2020 is a year, and a baseball season, that many Pirates Fans would probably like to forget; and actually some players like Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman and Gregory Polanco might not mind if it were erased from memory as well. After waiting almost four long months for Opening Day to arrive, fans were treated to a 5-4 late inning loss against a division rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates, didn’t look great, but they did look horrible either. It seemed almost possible that this 60 game truncated year, might not go as poorly as some may have envisioned.
Flash forward a little over two weeks, with a seven game skid mixed in and no back to back wins, to when Pittsburgh was 3-13. At this point it was pretty clear the season might be a total loss; and it pretty much outside a spectacular September by Ke’Bryan Hayes, as the Pirates floundered to a league worst-hey another bright spot thanks to securing the #1 Overall Pick in the 2021 MLB Amateur Draft-19 wins and 41 loses. The hurting and pain was over, at least for the time being.
As Ben Cherington and the Pittsburgh Pirates entered the off-season it was apparent that this was going to be a time for changed; and change their team did. Gone was the post McCutchen Face of The Franchise, Josh Bell, so long to the gritty pitcher Joe Musgrove and farewell to the once hopeful, but often injured, top prospect Jameson Taillon. Trevor Williams and Chris Archer, along with a few others, were sent packing too. In the blink of an eye the team got younger, and a lot less experienced, which for the most part has continued to be a running theme through Spring Training; as side from the additions of Trevor Cahill, Tyler Anderson and Steven Wright.
And with that we are pretty much caught up to present day; one sleep away from the Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day for the 2021 Season at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs, when Chad Kuhl will put his foot on the rubber to ring in the year-hopefully with an early lead provided to him off the Pirates hot bats.
So-getting down to brass tacks-what do we as Pirates Fans have to look forward to, what are some reasonable expectations, who could fail, who could flourish, and ultimately what will their final record be?
Well, first off, even though it may seem as trying to soften the blow, 2021 is not a year where the final record will mean much to the Pittsburgh Pirates; and it is also really hard to nail down due to the possible trades that could take place during the season, with Chad Kuhl, Adam Frazier, Colin Moran, Steven Brault, when healthy, and Gregory Polanco, if he performs, being possible pieces used by Ben Cherington to acquire additional prospects for the system. One year signees in the forms of Trevor Cahill, Tyler Anderson, Brian Goodwin and the recently return Todd Frazier could also fit this bill. Now I know that I have gone on record a couple of times saying that the drop off from some of players on the active roster to those at the Alternate Site/AAA is not as size-able as it has been in previous years and there is a decent amount of depth a most positions, but if more than a couple of these happen it will obviously have some effect on the overall record.
However, once again I will emphasize that this is not something that should be focused on. Instead the focus needs to be on the individual performances of players, such as Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman, Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes; the potential young core of the current rebuild. These players, along with the performances of probable trade pieces should keep Pirates Fans busy enough to maintain interest beyond the first extended losing streak; although it is to be expected that not every player will experience success, while others could easily exceed their pre-season projections.
For reference it is fairly quick and easy to reference Dan Szymborski’s ZIP Projections on Fangraphs. Are they baseball gospel? No, but they are always a decent measuring stick; and you may have to do a little leg work because of trades and acquisitions, which I actually take enjoyment in.
A couple of players that fit into the first category of who could fail, or more politely put disappoint, would have to be Mitch Keller and Anthony Alford. By mentioning their names it doesn’t mean that they will necessarily have bad seasons; it’s just that they might not live up to current or previous expectations.
Prior to Spring Training Keller was heralded by some as the de facto ace and presumptive opening day starter. However, after some legitimate struggles during his first few starts there were some clear concerns about Keller that weren’t totally set aside by; although he didn’t allow a run across three innings of work, mostly due to the four walks and only two strikeouts, which has started to become sort of a pattern.
For Anthony Alford the centerfield position was his to lose; but after a poor showing from Brian Goodwin and a late appearance from Dustin Fowler, he was the most likely choice. However, we can’t ignore that this a player with only 51 Major League games under his belt, with a career .169 AVG and 3 home runs. Do I hope that he will succeed? Absolutely. Am I counting on it? Absolutely not.
On the other end of the spectrum there are those who could fit in the later classification of flourishing, and possible standing out, including Gregory Polanco, Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman and Colin Moran; three of the four whom I have written about over the last couple of days. The lone player that was left out, Reynolds, was actually one of the biggest victims of the shortened season. After hitting at every level, including his first year with the Pirates, he managed to only bat .189 with 7 homers, but did improve significantly in his defensive prowess. When it comes to 2020, some fans have chosen to ignore many of the outcomes; and at least as it pertains to Reynolds I think they might just be right.
Of course as we look toward the start of a new year, I noticed that there was a third grouping that I failed to mention, which is those that might just fall straight in line, or pretty darn close, with their projections. For me Ke’Bryan Hayes, Adam Frazier and Jacob Stallings almost immediately come to mind.
Now I understand that Young Hayes earned a 1.9 WAR in only 24 games, which would extrapolate itself out to approximately 12.8 WAR over 162 games, but in doing that we might be getting ahead of ourselves; like way ahead of ourselves. Even after a stellar Spring Training expectations must be tempered for the key to future, not so much that he falls below an average everyday player, but maybe a little bit shy of the clear league MVP.
As far as Adam Frazier is concerned, many first wonder why he is still here. He is most definitely a possible trade chip, but he is also a consistent presence in the lineup; having been a Gold Glove Finalist the past two years and even in a down year during the 2020 season, his contributions were still a net positive at .7 WAR and .6 fWAR respectively.
Then there is Jacob Stallings, the prototypical defensive catcher. Any offense he provides you is a bonus, and until defensive metrics no longer count for anything, much to the dismay of fans that believe he is overrated because those statistics are worthless, he is one of the top 10 rated players at his position.
All in all there will be a lot of aspects of the game to watch, along with individual players and performances. And a few things I didn’t get a chance to touch on like coaching, player development and the Minor League Season-which I will hopefully be in Altoona to enjoy on May 4th.
Like I said before I am not really concerned about record, but if you want my prediction-because all the cool kids are doing it-I am going say the Pittsburgh Pirates are in for a 63-99 last place finish in the NL Central.