The Not So Hidden Messages Behind The Pirates Spring Training Narratives

Each Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training, at least for the first couple of weeks, we get these feel good stories about what players have been up to over the off-season, their goals for the coming year and changes they may have made in their approach; including adjustments in their swing, pitches they’ve added to their repertoire and a possible change in focus to get better at the defensive part of their game.

Narratives surrounding certain roles and expectations for players flow from the mouths of media members, teammates, coaches and players themselves, all the way up to Pirates Manager Derek Shelton and even General Manager Ben Cherington himself; like the Allegheny and Monongehela flow together seamlessly to create the Ohio. Each interview or social media post teeming with quotes about how ready a player looks, the motivation and passion in their voice or their eyes, their unflappable work ethic, the benefits of their veteran leadership and an indescribable characteristic they possess that let’s you know they are going to have a great year.

If I am being totally honest, more often than not, I usually devour each and every one of these reports and storylines; along with videos of drills, batting practice, bullpens and whatever else the Pirates social media department and beat reporters put in front of me. At times, since February 15th, I have found myself entranced by the wonder that is the start of the Major League Baseball Season; just as I have been in years past. However, every now and again I hear or see something that catches my attention and brings me back to the reality that is 2021 for the Pittsburgh Pirates; which ultimately has nothing to do with the validity of or motivation behind what is being presented to us, the Pirates Fans.

Before the signing of Tyler Anderson to an actual Major League contract I knew the Pirates needed a veteran arm in their rotation, even advocating that they sign one on several occasions; however I guess I didn’t realize just how much until I finally broke down the numbers. With his 446 innings as a starter, Anderson has nearly 40% of the total career innings as a member of the projected starting five. Only Chad Kuhl comes close at 31% accompanied by Steven Brault at 19%, Mitch Keller at 6% and JT Brubaker bringing up the rear at 4%. Anderson also leads the crew with 6.4 WAR, which is actually 3.3 more than the other four combined, with less work put in on the mound. Looking back, I’m not sure how it was ever a thought that the Pirates could make do with the options at hand.

Certainly one particular young man, Keller, has been groomed to be a leader, a guy the team wants to build around and the eventual “ace” of the staff. Many, myself included, rave about his abilities and potential, to go along with what some have described as an ever increasing confidence. The fact of the matter is that he just isn’t there yet, which obviously isn’t the same as thinking that he never will be. However, you can’t ignore the current track record. In his first year the strike outs and control were mostly there as he struck out 65 hitters in 48 innings, but potentially suffered from some bad luck as his ERA sat at 7.13, while his FIP was a more than reasonably low 3.19. Then last year they were flipped flopped as his ERA shrunk to 2.91 and his FIP rose to 6.47; and he walked more batters (18) than he struck out (16) across only 21.2 innings, due to in part to a stint on the IL with left side discomfort. Now, to be the “ace” or carry the load of a rotation of is a lot to ask from anyone, especially a pitcher who doesn’t turn 25 until two days after the season starts; which fundamentally makes their veteran addition, and possible one more, a necessity.

Almost a week prior to Anderson’s signing the Pirates acquired veteran outfielder, Brian Goodwin on a Minor League Deal with an invitation to Spring Training and $1.6 million plus up to 900K in bonuses if he earns an Opening Day roster spot. This move wasn’t as surprise as the centerfield competition was primarily limited to inexperienced duo of Anthony Alford and Jared Oliva. Then on Wednesday it was announced by the Director of Sports Medicine for the Pirates, Todd Tomczyk, that Alford was limited with his throwing due to his surgically repaired elbow from a collision with the outfield wall at PNC Park back on September 5, 2020, so he would be relegated to DH and pinch hit duties to begin Grapefruit League play.

Later that evening the Pirates traded for recently designated for assignment outfielder from the A’s, Dustin Fowler. As Gary wrote in one of his latest articles, don’t assume anything based on this move; which the absolute truth. But it goes even further because I actually assumed something before the trade; that the Pirates have no idea who their centerfielder is going to be this season. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just another fact. In camp, they currently have a veteran with experience and a good, not great, track record, two former top 100 prospects who have struggled to break through and the 2019 AA-Altoona Curve MVP. And the last three only have 52 starts combined in centerfield at the Major League Level. This allows for competition and evaluation, but no clear answer for the for the future, as Pirates Fans hope for one to separate themself from the other.

The last meaningful move by the Pirates, which has some underlying implications was the February signing of formerly hated Cincinnati Red by way of the White Sox, Yankees, Mets, Rangers and Mets again, third/first baseman Todd Frazier. His was another Minor League signing, with an NRI and $1.5 million plus 600K in potential benchmark incentives for total MLB at bats. Almost immediately following this move I wrote about the possible reason(s) for adding bringing in Frazier, most of which surrounded Colin Moran. However, after a discussion with Jason Martinez from Fangraphs the other day, more of the interview forthcoming on an episode of Bucs In The Basement podcast, the eventual first slump of Ke’Bryan Hayes career was examined.

It would nice to think that the Ke’Bryan Hayes we all saw in September of 2020 will be with us always and forever; you know until he gets traded for prospects. But in all seriousness, the .376/.442/.682 slash line with 5 homers in 24 games is almost impossible to repeat, and he is going to experience a downturn at some point in 2021. It’s pretty much unavoidable, so it would be beneficial to a have an veteran like Frazier to jump in when need be; not just because of needed off days during a 162 game campaign, which will also play a factor.

Of course there have been more, and will be more, underlying meanings to different reports, narratives, storylines and even transactions involving the Pirates. You just need to know where to look, and how to read between the lines.

Published by Craig W. Toth

Former Contributing Author at InsidethePirates.com, Co-Host of the Bucs in the Basement Podcast and life-long/diehard Pittsburgh Pirates Fan!

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