Pittsburgh Pirates


This marks the 40th anniversary of the Pirates’ last World Series appearance. In fact, since rallying to beat the Baltimore Orioles in seven games in the 1979, the Pirates have been back to the playoffs just six times and yet to win another postseason series.
The Pirates did little to bolster their championship hopes in the offseason, making just a handful of small moves after going 82-79 last year. That leaves them with a projected $71-million payroll, which is second-lowest in the major leagues to the Tampa Bay Rays' $60 million However, the Pirates believe trading for Rays right-hander Chris Archer and Texas Rangers closer Keone Kela last July will help them contend this season.
What’s New
Utility infielder Erik Gonzalez was acquired from the Cleveland Indians in a five-player trade in November and is favored over rookie Kevin Newman in the competition for the starting shortstop job. Gonzalez has started just nine games at shortstop in three major-league seasons, but the Pirates are convinced he could shine if given the opportunity.

Another former Indians player, outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall, was signed to a one-year contract in free agency. He will be the starting right fielder until Gregory Polanco recovers from shoulder surgery, which could be any time from mid-April to mid-June. Chisenhall will round out an outfield that includes two Gold Glove winners in left fielder Corey Dickerson and center fielder Starling Marte.Gonzalez and Newman are competing to replace Jordy Mercer, who along with second baseman Josh Harrison became free agents after last season following a seven-year run together. Utility player Adam Frazier takes over for Harrison.
Journeyman right-hander Jordan Lyles appears to be the frontrunner to be the fifth starter after signing a one-year contract as a free agent. Nick Kingham and left-hander Steven Brault will also compete for a spot in the rotation that opened when Ivan Nova was traded to the Chicago White Sox in December, falling in behind Archer and fellow righties Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove.
What Could Change
Colin Moran is the incumbent third baseman following a decent rookie season. However, he could be challenged for his spot in the lineup by Jung Ho Kang, who was re-signed as a free agent at the start of the offseason.
Kang combined to hit 36 home runs for the Pirates in 2015 and 2016, his first two seasons after becoming the first native position player to make the jump to the major leagues from the Korea Baseball Organization. However, he sat out all of 2017 and most of 2018 because he was unable to secure a work visa after being arrested for DUI in Seoul following the 2016 season.
Even if Kingham and Brault lose out to Lyles in the fifth starter battle, both could still get a crack at the rotation at some point. Lyles made just eight starts in his 35 games pitched with the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers last season, logging 87 2/3 innings, so his durability is in question.
Josh Bell spent most of the winter working with a hitting instructor recommended by agent Scott Boras. The switch-hitting first baseman is looking to regain his power stroke after hitting 12 home runs last season, down from 26 as a rookie in 2017.
What’s Coming
Despite notching just their fourth winning record in the last 26 seasons a year ago, the Pirates still finished in fourth place in the National League Central behind the Chicago Cubs, Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. All three have the look of contenders again and the Cincinnati Reds have vastly improved with a series off offseason trades following four last-place finishes in a row.
"Nobody is satisfied with 82 wins in this organization," club president Frank Coonelly said. "Everybody is committed to doing what we can to putting a World Series championship team on the field, and we do know that we can do it."
The pitching staff gives the Pirates a chance to compete in the rugged division, though. Each of the top four starters have the potential to be above average while Kela combines with All-Star closer Javier Vazquez and set-up men Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez to form what could be a potentially strong back end of the bullpen.
However, beyond hiring Rick Eckstein to replace Jeff Branson as hitting coach, the Pirates are counting on improvement from within offensively. Beside adding Chisenhall, management did nothing to improve a lineup that finished 19th in the major leagues in runs scored and 25th in home runs a year ago.
One prospect who could make an impact by midseason is right-hander Mitch Keller, returning to Triple-A Indianapolis to begin this season after finishing last year there. Slick-fielding third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes will also play at Indianapolis and could be ready for a September audition.
Best-Case Scenario: The pitching staff lives up to expectations, Eckstein gets the hitters on track and the Pirates return to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Worst-Case Scenario: The pitching doesn’t live up to expectations, injuries expose a lack of organizational depth and the Pirates fall to last place in the NL Central.
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