2019 Record: 69-93
Fifth Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 5.18 (26th in MLB)
Team OPS: .741 (19th in MLB)
What Went Right
The Pirates got off to a surprisingly good start in 2019 and sat in first place in the National League Central on the morning of April 23, about four weeks into the regular-season schedule. They were even in National League Wild Card contention as late as mid-July. The wheels fell off in the second half and things got increasingly ugly down the stretch in Pittsburgh, but this is the section where we talk positively about the year that was. Some highlights: Josh Bell rebounded from a disappointing sophomore campaign to tally 37 home runs and 116 RBI alongside a .936 OPS. He ranked top-20 among all qualified MLB hitters in those three categories. Bryan Reynolds flourished as a rookie, slashing .314/.377/.503 with 16 home runs and 37 doubles across his first 546 major league plate appearances. Starling Marte finished with 20-plus home runs and 20-plus stolen bases for the second consecutive season and also put up a career-best .845 OPS. Kevin Newman emerged as a possible long-term shortstop for the Bucs while batting .308/.353/.446 with 12 home runs and 16 stolen bases in 130 games played. Joe Musgrove threw a career-high 170 1/3 innings over a career-high 31 starts, to the tune of a 1.215 WHIP and 157/39 K/BB ratio. The ERA was a little less encouraging at 4.44.
What Went Wrong
We have to lead here with the most disturbing story from the 2019 baseball season, and it has nothing to do with baseball. Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez was arrested on September 17 on charges of statutory sexual assault, unlawful contact with a minor, corruption of minors, and indecent assault of a person less than 16 years old. He later admitted to police that he had a sexual encounter with a 13-year-old girl in 2017. It’s a safe guess that Vazquez is done forever as a professional athlete. Jameson Taillon looked to be an emerging ace in 2018, after returning from treatment for testicular cancer, but he went down with a flexor strain in May and was eventually sent for Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. The 27-year-old is likely to miss the entire 2020 campaign. Gregory Polanco again struggled with injuries and batted just .242/.301/.425 with six home runs and three stolen bases in 42 games when healthy. Chris Archer posted a 5.19 ERA in 119 2/3 innings and now has a 4.92 ERA in 172 total innings since being acquired from the Rays at the 2018 trade deadline for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz. Francisco Cervelli suffered yet another serious concussion in late May and was released by the Pirates on August 22, while still on the injured list. Clint Hurdle was let go as manager on September 29 after nine years on the job.
** Josh Bell went 241st overall in the average Yahoo league this spring. Across the major fantasy services, he was the 33rd first-base-eligible player off the board. Jose Martinez, Marwin Gonzalez, and Jake Bauers were among the names selected before him. It all made sense at the time, after Bell batted .261/.357/.411 with just 12 home runs and 62 RBI over 148 games in 2018, but he did show signs of great power potential during the 2017 season -- 26 HR, 90 RBI in 159 games -- and if you had faith in a resurgence, or even just lucked into it, his offensive output led you on a great path to success. The second half wasn’t quite as fruitful as the first half, but Bell will not be a bargain buy moving forward.
** The highest-drafted Pirates player this spring was Starling Marte, who had an ADP of 34th overall on Yahoo. He generally met expectations -- .295 batting average, 23 home runs, 82 RBI, 25 stolen bases, 97 runs scored -- and he might have exceeded them had he not suffered an abdominal injury in April and a wrist injury in September. Marte is 31 years old and holds an $11.5 million club option for next season along with a $12.5 million club option for 2021. He’s a prime trade candidate if general manager Neal Huntington gets a directive from ownership to start cleaning house. A better home hitting environment, and a more potent supporting cast, could bring massive returns in 2020.
** Pittsburgh has long been a place to find SP value. PNC Park is very pitcher-friendly and there was a time when former pitching coach Ray Searage, who got shown the door shortly after Hurdle, held the moniker of reclamation project guru. But the organizational rotation depth chart looks boringly mediocre at the moment and you have to squint hard to find a name to like. Mitch Keller entered the 2019 season as a consensus top-30 prospect before scuffling to a 7.13 ERA and 1.83 WHIP over his first 11 major league starts. But he did have a 65/16 K/BB ratio in 48 innings, and his career minor league ERA is 3.12. Call him a post-hype buy-low for 2020.
** The arrest of Felipe Vazquez creates a void at the back end of the Pirates’ bullpen leading into 2020. He is likely facing major jail time and possible deportation back to his native Venezuela. The 28-year-old left-hander had recorded 86 saves over the last three seasons in Pittsburgh while pitching to a 2.02 ERA with 267 strikeouts in 205 1/3 innings. Keone Kela could maybe emerge as the new closer, though there is some thought that he will be traded this winter if the Bucs shift into full rebuilding mode. Richard Rodriguez? Michael Feliz? Maybe a downtrodden former closer from the free agent scrap heap?
** Mitch Keller wasn’t the only Pirates prospect to flop in 2019. Former first-round pick Cole Tucker batted just .211/.266/.361 over his first 159 major league plate appearances. Ke’Bryan Hayes, who came in at 49th overall on Baseball America’s preseason top 100, posted a .751 OPS with 10 home runs in 110 games at Triple-A Indianapolis. Oneil Cruz, the No. 79 prospect in baseball according to BA, had a .757 OPS with just one home run in 136 plate appearances after rising to Double-A Altoona. We wouldn’t expect the Bucs’ farm system to bear much fruit next year.
Team Needs: Probably a total overhaul. The Pirates put together a string of successful seasons earlier this decade, but they’ve made some bad trades along the way (Gerrit Cole, Chris Archer, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows) and are not currently set up to contend in the NL Central. It might have to get uglier in Pittsburgh before it gets any prettier.