2018 Record: 82-79
Fourth Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 4.00 (14th)
Team OPS: .725 (17th)
What Went Right
Despite selling off homegrown heroes Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen before spring training, the Pirates managed a winning season in 2018 and were surprise buyers at the July 31 trade deadline, with a midsummer (and perhaps misguided) eye on a National League Wild Card berth or even possibly the National League Central title. Jameson Taillon posted a career-low 3.20 ERA in a career-high 191 innings and ended the season with a streak of 22 consecutive starts surrendering three or fewer earned runs. Trevor Williams delivered a 3.11 ERA in 170 2/3 innings and was one of the top pitchers in baseball in the second half, with a dominant 1.29 ERA over his final 76 2/3 frames. Starling Marte reached the 20-homer plateau for the first time in his seven-year major league career and stole 33 bases, ranking seventh among all major league speedsters in that category. Corey Dickerson, acquired from the Rays for next to nothing in late February, batted .300 with an .804 OPS across 533 plate appearances. Francisco Cervelli put up a career-high .378 on-base percentage in 404 plate appearances and hit double-digit home runs for the first time in 11 major league seasons.
What Went Wrong
All of the inconsistency. The Pirates played well in the early going, reaching a season-high nine games above .500 on May 17 before a seven-week freefall that saw them plummet to a season-worst eight games below .500 on July 7. They rebounded to win 13 of their next 14, which prompted the trade-deadline acquisitions of Chris Archer and Keone Kela, but then came a 10-17 in August that effectively torched the team’s postseason dreams. A solid 16-10 showing in September went mostly unnoticed. Archer, who cost the Bucs top young talents Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz, went 3-3 with a 4.30 ERA and 1.36 WHIP over his 10 starts with Pittsburgh. Gregory Polanco was productive when healthy, posting career highs in home runs (23) and OPS (.839), but he needed surgery in mid-September to repair a dislocation and labral tear in his left shoulder, and his rehab is likely to carry over into the first two months of the 2019 campaign. Josh Bell, after finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2017, struggled to a .768 OPS with just 12 home runs in 148 games as a sophomore. The Pirates hit only 157 total home runs as a team in 2018, ranking 25th in Major League Baseball -- ahead of only the Marlins, Giants, Tigers, Rays, and Royals.
** Jameson Taillon was selected second overall by the Pirates in the 2010 MLB Draft, just behind Bryce Harper and just ahead of Manny Machado. His talent has never been in question, but a testicular cancer diagnosis in early 2017 threatened to derail his career and his reemergence this year as a front-line starter was one of the better stories in baseball. Taillon added a slider to his already-impressive arsenal and flourished at the top of the Pittsburgh rotation. He had a brilliant 2.27 ERA and 86/18 K/BB ratio over his final 91 innings. The arrow is pointing up in a big way for the right-hander, who will be pitching at the prime age of 27 next year.
** Trevor Williams doesn’t have the swing-and-miss stuff of Taillon, but you can’t deny his run-prevention numbers. The 26-year-old turned in 11 scoreless outings in 2018 -- eight of them over the final 10 weeks of the season, a span of 13 starts. It doesn’t seem like something he’s going to be able to sustain in 2019 -- not without an improvement in velocity, spin rate, or secondary stuff -- but a soft-contact starter in the pitcher-friendly confines of PNC Park certainly carries fantasy appeal for what he can offer in the ERA and WHIP departments. Williams and Taillon both finished with 14 wins in 2018 -- that’s something too.
** We have to talk about Chris Archer, who has long been a fantasy favorite because of his propensity for racking up strikeouts. But there are signs of decline, from the slight velocity dip to his increasingly poor numbers against left-handed hitters. The 30-year-old right-hander registered a 9.8 K/9 in 148 1/3 innings this summer between Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, after averaging a 10.8 K/9 from 2015-2017, including a career-best 11.1 K/9 last season. Archer’s contract is incredibly team-friendly, which is a big reason the Pirates gave up so much to get him, but a guy with a mid-4.00 ERA can’t be considered a fantasy ace.
** Felipe Vazquez had some ugly blowups in 2018 and there was a small forearm scare in May, but the hard-throwing left-hander posted a 1.45 ERA and 59/9 K/BB ratio over his final 43 1/3 innings and ultimately finished the season with 37 saves, sixth-most among all major league relievers. He was an underrated fantasy commodity leading into the year and he’ll probably be relatively underrated again in 2019. Cody Allen, who finished with a 4.70 ERA and 27 saves, went 17 spots ahead of Vazquez in the average Yahoo draft last spring.
** The Pirates figure to exercise their $5.5 million club option on Jung Ho Kang, and he could be a sneaky late-round value in fantasy drafts next spring. The South Korean infielder put up an .838 OPS, 36 home runs, and 120 RBI over his first 229 major league games in 2015-2016 before running into serious off-field trouble stemming from a third DUI arrest in his native country. He finally returned to the Bucs’ active roster in late September this year -- for the team's final regular-season series against the Reds -- and went 2-for-6 at the dish.
** Adam Frazier probably deserved a mention in the What Went Right section of this column after posting a .798 OPS (118 OPS+) in 113 games this season. He doesn’t offer enough in the way of counting-stats upside to belong on the radar in standard season-long leagues, but the versatile 26-year-old should again carry DFS appeal in 2019 as the Pirates’ primary leadoff man against right-handed pitchers.
Team Needs: Multiple big bats. There is a clear need for pop in the middle of the Pirates’ order, especially with Gregory Polanco (shoulder) due to miss all of April and most of May. Josh Bell might not be the 30-homer slugger we all thought he could be a year ago, after he went deep 26 times as a rookie.