway, Casey Sadler: Roster filler. No one cares. Sorry to these guys if this shows up in one of their Google searches for their own name. You make significantly more money than me and get to play baseball for a living. No need to flip out like Trevor Bauer.

He’s Here:

  • Erick Gonzalez: Gonzalez came over from the Indians in the Luplow/Moroff deal. Everyone thought he could serve well as bench depth. Nope. Starting shortstop. Plenty of experienced shortstops were available, but the Pirates apparently thought enough of Gonzalez, and his pedestrian career statistics, to hand him the keys to the infield. Some have made comparisons to Ronny Cedeno. That’s like a pharmaceutical company pitching a new drug as the next Thalidomide. I suppose we can only hope for the best.
  • Jordan Lyles: If Pirates GM Neal Huntington has one weakness, it’s his love for former top prospects that never lived up to expectations. That line of thinking brings then new #5 starter, Jordan Lyles. Lyles could be an effective starter this year. Pitching Coach Ray Searage has a history of rejuvenating the careers of flawed-but-talented pitchers that aren’t named Tyler Glasnow. Lyles fits that profile. He had a strong second half after a move to the Milwaukee Brewers. Fans would argue that the Pirates should have picked up a stronger starting pitcher in a buyers market and let Lyles prove himself out of the bullpen in low-pressure situations. Those fans would be right.
  • Lonnie Chisenhall: Another failed prospect, Chisenhall has shown flashes of strong competence throughout his career. Injuries have plagued him over the last few seasons, which is the only reason he was available to the Pirates in the first place. He was supposed to hold down right field until regular starter Gregory Polanco returned from a shoulder injury. Unfortunately, Chisenhall was hit with by a particularly stiff breeze in the preseason and will be on the disabled list for the next 4-6 weeks. Much like Polanco. So it goes.
  • Melky Cabrera: A former All Star, Cabrera has aged to the point where he was able to be had on a minor league deal. His defensive skills have eroded to nothing, but the outfielder may provide enough with his bat to help the team. Suspended once for PEDs and implicated in another PED scandal, Cabrera could face a season-long suspension if he fails a drug test. Based on his current physique, I don’t believe it will be much of a concern.
  • Francisco Liriano: Seemingly, the only Pirate of the 2013-15 era that fans weren’t dying to see return to the team. Liriano was a key contributor to those teams, joining A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole to solidify the top of the rotation. Unfortunately, he has lost the ability to locate his devastating slider. Uncle Ray fixed him once. Maybe he can fix him once again. Either way, he’s buried in the bullpen.
  • J.B. Shuck: A journeyman used for depth, Shuck found his way to being the starter in center field on opening day. I had no intention of giving him a bullet point, but Shuck was somehow able to luck his way onto the roster. Everyone will hate him in a few weeks. He will be gone by May and forgotten by June. Don’t waste your time in feeling any way about Shuck.

Lineup:

  1. Adam Frazier 2B
  2. Starling Marte CF
  3. Corey Dickerson LF
  4. Josh Bell 1B
  5. Jung Ho Kang 3B
  6. Francisco Cervelli C
  7. Melky Cabrera RF
  8. Erick Gonzalez SS

Bench:

Jacob Stallings C, Kevin Newman SS, J.B. Shuck OF, Pablo Reyes UT, Colin Moran 3B/1B

Analysis: Marte is a beast. He can hit, run, throw, play defense, and get hit by pitches. He never sees ball 4. Frazier can hit. He can’t play defense. Hopefully, we have a fluke season where the ball is never hit to the right side of the infield because Bell is also useless with the glove. Bell has significant offensive upside, but has failed to capitalize on it up to this point in his young career. Kang has power, but his large collection of DUIs in South Korea prevented him from entering the country for almost 2 years. Cervelli gets on base. My wife has a crush on him. A fiery player and a fan favorite, Cervelli is reaching the end of his contract. Concussions have plagued him over the last few seasons and will probably force him to change positions as his career progresses. Dickerson can hit and field. A smart player who always hustles, Dickerson is sure to be your dad’s favorite Pirate.

Starting Pitchers:

  1. Jameson Taillon
  2. Trevor Williams
  3. Joe Musgrove
  4. Chris Archer
  5. Jordan Lyles

Bullpen:

Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela, Richard Rodriguez, Kyle Crick, Francisco Liriano, Nick Burdi, Steven Brault, Nick Kingham

Analysis: Pitching is the strength of this team. The top 4 starting pitchers are about as good as almost anyone’s with notable exceptions, like the Indians. The back end of the bullpen is battle tested and should be able to hold down games after the 6th inning. Vazquez is a perennial All Star, Kela is a young former closer, Rodriguez came out of nowhere last season to be a force and Crick has one of the best sliders I have ever seen. Burdi is the wildcard, but has looked good through the spring. Kingham is a younger Ivan Nova and Brault is an exceedingly likable person.

Injured: Gregory Polanco RF, Lonnie Chisenhall OF/3B, Edgar Santana RP, Elias Diaz C

Analysis: Polanco will start in place of Melky Cabrera when he returns in 4-6 weeks. Santana had a breakout season in 2018, but will unfortunately miss the entire 2019 season. Diaz is the regular backup catcher. He has battled a virus throughout Spring Training and is on a rehab assignment. He should be available in a few weeks.

Summary:

After a surprisingly decent season, the Pirates were poised to challenge for the division in 2019. For years, we have listed to people complaining that the team never spends any money. I thought the argument was absurd during the 20-year losing streak. What was the point of throwing money at a legend like Ken Griffey Jr if he’d be thrown next to some loser like John Vander Wal? It was different this off-season. They seemed to be hording money and had a roster of solid Major League players. Making a splashy free agent signing could have added those few wins that took them from slightly above-average to World Series contenders. Instead, they strengthen their bench and entrust the shortstop position to an unknown.

None of this is the fault of the players. This is a team that continued to fight like hell even after they were eliminated from playoff contention in the closing weeks of last season. They seem to have good chemistry with one another and appear to be optimistic about their chances this year. After all of the drama that occurred up the street at Heinz Field this off-season, it seems unfair to ignore an extremely likable team because of their owner. Bob Nutting will make millions of dollars whether you choose to show up or not. He will only pretend to care about your attendance. The guys on the field giving max effort while representing Western Pennsylvania would love to have your support. I believe that they’ve earned that chance.

Prediction: 85-77 4th in the NL Central 3rd in the Wildcard.

 

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