PITTSBURGH, PA – JUNE 05: A general view of PNC Park during the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies on June 5, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Phillies defeated the Pirates 7-3. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Pirates fans have been very disappointed so far this off-season as the Bucs have done little to improve their roster.

Optimism for 2019 is Quickly Disappearing

There was much optimism among Pirates fans once the 2018 season ended. After all, the Bucs had finished 82-80, their first season above 500 in three years.

It also appeared that the Pirates had money to spend for 2019 as they shed $28 million in salaries. Among the players the Bucs didn’t bring back were Josh Harrison  ($10 million), Jordy Mercer ($6.7 million), Sean Rodriguez ($5.7 million), Adeiny Hechavarria ($3 million) and David Freese ($4 million).

But instead of using those savings to go out and get some much needed free agents, especially for their anemic offense, the Bucs’ owners have apparently pocketed the extra cash.

Nova Trade Disappointing for Pittsburgh Pirates Fans

In fact, the Pirates saved an additional $10 million by trading starting pitcher Ivan Nova and his $8 million salary for a minor league prospect.

While Nova wasn’t a star by any means, he was a solid, innings-eater who provided a veteran presence for a young pitching staff. His absence will be particularly felt if any of the young Pirate pitchers come down with an injury or falter in 2019.

Most of the Pirates trade talks have centered around moving catcher Francisco Cervelli and his $10 million salary. However, other teams have shown little interest in Cervelli. That’s not surprising since he’s one concussion away from being moved to another position.

Signings Have Done Little to Improve the Team

Here are the moves the Pirates have made thus far:

  • Signed free agent Jordan Lyles to a one-year contract for $2 million. An eight-year veteran, Lyles has a career 31-52 record and 5.28 earned run average. The 28-year-old righty has been a starter and reliever while pitching for four teams. The Milwaukee Brewers released him last October.
  • Signed free agent Lonnie Chisenhall, 30, to a one-year contract for $2.75 million. Limited by injuries, he only had 84 at bats last season. He hit one home run and drove in nine runs. He’s played eight seasons, all with the Cleveland Indians, seeing time at first base and third base. However, he has been primarily an outfielder the past two seasons. Chisenhall has a career average of .268. Plans are for him to fill in for right fielder Gregory Polanco, who’s expected to be out until May or June after undergoing shoulder surgery last September. Polanco led the Bucs in 2018 with 23 homers.
  • Acquired shortstop Erik Gonzalez and minor league pitchers Tahnaj Thomas and Dante Mendoza from Cleveland in exchange for outfielder Jordan Luplow and infielder Max Moroff. Gonzalez is expected to compete for the shortstop job with Kevin Newman since Mercer departed. In three years with Cleveland, Gonzalez batted 263 with five homers and 27 runs batted in. Newman batted .209 last year while playing in 31 games and making 91 plate appearances. He had no homers and drove in six runs.
  • Signed third baseman Jung Ho Kang to a one-year contract for  $3 million shortly after declining to pay him a $5.5 million option. Kang hit .274 with 36 homers and 120 runs batted in during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. However, he missed the 2017 season because of visa issues related to three DUI arrests in his native South Korea. He was reinstated last year but played only nine games with the Triple AAA Indianapolis Indians  before injuring himself. He returned to play the final three games of the season with the Pirates.

Making the Playoffs Will Be Hard

It’s hard to see how those signings will enable the Bucs to challenge for a playoff spot this year. Despite their winning record, the Pirates finished 13 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and 12 in back of the second-place Chicago Cubs.

They might even have a challenge holding off the Cincinnati Reds for fourth place as they’ve made numerous moves this off-season.

Pitching Staff is A Plus

It’s a shame because the pitching staff does look promising. Trevor Williams and Jameson Taillon both pitched well, especially in the second half. They finished with ERAs of 3.11, and 3.20, respectively.  Joe Musgrove was inconsistent, but he should be better next season with another year under his belt. The Bucs hope Chris Archer can return to the days when he was one of the top pitchers in the American League.

The bullpen also looks good. Felipe Vazquez has had another good year, saving 36 games. Keone Kela, acquired at the trade deadline from the Texas Rangers, was a good setup reliever with a 2.93 ERA while young relievers Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick also pitched well, with ERAs of 2.39 and 2.47, respectively.

Overall, the Pirates pitching staff finished with a 4.00 ERA, which was eighth best in the National League.

The offense struggled all year to score runs, The team’s batting average of .254 was sixth in the National League, but the team was 13th in homers with 157 and 10th in runs  scored with 692.

Attendance a Big Problem

The Pirates lack of deals is puzzling given their attendance decline last year. The Bucs drew 1,465,316 fans; 444,131 less than they drew last year and a little more than a million less than they drew in 2015 when their attendance was 2,498,596 the best year ever in the 136-year history of the team.

The attendance last year was the Bucs lowest total since 1996 when they drew 1,332,150 fans at the since-demolished Three Rivers Stadium. The Pirates thought those attendance problems were behind them when they opened PNC Park in 2000. Back in 2006, the Bucs won only 67 games but still drew 1,861,549 fans. Four years later they won only 57 games but still attracted 1,613,399 fans.

Fans seemed particularly frustrated last year as the Pirates were the only team in MLB to not sign a free agent. There was talk of a boycott, and the fans stayed away in droves.

Payroll Going Down Not Up

There was hope that things might be improving since they acquired Archer and his $7 million salary at the trade deadline. But instead of upping their payroll this off-season the Pirates have gone in the opposite direction. Their payroll of $91,724 was the 26th highest in Major League Baseball last year. Their payroll now is around $70 million, which well could be the lowest in MLB.

Of course, the Bucs could make a move as I’m writing this story. But time is of the essence with the opening of spring training only about a month away.

With their attendance spiraling downward, the Pirates have apparently decided they can’t afford to up their payroll. But that can only mean further declines in attendance. The lack of any players with charisma or star power is also hurting the Bucs at the gate. The Pirates most popular player is Cervelli, and he could be gone soon.

It all adds up to some bad news for Bucco fans. The long, boring off-season could well turn into a long, boring in-season this year.

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