The Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning record last season, but it was obvious what held them back from greater heights: an offense ranked 20th in the majors in runs, 25th in home runs and 17th in OPS.
This was illustrated by the combined .430 winning percentage of the five teams below them in home runs and by the fact only one team that scored fewer runs than the Pirates also had a winning record.
With not-preposterous whispers that the Pirates might have one of the National League’s better pitching staffs this season, it would be a shame if the offense isn’t adequate enough to hold up its end of what could be a playoff-caliber bargain.
If the Pirates are to improve offensively, it will largely have to come from returning players — the caveat being Jung Ho Kang, though technically a returnee, is effectively an addition to the 2019 lineup — or from additions such as Lonnie Chisenhall or Melky Cabrera.
A look at three keys for the Pirates lineup if the team is going to challenge for a playoff spot in 2019:
1. Kang’s not done
The Pirates are hoping for a best-case scenario in which they added a legitimate middle-of-the-order power presence for the low price of $3 million. Kang came at such a value after visa issues in relation to three DUIs he received in his native South Korea caused him to miss most of the 2017 and ’18 seasons. It’s difficult to project production for a player with six MLB at-bats over the past 30 months, especially one turning 32 years old next week.
That said, Kang hit 21 home runs and had a .513 slugging percentage over 103 games in his last meaningful MLB season (2016). That’s All-Star caliber production over a full season. This spring, Kang hit seven home runs with a .773 slugging percentage in 49 plate appearances. Those are MVP-caliber numbers, albeit from a tiny and flawed sample size.
On a team that lacked power last season, if Kang can provide league-average cleanup-hitter production — the Pirates were one of the worst in baseball out of the No. 4 spot last season — it would go a long way toward improving the offense.
2. Outstanding outfield
Believe it or not, the Pirates had one of MLB’s best outfields last season. According to baseball-reference.com’s wins above average metric, the Pirates ranked eighth in production from their outfielders. Their left fielders (mostly Corey Dickerson) ranked fourth in MLB, and their center fielders (mostly Starling Marte) ranked sixth. Their right fielders (mostly Gregory Polanco) finished in the top half of the majors, and Polanco was better in the second half of the season.
All three Pirates starting outfielders return, although Polanco will miss the season’s start while recovering from shoulder surgery. If the starters stay healthy and have similar or better seasons and if Chisenhall, Cabrera and Pablo Reyes provide help, the Pirates are on the way to a well-rounded lineup.
3. Any more to wring from Bell?
It would be a stretch to characterize Josh Bell’s 2018 season (.261/.357/.411 slash line) as awful, but it’s not unfair to say he was one of the Pirates’ biggest disappointments. He followed up a 26-homer rookie season — he finished third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting — to rank as one of the worst everyday first basemen in the majors.
Still just 26, though, with a strong work ethic and demeanor/character, Bell profiles as an gifted, high-pedigree player who can improve. If he can nudge his homers back up, move on an upward trajectory with his defense (he was moved from the outfield less than four years ago) and an on-base percentage of .370 or so, first base might become a position of strength for the Pirates.