Pirates to face hiccups in tough season
When the Pittsburgh Pirates made a couple of big trades in January 2018, unloading veteran superstars Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole for young players and prospects, then general manager Neal Huntington insisted that the club was not rebuilding, but merely “retooling.”
Three years later, the same cannot be said about the renovation project that is currently taking place under the Pirates’ new general manager, Ben Cherington.
There is no doubt that the Pirates are undergoing a major rebuild, and mortgaging any chances of current success for hopes that their distant future will be much better.
Cherington, who experienced very successful tenures as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays before taking the Pittsburgh job when Huntington was dismissed after the 2019 season, has been considered an expert in spotting top prospects and emphasizing player development.
It’s what the Pirates — who lost 93 games in 2019 after a disastrous second-half free-fall that culminated in the firing of manager Clint Hurdle and a total front-office upheaval — seem to sorely need.
The Bucs finished the 2020 season, truncated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a major-league worst 19-41 record under first-year manager Derek Shelton, and the club’s prospects for the 2021 and even 2022 seasons could be equally grim.
Unless their unproven new players can overachieve, and until the bevy of prospects that the Pirates picked up in trades with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals, New York Yankees and San Diego Padres can begin to make an impact on the major league level, there is no reason to believe that the Pirates’ immediate fortunes will improve considerably over what the club has experienced over the past two seasons.
Even though the current COVID restrictions will allow for a limited number of fans to be permitted into ballparks to watch the games, this season — which begins today with a 2:20 p.m. afternoon game against the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field — figures to be bad for the Pirates, and it could be downright dreadful.
USA Today pegged the 2021 Pirates to finish with 57 wins over the regular 162-game schedule. Sports Illustrated predicted that the Bucs and Colorado Rockies will be National League bottom-feeders. A third consecutive last-place finish in the National League Central Division for the Pirates seems highly likely.
The Pirates, though, figured that they had nothing to lose by blowing up the present in the hopes of gaining some traction for the future.
That’s why, over the past year, veterans such as outfielder Starling Marte (Diamondbacks), first baseman Josh Bell (Nationals), and starting right-handed pitchers Jameson Taillon (Yankees) and Joe Musgrove (Padres) were shipped away in exchange for prospect hauls.
Veteran right-handed pitcher Chris Archer was allowed to walk away after drastically underperforming in what turned out to be a disastrous 2018 trade with Tampa Bay, and he wound up re-signing with the Rays this past offseason.
What remains for the Pirates is a team with a patchwork starting rotation, and an offense that has lost its biggest power threat, Bell, from a 2020 squad that finished last in the National League in runs scored (219) and 28th out of the 30 Major League Baseball teams in home runs (59).
The silver lining is that the Pirates have addressed their need to start replenishing a depleted farm system, and, figuring that the club could lose 100 games with or without the departed veterans, Cherington executed the purge.
“Finding and developing players are the things that I am most passionate about,” Cherington said during his appearance in Altoona as a guest speaker at a Blair County Chamber of Commerce’s luncheon last September. “How do we do a better job of finding players, and how do we do a better job of developing players? I’ve been able to get experience in those two things over the past 20 years, and the bottom line is that in Pittsburgh, we have to be great at those two things.
“We’re going to have to be able to take some risks in order to access the type of player who truly makes a difference in the big leagues,” Cherington added.
The Pirates’ modus operandi has been to try to capitalize on windows of opportunity when star players who are developed through the team’s farm system — like outfielders McCutchen and Marte, and starting pitcher Cole — can emerge as top producers on the big-league level.
“It’s all about creating an Andrew McCutchen or that level of player who can make a big impact in his prime,” Cherington said. “That’s the kind of stuff that we’re going to have to do.”
The pitching staff figured to be a question mark even with Musgrove and Taillon. Now the Pirates are left with starting pitchers who have a chance to make major strides but who currently carry no special pedigree.
Complicating matters in the Pirates’ already very tenuous rotation outlook is the fact that lefty Steven Brault, projected to be one of the team’s top-of-the-rotation starters, suffered a lat strain late in spring training that will keep him sidelined for over two months.
Brault — whose 3.38 earned run average last year was the best among Pirates’ pitchers with at least 10 starts — has worked in both a starting role and out of the bullpen for the Pirates, but emerged as a reliable starting option late last season, when he allowed just one run in 16 innings over two starts against the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, registering a victorious complete-game performance against St. Louis.
Brault, who will turn 29 on April 29, has worked a total of 146 innings for the Pirates as both a starter and a reliever over the past two seasons, striking out 138 batters.
With Brault out, the Pirates are looking to capably fill at least the first four starting spots in the rotation during the early months of the season, when off days are more prevalent and a fifth starter might not be needed nearly as much.
The Pirates are hoping for once highly-touted right-handed pitching prospect Mitch Keller to take a big step up in 2021. Keller, who endured some rough spring-training outings this year, was 1-1 in five starts with a 2.91 earned run average last year, but walked 18 batters and struck out 16 in 21.2 innings pitched.
Two years ago, while breaking into the major leagues during the 2019 season, Keller carded a 1-5 record with a 7.13 ERA in 11 starts.
Veteran left-hander Tyler Anderson was acquired from the San Francisco Giants after posting a 4-3 record and 4.37 ERA in 59.2 innings pitched over 13 appearances, including 11 starts, last season. Anderson is pegged for the middle of the Pirates’ rotation at the outset of this season.
Right-hander Chad Kuhl, who returned to the rotation in 2020 after a two-year layoff due to Tommy John surgery, threw seven shutout innings against the Cubs in his last of nine starts in 2020, and will also be looked at to start every four days.
A bevy of other pitchers will get consideration for the remaining starting opportunities. They include young right-handers J.T. Brubaker and Cody Ponce, along with veteran right-handers Trevor Cahill, Wil Crowe, Chase De Jong, and Steven Wright.
Cahill, Crowe, De Jong and Wright were all offseason acquisitions, as was young righty Miguel Yajure, a highly-touted prospect whom the Pirates picked up from the Yankees in the Taillon trade, and who could slot into the Bucs’ starting rotation as early as this season.
Wright, a knuckleballer who was an American League all-star with the Boston Red Sox in 2016, was cut by the Red Sox in 2019, underwent Tommy John surgery that year, and did not pitch at all in 2020.
The bullpen has some talent, but the Pirates start this season with no established closer. Veterans Richard Rodriquez and Kyle Crick will be looked upon for back-end duty, and David Bednar — a Pittsburgh native acquired in the Musgrove trade — could make an impact late in games as well. Chris Stratton, Geoff Hartileb, Edgar Santana and newcomers Crowe, Cahill, Chasen Shreve, Duane Underwood and Luis Oveido could all play prominent roles in middle to late relief.
The bullpen becomes less important, however, if there are no leads to protect.
Youngster Ke’Bryan Hayes returns at third base as arguably the Pirates’ best offensive threat. A 2015 first-round draft pick by the Pirates, Hayes enjoyed a fabulous September call-up last season in which he hit .376 (32-for-85) in 24 games with five home runs and 11 RBIs. The son of former long-time major leaguer Charlie Hayes, Ke’Bryan will still be a candidate for the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2021 if he continues his pace of last September, and he’s certainly the face of the Pirates’ future.
Erik Gonzalez will be the frontrunner at the shortstop position, with Kevin Newman — who enjoyed a fabulous rookie year in 2019 — as the backup. Adam Frazier survived an offseason full of trade rumors and will start the season at second base, while Colin Moran — who hit 10 home runs and made only two errors in 169 defensive chances last year — has the starting first base job with Bell gone.
Veteran Todd Frazier, a one-time star with the Cincinnati Reds who is in the stretch run of his career, was acquired in the offseason but ended up opting out of his contract less than a week before opening day.
Phillip Evans can play all the infield positions, but is being blocked for playing time by the starting veterans.
Jacob Stallings will be the Pirates’ starting catcher after a solid performance in 2020, and he’ll be backed up by new additions Tony Wolters and Michael Perez.
Bryan Reynolds — an NL Rookie of the Year candidate in 2019 who slipped offensively during the shortened 2020 season — will start in left field and is looking for a bounce-back year, as is veteran right fielder Gregory Polanco, a one-time superstar in the making who has struggled over the past two seasons after suffering a bad shoulder injury late in the 2018 season. Polanco is likely playing his final season with the Pirates, and is one of several of the team’s veterans who could be traded before the end of this season.
The center field job is up for grabs. Anthony Alford will get a strong look there, as will newcomers Dustin Fowler and Wilmer Difo, who spent the 2020 seasons with Oakland and Washington, respectively. Natural shortstop Cole Tucker got extended playing time in the outfield last year, but didn’t look comfortable there. Prospect Jared Oliva had a long look in center during spring training.
Another possible candidate for playing time somewhere in the outfield is veteran Brian Goodwin, who played for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim a year ago.
A lot of question marks currently shroud the Pirates, who last made the playoffs in 2015.
Growing pains will be prominent over the next couple of seasons, but Cherington is willing to endure the wait.
“Ultimately, I would not be here if I didn’t think that we were going to win,” Cherington said.
John Hartsock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.