Today's Free Picks for
Posted March 13
Pittsburgh under 77½ +112
The Pirates somewhat overachieved last year and won 82 games but for them to repeat that, so many things are going to have to fall into place real fast and we don’t see them being just three games under .500 (it’s going to take 78 wins to beat us here). When we look at the offseason–Jordy Mercer, Ivan Nova, and Josh Harrison gone, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jordan Lyles signed–we don’t see a lot to get excited about and they play in a division in which the Brewers, Cardinals, Brewers and Reds invested in improving their teams in ‘19.
Let’s begin with the starting pitching, the team’s strength. Perhaps Joe Musgrove and Chris Archer are both primed for big seasons as they settle into the team’s culture and system. There is also the big seasons Trevor Williams and Jameson Taillon had last year and there is hype surrounding Mitch Keller as an imminent addition to a high-upside rotation. The problem is that Trevor Williams will never do what he did last year again. He’s a below average starter that posted a 4.51 xERA. If we could bet on one pitcher in baseball that is a sure thing for regression, it would be Trevor Williams. Archer continues to have better peripherals than his ERA would indicate, but not by a lot, and his ERA has risen three straight years. Mitch Keller was impressive in AA/AAA last year but the hasn’t pitched an inning in the majors and was absolutely torched in his first two spring starts and hasn’t made his third start yet at the time of this writing. Joe Musgrove’s durability has always come into question. Musgrove is recovering from offseason abdominal surgery and it is unknown if he will be available for the season opener. The Pirates signed Jordan Lyles to a one-year, $2.05 million contract in December. By trading Ivan Nova, the Pirates have an opening in their rotation that could be claimed by Lyles, an eight-year vet who has pitched for four teams. GM Neal Huntington also is toying with the idea of copying Tampa’s idea of using an opener and Lyles could fit in there as well. If it's the latter, Huntington could use Lyles for an inning (which he might be better suited for). In 2018, Lyles had a 4.11 ERA (4.07 xERA) and 1.26 WHIP. In 87.2 IP, he had 84 K/28 BB. If Lyles becomes an opener, Nick Kingham and Kyle Crick could be brought in as followers. There's a lot of "what ifs" for this spot and none of them are attractive. Furthermore, the bullpen falls off pretty quickly after Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela, and Richard Rodriguez but Vazquez is a big collapse risk in our opinion. He bore very heavy usage in 2016 and 2017, and although Clint Hurdle took his foot off the gas a little in 2018, Vazquez still has 218 appearances and over 220 innings pitched over the last three years.
Then there’s the offense. Do you see anybody on this team as a breakout candidate because we sure don’t. Some might suggest Josh Bell but he was out-slugged by Adam Frazier. Gregory Polanco basically reached his ceiling in 2018 before that foolish and clumsy slide wrecked his shoulder and trimmed a bit off both the end of that season and the beginning of this one. Behind the plate, Francisco Cervelli’s in the last year of his contract, hasn’t played in over 104 games since his first year in Pittsburgh, and is drawing a salary that gives management hives, so Elias Diaz should get some time to play, maybe even a 50/50 split as the season rolls on and Cervelli inevitably gets hurt. Starling Marte is probably the biggest threat at the plate but let’s call a spade a spade.
The era of big data in baseball is obviously just beginning, but the team that sort of brought the revolution about seems to be falling behind. Not bringing back the hitting coaches struck us as a bit of a knee-jerk. The team was ninth in runs per game in the NL and and 10th in DRC (Deserved Runs Created), which is actually better than in 2017 (13th and 12th), and they play in a pitcher’s park but if the lesson of Moneyball is exploiting a market inefficiency, the cat’s out of the bag with framing, shifting, and two-seamers. We don’t get the sense that the Pirates have found a new inefficiency. This franchise that has invested so wisely in technology, player development, and the front office arms race just refuses to do the same for actual players.
Bringing back Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage is “holding the fort”.
The Pirates are at a crossroads. It’s not just McCutchen and Cole who are gone now, but Mercer and Harrison and Nova. Without going anywhere near the tanking route, they seem to have embarked on a five-year plan, turning to a longer-term focus over the last year. Furthermore, the stakes have been raised in the National League Central this offseason with St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Chicago all projected to improve. By the way, the NL East and NL West is no picnic either. There are five teams in the NL Central. Three of those teams, St. Louis, Milwaukee and the Cubbies, have all been picked by one or more various publications to win the division. All agree that the Reds are improved, which leaves the Pirates as the least interesting team of them all. Then there are the inevitable injuries that will come into play. The best teams in baseball almost always have a great infield. Weak infields lead to plays that are not errors but that other infields would make. Seriously, the heartbeat of a great team is its infield. This is a 70-win infield and therefore will probably be around that number when it’s all said and done and there is also the possibility of a sell-off in late July. Finally, and for what it’s worth, the Pirates drew 1.47 million fans to PNC Park, a decline of 5,380 per game that was the second-worst in the league (thanks Marlins). The fans aren’t excited this year, thus, playing to empty parks are not motivating and surely could be the difference in a bunch of games. Again, it’s going to take 78 wins for the Pirates to beat us here and if they do, good on them but we’re big time sellers on a franchise that did nothing in the offseason to keep up with the rest of the division. That’s telling.
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Pittsburgh under 77½ +112 (Risking 3 units - To Win: 3.36)