What a Difference a Year Makes

Mitch Keller

Way back when, somewhere around March in 2019, long before we ever heard about COVID-19 or the extreme effects it would have on every facet of our daily lives, The Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Rotation was supposed to be the strength of the club. Yup, all those guys had pedigree and potential, ok, maybe you had big questions about the fifth starter, or you firmly believed Chris Archer would stink, did stink and always will stink.

Regardless, the Pirates Rotation was favorably seen by most national pundits and the few local guys who can still bring themselves to utter a nice word about the club felt it too. For the first few weeks it looked like they were right too, Archer was still not getting deep into games, but he was getting outs and holding his own. Joe looked strong and started mixing his pitches in more regularly. Jamo was the ace we wanted, even if out of all of them his results were the most up and down. Williams looked like he recovered from his disastrous finish to 2018 and even Lyles was a pleasant surprise, far outplaying his 1-year deal.

Then the wheels started falling off. Archer started showing he couldn’t keep the ball in the park and arguments over pitching philosophy were hard to ignore. Joe continued to pitch well, but still fell prey to that occasional blow up inning. He’d give up four runs in the first and shut out the opponents for six innings after that. Jamo of course was bitten by injury again, and yes, it was the bad one. Williams himself was injured and lost the mojo he built up. Lyles was still dealing but after all the rest, Jordan being the most consistent in the rotation just couldn’t do.

Mitch Keller stepped in after the Pirates inexplicably tried an unstretched Brault and Kingham mix mash, culminating in Kingham being DFA’d and Brault after being given more chances than a 60-year-old in the lottery line finally found his footing and stretched out. Chris Stratton was purchased from the Angels for three packs of Topps and some coupons to In and Out, came in, pitched ok, got hurt, gone goes stop gap help. Keller pitched exactly how you’d expect a rookie to perform. His stuff played but he didn’t always trust it. So, he would get blown up in an inning and toss three shutout innings after it. Learning to pitch at the MLB level after jumping from AAA has been a Pirate problem for as long as I can remember. Gerrit Cole is the only one I can think of who didn’t fall victim to the system and It’s fair to say he’s a little special.

While all this shrapnel was flying around, the Pirates bats came to life and players we didn’t even see coming took off. Bryan Reynolds arrived and emerged almost at the same time. Starting 2019 Reynolds was easily 5th or 6th on the outfield depth chart. There was Marte of course, an injured Gregory Polanco who was working his way back into the lineup (so we thought), Melky Cabrerra who nobody even gave a real chance to make the club, Jason Martin who himself had no real track record and was coming off an injury that took away from his number one tool, speed. Jose Osuna, Kevin Kramer, Adam Frazier hell you could even toss Pablo Reyes in there.

Kevin Newman rose from the ashes of a complete dumpster fire September in 2018 to win back his job as starting Short Stop and compete all year for rookie of the year. Jung Ho Kang was, well awful, and after blasting homeruns into the Bradenton wind all Spring long. He literally only hit homeruns. It was like watching Craig play MLB 2020 The Show.

Josh Bell was being mentioned with some of the games very best. Not just the current day guys like Trout or Story, no he was drawing comparisons to Arron or Gerhig. The offense stole the show and picked up the awful pitching.

Everything started rocking the same shaky path after the All-Star break though and the lack of depth smacked every hope of getting back on track right in the face.

Here we are, entering 2020 and where do we sit?

The rotation toss in this season is Derek Holland instead of Lyles. Taillon is still hurt. Archer is hurt. Brault was hurt. Williams got touched up in a very similar fashion early this Spring 1.0. Keller looked like he has gotten the yips under control, but he looked good last Spring too.

Bottom line, nobody expects this staff to carry the team, period. The offense however, yeah, they have some expectation. People already have Reynolds as a lock to improve on an already impressive Rookie Season. Bell is the heart of this lineup, whether a DH or First Baseman. Newman is penciled in as the leadoff guy, Frazier is a gold glove winning, 280 with his eyes closed hitting lock in the lineup. The Pirates expect Polanco to return healthy and get back to what he started in 2018 before he took a Roller Derby looking slide into second.

The offense really could be quite good. As with any season there are ifs, but in a 60-game season, there are a few more. For instance, If Bell gets off to a start resembling his early season in 2019 and Reynolds just holds serve, that’s a 3-4 punch not many teams will get past undamaged. If Newman can continue to make stats nerds wet the bed because he’s clearly supposed to suck and Frazier just does what he does, 1-4 of that lineups is quite formidable. Polanco is a wild card, but the potential is still there. Moran/Hayes/Rodriguez/Osuna get you to a pretty nice looking 1-6. Stallings, who probably set his career highs for average moving forward last season is a nice seven-hole anchor and then you have Herredia or Dyson. Hey, that’s not bad.

So here we sit, 2020 is finally here and we again have one side of the ball with all the potential while the other looks like a liability. A hot offense or pitching staff for a month in a two-month long season could be enough to get you there.

Do I think it will happen? No, if I’m honest, I just don’t think they have the pitching to get it done. But again, in two months, imagine the Cubs have two pitchers go down with hamstring pulls. That’s 2 weeks give or take and at least a week to get back into shape. Every injury to a pitcher will affect at least 1/3 of the season. Every team knows this season hinges on health and depth. Who has the most? In 2019 it certainly wasn’t the Pirates, in 2020, the depth pitching might be an even bigger factor, for every team.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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