Anytime the Pirates have been competitive in recent memory, it seems like it has always been the St. Louis Cardinals standing in their way. For three straight seasons (2013-15) it was the team from the Gateway City that kept the Pirates from a NL Central Division Title, which could have let them avoid the Wild Card Game at least once. Even this past season when they returned from the All Star Break, after having been only 2.5 off the division leading pace, it was the Cardinals that capped off a 4 game losing streak for our Buccos in one of the ugliest games of the year; a contest that ended in a 7-0 loss for the Pirates in the middle of a rain storm. So, it is only fitting that they begin such a crazy shortened season in the shadow of The Arch at Busch Stadium, up against the team that has made a habit of keeping them down.
Usually the opening series of a season does not have many long lasting repercussions. However, the possibility of being swept begin the year will mean something a little bit different in 2020; especially when it is against a division foe. So, it is no surprise that Derek Shelton is going with Joe Musgrove as his starter in the first game. Musgrove was the Pirates most consistent pitcher in the rotation this past season; posting a 4.44 ERA, a 1.215 WHIP and 157 strike outs in 170.1 innings, during 31 starts. During his most recent start in Spring Training he impressed in 3 innings by striking out 5, walking 1, giving up 1 hit and not allowing a run. I look for Big Joe to give the Buccos a fighting chance in the first game of the season and honestly in any game that he pitches this year, as he posted 17 quality starts last year and looks to improve upon this average as the team’s ace.
Unfortunately for the Pirates they be without a few players they were counting on to contribute to start the season and possibly longer depending on the circumstances. Keone Kela (7/16/20) and Gregory Polanco (7/20/20) were both placed on the 10-Day IL after testing positive for COVID-19, with Luke Maile (7/23/20) going to the 60-Day IL due to a fractured right finger and JT Riddle (7/23/20 retroactive back to 7/20/20) because of a right abdominal strain. The first two on this list have been some of the most polarizing players on the Pirates during their time here, but each of them came into the season with heightened expectations; whether it be hoping to bring trade value or to improve the overall quality of the team, possibly both. For now Kela’s closer role will be filled by a committee of relievers, while Polanco can be filled by a combination of Guillermo Heredia, Jason Martin and possibly a few others. As frustrated as I am with the some of these developments, I am interested to see who steps up as the shutdown specialist in Kela’s absence and if Heredia and/or Martin can take advantage of the unexpected extra playing time.
The rest of the Pirates roster has come together pretty much as expected with the starting rotation of Trevor Williams, Mitch Keller, Derek Holland and Chad/Kuhl to go along with Musgrove, an infield made up of Colin Moran, Kevin Newman, Adam Frazier and Josh Bell and an outfield of Bryan Reynolds, Jarrod Dyson and Heredia/Martin. Of course the introduction of the Designated Hitter to the National League will open up some line-up flexibility, which will hopefully allow players like Jose Osuna, Erik Gonzalez, Phillip Evans, Cole Tucker and possibly Ke’Bryan Hayes some more time in the field and/or opportunities at the plate because after all, as I have said many times before, this is a season of evaluation and assessment and the Pirates need to figure out what types of players they have.
Throughout the season the Pirates Coaching Staff and new Front Office, led by Ben Cherington, will also be forced to figure out how to put together a productive bullpen. As I pointed out in a recent article Making A Call To The Pen, it won’t take much to improve upon last year’s squad as Pirates Relievers as a whole posted a 4.91 ERA (23rd), gave up 102 HRs (9th), walked 304 batters (4th) and struck out 687 (7th), while only producing 57 holds (28th) and blowing 24 saves (15th). Unfortunately, based on the small sample size over the last few days it could be a challenge to even do that well; although I do think there will be a couple of bright spots. I am expecting good things from Clay Holmes, Nick Burdi, JT Brubaker and potentially Blake Cederlind, if he returns healthy and is given the opportunity. However, the play of these few players may not be enough to hold things together on a consistent basis.
As the season progresses I want everyone to remember that this is a very young group, particularly the core, so it is not the record that should be focused on. Much like a normal season for the Indianapolis Indians, Altoona Curve, Bradenton Marauders and other Pittsburgh Pirates Affiliates I will be focusing on player development, growth and performance over wins and losses. However, with all of that being said I will be making a record prediction since that seems to be the cool thing to do. After some early season struggles I see the Pirates coming together as a group to bring their record to somewhat respectable, 26–34.
Speaking of early season struggles, I am not sure the season is going to get off to a great start in St. Louis as Derek Shelton learns about the capabilities and limitations of his players. I honestly believe we win the first game, mostly due to a strong pitching performance by Big Joe. However, I have my doubts about Trevor Williams being able to pull things together after a rough outing a couple of nights ago and Mitch Keller’s lines have been unpredictable at best. I have hopes for Keller moving forward, I am just not sold on him getting off to a strong start against an experienced and disciplined lineup like the Cardinals. Nevertheless, you count on my being glued to the television all three times over the weekend, cheering on my Buccos and grinning from ear to ear because Pirates Baseball is finally back!