Midnight struck for baseball’s Cinderella last night, as Adam Wainwright‘s curveball played the part of the wicked stepmother. Actually, I don’t know the Cinderella story well enough to know if that sentence makes sense, so let’s move on from this tortured analogy after just one sentence. The Pirates lost last night, and the season that put the city back on the map as a baseball town is now over. So now, there’s one question hanging over the franchise: was this was a one year aberration or was this was the emergence a new force to be reckoned with in the NL Central?
From one perspective, it’s impossible to answer this question right now. We have no idea what the 2014 Pirates will actually look like after an off-season of roster shuffling. They could pony up their entire farm system to land both David Price and Giancarlo Stanton, and then, yeah, they’re obviously a contender next year. Or they might decide to play it safe, wait for the next wave of prospects to hit Pittsburgh, and take a step backwards in a consolidation year. There’s no way to know what the 2014 Pirates are going to do without knowing who is going to be playing for them.
But, we know some of the players that are almost certainly going to be on the team, and we know some things about how the 2013 Pirates won 94 games, so we can look at how much of what they did this year could reasonably be expected to carry over to 2014. So let’s do that.
Let’s start with the position players. As a group, the Pirates non-pitchers posted a wRC+ of 106, 10th best in baseball, so despite not looking that great against St. Louis, Pittsburgh’s offense was pretty good this year. Andrew McCutchen was a monster, but more importantly, they didn’t really give too many plate appearances to total nothings. Of their top 10 hitters in PAs, only Garrett Jones (97 wRC+) and Clint Barmes (52 wRC+) were below average hitters this season, and both of them gave way to above average hitters — or at least, hitters who performed above the league average in 2013 — as the year went on.
They basically surrounded McCutchen with a bunch of decent hitters, and that made the offense work even as there was only one serious offensive threat. Well, that probably undersells Starling Marte a bit, who posted a 121 wRC+ and was a fantastic baserunner, so they got a lot of value out of their two athletic center fielders, and then everyone else was solid enough. But the good news is that the core players who made up the Pirates offense are expected to retain most of their offensive value in 2014.
You may or may not have noticed that we’ve snuck 2014 Steamer Projections onto the site already. They’re not completely perfect — players who ended the year on the DL are projected for 1 at-bat, sometimes — and should be considered in beta for now, but they’re still useful guides for what we can expect from players next year. And so, let’s take a look at the wOBA projections for the core Pirates hitters for 2014, compared to what they did in 2013.
|Name||PA||2013 wOBA||2014 wOBA|
There’s a lot of similar numbers in that table. Steamer thinks Andrew McCutchen is going to be nearly as awesome next year as he was this year. It thinks Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez are going to be even better, at least at the plate. Starling Marte, still a force. Russell Martin, still a good hitter for a catcher. Jordy Mercer gets worse, but a .308 wOBA from a shortstop isn’t awful, and if they don’t bring in an improvement, he’ll likely get a greater proportion of the PAs that went to Clint Barmes’ impression of a pitcher. There’s just nothing here that says that the Pirates primary offensive players are in for a huge regression.
And, the news is actually even better than that, because the Pirates are very likely to go get themselves a new first baseman this winter, and it won’t be terribly hard to upgrade over what Jones/Sanchez/Morneau provided at the position this year. Maybe they get in the Jose Abreu bidding war. Maybe they pluck Ike Davis or Lucas Duda away from the Mets. Odds are good they won’t stick with the status quo, though, so there’s a pretty substantial potential upgrade to be made at first base.
So, yeah, the Pirates offense doesn’t look like it’s headed for a crash. And if they make a huge splash and land a big time hitter who can play first base or right field, it could be even better next year. This should be encouraging for the Pirates.
The run prevention is a slightly less optimistic story. Separating out pitching from defense isn’t easy, especially for a team that shifts as often as the Pirates do, so rather than look at FIP/UZR, let’s just look at it in total and focus on runs allowed, while acknowledging up from that this is going to give Pirates pitchers credit for things that were actually Pirates defense. And we’ll include FIP-based WAR for reference. Here’s how the top 10 Pirates pitchers broke down:
The top two starters were well above average, and then they got solid performances from a mix of back-end starters before Gerrit Cole gave them another frontline performance in the second half of the season. But, really, focus on those bullpen numbers. They had five relievers post +1 RA9-WAR, with Melancon and Wilson over +2. The Pirates bullpen, as a group, posted +8.9 RA9-WAR, ranking #4 in baseball, and then they were even better in important situations, as they ranked #1 in bullpen WPA.
With all due respect to the Pirates abilities to find undervalued relief arms, this isn’t happening again. The 2012 Orioles pulled this trick off with a bunch of great relief seasons out of nowhere, then were a disaster in close games in 2013. This is the kind of thing that has huge season-to-season variance, and counting on Melancon, Wilson, Watson, Grilli, and Mazzaro to be a devastating core of relievers again in 2014 will likely lead to disappointment. Steamer projects over one run ERA regressions from Melancon and Wilson and almost one run regression from Watson and Mazzaro. It doesn’t hate these guys, but they’re more useful than other worldly. The Pirates bullpen is going to be worse next year, and it’s going to cost them a handful of wins that they got this season.
So, really, the run prevention is going to come down to two factors: how much of Gerrit Cole’s late season dominance is a precursor of things to come, and whether they can either retain Burnett or replace him with a similarly valuable veteran starter. If they keep Burnett, or fill his spot with a high quality starter, and then Cole steps in to throw a full season worth of All-Star performance, this rotation should still be pretty good. They’ve got a good enough defense to turn mediocre arms into useful back-end starters, and they can find another Jeff Locke or Charlie Morton to soak up innings, but with a less effective bullpen, they’re going to need their top three starters to be quite excellent again.
And that is far from a guarantee. Francisco Liriano’s career has been a roller coaster of unexpected performances, both good and bad. Burnett just had one of the best seasons of his career at age-37, and while he’s said he wants to return, he was reportedly unhappy with getting bypassed for the Game 5 start yesterday, so his return is not inevitable, and even if he does come back, he has to be expected to get worse. And while Cole looks excellent, he’s still a young arm with 130 big league innings, so he has to be considered a wild card.
This rotation could be very good, especially if they make a smart bet on another buy low free agent to give them 200 good innings. It could also be a disaster, and the Pirates run prevention could go from among the best in the league to among the worst. There is a wide range of possible outcomes here, especially with the large expected bullpen regression.
I know that’s an unsatisfying conclusion, as I just used 1,400 words to write that the Pirates could be good or bad or anything in between. There’s just too many variables to make any kind of real projection at this point. However, I think we can say with some confidence that the Pirates have the core of a good team in place. Their offense is solid, their defense should still be good, and there is talent on the pitching staff. This doesn’t look like a team that wildly outperformed their talent level, except for in the bullpen, and some of that bullpen dominance could be ascribed to the Pirates never ending use of shifts.
I don’t think the Pirates are going away. With a good off-season and some solid acquisitions, they look like they could very easily be a contender again in 2014. 94 wins might be a stretch unless they really go for it and make a big splash, but the pieces for a contending team are in place. Pirates fans should savor 2013 as a special season, but they should also see it as the first step towards long term success. This team looks like it’s got a shot to be good for a while. They can’t rest on their laurels, and they need to make some real improvements to offset the coming regression on the pitching staff, but those improvements are possible. The 2014 Pirates have a chance to do this again.