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Series preview: The Pirates are the best team in the NL Central?

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Also: wait, what? Melky Cabrera?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

After letting franchise face Neil Walker go two offseasons ago and trading away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen last offseason, and after lowering payroll in each of those seasons from a franchise-high $100 million in 2016 (or thereabouts — who really knows with baseball accounting), the Pirates spent the entirety of this offseason doing absolutely nothing.

Or something close to it, anyway. Their three “key additions” were Lonnie Chisenhall (currently on the IL), Jordan Lyles (who starts game one of this series), and Melky Cabrera.

Yes, that Melky Cabrera.

34-year old switch hitting outfielder Melky Cabrera. Of the San Francisco Melk Men?

The same Melky Cabrera who was the Giants’ second-best hitter in 2012, an All-Star, and a dude who got busted for PEDs and exacerbated the situation by creating a false website in an attempt to create a plausible cover story for his actions.

He was suspended and he wouldn’t wear a Giants uniform again, and they still went on and won the World Series. That was seven seasons ago. Baseball continues to confound. Who expected Melky Cabrera’s career to extend another seven years after a PED suspension? And as shocking as his presence in the lineup will be this weekend, the Pirates’ 10-6 record and first place standing in the NL Central stands out even more.

This was the same team whose owner, Bob Nutting, said to season ticketholders and assembled media this offseason:

[...] The spending is a band-aid and a little bit of a distraction,” Nutting said. “I think we’re spending appropriately in order to achieve the goals that we’ve set out, which is to win a championship. I think we’re allocating between the multiple buckets that we need to allocate dollars in a smart, efficient way to be able to drive the very best team on the field that we possibly can.

It’s really hard to see how the team plans to contend without Gerrit Cole and without Andrew McCutchen, but lo and behold, Bob Nutting is right: the Pirates are making the most out of the limited resources he’s given them. They went from 98 wins in 2015 to 78 in 2016 to 75 in 2017 to 83 in 2018, so GM Neal Huntington seems to be doing more with less in the short term.

They acquired OF Jason Martin in that Gerrit Cole trade with the Astros, and the 23-year old has a .391 OBP in 10 games (23 PA) so far this year. Kyle Crick had a 2.39 / 3.19 ERA / FIP split last season with 65 strikeouts in 60 innings after the Giants included him in their deal for Andrew McCutchen. He’s off to a quick 3-inning scoreless start this season. If you go through their transaction page, a lot of their moves this offseason were fringe-y ones for pitching from other organizations.

If you look at Statcast, yo usee that they’ve allowed the second-fewest home runs in the National League (16), behind only the Reds (14), and are fourth in MLB behind the Rays (14) and Cleveland (15). Their pitching has also induced some of the worst contact in the baseball. They’re 3rd in MLB in weighted On Base Average on contact (.326), which is actually the best rate in the National League. That means that when teams do make contact, they’re not doing much damage with their pitch offerings.

They’re also seventh in average exit velocity on their pitches (87.7 mph), which reduces the chances of home runs and extra base hits. Ruthlessly efficient pitching and defense can keep even the most moribund offenses in line, and in the NL Central with teams like the Brewers, Reds, and Cardinals ready to mash, this is a cost-effective way of hanging in there.

It also means that they’ll be death on teams just like the Giants, who already can’t hit.

Hitter to watch

Uh, yeah, let’s do it. Melky Cabrera. Hell yeah. His 2012 season was no doubt an outlier for his career (157 OPS+), but since then, he’s been above league average (107 OPS+) and has played for five different teams.

If you take that OPS+ and you take his fWAR since leaving the Giants (5.9) and compare them to all Giants since 2013, you get a really disturbing result: he would’ve been the sixth-best hitter on the Giants had he stayed with the team all these years. Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, and Melky Cabrera. Yep. That’s true.

His 69 home runs? Fifth-most. His 394 RBI? Fourth! His 879 hits would be second as would his 178 doubles. He already has three of those in 16 games this season, part of 18 total hits and a slash of .367 / .392 / .490.

51 plate appearances do not a season make, but at least in the near-term, since the Giants have to face him this weekend, that’s pretty intense for a 34-year old outfielder. His OPS split between righties and lefties (.920 vs. .786) suggests he’ll be pesky no matter who’s pitching.

This will be the first time he’s faced the Giants since 2013, when he was with the Blue Jays the year after his suspension season. He had a 1.033 OPS in 17 plate appearances (4 games) that year, so, he definitely wanted to show them how he felt. So, let’s just embrace the weirdness of the situation: the Giants have gotten older and are bad now, he’s gotten older and is still good. they’ve tried to get better by getting younger, he’s on a team that’s just trying to win in any weird way they can conjure.

Pitcher to watch

Jordan Lyles represents a habit of the Pirates that you can spot if you look at their transaction history: they love former Astros. That could have something to do with their data-driven organizational philosophy and how they’re better served finding players who come from a similar system, or their data tells them that the discarded Astros still have a lot of value but just didn’t have a place on the 1st or 2nd-best team in baseball.

He also hasn’t pitched for the Astros since 2013 — but! Nevertheless! He’s off to a hot start this year. In all of two starts. he has a 0.82 ERA (3.19 FIP) and 12 strikeouts in 11 innings. He faced the Giants five teams in relief last season as a member of the Padres’ bullpen and gave up 1 hit in 6.2 innings, zero runs, didn’t walk anybody and struck out five.

The Bumgarner-Lyles matchup looks like a lopsided one in the Giants favor, but that’s what they call a “trap game”.

Prediction

Okay, so, the Pirates aren’t the best team in the NL Central — probably. But right now, they are the first place team — through the first three weeks of the season. That should probably change over the long arc of the season, but that doesn’t help the Giants today. Or even tomorrow. And maybe not even Sunday. Still — and I’m not sure how or even why, but — the Giants will figure out how to win one game of this series. There will also be a lot of talk of Madison Bumgarner’s shutout in the Wild Card game... which was in 2014... five years ago.