2016 Record: 78-83
Third Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 4.21 (18th)
Team OPS: .734 (15th)
What Went Right
Starling Marte might have seen his power drop off to a career-low nine home runs in 2016, but he also batted a career-best .311 with a career-high 47 stolen bases. That was good enough to make him a top-five fantasy outfielder. Gregory Polanco was a top-25 outfielder himself even following a disappointing second half. The youngster more than doubled his previous season’s home run total (nine to 22) while falling just a tad shy of a 20/20 campaign. Jung Ho Kang got a late start to the season while rehabbing last year’s leg injury and made another trip to the disabled list with a shoulder ailment, but he still managed to pop 21 home runs over just 370 plate appearances. Youngster Josh Bell made an impressive debut in 2016, batting .273/.368/.406 with three homers over 152 plate appearances while walking more times than just struck out (21 to 19). After missing back-to-back seasons due to injury, Jameson Taillon came back with a vengeance in 2016, earning a promotion in June and going on to post a 3.38 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 85/17 K/BB ratio over 104 innings. Ivan Nova was acquired in an under-the-radar move at the trade deadline and dazzled over 11 starts with the Pirates, putting up a 3.06 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and silly 52/3 K/BB ratio across 64 2/3 frames. Neftali Feliz (3.52 ERA, 61 strikeouts over 53 2/3 innings) experienced a bounce-back season, while Felipe Rivero whiffed 39 over 27 1/3 innings after arriving in a trade with the Nationals that shipped Mark Melancon out of town.
What Went Wrong
After three consecutive playoff appearances following 20 straight losing seasons, the Pirates fell back below .500 again in 2016. A large reason for the disappointing campaign was Andrew McCutchen, who followed four straight top-five National League MVP showings with the worst season of his career. McCutchen put up a pedestrian .256/.336/.430 batting line while continuing to show a big decline defensively in center field. After batting .295 with seven home runs in 2015, Francisco Cervelli had trouble staying healthy in 2016 and fell back to a .264 average and just one dinger. Gerrit Cole missed significant time due to injury for the second time in the last three seasons and disappointed when able to toe the rubber with a 3.88 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and just 98 strikeouts across 116 frames. The Pirates gave up on Francisco Liriano and Jon Niese, shipping them to the Blue Jays and Mets, respectively, at the trade deadline following ERAs of 5.46 and 4.91. Tyler Glasnow’s control problems from the minors followed him to the majors, as he walked 13 over 23 1/3 innings while also missing time in the second half with a shoulder injury.
**Are Andrew McCutchen’s days as an elite fantasy producer over? The former MVP was a first-round pick in fantasy drafts again this past spring, but he wound up barely finishing among the top-40 fantasy outfielders. After batting at least .292 in each of the previous four seasons, McCutchen fell all the way to .256 in 2016. Yes, his BABIP (.297) was well down from where it usually is, but McCutchen also struck out more, walked less and wasn’t hitting the ball nearly as hard. To make matters worse, the stolen bases for ‘Cutch continued to dry up, as he stole just six bags while being caught seven times. Now on the wrong side of 30, McCutchen is unlikely to see a big rebound in the steals department. If his average doesn’t return to around .300 in 2017, McCutchen suddenly looks pretty ordinary.
**Gregory Polanco batted .287/.362/.500 with 12 homers, 50 RBI and nine stolen bases in the first half. He hit 10 homers and stole eight bases after the All-Star break, but the 25-year-old battled a left shoulder ailment and wound up with an unsavory .220/.267/.414 batting line in the second half. Polanco received platelet-rich plasma injections not only in his shoulder but also his left knee in October and should be 100 percent heading into spring training. If the talented young outfielder can avoid bumps and bruises in 2017, he could be a first-round type fantasy producer.
**Will Josh Bell have an everyday job next season? The knock on Bell as a prospect going into this past season was that his raw power hadn’t really translated into home run production in games. That started to change in 2017, as he belted 17 between Triple-A and the majors across 636 plate appearances. Bell always made a lot of contact in the minors and he continued to impress with his plate discipline during his time with the big club with a 19/21 K/BB ratio. That’s the kind of guy who has a chance to hit for average right away, and if Bell continues his uptick in the power department we could be looking at a fantasy asset if the playing time is there. Bell has been told to be ready to play both first base and the outfield in spring training, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pass John Jaso at first base for good on the depth chart.
**Tony Watson took over the ninth inning when Mark Melancon was traded to the Nationals at the deadline and he produced mixed results down the stretch. After a 2.66 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 39/15 K/BB ratio over 44 innings prior to the deal, Watson held a 3.80 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 19/5 K/BB ratio across 23 2/3 frames while converting 15-of-18 save chances in his new role. While Watson might not have been quite as good in the ninth inning as he had been in a setup role, he has a couple things working in his favor. Firstly, the left-hander has held right-handed batters to a .217/.282/.352 batting line in his career, so the notion that managers generally prefer righties to close shouldn’t really be an issue. Secondly, the Pirates aren’t a team that seems likely to spend significant cash or prospects to bring in a closer from outside the organization. Watson seems likely to begin 2017 back in the ninth inning, but keep an eye on Felipe Rivero, who can bring triple-digit heat from the left side and who boasts a career 9.7 K/9 rate.
**A collection of rookies made 44 starts for the Pirates in 2016 and they appear poised to have plenty of youth in their rotation again in 2017. Jameson Taillon looks most prepared to have fantasy success next season after producing plenty of it in his first go-round this year with a 3.38 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 85/17 K/BB ratio over 104 innings. Tyler Glasnow was supposed to beat Taillon to the majors but the Pirates elected to wait until late July to give Glasnow a shot. His results with the big club were predictable, as he missed plenty of bats but also handed out a bunch of free passes. Glasnow might have better raw stuff and more upside than Taillon, but he’s also less polished and could be a frustrating guy to own in fantasy leagues in 2017. Chad Kuhl is another guy to keep an eye on, although the upside with him looks to be fairly limited.
Team Needs: I’ve already mentioned that I think Tony Watson will probably open next season as the Pirates’ closer, but you can still make an argument that the ninth inning is a need. Something else that might be a priority is adding an innings-eater for the rotation. With a youth-led rotation and Gerrit Cole coming off another injury-shortened season, Pittsburgh could use a reliable back-end starter. Re-signing Ivan Nova would be a nice start to the offseason.