The Pirates are falling behind in the NL Central

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The team that did the least in the NL Central is still only a stone’s throw-away from being competitive. Unfortunately, they are hamstrung by ownership.

It wouldn’t have taken much for the Pirates to keep pace with the rest of the National League Central. After all, the Cubs’ starters are aging and inconsistent, the Cardinals have regularly posted wins in the mid-80s wins and are projected for much of the same, and the Reds have been basement dwellers. The biggest difference has probably been the Brewers increasing their payroll to more-than-double the Pirates’, a middle-of-the-pack $118 million versus the Pirates pathetic $57.6 million.

Even so, PECOTA projects Pittsburgh to be in the thick of the wild card race, hovering around .500. FanGraphs’ projected standings are similar, though remarkably more bullish on the Cubs, and subsequently less-so on the Pirates, who are projected to be in last place with 79 wins.

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Last season the Pirates managed to finish the year 82-79, their best record since their consecutive wildcard seasons in 2014 and 2015. They managed to finish above .500 by not necessarily doing any one thing well, but by not doing anything remarkably poorly. Their starters’ ERA ranked 10th in the National League, but third in the division, and their relievers had the fourth-best strikeout rate in the NL.

On the offensive side of the ball, only two players hit more than 20 homers, with Gregory Polanco leading the team with 23 and Starling Marte hitting 20. Overall, Pittsburgh’s offense placed seventh in the National League by wRC+, and eighth in fWAR.

This offseason, however, Pittsburgh did little to answer the moves other teams in the division made. St. Louis traded for one of the best first basemen in the league, in Paul Goldschmidt, the Brewers signed Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas, and the Reds acquired Tanner Roark, Matt Harvey, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp.

The Pirates countered all these big league moves with… a pile of minor league free agent signings. They did add Lonnie Chisenhall, who will fill in for Gregory Polanco, who is out until at least May following shoulder surgery. They also acquired Jordan Lyles, who is slated to be their fifth starter.

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Beyond the two uninspiring moves at the major league level, the Buccos landed Melky Cabrera, Nick Franklin, Francisco Liriano, and Brandon Maurer on minor league deals. While it cost PIttsburgh next to nothing for all those players, and any value they extract out of the deals is surplus value, each of these players is severely flawed at this point in their career, and they would be naive to think they’ll capture lightning-in-a-bottle in more than one.

The big wild cards here are the continued advancement of flame-throwing number-one starter Jameson Taillon, and Chris Archer’s evolution with his deteriorating fastball. 2018 was a pivotal developmental year for Taillon, who threw 190 innings for the first time in his young professional career. The 27-year-old posted a 3.6 fWAR, striking out nearly 23 percent of batters faced, and lowering his walk rate a full two percentage points to 5.9 percent.

The Pirates shed two good talents in outfielder Austin Meadows and starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow to obtain Chris Archer for him to put up the worst season of his career. In 52 ⅓ innings, Archer posted a 4.30 ERA, and his lowest strikeout to walk rate since 2014.

For 2019 to really go well for the Pirates, they need a lot of breaks to go their way. A resurgent season by Archer, another step-forward by Taillon, and a lottery winner (or two) in the plethora of one-year minor league deals could position them well going into the summer.

The challenge for fans is to remain optimistic, even knowing that it’s likely that divisional rivals will add to their team, while yet another Pirates team stands pat. Getting ownership to agree to add pieces and increase payroll mid-season is highly unlikely, and General Manager Neil Huntington’s hands are pretty much tied; that’s the reality of the Nutting ownership tenure, and the subsequent expected fate of the 2019 Pirates.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano

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