As a fan who watches most, if not all of the Pittsburgh Pirates games in any given season, I go into every year and actually each individual game wanting the same thing; for my team to win. I know these are not realistic expectations, and at times borders on insanity, but I maintain these aspirations just the same. However, in the back of my mind, a place that I call my analytical brain, I understand that there are other goals that often take precedence over these lofty ambitions; especially for a team that is entering what many would describe, albeit incorrectly, as the thirty to forty plus year rebuild of the Pittsburgh Pirates. This blatant falsehood, along with other misconstrued misconceptions and sprinkled with a tiny bit of truth, have been molded into perceived facts by many within the Pittsburgh Pirates Fan Community. These beliefs are filled with so many holes that they are easily sunk when even the slightest amount of proverbial water is added to their already sinking ship.
As an aside I can provide a near airtight explanation of the Pirates Journey from 1979 to Present Day, all while pinpointing the actual rebuild points along this timeline if you are interested. I have done it before, and so often, that I am certain that I have it memorized word for word.
However, for right now I would like to address the somewhat delusional take concerning the Pirates ability to compete within a weakening NL Central; but more the potentially unintended backing of an ideology that success is achieved by simply competing against the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers and Reds. This philosophy or culture is one built from a twenty year history of losing seasons, where a .500 record or more accurately 82 wins was the goal. You don’t have to look to far back to see that merely contesting for, or actually earning, a playoff spot in the struggling division should clearly not be the level the Pirates attempt to attain. Just last year the Pirates four division rivals made the playoffs during a shortened season, with an expanded field, which deserves some consideration. Between them, they did not win a single playoff game; this obviously included the the Reds, who didn’t score a run in 22 innings against the Braves.
If this is your goal I will give the Pirates a fighting chance, but I still don’t like the odds. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t be a goal in the first place and even if they are able to scratch and claw there way in, do you honestly believe there is anyway they beat the recently reinforced Padres or the defending World Champion Dodgers in the best of three, five or seven? Of course not! So, what’s the point of hoping or encouraging these beliefs?
For me, the goals I have for the Pittsburgh Pirates are much more on an individual level, on a player by player basis. And I am not talking about the game within game as Uncle Ray Searage once alluded to. It’s a point by point level of production, improvement or development, along with assessment and evaluation, I would like to see for players within the entire organization; both at the Major and Minor League Levels, assuming and hoping there is a MiLB season this year.
• In 2019 Bryan Reynolds got his opportunity to come up to the majors, held on to the left field position and never let go. A viable Rookie of the Year candidate and potential batting champ, he slashed .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers, an OPS+ of 130 and a wRC+ of 131. However, 2020 was an extremely trying year for Reynolds at the plate. For the first time in his professional career he struggled by only hitting .189; while his K% ballooned from 22.2% to 27.4% and both his OPS+ and wRC+ fell by nearly 60 points. The saving Grace on the season was his defense, which took a step forward, as evidenced by an increase of DRS that would equate to 14 if it was extrapolated across an entire season and his improved arm strength. On the year he had more outfield assists, 5, in 435 innings than the 4 he had in 1055 innings during his rookie campaign. Many are predicting a bounce back year for Reynolds due to his track record of success and I for one am hopefully optimistic about the possibility.
• Kevin Newman was provided with the same break as Reynolds in the 2019 season, and performed almost as well; 4.1 WAR versus 3.1 and 3.2 fWAR to 2.4. His batting average of .308, which surged in the second half of the season, seemed to make fans optimistic that the Pirates had found their every day shortstop; thanks in part to a Eric Gonzalez miscue toward the beginning of the year. As the off-season progressed experts and amateurs alike, myself included, began to question Newman’s ability to repeat the success he experienced in 2019 due to the advanced metrics, which showed a potential for regression. Then after a few weeks I wrote an article about how Newman could possibly be defying these odds, however, this was not meant to be as Newman began to succumb to the reality of analytics. He ended the year as a .224 hitter, with a 54 wRC+; and unlike Reynold his defense didn’t really improve. In the 2020 season his estimated DRS fell by 10 points at SS and 23 at 2B from the previous, while his OAA at 2B came in at -6. If Newman is unable to recreate his offensive success from 2019 and/or make any defensive adjustments in 2021, it could be a very long season for Kevin Newman.
•The crow I could possibly eat after Ke’Bryan Hayes’ magical month in the Majors is still sitting on my plate, and in all honesty I will happily devour it if it means Hayes is even anywhere near the player, particularly the hitter, he was in September. In 95 plate appearances across 24 games batted .376 with a 1.124 OPS and 5 homers. His defensive ability, which has never been in question, resulted in 3 OAA and 4 DRS. In his short stint at the Major League Level, Hayes ultimately led the team with a 1.9 WAR; which is awesome and depressing all at the same time. Now Hayes does not need to be the same caliber of player he was in his first month and I hope no one expects him to be. It is obvious he made some sort of swing adjustment during the off-season and probably further refined it at the alternate site in Altoona, but if you are looking for a guy who hits 30 to 35 bombs I still don’t see it. Pitchers will adjust and so will he, nevertheless, a career .279 hitter in the Minors, with 25 homers in 5 years does not become a pure power hitter at the drop of a hat.
•For the first two years of his time with the Pirates, Colin Moran was the definition of a consistent league average hitter, as he batted .277 exactly in both years with 24 combined homers and a wRC+ of 98. Hindered by subpar defense at third base; totaling a -32 DRS, -9 OAA in 2019 and -6 OAA in 2020. After beginning the year back at the hot corner, Moran slid across the diamond, where he found success in both aspects of the game; at least for the majority of the shortened season. In the end he slashed .247/.325/.472 with 10 homers and an above average 114 wRC+. The main area of improvement was a his 0 OAA at first base. During the upcoming season, thanks to the opening created by the Josh Bell trade, Moran is primed to hold down the position for the entire year. His current ZiPS Projection of 1.2 fWAR sounds just a little low to me for a full season at first, and obviously isn’t ideal even if it increases just slightly, but it would be a career high for the Red Beard either way.
• During his initial cup of coffee in the Majors , Mitch Keller was an analytical enigma as he posted a 7.13 ERA while his FIP sat nicely at 3.19. This made sense when you took into his 12.19 K to 3.00 BB/9, to go along with a historically poor defensive supporting cast. Most were expecting a regression, the positive kind, to the mean in 2020. As far as ERA was concerned this came to fruition as he ended the year with a solid 2.91. His FIP on the other hand rose to 6.75, his K/9 plummeted to 6.65 and his BB/9 skyrocketed to 7.48. Many people love to point out the fact that he did not allow a hit and let only one earned run to cross the plate in his last 11 innings of work, however, he also walked 10 batters during that time; including 8 in his last outing of the year. I understand that this is the smallest of sample sizes in an already shortened season, and one that was abbreviated even more so for Keller due to an injury, but it continues to cause me some concern. On a positive note, we have seen the most diverse mix of the best and worst of Mitch Keller over his first two seasons and the kid will still only be 25 years old to start the year, so there is still time for development and refinement of his pitching; because the one thing he sure doesn’t lack is confidence.
• JT Brubaker lost the majority of his 2019 Minor League season to a forearm strain, with his last appearance of the year coming on June 23rd in a rehab start. Then as the initial Spring Training began, their was some point uncertainty as to were this young man would fit in the either the starting rotation or bullpen. However, thanks to hard work, some luck due to pitching injuries and an expanded opening day roster, Brubaker found himself with the Pirates to begin the season. In 11 appearances, 9 of them starts, he fought his way to a somewhat respectable 4.94 ERA, a 1.373 WHIP and a 4.08 FIP; earning what I believe will be a shot at the back end of the rotation to begin 2021. Fellow pitcher Cody Ponce came in with a similar outlook to Brubaker’s after having been added to the team’s 40-man roster over the off-season, however, unlike Brubaker, he found himself down in Altoona to start the year; though it wouldn’t be too long before he had his number called for a 7 inning double, which kind of became his specialty. In his first MLB start, which followed two rocky relief appearances, in the second game of a double header with the St. Louis, he exceeded the expectations of many by lasting 5 2/3 innings, spreading out 5 hits, striking out 2 and not allowing a run; earning his first big league win. He would perform this service in two more doubleheaders in August, both against the Cincinnati Reds, and both going for no decisions as he lasted 4 innings each time; totaling 7 Ks, 3 BBs and 4 earned runs. On the season Ponce earned a 3.18 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, but a less than optimal, and somewhat demonic, 6.66 FIP.
• Last year Chad Kuhl made his comeback after being on the shelf following his Tommy John surgery; now it is Jameson Taillon’s turn subsequent to his second. Kuhl began the season as part of a piggyback with Steven Brault, battled a blister and finished strong; posting a 4.27 ERA and a 1.360 WHIP, which would find its way down to 2.66 if you took away one poor showing. Most importantly he was able to build up to 5 and 7 innings in his last two starts, throwing 98 pitches in his final outing of the year, while maintaining solid average velocities on his sinker (93.9 mph), slider (87.8 mph), curveball (81.3 mph) and changeup (88.1 mph); all of which were only a tick lower than pre-injury status. Now as far as Taillon is concerned, this is not his first rodeo as it pertains to returning from injury and he deserves all the credit in the world for perseverance in the face of adversity; unfortunately as far as his baseball career is concerned, the ability to get and stay healthy is of utmost importance. In his last full healthy season, back in 2018, Taillon earned a 3.20 ERA, a 1.178 WHIP and an FIP- of 85 across 32 starts; including two complete games, one being a shutout. These types numbers could be seen as a possibility, and for a player like Taillon, they truly are, because anytime he comes back from injury it is usually stronger and better than before.
•Everyone has seen Oneil Cruz’ power potential on display at this point in his career, and there is no denying his natural ability and athleticism.
I am just cautious, maybe to a fault, concerning the belief that Cruz’ bat is ready for the Majors at this very moment; not even taking into consideration the possible need for a positional change. During this most recent DOWL regular season he batted .245 with no homers, 14 strike outs and one walk in 49 at bats. His numbers don’t exactly jump off the page across Advanced A and AA in 2019 either, but were more promising, as he hit .298 with 8 combined. Having said all this, it should be noted that Cruz just recently turned 22 and has regularly had to make adjustments due to his ever increasing frame, so I won’t jump to any conclusions just yet. However, I am pretty steadfast about the need to continue his bat development and plate discipline, and possibly making a move to right field or somewhere else, at the AAA level for an entire season next year.
• Currently listed at the Pirates #6 Prospect according to MLB Pipeline with an ETA of 2021, Travis Swaggerty spent the entire last season at the Alternate Site in Altoona. Prior to that he was in Bradenton for all of 2019, where he slashed .265/.347/.381 with 9 homers. According to the experts his main calling card his speed on both offense and defense, with an average hit and power tool. Surprisingly he had reverse splits, performing better against lefties, in Advanced A. It should also be noted that he really came on in the last two months of the season, hitting .328 with a .894 OPS. A true centerfielder by trade, many are counting on Swaggerty, to take the reins in front of the shrubbery in the outfield sooner rather than later. I for one am not in that camp just yet and would like to see how he fares with the jump to AAA, especially with the bat, before passing any judgements.
• One downfall of the Pirates Farm System, and there have been many, is the lack of development, along with acquisition, of impact players on the International Market. In one of my first articles for our new site I wrote about the dominant DSL Pirates2 team of 2019, including top prospects according to Fangraphs, #36 Alexander Mojica and #19 Rodolfo Nolasco. There are also other international prospects, like Rodolfo Castro, who was just added to the Pirates 40-man, Santiago Florez and others that have started to make an impact in the system. Back in February of 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates’ owner and chairman, Bob Nutting, spoke of his plans to expand the team’s already existing Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic; doubling the facilities that were present at that time, a project that had cost the Pirates approximately $5 million dollars. Some may see this as a sort of punchline to a bad Pirates joke, just because it involves Nutting, but it’s one of the ways the system can be built back up again. When Cherington took the job a little over a year ago, he continued to make this a priority, using and acquiring International Bonus Pool Space to sign Solomon Maguire, Po-Yu Chen, Weslyn Toussaint, Juan Machado and Wilber Dotel. As I wrote about a little over a week ago, this process continues on January 15th.
• With his initial first round draft selection, at pick #7, Cherington selected Nick Gonzales from New Mexico State. After winning the Cape Cod League MVP in 2019, he returned to college and began the year by slashing .448/.610/1.155 with 12 homers through the first 16 games before the season was shutdown. An athletic power hitting middle infielder, Gonzales, rocketed up the Pirates Top Prospects list, landing at #1. After being drafted he continued to impress, both at the Altoona Alternate Site and during the Instructional League. Now everyone is wondering what level of the Minors, Gonzales is going to officially begin his professional career at. Currently Fangraphs Roster Resource has him listed at AA-Altoona, while I have also heard about the possibility of Advanced A-Greensboro. No matter where it is, this is player that will be tracked closely during the 2021 season.
• Quinn Priester, Brennan Malone, Carmen Mlodzinski and Tahnaj Thomas, along with a few other possible options, could find themselves on the same pitching staff in the Minors, when the season finally begins. Which one(s) will rise to the top? Only time will tell; however, I believe that these are the types of competitions Cherington is talking about in the organization that will force players to improve. The ability ,or lack there of, in developing these four pitchers and many like them could ultimately determine the success (or failure) of the current rebuild.
Clearly these are not the only players in the Pittsburgh Pirates Organization that are worth keeping tabs on during the upcoming season, but it is a good start. Some my question why I left players like Cole Tucker off my radar, however, if you know me, I have been fairly transparent with my assessment of Tucker. So, unless he starts hitting, he is a player that I am no longer closely monitoring. One that was tough to leave off the list was Mason Martin, expect for the fact that I have already written about him at least three times, and am pretty certain about my assessment of his abilities. As the off-season progresses and surely when the season is in full swing the focus of my player evaluations will continuously change, so stay tuned.