Gary’s 2021 Pirates Season Preview

It’s hard to say you cover a team without at some point making some predictions, and anyone who listens to my podcast has experienced first hand that I can be wrong. Hell my first piece for SI way back in 2019 was about trading Adam Frazier. Umm, yeah, might have been off a bit there.

That said, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on what this team is up to this season and I’ll break this down into bite sized segments so you all can easily go back and hammer me for my mistakes later.

I’m going to get into predicting who should or could be traded but I just can’t let it dictate every thought.

Pitching

I’m putting pitching as one big blob for one simple reason, I think that’s how this might look at least early on. The Pirates have talked about having 6 starters and the assumption is they’ll bring 14 pitchers North.

They’ll name starters and they’ll pitch in some sort of a rotation of course but until we truly understand how they’ll utilize the arms I have no choice but to assume some guys will bounce between a back end of a piggy back and straight bullpen work.

So let’s do it like this, I’ll start with guys I think will at least be considered starters and not cross over to the pen.

Tyler Anderson (SP) – The only lefty in the mix, Anderson has had mixed results this Spring but as the pre-season wound down he started to round into form. It’s hard to say what to expect from Anderson, he should probably land in the low 4.00’s for ERA and if they don’t mind that creeping up a bit could average 5-6 innings easy. His delivery is effortless and he’s eaten innings in his time, but chill with the expectations beyond that.

Chad Kuhl (SP) – Chad probably has the best stuff out of all the starters, his issue has been knowing where it’s going. He is past his recovery from Tommy John but a 60 game season didn’t do favors for him as far as trusting the recovery and pushing his limits. That will come in 2021.

Mitch Keller (SP) – Wild. Both Mitch himself and the expectations. Mitch is exactly why you don’t look at the list of prospects and assume their ETA also predicts their Expected Impact Date. It takes time to turn a stellar AAA pitcher into a good and ultimately great MLB pitcher. I’m not panicked by his Spring, but I will say depending on the patience of the teams he faces early (and the Cubs aren’t a patient club at the plate) he could look great or awful. Give him time, be patient and hope the club is as well. Yoyo treatment will only make this take longer if not fully destroy him. If you don’t want another Glasnow, allow the time to grow and learn he needs, and realize it has to be done at this level now.

JT Brubaker (SP)Solid, steady, mature. Brubaker is someone I see setting the pace early and finishing through the tape with a respectable season. He’ll grow into the innings and learn how to let his stuff hunt a strikeout when he needs it. He has good stuff and he controls it well, sometimes it just takes some time to understand there are moments when you need that strikeout.

Wil Crowe (SP) Wil performed well this Spring, arguably better than anyone else on this list, but he makes it simply by being on the 40-man already. Chase De Jong might have been the best Starter the Pirates tossed out there but the 40-man is a tight place now. Wil has everything you’d want in a starter minus experience, but he has the pedigree and if he’s nothing more than a 4 or 5 starter it’s a win.

Now, did you expect Trevor Cahill to make an appearance there? He probably could, I mean it’s going to be a different season and the plan to me looks more like they want to see almost everyone start the season in an non-traditional role. I do think if someone get’s stretched out and are performing well they’ll be allowed to start to look more typical but as aggressively as I see pitch counts being handled in 2021 throughout the league it might not be something that ever truly looks like a staff of starters/relievers/back end guys we’re used to.

So let’s go on to wave two, these are the guys who probably won’t start games but could easily be brought in for the 4th inning to “continue the start” if you will.

Trevor Cahill (RP) – I put him here because when everyone is healthy I think this is where he fits best. Cahill is never going to make your eyes pop out with his stuff but there is something to be said about being around for 14 years. He eats innings, and does it well.

Luis Oviedo (RP) Yeah, I don’t know much here. He looked like he had quality stuff in his limited mound time this Spring but the bottom line is he is a Rule 5 pick and he has to make it and stick in order to, well, stick. I think this might be a perfect place to try to use him. Should be fairly low stress most nights and the club won’t have to commit to what role they see him filling as his career continues.

Duane Underwood Jr. (RP) Newly acquired from the Chicago Cubs Underwood could fit anywhere the Pirates want him to. Now it makes most sense that he’d use his ability to go multiple innings by entering games in the 5th or so and bridging to the back end.

Chris Stratton (RP) He has started in this league, ok, not very successfully, but he’s done it. The club has even toyed with the idea of stretching him out and returning him to that role in the past, but in a year of amorphous roles he slots in right here for me. Perfect guy for this type of role.

Sam Howard (RP) Every bullpen needs a lefty and the Pirates have two, unfortunately only one could make it even when the Bucs decided to send 14 North. Shreve loses out because he would have required a 40-man spot and Howard already had one. Both performed well and if they didn’t have Oviedo to protect, both might have been here. Either one would only be an inning or two type guy, but that still qualifies for what we’re looking at here.

So those would be the middle relief/piggyback/long man, look, you put whatever label on it you like, but this role will be a part of this team at least in the early going. So let’s move on to the more traditional back end guys.

Michael Feliz (RP) Yes, that Michael Feliz! The Pirates liked what he did last offseason and he was one of the very first people they retained this off season. We’ve seen Michael go more than an inning in the past, but not often, so I think we’ll see a more traditional 6th or later role for him. He does look like he has more of a handle on his control and the velocity is up a bit too.

Kyle Crick (RP)If you read or listen to anything I put out you know how skeptical I am of Crick, but he did what I said needed to happen, got his velocity back. It’s the key to making him effective and to his credit, he’s recaptured it. That said, the Pirates should be careful to not be tempted into making him a closer from the jump.

Richard Rodriguez (RP) I still feel he doesn’t have the stuff to be a traditional closer, but its very hard to argue his results. He misses bats and get’s outs, arguably better than any Pirates pitcher as far as track record goes. Hard to see him not start as the ‘closer’.

David Bednar (RP) He’s been in a word impressive. His stuff looks untouchable. He throws a slider that starts at your ear and winds up 4 inches off the plate, and more importantly, he has shown in his Spring outings he has the control to fine tune that. There were other ways to go for the Pirates but Bednar made it impossible to send him down while talking about sending the best to Pittsburgh.

The Outfield

We’re going to stick to the Starters here and the first person on our list made the decision fairly easy.

Anthony Alford (CF) – He’s built like a linebacker and plays baseball with the same energy. Nobody has ever questioned his defensive ability but the bat was a question mark. He’s answered the bell at the plate too, showing power and speed to make contact work for him. A new approach has really improved his consistency.

Bryan Reynolds (LF) – The biggest fear was that he was not the player we saw in 2019 but 2020 was a false image for many players and Bryan has hit at every level, in every season of his entire career up until that abomination of a season last year. He’s already shown this Spring his approach looks strong and he’s back to the level that almost netted him Rookie of the Year just a short time ago. Worry about this team, don’t worry about Bryan.

Gregory Polanco (RF) – This isn’t going to be filled with flowery what ifs, Greg has the tools to do some incredible things, but he’s had those tools his entire career and rarely have they translated to stats. That said, it’s foolish to dismiss him as unimportant, even last season as bad as he was he produced runs and that’s what he’ll be expected to deliver again.

The Infield

Colin Moran (1B) – Some would say he has big shoes to fill, others might say it’s already clear the Pirates have upgraded. The fact is, we HOPE he is an upgrade at first and we HOPE with more at bats he’ll have comparable production. I say that while firmly being in the camp that Moran will be an upgrade, but it’s really hard to say with authority that’s the case.

Adam Frazier (2B) – Nobody has called for Frazier to be traded because he stunk, it was always about what is coming behind him that made Adam expendable, but the fact is, nobody pushed him out of the way yet, and the Pirates haven’t found the right deal even if they did. Enjoy him while he’s here, he’s a gold glove finalist and when he’s right, his bat can be an important fuel for the lineup.

Kevin Newman (SS) – He hit this Spring like Pete Rose times two, obviously that’s not sustainable but Kevin did exactly what you’d hope a number one pick would do, he grabbed a position he was told he was competing for by the horns and didn’t let go. If you truly believe the competition was open, you have to believe he straight up won the competition.

Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B) – Make no mistake, if Hayes slipped up in any way he’d have opened the door for the Pirates to contemplate manipulating his service time. Yeah I know, if they did that you’d never watch again, or they’d lose your trust. I get it, just saying it had to be a discussion as they could get a full extra year by just holding him back for a short time. Instead he looked every bit as good as his cup of coffee in 2020. He’s smart, gifted and on top of that has an infectious attitude and swagger. Part of sticking in this league is taking thoughts like that off the table, and he sure did that.

The Catchers

Jacob Stallings – Steady defender who calls a game like few can. Nothing to see here. Having a left handed platoon partner might make his average rise in 2021 as he rakes against Lefties.

Michael Perez – Left handed, solid defender, there won’t be a huge drop off when he fills in for Jake, but the bat hasn’t been special. He has some sneaky power and could abuse the Clemente Wall if he discovers his stroke.

The Bench

Michael Perez (C) – I’m not sure Perez was better than Wolters. I can’t say Wolters was better than Perez either. Both are serviceable defenders and the bats are very similar, maybe Perez has an edge in power. End of the day, Perez was on the 40, Wolters wasn’t and I’d lay money Tony didn’t have an out clause but requested his release.

Phillip Evans (Utility, IF, OF) – Evans didn’t have to make this team, but he put together a solid Spring and ultimately forced the Pirates hand. His versatility trumped Todd Frazier’s experience and power threat.

Erik Gonzalez (Utility, IF, OF) – Gonzalez performed well this Spring so saying Newman beat him handily for the starting SS gig really says more about how Kevin performed than Erik. At the very least he clearly beat out Cole Tucker and this is a team proving this Spring veterans and NRIs are guaranteed nothing. Erik is a nice glove to have on your bench.

Dustin Fowler (OF, 1B?) – Dustin hasn’t done anything to win or lose this position, but Brian Goodwin made the decision easy. I put in the 1B with a question mark because the Pirates decided to try him out there this Spring in practice and while I don’t think they’ll need him to do so, versatility is a theme here.

The Lineup

2B Frazier
LF Reynolds
3B Hayes
1B Moran
SS Newman
RF Polanco
CF Alford
C Stallings

Now, that’s my proposed lineup not what I think they’ll do. If I had to guess, the Opening Day lineup will look more like this.

2B Frazier
3B Hayes
LF Reynolds
1B Moran
SS Newman
RF Polanco
CF Alford
C Stallings

I could see the lineup bouncing around a bit. Could be a weird platoon for the lead off spot between Frazier and Newman. Hayes and Reynolds could swap. My desire to push Polanco down in the order isn’t just based on talent, it’s about trying to not have two pure lefty’s stacked. My lineup is built to prepare for other teams to handle pitching the way the Pirates will, and a diverse lineup will help.

Another twist I think you can expect to see is the pitcher in the 8 hole with either Anthony Alford or another player like him in the 9 hole. The Pirates used that set up a couple times in the late going this Spring.

The Record

72-90

I think the Bucs will hang in more games than they’ll be blown out. Last season this club lost more 1-run games than any other club but it sure didn’t feel like that when the other losses that sandwiched them were 8-0 beat downs.

During my podcast on Saturday one of my guests Mitchell Nagy said something that really stuck with me. He said he doesn’t see the 19-41 record of 2020 in any 60 game stretch this season, and man, I agree. Brilliant way to look at it I think.

There are of course factors I can’t see, who gets traded? Who gets hurt? Who underperforms? But as a whole, the club is constructed with more depth than they’ve had, even during the playoff years.

I’m not going to say much more here, it’s a guess. An educated guess, but a guess nonetheless. Anyone offering you a prediction of the record is doing the same. Because nobody knows the answers to those few very important questions in the last paragraph and this would be hard enough if they didn’t exist.

I expect somewhere in the 35-37 win range by the All Star Break because I expect the pitching staff to be better as the season progresses.

Help in the Minors

Let’s take this in this fashion, pitchers both starting & relief, outfield, infield, catcher. These are all players I feel will be here either on merit or necessity.

Starting Options – Cody Ponce (IL), Miguel Yajure, Chase De Jong and maybe Steven Wright, Steven Brault (IL)

Relief Options – Edgar Santana, Chason Shreve, Nick Mears, Geoff Hartlieb and maybe Shea Spitzbarth

Infield Options – Well, if it’s a long term need like a trade of Frazier or Gonzalez breaks his hand, Wilmer Difo, if it’s short term I could see Cole Tucker and his options in his back pocket.

Outfield Options – Different position, same type of situation. Long term need is probably Brian Goodwin, short term Jared Oliva and again his pocket full of options probably get’s the call.

Catcher – Last year we immediately saw the supposed AAA depth become the everyday backup before the season even started. This year they’ll have Joe Hudson with a hint of Susak, one will wind up on the taxi squad the other will be there if needed. Depth at that position isn’t something we should take for granted.

Prospect Watch

The most likely prospects to make their presence felt in 2020 happen to be a fairly short list.

Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, Jared Oliva, Roansy Contreras, Nick Mears, Shea Spitzbarth.

Sure there could be more, but these are the players I feel could make it and potentially be part of the group that helps usher in winning baseball in Pittsburgh again.

Trade Watch

At some point the team needs to switch from acquiring prospects to developing what they have. If you look at the current 40 man and the gymnastics it caused us mentally this Spring you can see the list is at the very least congested.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great thing, not a problem, but it also doesn’t account for the very real need to add some younger players to the list by the end of the season to protect him from Rule 5.

Bringing in even more isn’t off the table but they’d have to be very young.

Adam Frazier – is of course the most obvious candidate but as our very own Craig Toth likes to say, nobody has stepped up and taken 2B from him. Maybe the Pirates feel the same, and he’s more valuable than the prospects he at least to this point could return.

Richard Rodriguez – Especially if he posts up in the closer role again. People overpay for closers every deadline and the return for RichRod might be too much to pass.

Chris Stratton – He can spin the ball like nobody else in the league and presuming he didn’t use the stickum that the league has put under scrutiny his value will only increase.

Michael Feliz – He’s likely not part of the future here one way or another, so if the Bucs can get anything of value in return, they absolutely should.

Chad Kuhl – He has the stuff to be a top end starter or back end reliever, by the deadline he could be one of the hottest names on the market. That doesn’t mean his stuff alone will get him to either of those designations, but it’s in there.

Gregory Polanco – The Pirates should be willing to eat up to 3 million in his salary this season at the deadline to move his contract, because that’s exactly what it will cost them to get out of his deal after the season. If Greg shows up at all, they should be able to find a deal.

Storylines to Follow

The Hitting Approach – Coach Eckstein has implemented a new approach at the plate and while he can’t control execution, he certainly has made sure we all know what we’re supposed to be seeing. There should be a visible attempt to hit the ball where it’s pitched and a willingness to beat the shift. Keep an eye on this as the season develops.

The Pitching Philosophy – No I don’t mean pitch to contact. I mean how the Pirates deploy their pitchers. Look for traditional roles to be turned on their heads.

Lineups & Usage – Last year in the 60 game season Dereck Shelton used what seemed like 60 different lineups. This Spring he’s been more consistent and that was with a glut of players at his disposal. It will be interesting to see if 2020 was literally just an experiment and the real Shelton will show himself in 2021.

Fowler & Alford – Does one of them prove themselves as a starting OF option going forward or are we officially on Swaggerty watch? Don’t get me wrong, we’ll still be looking for Travis to make it and play at some point but maybe he’ll have to show he is ready rather than be anointed if either of these players catch on.

Starters That Stick – The obvious candidates are Keller and Brubaker and by stick I simply mean, counted on to be part of the rotation for the future. Yajure and Crowe have a solid chance as well but it really depends on when they start to contribute.

Defense – Nothing makes a team look like a train wreck faster than playing poor defense. This won’t be near the issue it has been in recent campaigns. This team can pick it.

The All Stars

I don’t see the Pirates having a ton of All Stars, but their representative won’t be there just because the Pirates have to have one. Ke’Bryan Hayes, Bryan Reynolds and Richard Rodriguez probably have the best chance. I’d give you Kevin Newman but the names he’d have to jump over in the NL at SS makes me feel it’s a real longshot.

Final Thoughts

Derek Shelton didn’t win many fans over last season as we watched him make questionable decisions repeatedly in 2020. Many of those poor or at least difficult to understand moves were assumed to be about evaluation or even flat lack of options, but some things I think you’ll see stick.

He’s a modern baseball coach and that comes with some different philosophies that just aren’t going to jive with folks who grew up watching baseball in the 70’s and 80’s. First up, handling a pitching staff has changed all across the league but this could be even more visibly different as traditional roles like starter and closer aren’t as rigidly stuck to.

All that being said, it will be hard to say what we see in 2021 is a true reflection of what Shelton wants to do or just a lingering effect of the COVID shortened season coupled with the thinnest part of the club for elite talent still being starting pitching. For instance it may become fairly normal to see starters going 4 or 5 innings, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the point where we can say it’s team philosophy or an attempt to keep innings under a target number. Nobody in baseball anywhere is going to tell us some magic number to look for, but keep your eyes open because all teams will handle this differently.

I also think we can look for more consistent lineups this season, that’s not to say the same lineup will get trotted out five games in a row but without expanded rosters I think it will have much less flex. A backup on this club, well, any backup beside catcher, will probably start 3-4 games a week and versatility will be the reason. For instance if he wants to see Erik Gonzalez play 5 games a week you could see him bounce all over the diamond to make it happen. The balance needs to remain though and he must not get carried away with it to the point the reserves are playing just as much as the starters.

The coaching staff as a whole looks and sounds more confident and the young core should be a very coachable group. Last season the players were told that GM Ben Cherington looked around and saw several players who would be here when the team was competing for division titles again, this season the players look around and know the field of those still here since hearing that statement has been trimmed. In other words, it’s getting real, and competition has never been stiffer for many of these guys that have worn black and gold their entire careers.

All in all, this is the last season I expect to enter completely expecting a losing season for a while. That’s not to say the window opens next year or that they will absolutely best the .500 mark in 2022, but it is to say we start seeing the fruit from what this management team has been building.

For this year, things that players like Reynolds, Newman, Keller, Brubaker, Hayes, and even Alford do mean more than anything Cahill throws or Polanco hits. This year is all about solidifying and hopefully retaining some pieces of this core.

Welcome back baseball, welcome back for real.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

5 thoughts on “Gary’s 2021 Pirates Season Preview

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