5 key Pirates players going forward

October 6, 2018

Pirates center fielder Starling Marte returns to the dugout after striking out with a runner in scoring position during the ninth inning against the Cubs on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, at PNC Park.

There will be plenty of new names on the roster by the time the Pirates convene in Bradenton, Fla., for spring training. And each will have a chance to make the kind of impact the team needs to return to the postseason.

But on whole, the 2019 Pirates don’t figure to be dramatically different than the finished ’18 product. Seeing as how they went 16-8 down the stretch, that might be a good thing.

That said, the Pirates were a mediocre team with an 82-79 record. To take the next step, some returning players will need to be better.

Here are five who could really help the Pirates’ cause with a strong 2019:

1. Starling Marte

Marte might be the franchise’s most physically gifted player since Barry Bonds. An equally compelling argument could be made there hasn’t been a player as maddening for inconsistency and on- and off-field mental lapses.

At age 30, Marte is what he is at this point: a player who delivers slightly above-average offensive production (his OPS has been between .712-.818 in his career) and mostly above-average defense. But what frustrates Pirates fans is Marte’s up-and-down play. Check out these month-by-month OPS figures for Marte from May through September: .946, .568, 1.006, .652, .811. That’s not too atypical for his career, either.

The point being, if Marte could string together six consecutive months of above-average play, he could be one of the National League’s best players. And if he can pull that off, it could be the season he leads the Pirates to the playoffs.

2. Joe Musgrove

The Pirates, with good reason, are thrilled with the 1-2-3 punch at the top of their rotation. While there isn’t a Cy Young candidate-type among the group of Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer and Trevor Williams, that’s a trio the Pirates can stack up against anybody. Ivan Nova still is reliable and durable enough that most teams would jump at having him as a No. 5 starter.

So that leaves Musgrove as something of a wild card. If the big righty can stay healthy and pitch to his potential, then the Pirates could claim to have one of the best rotations in the NL.

Skeptics say Musgrove would be a better reliever than starter. His career statistics suggest that (4.77 ERA as a starter, 1.26 as a reliever). Safe to say, though, he’ll be given a chance to prove he’s rotation-worthy.

3. Josh Bell

The Pirates’ production woes from first base and the cleanup spot -- last in home runs at each -- trace directly to Bell. He’s among MLB’s worst first basemen in fielding range. In short, relative to all other teams’ first basemen, Bell has been more of a liability than an asset.

But if the team can find power sources elsewhere, that doesn’t mean Bell can’t be a quality piece to a contending team. He’s one of the best in baseball at walk rate (13.2 percent in 2018) and his 75 doubles and 10 triples in 1,355 career plate appearances prove the 6-4, 235-pound Bell is not bereft of extra-base power. If he can replicate the 26-HR season he provided as a rookie-of-the-year candidate in 2017, be reliable in the field, continue to walk a lot and hit another 30 doubles, it could go a long way for a good team.

4. Adam Frazier

Three seasons, 300 games and 966 plate appearances into his career, Frazier has yet to earn an everyday role. That figures to change next season. Frazier could be the starting second baseman, though it’s also at possible he could fill in for Gregory Polanco in right field until Polanco recovers from shoulder surgery.

Frazier earned the playing time thanks to a second half of the season in which he had an .890 OPS with seven home runs in 196 plate appearances. If the Pirates get adequate defense and anything approaching that kind of offense from Frazier next season, they will be pleased.

5. Francisco Cervelli

Cervelli has always produced offensively and defensively over the parts of his 11 seasons. Known as one of MLB’s better receivers and pitch framers, he’s had spurts as one of the game’s better offensive catchers, too.

Injuries, though, have held Cervelli back. He’s played more than the 104 games he did this season just once (2015). Over the past 16 months, he had six stints on the disabled list, including four because of concussions.

If Cervelli can stay healthy and play 130 games while providing the offensive numbers he did in 2018 (an .809 OPS, 12 home runs in 404 plate appearances), it would help round out the Pirates’ lineup.

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