The easy answer is a bunch of losses, and I’m sure that’ll be most of the responses to this piece, but because the bottom rung is still part of the ladder, let’s look at some things we can legitimately look forward to this season.
Play the Young Guys
By default, yes. There is going to be quite a bit of youth on display, especially on the mound and that will really be interesting. They have two more guys who probably have no place in the window, Brault and Kuhl, but Brubaker, Keller and any of a number of candidates for the fifth spot have plenty of control left to fit squarely in the picture too.
So, we really could be seeing an audition for some arms who could really play a role here when it matters. If you understand the development path of high end pitching, which I like to think most of you do, you’ve seen Keller take a couple steps. He struggled first, which happens a ton to these guys. They have had better stuff than almost everyone they faced coming up and suddenly, they aren’t untouchable by 6 of the 9 guys in any given lineup. That takes a minute to process, and we saw him fight through that in 2020 to take control of every at bat himself. It lead to the next stage for these types of prospects, and I call it the all or nothing paradox. The stuff plays so well they can simply hunt strikeouts, problem is, it leads to walks too. Now in his third partial season I expect to see him start to understand, he can’t have all the walks, and things will start to balance out. He won’t be a superstar after 2021, but I think he’ll be someone you truly see leading the charge moving forward.
And yes, at some point I think they’ll look to extend him.
It’s really easy to look at the players we watched in 2020 and believe they’re all trash but the Pirates have a few candidates.
Bryan Reynolds will be back, and he won’t suck. In fact, I’d bet during this season he’ll remind us the Pirates in no way traded their best player this off season. He’s a great candidate for bounce back if only because he’s never had anywhere close to that kind of stretch, let alone season.
Colin Moran has been improving year over year for the most part and last year he really showed more power consistency early. Maybe this isn’t as much a bounce back as an emergence, but Colin will prove himself valuable as a first baseman in this league. And it’ll lead to him being the biggest chip they have outside of Kuhl and Brault come next off season, labor agreement permitting of course.
Kevin Newman’s analytics tell you he should be way less than his 2019, but that doesn’t mean he has to fall off the table entirely. He still has pedigree and still has a role to play here. I’d love to see the Bucs plant him at second base and go from there, because even if you think he isn’t part of the future, playing well and making himself marketable indirectly is part of the future.
Decisions on Players
Cole Tucker is an enigma. He’s never really hit, not like a first rounder, at any level. Can he show what he is this season? Do they legitimately give him a shot to win the SS job? Can his bat give him even a shot at being part of this club with the flood of prospects sure to be here in the near future? Now is the time to find out. I see no benefit in pretending Gonzalez is anything more than a nice glove to bounce around. The world needs players like that too, but finding out what Tucker is needs to be a huge priority in 2021.
Chad Kuhl needs to show he’s fully recovered. And let’s be honest, if that means he’s a starter, he’s gonna get traded. If it turns out a fully healthy Chad still can’t get past 5 innings with regularity, they may need to admit he’s a bullpen arm. That’s the big decision with Kuhl. Stuff has never been his issue, stuff that plays against lefty batters has been, controlling his pitch count has been. If you’re going to be a starter those are two hang ups you can’t afford.
Can Steven Brault be consistent? He has good in him and lord knows this team needs a lefty in the rotation, but he still suffers from the blow up games in between completely impressive outings, and honestly, that’s fine for a borderline 5-6 rotation piece. Time to find out if Steven will ever be more than that.
Continue to Grow
Ke’Bryan Hayes is not going to match his numbers from 2020. If he does, kiss him goodbye. Don’t bother buying the jersey. If you’re going to cry about that autographed ball you bought, don’t buy one.
Reality says, he had an incredible start to his career, but c’mon, he’s not Ted Williams, he’ll come back to earth.
So how can he continue to grow then if he won’t be as good as he was last year? Simple, he can show how he handles adversity. How does he handle the inevitable slump? Does he bring it with him to the field? Does he let the pressure of batting in the heart of the order change him?
Does he sacrifice the gap power to try to hit more homeruns? Sometimes growth is pushing back when the league makes it’s first move.
In other words, I don’t expect him to put together 150 games with 2020’s numbers, I expect him to look like he belongs and put together a strong rookie campaign.
JT Brubaker is another guy I really think has room before hitting his ceiling. If he can improve control of his breaking stuff, even just a tick, Brubaker will show why he was ahead of Keller on the way up through the system. He’s got the poise, and he’ll get the opportunity, really excited to see what he does with it.