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Pirates

5 offseason priorities for the Pirates

Chris Adamski
| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, 8:42 p.m.
Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison makes a diving stop on a ball hit by the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist during the first inning Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, at PNC Park.
Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison makes a diving stop on a ball hit by the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist during the first inning Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, at PNC Park.
The Pirates’ Colin Moran hits an RBI groundout against the Chicago Cubs on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018.
The Pirates’ Colin Moran hits an RBI groundout against the Chicago Cubs on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018.

Some cynics might grumble the Pittsburgh Pirates endured a middling, mediocre season. Others more gleefully will point out they finished with their fourth-most wins since 1992.

However, all associated with the team will want improvement in 2019. But how is that best attained?

Here are five offseason priorities that will help turn next year’s Pirates into a playoff team:

1. Power up

It’s easy to see how the Pirates finished 25th in the majors in home runs when looking at some of the traditional power-laden splits: The Pirates were last in homers out of the cleanup spot, 29th in homers out of the No. 5 spot, last in homers out of their first basemen and 25th in homers from third basemen.

The latter two were manned mostly by Josh Bell and Colin Moran, a pair of 26-year-olds who still have four years of club control, including pre-arbitration (read: cheap) salaries for 2019. Bell (.768) and Moran (.747) also had on-base-plus-slugging averages that suggest slightly above-average production that shouldn’t be given up on. But on a power-hungry team, the corner infielders need to hit more homers than their combined 23 from 2018.

With Moran and Bell likely to keep their jobs, the Pirates can’t simply hope each finds his power stroke. They need to add power elsewhere if they are going to have a lineup commensurate with legitimate contention.

2. In the middle

Second baseman Josh Harrison and shortstop Jordy Mercer are two of the final three links to the playoff teams from 2013-15. But Mercer is a free agent, and Harrison has a pricey club option ($10.5 million), suggesting it’s likely neither will be back in 2019.

That leaves an obvious question as to who will fill those middle-infield roles? Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer were given an opportunity to seize those jobs over the final six weeks of the season, but they produced woeful on-base-plus-slugging percentages of .478 and .310, respectively. That doesn’t mean either can’t be a regular in the future, but it does mean they won’t and shouldn’t be handed everyday gigs right away.

So who will play there? It’s possible Mercer and/or Harrison will be brought back at a lower salary, or perhaps a similar budget free agent will be brought in to serve as a placeholder until Newman and/or Kramer are ready.

3. The ’pen is mightier

For the most part over his decade as general manager, Neal Huntington has been masterful at building bullpens. It looks as if he already has done all the heavy lifting to ensure the Pirates have a strong bullpen in 2019. Most teams would love to start with a core of Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez. Steven Brault is an adequate long man, too.

But modern bullpens need at least two or three more reliable arms. And while it’s true the bullpens built in February rarely resemble the ones pitching come July (just look at the Pirates this year), the Pirates would best be served by adding a couple of more live arms to the spring-training relief mix.

4. Spend, spend, spend

Acquiring Chris Archer and Kela at the trade deadline showed the Pirates were serious about winning in the short term and also willing to spend money to do it.

Like the division rival Milwaukee Brewers (from a similarly sized market) did last winter, the Pirates could add two premium pieces in free agency or via trade and still have their payroll rank toward the bottom of the MLB pack.

There are decisions to make in the outfield, too. In right, Gregory Polanco might not play until July as he recovers from shoulder surgery. In left, Corey Dickerson is entering his final year of arbitration.

Without much ready in the organization for 2019, one way or another it seems the Pirates will have to write a large check or two to fill out their outfield.

5. Sell, sell, sell

Tickets, that is. The Pirates’ average home attendance of 18,316 was their worst since 1996 and another precipitous drop-off from the year before (the third consecutive season that’s happened).

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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