Are the Pirates Doing Enough to Contend in the National League Central?
Offseason moves are by no means a clear indication of what a team is going to do the following year.
Take last year's San Diego Padres for example. They acquired virtually a brand new team during the winter, then proceeded to go 74-88, finishing fourth in the National League West, 18 games out of first place. Simply put: doing a lot in the offseason is not indicative of a successful year.
However, you may have noticed the Chicago Cubs have done some things since falling short in the National League Championship Series. They took a 97-win team from a year ago, one loaded with young talent and some good veteran pieces here and there and added some more firepower to their roster, signing Jason Heyward (a perennial five-to-six win player) to be their new centerfielder, John Lackey to be their number-three starter, and Ben Zobrist as their new second baseman.
And the Pittsburgh Pirates? They're not doing enough to keep up.
Last year, they finished second in the NL Central, winning 98 games with one of the most talented and deepest rosters in baseball. However, as Chicago has added the likes of Heyward, Lackey and Zobrist, the Pirates have made a couple moves around the periphery, continuing to operate as a small-market franchise.
So far this offseason, they have added a starting pitcher, Ryan Vogelsong, who went 9-11 last year with a 4.67 ERA and a 4.53 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in 135 innings for the San Francisco Giants, which included 22 starts and 11 relief appearances. His 4.55 xFIP was the 15th highest among pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched, and he posted an fWAR of 0.0 last season, meaning he was essentially a replacement-level pitcher. He'll start the season as the team's number-five starter and could end up in the Pirates' bullpen sooner rather than later.
They also acquired starter Jonathon Niese from the New York Mets in exchange for second baseman Neil Walker. Last year for New York, Niese went 9-10 with a 4.13 ERA and a 4.41 FIP, worth 0.9 fWAR. His strikeout-per-nine inning rate has dropped from 7.89 in 2011 to a career-low 5.76 last season.
And, last week, they signed John Jaso to be their new first baseman, where he'll platoon with the right-handed hitting Mike Morse. In 216 plate appearances last year for the Tampa Bay Rays as a catcher, Jaso hit .286/.380/.459 with 5 homers and an fWAR of 0.7. Against right-handed pitchers, he had a .831 OPS, very solid numbers for the left-handed hitting side of a platoon.
With those three players, the Pirates have added 1.6 Wins Above Replacement (according to Fangraphs). However, the Cubs have added 10.7 WAR.
Now, it's fair to say that no one could keep up with what the Cubs have done this winter. Adding nearly 11 wins to your roster is a tough thing to do. But even though they've made the playoffs three years in a row, Pittsburgh hasn't added a piece that makes you think they can compete with the likes of Chicago.
While I wrote last week that whoever signs free agent first baseman Chris Davis could be setting themselves up for a contract that will hurt them long-term, for a team in clear win-now mode like the Pirates, the addition of Davis makes the most sense. He could give them one of the things they desperately need to keep up with the Cubs: an elite power bat that, over the next two seasons, could lead the NL in home runs.
Instead, they got Jaso, a nice platoon player, to play alongside Morse. It's the type of move a small market club makes, the kind of move the Pirates have always made.
Unfortunately, this time, it may not be enough.
It's true the St. Louis Cardinals also stand to be a bit worse in 2016, and that could help Pittsburgh. Last year's sole 100-win team lost a six-win player in Heyward and a pitcher worth 3.6 fWAR in Lackey. They will replace them with a two-win pitcher in Mike Leake and a young outfielder in Stephen Piscotty who projects to being a two-to-three win player next season.
That's a loss of about four wins for the Cardinals, and that's with an optimistic expectation of Piscotty next year. And they will also presumably have a full season of Adam Wainwright, which they didn't have in 2015.
But St. Louis has at least been in on players like Heyward and David Price. They routinely either sign quality players who can help them or make top offers to those players. The Pirates, meanwhile, continue to operate as if there is no real urgency.
Free agency is not the way to build a club, but it can certainly be a great way to supplement an already-good club and make it great. And while it's important for teams to avoid bad free agent deals, if a franchise is smart with the rest of their roster, they can afford to take a risk every now and then in the free agent market.
This is not what the Pirates are doing. And while this strategy may end up working out for Pittsburgh next year, it appears on paper as if the Pirates have fallen far behind one of their division rivals in the race for the NL Central.