The dust hasn’t completely settled from the Pirates disappointing 19-41 season and we are still about a month away from decisions concerning options and qualifying offers for arbitration, as well as the beginning of free agency, yet I can’t stop myself from thinking about the composition of Pittsburgh Opening Day Roster for 2021; especially the potential prospects that may find their way on to it.
Each year coming out of Spring Training there are prospects that end up making the final cut and find themselves in the field, on the bench, as a part of the starting rotation or getting ready to warm up in the bullpen. As the past year began this was even more likely with the Opening Day Rosters expanded to 30 players due to COVID-19. For the Pirates there were technically only two players that met this criteria; Jason Martin and JT Brubaker. If you want to add Mitch Keller to this list I wouldn’t argue with you due to the fact that he fell just shy of exceeding his rookie status eligibility by two innings during 2019. That’s three out of 30, with Martin unlikely to make in a normal year and only being on it this one, when Gregory Polanco was placed on the COVID IL. It goes down to one if you don’t count Keller. One out of 26 roster spots. The odds are clearly against a prospect making the Opening Day Roster, even on a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates; where there are a limited number of guaranteed positions in the lineup due to poor play by many in 2020.
However, as the season progressed we did get to see several of the team’s Minor Leaguers make their debuts; some of whom ended their seasons on the active roster. Although, not one of them, including Ke’Bryan Hayes, exceeded the service time limits and will all maintain rookie/prospect status as they move into 2021. So which ones, other than Hayes, are most likely to make the Opening Day 26-Man Roster as I already have Ke’Bryan penned in at third base to begin the year? In my estimation there are probably five that have a pretty good shot.
1) Kevin Kramer
With all of the craziness surrounding the 2020 season some of you may have forgotten about him. Originally seen as the eventual double play partner for Kevin Newman up the middle, Kramer has suffered setbacks on the field at the Major and Minor League Levels; including his season ending hip surgery in May of this year.
Now I know that Kramer technically accrued a year of service time on the IL, so that would make him ineligible for this list. However, in only 79 career at bats for the Pirates, Kramer has slashed a measly .152/.222/.165 with only one extra base hit, a double, across two seasons; so for this purpose I focused on actual MLB performance. His best year came back in 2018, with the AAA Indianapolis Indians when he batted .311 with 15 home runs. However, he regressed in 2019 as his average dropped to .260 and his home run total fell to 10.
If Kramer is able to return healthy in 2021, his role would more than likely be that of a utility man; of which the Pirates have plenty options in that area currently. So, it is also possible that he finds himself the odd man out, having missed the opportunity to prove himself due to a poorly timed opportunity injury.
2) Blake Cederlind
Already being dubbed as the closer of the future by some, “Baby Thor” took Spring Training by storm with his blazing fastball, now infamous K-Strut and flowing, golden locks. When he eventually made it up to the Majors this season, the locks were gone, but the 99 mph fastball and of course the K-Strut remained. Making only 5 appearances and pitching just 4 innings Cederlind struck out 4 batters, walked one and allowed 2 hits; good for a 4.50 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP, in the smallest of sample sizes.
In 2019, the Merced College product, pitched in 7 games for the High A Bradenton Marauders, 31 games for the AA Altoona Curve, 3 games for the AAA Indianapolis Indians and 8 games for Peoria in the Arizona Fall League; posting a 2.28 ERA and a 1.180 WHIP during the regular season, along with a 1.13 ERA and a 1.375 WHIP in the AZFL.
As a reliever, Cederlind possibly has the best shot of anyone on this list to start the year with the big league club due to the general inconsistent nature of bullpens; plus nearly touching 100 mph on the radar gun doesn’t hurt his cause either.
3) Jared Oliva
After a strong performance in the second half of the season in AA Altoona last year, which won him team MVP honors, continuing to excel in the Arizona Fall League and consistently impressive effort at the alternate site in Altoona, Olivia earned his first taste of Major League Baseball in late September. In 6 games and 16 at bats he collected 3 hits and stole one base; which of course is not very notable, but at least he got to shake the jitters off.
Currently sitting at the #10 spot in the Pirates Top 30 Prospects according to MLB Pipeline, Olivia has one of the more direct paths to playing time as he is one of the most advanced natural centerfielders in the system. Bryan Reynolds has reported that he would like to play the position and Travis Swaggerty is a more highly touted prospect, but I couldn’t see what it would hurt to give Oliva the nod out of the gate to begin 2021 or at the very least have an open competition in Spring Training.
4) Cody Ponce
During the 2020 season Ponce was the equivalent of the 6th man off the bench in basketball as he became the Pirates go to player when the rosters were expanded to 29 for the occasional doubleheader. In three starts Ponce the posted a 2.63 ERA and a 1.024 WHIP, striking out 9 and walking 5 in 13.2 innings of work. His best outing came in the second game of the Pirates doubleheader with the Cardinals. In 5.2 innings he did not allow a single run on 5 hits; earning his first big league win in the process.
As we all know by now Ponce was the player the Pirates received from the Brewers in the Jordan Lyles Trade last year. Once ranked as high as 17th on Milwaukee’s Top 30 Prospects, it’s not like this guy came from out of nowhere. However, there was some uncertainty as to whether or not he would remain a starter in the long term. He has, for the time being, shown that this is still a possibility.
There could be some stiff competition for a role in the starting rotation next year, especially since JT Brubaker also performed fairly well in his 9 starts for the Pirates this past season. Of course all of this could change if Ben Cherington were to make any significant moves via trade, non-tenders, etc., ultimately opening up one or more spots in the top 5.
Even if this doesn’t happen I could see Ponce competing for a spot in the rotation or sliding back into the bullpen to begin the 2021 season.
5) Nick Mears
Mears was one of the more surprising call ups of the Pirates truncated 2020 Season. Having pitched only 5 innings in AA Altoona in 2019, after beginning the year in Low A Greensboro, he had truly gone from relative unknown to a Major League reliever in a period of about 16 months. Throw in 8 scoreless innings in the Arizona Fall League for good measure and that was Nick Mears’ professional baseball career in a nutshell.
For Pittsburgh he would appear in 4 games; posting a 5.40 ERA and a 2.200 WHIP, while he struggled with control by walking as many as he struck out, 7. This is obviously not ideal, but it also hasn’t been the norm for Mears and can more than likely chalked up to inexperience, which will only be gained over time. At only 23 years old, Mears has plenty to spare, with not a whole lot of miles on the arm.
Although it is unlikely that Mears begins the season on the Open Day Roster, stranger things have happened. You know, like calling up a 23 year old kid with only a little bit of time in AA.
Is it possible that one or more of these guys are at Wrigley Field on April 1st next year? Yes. Is it possible that none of them are? Also, yes. With a lot of normal transactions and other roster decisions already on the docket between now and then, it is evident that things could look a lot different come Spring Training. So, anything that comes out now trying to predict what will happen in 6 months time is nothing but speculation. However, that is half the fun of any off-season.