An optimist would point out the Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off a season in which just six National League teams had better records. But in a town in which the World Series drought reaches four decades this year, cynicism reigns — so it’s probably more appropriate to say just five NL teams had fewer wins last year.
Still, the 82-79 the Pirates posted represented their fourth-best record over a 26-season span. While oddsmakers and the sabermaticians project a slight drop-off in victories, the organization’s quest to prove them wrong and take another step forward begins in earnest this week when the Pirates report to Bradenton, Fla., for spring training.
Here are five storylines to watch during the Pirates’ time in the Sunshine State:
1. No drama this time
Among the bigger stories of the first few days of spring training last year was comments from David Freese and Josh Harrison that seemed to express frustration with the direction of the organization following the high-profile trades of Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen a few weeks prior.
Freese and Harrison are now gone, and the Pirates actually improved their win total by seven last season. But their payroll, by all indications, is going to decrease from last season. While none of the moves the Pirates made over the offseason are viewed as unwise, none of them committed too much money, either.
The Pirates’ union rep, Jameson Taillon, isn’t the type to make waves with Freese-like comments. But the overriding question concerns the overall mindset of Pirates players as they enter a season in which they could still be a sneaky contender but yet endured another offseason in which the rest of the NL Central was much more aggressive in adding reinforcements.
2. Is Bell ringing?
A closer examination of Josh Bell’s 2018 season reveals it wasn’t the significant step backward — offensively — that perhaps some viewed it as. His on-base percentage went up 23 points to .357, and his 31 doubles and four triples helped boost his slugging percentage to a respectable .411. But finishing with just 12 home runs (he had eight until Sept. 7) and 62 RBIs as an everyday first baseman and clean-up hitter isn’t going to earn much praise.
Part of Bell’s problems came from an awful April in which he had just one home run, seven extra-base hits, a .217 average and .596 OPS. The Pirates can’t afford for Bell to get off to another poor start, so perhaps clues will emerge in Bradenton about how Bell is seeing the ball.
The problem is Bell’s defense, rated by most quantitative measures as one of the worst by a first baseman in the majors last season. A smart and hardworking young player, Bell takes pride in improving and making adjustments. Maybe he can show improvement in the field during the spring, too.
3. Keller’s time coming?
The Pirates’ top pitching prospect is Mitch Keller, a smooth-throwing right-hander who has advanced through the organizational ladder over the past three years and is scheduled to begin 2019 in Triple-A. If the Pirates have shown us one thing, it’s they won’t promote their top prospects too early. There’s virtually zero chance Keller makes the Opening Day roster. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be in the majors by September.
Still, it might be interesting to watch Keller at the big-league camp and in Grapefruit League play. A mediocre 10 starts after a promotion to Triple-A last season took some luster off Keller’s status in the industry (he was named the No. 12 prospect in baseball by Baseball America last year but is expected to fall). Is Keller still the can’t-miss, above-average MLB starting pitcher? Or was his first taste of Triple-A (4.82 ERA, 1.55 WHIP) a sign of concern that he’s not as close to the majors as was previously thought?
4. Offseason’s not over
Nationally, much has been made over the abundance of quality free agents that remain on the market as camps open. While the Pirates certainly won’t be involved with headliners like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, there are plenty of other names still out there that could help a team. And the Pirates have shown they aren’t averse to adding after pitchers and catchers report.
Last year, for example, they added a chain of four veteran outfielders between Feb. 9-22 (the latter of which, Corey Dickerson, was the one they needed). In 2016, useful players Matt Joyce and Freese were signed in March. The point being, the spring training roster you see now might not be the only group of players from which the 25-man Opening Day roster is formed.
5. Drive for No. 5
Outside the bottom of the bullpen and the end of the bench, probably the only true competition worth watching in Bradenton is for the No. 5 starter spot. It would seem this job is Jordan Lyles’ to lose — the Pirates don’t make it a habit of signing major-league free agents if they believe they’re merely going to end up, say, the long man in the bullpen.
But purportedly, Nick Kingham and Steven Brault are also involved and will be given a shot. Kingham, a former big-time prospect in the organization, is out of options so this might be his final chance.
Then again, whoever wins this spot might just be keeping the proverbial chair warm until Keller arrives in Pittsburgh.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.