The Pittsburgh Pirates may be closer to returning to the playoffs than most realize.

As the season comes to a close, the Pittsburgh Pirates will once again be watching the playoffs from their couches. The team was streaky, putting together the longest win streak in the majors but had many more (albeit smaller) losing skids. Fan attendance was way down and expectations were very low. While many fear another few years of losing (two decades of losing doesn’t go away easily) there is reason for hope in the coming seasons.

The Rotation

Let’s start with the biggest reason for hope: the rotation. This rotation is set for basically the next two years. The only reason for a shakeup would be for injuries or a minor leaguer earning a spot. Three-fifths of the rotation is 26 or younger and everyone in the rotation is signed through 2021, with the exception of Ivan Nova. If you look at the full season stats maybe you’re not feeling so great about the rotation but you would be mistaken.

While the starters struggled somewhat in the first half they really found their groove after the All-Star break. The Pirates have given up the second least amount of runs behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers, in that period. Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams are in the NL top ten ERA, while Trevor and Joe Musgrove are in the top 15 for opposing wOBA.

As good as the staff has been since the break, they’ve been even better in September. Four of the five Pirates starters are in the NL top 30 of opposing wOBA, ERA, xFIP, and FIP. As a staff, the Pirates were second in ERA, fourth in opposing wOBA, second in FIP, and fifth in xFIP in the majors. It’s unfortunate that the staff wasn’t this good earlier the season. The team could’ve been fighting for a Wild Card spot this weekend.

Trevor Williams

When the season began, it seemed like Pittsburgh was finally going to see the emergence of an ace in Jameson Taillon. Taillon has in fact reached that level but what’s more surprising is that Trevor Williams has been almost as good. He’s not a strikeout guy but he keeps going into games and getting the job done, no matter what. Trevor has had multiple streaks of scoreless innings and the only player who has a better second half ERA is presumptive AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell. While it’s not entirely clear why he is performing so well (keep an eye out for that article in the offseason) it’s hard to dismiss this entirely as a fluke. Williams has put together a full season of good starts.

He’s had his share of bad starts, as all starters do, but there is a reason his ERA is at 3.11. He turned the corner when he threw seven shutout innings on June 18th. Since that day, his ERA is sixth in the league squarely between Jacob DeGrom and Dereck Rodriguez (who had an amazing under-the-radar season). In 2017, Trevor fluctuated between some really good and really bad starts. It could be that what we saw this year is actually indicative of his true ability.

Chris Archer

Chris Archer was acquired in a big trade on July 31st and he wasn’t great at first but he may have turned it around in September. He’s gone on record multiple times about letting Francisco Cervelli call the game. The results speak for themselves: 2.70 ERA, 10.8 K/9, 4 K/BB, .678 OPS, the second most amount of innings thrown at 30. It took a couple of months but the Pirates may have actually fixed Archer. If they have then they have quite the trio in Taillon, Williams, and Archer. It’s not going to be easy to score on Pittsburgh next year.

The Bats

The injury to Gregory Polanco was undoubtedly devastating to the Pirates early 2019 offense and the team is clearly missing a thumper but there are some bright spots. Josh Harrison has been a staple for the Pirates for quite a few seasons but it’s clear that his time is up and Adam Frazier is going to take his spot. While the defense isn’t as good, the bat is SO much better. Even with an April and May so bad that Adam was sent down to AAA, he has an OPS 150 pts higher than Harrison with almost the same amount of plate appearances. Adam provides an extremely solid bat in the leadoff spot, something the Pirates have been sorely without for years.

Jordy Mercer will likely also be leaving the team this season. Jordy isn’t a bad shortstop, he’s just vanilla. He makes the average plays and his bat is basically a double play waiting to happen with the occasional double. One of the top prospects in the Pirates system, Kevin Newman, was promoted while Jordy was injured and he got major league experience this year. Yes, Kevin has seriously struggled against major league pitching but he’s shown the ability to hit in the AAA and it’s likely only a matter of time before he adjusts. The one thing going in his favor is that he’s feasting on lefties with an OPS of .866. It’s time to move on from Mercer and it’s not like it can get much worse than Mercer.

While right field will be an issue next year, left field will not. There was some talk that Corey Dickerson was truly a first half player after an absolutely brutal stretch in July and August. He’s put those struggles behind him as he’s slashed .317/.359/.567 in September. Dickerson has clearly fixed his issues and will once again be an integral part of next year’s team.

Next Year

The Pittsburgh Pirates may not seriously compete next year but they should make some noise. They have a young, improving, and controllable rotation that is clearly hungry and has shown constant improvement. While losing the Edgar Santana for all of next year hurts, having Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, and Felipe Vazquez together for another year will help turn leads into wins. Second base production will obviously improve with Adam Frazier.

Now there are some obvious holes, third base for example, but that is where some help could be coming from both inside and outside the organization. This weekend, Jung Ho Kang will make his return and could prove to be the answer at third once again. Top prospect Kevin Kramer had a great 2018 and could earn the job outright in spring training. Or the Pirates could hit the free agent market. Now that hasn’t been the front office’s MO lately but that could change.

When the front office thinks the team has a chance to compete they do open the pocketbook. Not a whole lot, they aren’t the Los Angeles Dodgers or Boston Red Sox. When the Pirates were winning in 2013-15, the payroll was around $95 million. The current projections put the Pirates at $76 million for 2019. That leaves about ~$20ish million to fix the holes on the team. Pittsburgh isn’t going to spend all that on one player but they could easily find an upgrade over Colin Moran, someone to tide them over until Ke’Bryan Hayes is ready.

After the surprising success of this year’s Pirates, fans should return to this team. They are fun, young, and there is more than just a faint glimmer of hope for next year.

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Author Details
I grew up in the only hilly part of Indiana, an unholy place where Reds, Cardinals, and Cubbie fans all live in semi-harmony. The first 20 years of my life were abysmal as I never got to see a winning season from my beloved Pirates. Today I live in bliss as I allow my baseball addiction to take over every aspect of my life.
I grew up in the only hilly part of Indiana, an unholy place where Reds, Cardinals, and Cubbie fans all live in semi-harmony. The first 20 years of my life were abysmal as I never got to see a winning season from my beloved Pirates. Today I live in bliss as I allow my baseball addiction to take over every aspect of my life.
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