Pressing Questions: The Pittsburgh Pirates

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Is Andrew McCutchen still worth a premium pick?
Is Andrew McCutchen still worth a premium pick?

After a three-year run of playoff appearances, everything went wrong for the Pirates in 2016. A collection of slumps and injuries crashed their record to 78-83, a 20-win drop from the previous season. And if you made a fantasy investment, you felt the pain, too.

Andrew McCutchen had the worst season, by far, of his eight-year career. Francisco Liriano fell apart. Gerrit Cole broke down. One of the kid pitchers worked out (Jameson Taillon), one of them didn’t (Tyler Glasnow). The season was such a lost cause by the middle of the summer, the club punted — shipping closer Mark Melancon to Washington (he’s since moved on to San Francisco).

Nobody is expecting a major rebound from the Bucs in 2017 — they’re 50-1 to win the World Series, and merely the seventh choice on the NL Pennant board. The National League, and the NL Central in particular, clearly runs through Chicago now. The Pirates still have an enviable outfield — no matter what you make of McCutchen at this stage of his career — but their infield and pitching drag them down to the middle of the pack.

Ah, but that’s all real life stuff. We’re just here for the numbers. Get the Ps and Qs loaded up.

Q: Is Andrew McCutchen really the third-best outfielder here? Do we bet on a rebound?

We’re a long way from crystalized ADPs, but the early returns from the NFBC world reflect the new Pittsburgh order. Starling Marte trades around Pick 25 (last year’s average and speed spike were offset by a power dip; still, he was Pittsburgh’s best player), and then it’s a coin flip between McCutchen and Gregory Polanco. Both of them are just inside Pick 70, but it’s Polanco who’s coming off a four-category season. He’s also about five years younger than McCutchen.

The best and worst thing about McCutchen’s 2016 season was the willingness to play through injuries. Despite thumb and knee problems, he plowed through 153 games, essentially a full year. His stolen bases dropped for the third straight year (at 6-for-13, he shouldn’t even bother), and he landed 27 points below his career average.

McCutchen did clock six homers in September, along with a .513 slugging percentage. Arbitrary endpoints, or a matter of what he can do when he’s still healthy? He didn’t attempt a stolen base in the final month. His walk/strikeout rate was about even over his final 54 starts; there should be a strong rebound in batting average.

I can sign off on either Polanco or McCutchen at their current prices; they give you plenty of room for profit. On Polanco, you’re betting on pedigree and career arc; with McCutchen, you’re trusting a proven stock and a player with a sound approach and work ethic. So long as you don’t chase the stolen-base column, McCutchen has curb appeal, two months in front of the fresh season.

Q: Is Jameson Taillon the best pitcher value here?

The strikeout column wasn’t splashy during Taillon’s debut, but his overall numbers fit our plans nicely (3.38 ERA, 1.12 WHIP). We can live with a moderate strikeout clip if the control is elite, and Taillon’s is — just 1.47 walks per nine. He also provides a ground-ball tilt, over 52 percent. And remember, last year was the initial comeback season after having his elbow reconstructed; the second time around is often a fun, profitable ride.

Taillon won’t be cheap at the table, but around Pick 150 in the early ADP chase, he’s not too trendy — yet. I’m sure I’m going to have some shares. He’s on the clipboard.

Q: What happened to the magic of pitching coach Ray Searage?

Maybe it was expecting too much for Searage to work wonders with the likes of Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong; they both threw batting practice last year. The Juan Nicasio story lasted about 15 minutes, then faded out. But let’s take note of Ivan Nova’s sneaky comeback.

Nova made 11 Pittsburgh starts in the second half of the year, when most weren’t paying attention. A 3.06 ERA and 1.10 WHIP sounds like pitching over his head, but Nova also had a 2.62 FIP, and a ridiculous 52 strikeouts against just three walks. No wonder the Pirates quickly re-signed him to a three-year contract.

Okay, to be fair, Nova pitched 97.1 innings with the Yankees, too, where he was kicked around (4.90/1.36). But sometimes getting out of the AL East — or the American League, period — is a magic elixir. If you swim in the deeper mixed leagues or an NL-only pool, Nova could be worth a late-round ticket. His current ADP is just inside the Top 300.

Q: Can Tony Watson hold the closer gig all year?

Teams have built-in incentives to avoid left-handed closers, but Watson was capable when Melancon left town last year; he grabbed 15 saves in the final two months. Right-handed batters picked up a 134-point boost in OPS, about the split you’d expect. Watson is a quality pitcher, but mostly, his closing success speaks to how easy the job is, when teams let the save rule govern usage.

Daniel Hudson is also in the back of the bullpen, a free-agent signee. He’s struck out around a batter per inning over the last two years, and last year’s 5.22 ERA doesn’t reflect his true skills (3.81 FIP). Finally out of the pitcher’s hell of Arizona, he makes for a nice sleeper if Pittsburgh wants Watson back in a more traditional role.

Pirates Projected Lineup

Josh Harrison, 2B

Josh Bell, 1B

Andrew McCutchen, CF

Starling Marte, LF

Gregory Polanco, RF

Jung-ho Kang, 3B

Francisco Cervelli, C

Jody Mercer, SS

Pirates Projected Rotation

SP Gerrit Cole

SP Ivan Nova

SP Jameson Taillon

SP Chad Kuhl

SP Steven Brault

CL Tony Watson

RP Daniel Hudson

Projected lineups courtesy of Roster Resource