There is Hope for the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 25: (L-R) Starling Marte #6, Pablo Reyes #15, and Corey Dickerson #12 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate their win over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 25, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 6-0. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Pirates won’t make the playoffs for the third consecutive year, but there is hope for the Bucs next year.

The 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates should have money to sign free agents

The primary reason for the optimism is that the Bucs will shed at least $25 million in payroll from this year and that could jump to $33 million or more depending on a number of factors. That could help the Pirates sign some much needed free agents, especially on offense where help is desperately needed.

The Pirates will be able to save money by not bringing back players such as Josh Harrison ($10 million), Jordy Mercer ($6.7 million), Sean Rodriguez ($5.7 million), Jung Ho Kang ($3 million) and Adeiny Hechavarria ($3 million). The Pirates already saved $4 million by trading David Freese last month.

The Pirates could even save more money by trading Francisco Cervelli ($10 million) and Ivan Nova ($8 million). Finding a taker for Cervelli could be difficult given his concussion issues this year, but the Bucs might find someone interested in Nova, 31, whose ERA is 4.01. He’s been up and down this year as he’s been for much of his career, posting a 1.75 ERA in June followed by a 5.33 ERA in July. However, Nova has been dependable, making 29 starts, and he still has excellent control, walking only 31 batters in 152 innings. The Pirates also could be able to replace Nova with Nick Kingham, Stephen Brault or a number of other young pitchers, including the highly touted Mitch Keller, who was impressive at times for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians this summer.

Several players will be due pay raises, according to their contracts, including center fielder Starling Marte, $7.8 million to $10 million, Gregory Polanco, $3.5 million to $6 million, Chris Archer, $6.2 million to $7 million; left fielder Corey Dickerson $5.9 million to an estimated $8 million; setup reliever Keone Kela, $1.2 million to $3 million and closer, Felipe Vazquez, $2.5 million to $4 million. The rest of the Pirates aren’t eligible for arbitration yet so their pay raises will be minimal at most. All told the raises should total approximately $12 million leaving the Pirates with at least $25 million to spend if they keep their payroll the same as it was this past year.

Bucs could keep savings

Of course, there’s a possibility that the Pirates will just keep the money instead of spending it on free agents. That’s what they did last year when they saved $15 million by trading Andrew McCutchen and $6 million by dealing Gerrit Cole.

Attendance at PNC is a big problem

But attendance has become a huge problem for the Pirates who drew 1,465,316 fans; 444,131 less than they drew last years and a little more than a million less than they drew in 2015 when their attendance was 2,498,596 the best year ever in the 136-year history of the team. The attendance this year was the Bucs lowest total since 1996 when they drew $1,332,150 fans at the since-demolished Three Rivers Stadium. The Pirates thought those attendance problems were behind them when they opened PNC Park in 2000. Back in 2006, the Bucs won only 67 games but still drew 1,861,549 fans and four years later they won only 57 games but still drew 1,613,399 fans.

It’s clear that the Pirates will have to up their payroll or at least maintain what they spent this year if they want to spark renewed interest in their fan base. They simply can’t afford to turn off any more fans. Their payroll of $91,724 is the 26th highest in Major League Baseball. The Oakland A’s had the lowest payroll at $70,973.

Archer trade still questioned

So, it seems likely that the Pirates will try to lure some free agents in hopes they can spur attendance numbers at PNC Park. That’s undoubtedly why they dealt for Archer, who was the best pitcher available at the trade deadline. Archer was very disappointing when he first came over the Bucs, compiling a 6.45 ERA in his five starts. But he’s shown promise in his last five starts with a 2.70 ERA. It’s still not clear if he was worth the Bucs giving up Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz to get him, but there’s at least hope Archer could be a solid starter for the Bucs next year.

Pitching staff looks good

The starting rotation is looking pretty good at this point. Trevor Williams and Jameson Taillon have pitched exceptionally well, especially in the second half. Joe Musgrove has been a little inconsistent, but he should be better next season with another year under his belt. Archer and Nova round out what could be one of the best rotations in the National League

The bullpen also looks good. Vasquez has had another good year, saving 36 games. Kela, acquired at the trade deadline from the Texas Rangers, has been a good setup reliever while young relievers Richard Rodriguez, Kyle Crick, and Edgar Santana have all pitched well.

Offense needs help

However, it’s a different story on offense as the Bucs have struggled all year to score runs. Their team batting average is a respectable .254, the fourth highest mark in the National League. But they’re 10th in runs scored and 13th in home runs.

First baseman Josh Bell was a major disappointment, hitting 26 homers last year in his rookie season but belting only 10 long balls this year. Rookie third baseman Colin Moran, acquired in the Gerrit Cole trade, is hitting .275 but only has 10 home runs. Left fielder Corey Dickerson started out strong but only has 12 homers.

The long-ball problem was further exacerbated when right fielder Gregory Polanco, who led the Bucs with 23 homers injured his shoulder and had to undergo season-ending surgery. He’s expected to be out until May or June, leaving a gaping hole the Bucs will have to fill at least temporarily.

The problem is that the free agent market is very weak behind stars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. The Bucs might be able to trade Nova, but it’s unlikely they can get an upper echelon power hitter for him.

Moustakas could be the answer for the Pirates

One player the Pirates should look into is Milwaukee Brewer’s third baseman Mike Moustakas. In 2017, he clubbed 38 homers and drove in 85 runs while batting .272. His numbers are down some this season, hitting 28 homers and driving in 93 runs while batting .250. He was acquired by the Brewers from the Kansas City Royals at the trade deadline.

A free agent for the first time last winter, he expected to be rewarded handsomely with a big contract. However, that wasn’t the case. The offers never came and Moustakas, 31, ended up re-signing with the Royals for only $6.5 million. But the contract did include a $15 million option for next year. So, the question is whether or not the Brewers pick up that option. They have some highly touted infielders in the minors and they might opt to spend that money on pitching instead of keeping Moustakas. If they don’t sign him, Moustakas will once again become a free agent.

Whether Moustakas can get any more money this off-season than the last one is unknown. But his power numbers should attract some interest from the Pirates who desperately need a slugger in their lineup. He would also add some excitement to the team, possibly giving fans a reason to come back to PNC.

Alternatives to Moustakas are few

Can the Bucs work out a deal with Moustakas, especially with all the payroll they’re shedding this winter? Given the alternatives, the Bucs might have no choice but to sign Moustakas.

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