Fantasy Baseball Team Previews – Pittsburgh Pirates

(Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

In 2015 the Pittsburgh Pirates clinched a wildcard berth in the NL Central for the third straight season. The Pirates won 98 games which was the second-best record in the Majors behind the best team in the Central, the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite their best finish since 1991 the Pirates exited early for the third straight year in the wildcard round, losing to a red-hot Chicago Cubs club. It won’t get any easier for the Bucs in 2016 with an up-and-coming Cubs team improving and a Cardinals team that will always be in contention. The concern in the Steel City is that the window is closing for a young and very talented Pirates team. This has to be a major concern since the Pirates’ will have to pay up soon with superstar Andrew McCutchen only three seasons away from free agency.

The Pirates organization similar to the Cubs have done a good job of identifying and developing young and underrated prospects. Kudos to GM Neal Huntington and staff for doing their homework and maximizing their return on investment thought the draft in recent years. The Pirates have maintained one of game’s best farm systems despite picking later in the draft the past few years. Their current crop of top prospects includes a few players that could potentially make an immediate impact with the club as soon as this summer. This should give Bucs fans plenty of hope for another competitive season in 2016. If the Bucs expect to make a deep playoff run in October they’ll need to figure out how to win a Wild Card round or better yet “Raise the Jolly Roger” by winning the NL Central.

Key Additions: 1B/OF John Jaso, 1B Jason Rogers, LHP  Jon Niese, RHP Juan Nicasio, and RHP Ryan Vogelsong.

Key Losses: 1B Pedro Alvarez, 1B Aramis Ramirez, 2B Neil Walker, RHP A.J. Burnett, RHP Joe Blanton, LHP J.A. Happ, LHP Antonio Bastardo, RHP Charlie Morton, and RHP Joakim Soria. 

AL East

AL Central AL West NL East NL Central NL West

Baltimore

Chicago WS Houston Atlanta Chicago

Arizona

Boston

Cleveland Los Angeles A Miami Cincinnati Colorado

New York Y

Detroit

Oakland New York M Milwaukee

Los Angeles D

Tampa Bay

Kansas City Texas Philadelphia Pittsburgh

San Diego

Toronto Minnesota Seattle Washington St. Louis

San Francisco

Projected Lineup

  • Gregory Polanco – RF
  • Andrew McCutchen – CF
  • David Freese – 3B
  • Starling Marte – LF
  • Jung Ho Kang – SS
  • John Jaso – 1B
  • Josh Harrison – 2B
  • Francisco Cervelli – C

Andrew McCutchen

Andrew McCutchen owners were ready to hit the panic button last spring when he got off to a slow start hitting under .200 through the first week of May. Cutch was nursing a leg injury which explained his early-season struggles at the plate. McCutchen returned to his 2014 MVP form in his final 129 starts recording a triple slash line of .313/.425/.528. McCutchen managed to crack the 20-homer plateau for the fifth straight season, but the declining number of steals is concerning. His stolen bases have dropped from 27 to 18 to 11 (on only 16 attempts) last summer. We can only hope that the leg injury was to blame for the drastic drop in steals but it remains to be seen if Cutch can be a perennial 20/20 player like he was from 2011-2013. Regardless, he’s still an unbelievable talent worthy of a first-round selection in 2016 fantasy drafts. Cutch will still help you in all the hitting categories even if he doesn’t swipe 15-20 bags in 2016. He still possesses a lightning-quick bat while remaining one of the best players in the game. Players capable of putting up 30/30 seasons are even 20/20 seasons are rare and should be highly coveted by fantasy owners.

Starling Marte

Starling Marte is primed for another monster season hitting clean-up for a potent Bucs lineup.    (USATSI)

Starling Marte is primed for another monster season hitting clean-up for a potent Bucs lineup. (USATSI)

The Pittsburgh Pirates have arguably the best starting outfield trio in the Major Leagues with McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco. Starling Marte had a banner year in 2015 registering career-highs in runs (84), home runs (19), RBIs (81), games played (153), and at-bats (579). After hitting closer to the top of the order early in his career Marte was moved to the fifth spot in the Bucs order in 2015. Marte is blossoming into one of the game’s best outfielders while developing his power. Marte is tabbed to hit clean-up for the Bucs this year so expect him to continue to pile up the counting numbers. Elite power/speed combos are rare nowadays making Marte easily a top-10 player at his position. It’s hard to expect north of 30 stolen bases again from Marte if he’s hitting in the heart of the Pirates batting order but 20-plus steals are still in play.  Given his aggressive approach at the dish he could flirt with 30 homers and 100 RBIs. At the end of the day we’re talking about a five-tool talent with a very high ceiling which makes him a valuable player to own in fantasy.

Gregory Polanco

The Pirates had very high expectations for uber-athletic Gregory Polanco coming up in their farm system, but so far he’s yet to live up to them. Polanco has shown flashes but remains a liability when facing southpaws as his 2015 splits indicate (.190/.250/.278). His extreme fly ball rate and double-digit homers as a minor leaguer provide hope that he has more power to provide in the future. Also consider that he’s young at the ripe age of 24 so he still has time to blossom into the star the Bucs expected him to be. His speed on the base paths makes him an intriguing player to own in fantasy considering he stole 27 bags in 37 attempts last year. If the Pirates remain patient with Polanco and let him bat leadoff despite his career batting average of .256 and .320 on-base-percentage, this could be the year he puts it all together. Make no mistake his athleticism and minor league track record indicate he’s a player with the potential to hit .280-15-70 with 30-40 steals.

Jung Ho Kang

Will Jung Ho Kang be a top-10 shortstop again in 2016?       (Bill Boyce / AP Photo)

Will Jung Ho Kang be a top-10 shortstop again in 2016? (Bill Boyce / AP Photo)

The Pirates took a chance last year signing Kang out of the hitter-friendly Korea Baseball Organization. Kang was a man among boys in Korea smashing 40 homers in 2014. History suggests that power numbers from overseas never translate well to the Major Leagues, for whatever reason. After a slow start last year Kang heated up after the All-Star break hitting .310 with 11 homers and .912 OPS. His monster second-half came to a screeching halt on September 17th when he tore his MCL and fractured his tibia in a takeout slide at second base. Kang is still rehabbing from the nasty late-season injury and may not be ready to take the field before late April. It’s likely that he’ll be restricted to playing third base when he is ready to return in order to reduce the wear and tear on his knee. The recent signing of David Freese indicates that he’s further behind schedule than originally expected. Freese will warm a seat for Kang at the hot corner until he’s cleared for a return. In fantasy Kang is well worth the investment despite the injury concerns considering that he ranked as a top-10 shortstop last year before the injury. If Kang can return to his second-half form from last year he could flirt with batting .300 with 20-25 homers, and 75 RBIs. If you draft him just be sure to add a backup shortstop to fill in early in the season for him until he makes him triumphant return.

Josh Harrison

Josh Harrison cashed in big on his breakout 2014 season last year by signing a $27.3 million deal with the Bucs. Harrison set the bar pretty high that year making the All-Star team batting .315 with 164 hits, 77 runs scored, 13 homers, .837 OPS and 18 stolen bases. Unfortunately, the regression bug hit Harrison hard in 2015 as he experienced a huge drop-off in power hitting a measly four home runs. He also regressed in the speed department with only 10 steals in 18 attempts after swiping 18 bags in 2014. Injuries were partly to blame for his disappointing 2015 season after Harrison missed significant time due to a thumb injury while also battling a chronic ankle injury early in spring training. Assuming that Harrison stays healthy he should get plenty of playing time with Aramis Ramirez retired, Neil Walker traded to the Mets, and Kang recovering from a serious knee injury. Harrison will never come close to matching his 2014 offensive output but he does offer speed and multi-position eligibility as a bonus. He can be a useful super utility player in deeper mixed leagues, just don’t overpay for him in drafts.

Projected Rotation

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. Francisco Liriano
  3. Jonathan Niese
  4. Jeff Locke
  5. Juan Nicasio

Gerrit Cole

Will Gerrit Cole win his first Cy Young Award in 2016?

Will Gerrit Cole win his first Cy Young Award in 2016?

In 2015 Gerrit Cole enjoyed a breakout season that was overshadowed by Cy Young Award winner Jake Arietta. In comparison, if you look at the splits you’ll find that Cole was actually the better pitcher in the first half with Arietta dominating the second half. Cole compiled a 13-3 record with a 2.30 ERA, and 1.12 WHIP leading up the mid-season classic. Cole’s breakthrough season ranked him in the top five in wins, top 10 in ERA, top 15 in WHIP and top 20 in strikeouts. Cole also finished with a lower walk rate (5.3 percent) than Jake Arrieta, while limiting opponents to a .287 on-base percentage. Cole’s arsenal is sick and includes a fastball that averaged 95.5 mph last year, trailing only Yordano Ventura and Matt Harvey. When he isn’t throwing fire he keeps hitters off balance with a hard, nasty slider and slurve. He does carry more injury risk since he relies heavily on his slider, putting more stress on his arm. Cole is ascending towards the upper echelon of aces and should be a front-runner to win the NL Cy Young Award. In fantasy drafts Cole should be one of the top 10 pitchers selected and can be depended on to anchor your pitching staff as your SP1.

Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano has quietly been the Pirates’ most reliable pitcher over the last three years, averaging 29 starts. In 2015 Lirano pitched more than 180 innings for the first time since 2010 while setting career-highs in strikeouts (205) and WHIP (1.21). Liriano might not be a sexy pick but possesses a nice arsenal that includes a decent sinker, wipeout slider, and elite changeup that help induce a lot of ground balls. His stuff is as good as ever and he’s a legit No. 2 starter on a team that should provide plenty of run support. Command has been an issue in the past for Liriano but as long as he’s throwing strikes he should continue to post a respectable ERA and WHIP. The main concern with owning Liriano is his injury history so that’s always a risk you take with owning Lirano. What you see is what you get with Liriano but he’s a safe bet to win 12-15 games while posting a 3.30-ish ERA, 175 strikeouts, and an average WHIP. He’s a borderline top-25 pitcher but isn’t drafted as such making him a bargain on draft day in most leagues.

Jonathan Niese

The Pirates acquired southpaw Jon Niese from the Mets last December for second baseman Neil Walker. Walker was entering the last year of his contract while Niese can be kept for three years assuming the Bucs exercise his contract option years. Niese is nothing to write home about but throws strikes and generates plenty of groundballs with his five-pitch arsenal, led by a 90-mph sinker. Last year Niese managed to post his best groundball rate (54.5 percent) of his career. This skill should play well behind a solid defense that has had a lot of success at shifting their infielders. Niese isn’t going to help much in the strikeout category after recording his lowest K rate of his career in 2015. He also struggled with allowing home runs (1.09 HR/9) and experienced an increase in his HR/FB rate that ballooned to 14.3 percent. In fantasy Niese is more of a NL-only option or streaming option in deeper mixed leagues due to his low K rate and inflated ERA.

Juan Nicasio

Juan Nicasio was signed over the winter from the Dodgers and has been generating a lot of buzz this spring as he competes for the fifth starter role in Pittsburgh. Nicasio has been flat-out dominant this spring spinning 15 scoreless innings with a 24/5 K/B ratio. Nicasio is one of the hardest throwers in the game with a fastball that flirts with triple-digits topping out at 96-97 mph. His arsenal also includes a wipeout slider to boot. Bucs pitching coach Ray Searage has a history of getting the most out of his hurlers and Nicasio is his latest reclamation project. If Nicasio can improve his control (4.9 BB/9) and secondary offerings he could be one of the biggest surprises in the National League this year. Nicasio is a work in progress but his high K rate (10.0 K/9) and exceptional spring is worth monitoring. He might just have the most upside on the rotation outside of the staff’s ace Cole. If Nicasio wins the job out of camp he’ll most likely bump Ryan Vogelsong to the bullpen. I’d recommend being a step ahead of your competition and taking a flier on Nicasio in the last few rounds of your draft given his upside. The dividends could be very substantial.

Closer

Mark Melancon

In 2015 Pirates closer Mark Melancon led the majors with 51 saves. In the process he shattered the Bucs team record of 46 saves set by Mike Williams in 2002. It was his first full season as a closer but he was in full lockdown mode blowing only two saves in 53 opportunities. Melancon also had a club record streak of 35 straight saves. It wasn’t always pretty but Melancon rebounded from a noticeable drop in velocity last April that saw him struggle to hit 90 mph on the gun. Melancon was able to survive the slow start by utilizing his devastating cutter that led to one of MLB’s highest groundball rates. He finished with a 7.28 K/9 rate, his lowest in seven years, but that didn’t stop him from finishing as the top fantasy closer. As long as Melancon continues to display impeccable command and induce plenty of groundballs (57.5 percent), he’ll remain an elite closer. The problem with owning Melancon is that you’ll have to pay an inflated price on draft day to acquire him since he’ll be priced as a top-10 closer. According to FantasyPros ADP data he’s currently the sixth closer off the board (90th overall) in the eighth/ninth round. His floor is pretty high given he’s closing for a team capable of winning 90 or more games but ceiling is capped due to low K rate and short track record at the position.

Next Man Up

Tony Watson

Tony Watson has the stuff to be a closer on a lot of teams but will remain the Bucs primary setup man barring an injury or meltdown by Mark Malancon. Watson’s fastball reaches 93-94 mph and he mixes in a nasty slider to keep hitters off-balance. The southpaw registered a 1.91 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in 75.1 innings last year while leading the majors with 41 holds. Watson has quietly become one of the game’s best relievers posting a sub-2.00 ERA in over 200 innings pitched from 2013-2015. Only the best pitcher in baseball Clayton Kershaw and teammate Mark Melancon are on this short list. Watson holds substantial value in leagues that counts holds as a category having recorded 97 holds over the past three years. Keep in mind that Melancon is in the last year of this contract making him a viable trade target for other teams. Watson is a great late round investment especially if you’re speculating for saves since he could be a 30-plus save guy if Melancon is sent packing.

Prospect Watch

Tyler Glasnow, SP

Tyler Glasnow is one of the top pitching prospects in the Majors.  (Cliff Welch / MiLB.com)

Tyler Glasnow is one of the top pitching prospects in the Majors. (Cliff Welch / MiLB.com)

Tyler Glasnow is hands down the best pitching prospect currently in the Pirates farm system. Glasnow is a tall, angular righty who throws downhill and gets great extension on his delivery, making it hard for opposing hitters to square up. Glasnow has outstanding stuff, highlighted by a plus mid-90s fastball and an excellent curve. His minor league track record speaks for itself after posting a 28-16 record with a 2.07 ERA, 4.2 BB/9, 11.8 K/9, and 1.09 WHIP over four seasons. If you’re looking to stash a high-upside young arm Glasnow should be at the top of your wish list. The flame-throwing righty struck out 33 percent of the batters he faced in Double-A last season. Glasnow needs some polishing this year at Triple-A and primarily needs to work on his command, in addition to consistency in repeating his delivery. Glasnow profiles as a No. 1 starter and I’d expect to see him up for good come July.

Josh Bell, 1B/OF

Josh Bell is an elite prospect who’s currently blocked at first base and outfield. Bell is a polished switch hitter with outstanding bat speed and tremendous plate discipline. Bell has little left to prove in the minors after producing an impressive .317/.393/.446 line split between Double-A and Triple-A last year. At 6-foot-2 and 233 pounds Bell is a beast but the power has yet to translate from his massive frame after hitting only seven home runs last year in 572 at-bats. At 23 years old, he’s still young and the hope within the organization is that he can mature into a 20-plus home run hitter annually. He’ll begin the season at Triple-A Indianapolis but don’t be surprised if he’s up with the club by late-April or early May. John Jaso, Mike Morse, and Jason Rogers don’t exactly instill a lot of confidence at first base not to mention Morse has dealt with a boatload of injuries during his career.

Austin Meadows, OF

Will Austin Meadows get the call in 2016? (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)

Will Austin Meadows get the call in 2016? (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)

Austin Meadows was the Pirates prized first-round draft pick in 2013. Meadows has been compared by a few scouts to Jay Bruce and Christian Yelich. His pro career got off to a slow start in 2014 after suffering a hamstring injury that held him to only 38 games. Meadows was fully healthy last year which allowed him to showcase his quick bat speed and gap power. Meadows led the pitcher-friendly Florida State League in hits (156) and total bases (207) while ranking third with a .306 batting average. The power has yet to develop for Meadows who smacked only seven home runs last year and only has 17 bombs to his minor league resume. Meadows has a nice level swing and concentrates on making hard contact. At 21 Meadows is still young and once he learns how to use his wrists and hands he should blossom into an annual 20-plus homer player. Lastly his speed (21 steals) and on-base prowess (.420) will make him a valuable asset longterm regardless of whether or not he ever grows in the power department. Realistically I don’t expect to see Meadows get the call in 2016 unless one of the big three boppers in the outfield get injured. Having said that stranger things have happened and he could force their hand if he keeps raking in the minors.

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