Five Pirates Thoughts at Five 4-12-21

Legitimately good weekend at PNC for the Pirates. Good because of who stepped up to provide the series win against the Cubbies, not just because it happened. See, that’s how we really need to view almost everything the Pirates do this season.

Don’t get me wrong, if Trevor Cahill somehow comes out and dominates the Padres I’ll certainly be happy, but it won’t mean nearly as much as had Keller or Brubaker pulled it off.

Nobody cheered louder when Wilmer Difo hit that 2 run shot over the Clemente Wall, but I’m much more excited about Bryan Reynolds posting 4 hits and generally looking locked in, AKA himself.

Let’s dig in and see what thoughts are working around my head today.

1. Bring on the Hype

The Padres for the past few off seasons have done more to add to their club than anyone in the league. On paper they look great and off to a 7-3 start, so far it’s more than just look. They had a no hitter from some Joe guy you might know and aside from phenom Tatis Jr. hurting himself swinging the bat not unlike our own Ke’Bryan Hayes there hasn’t been much negative surrounding the club.

If we’re honest the Pirates shouldn’t be expected to show well in this four game set, but coming off a series win who knows, maybe they’re feeling like punching above their weight class. Typically I’d tell you starting off with Cahill is just about worst case scenario but in this case it might actually be good. He isn’t going to be phased by the hype.

Most people are amped to see Big Joe back on the PNC mound fresh off his no-no but don’t buy into the fact he wants to prove to the Pirates what they lost. Joe understood why this deal happened, trust me he didn’t take it as a slight on his talent. The reason he returned as many good prospects as he did speaks to the type of player Joe is and as excited as I was for him the other night, I look for a team familiar with his stuff to get to him a bit.

Just remember when watching this series, one team was picked to be in the mix for the World Series and one was in the mix for the 2022 number one pick, because when it looks that way, we shouldn’t feel the need to get angry as though we expected Cahill and Anderson to strike out Machado 3 times a game.

2. Development in MLB

Usually things like this are almost purely lip service. Things coaches and GM’s say to make sure the fan base understands even if they don’t make any more moves the club isn’t just going to stay at their current level.

The Pirates have preached it and all through 2020 and the early going in 2021 we certainly didn’t see it, not much anyway.

The glimpse we saw of Derek Shelton and Mitch Keller in the dugout after his outing Saturday night against the Cubs was an outpouring of emotion and the outing itself a direct result of that never-ending development. Somewhere in the first inning, important to note because the light switched before Keller was provided a 7 run outburst to work with. Mitch looked different, he looked like he finally let down his guard and opened himself to an obedient approach to Stallings game calling. He followed the glove.

Still didn’t hit all his spots but he certainly wasn’t missing in if Jake set the target outside. You could see how fired up Jake was to be catching Keller which certainly wasn’t the case in his first outing.

This doesn’t mean Mitch Keller has arrived, but it does mean the lessons are starting to get through. He’ll have bad outings again, but much like climbing a mountain, so long as you don’ t lose your foothold, the climb doesn’t stop. Players like this get patience because the payoff is simply too good to ignore.

3. Wilmer Difo, Even More than Evans is Making the Coming DFA Choice Hard

Difo has had some bad moments since being called up to replace Ke’Bryan Hayes on the roster, but at the plate he’s been impactful. His versatility plays in the field, even if his arm isn’t what it used to be and the bat is a quality option off the bench. If I told you I started writing this thought before I watched him launch a 2 run shot over the Clemente Wall, I wouldn’t expect to be believed but I was thinking this when I wrote my piece on Phillip Evans staying in the lineup when Hayes returns.

Hayes will walk right back in at 3rd, as he should, but the Pirates can’t continue to carry Alford, Fowler and Polanco instead of a player who is really contributing. Many of you will assume Polanco stays because of his paycheck, and maybe that plays in somehow here, but it’s more about Polanco at his worst still not equaling what Alford as his looks like.

I think Alford goes the second Hayes comes back and I also think Dustin Fowler did enough in the field and at the plate just yesterday to make it a fairly easy decision. It’s a shame, Alford really looked like he figured some things out this Spring, even Alex Stumpf from DK Pittsburgh Sports delivered an homage to the work done on his swing. But for some the spotlight of MLB is a stage that they can’t survive.

This doesn’t mean he’s done, he could very well clear waivers, and he has a 29 year old example on this very team of perseverance named Phil. Maybe he didn’t get enough chance. Maybe batting 8th wasn’t fair. Maybe to a ton of things. Reality is, you have to show something, at some point, and 9 games in, he hasn’t. His own frustration is visibly boiling over and it’s costing him the one thing he couldn’t afford, his hustle and energy. A player like that hasn’t earned time to figure it out here like Keller, not at the expense of players who have put wood to ball. I legitimately hope he clears and stays with the club, he’s a talent that much was visible when he was roping everything he saw in Spring, but instructing a baseball team comes with rewarding those who take to it, not protecting those who don’t.

4. Why Won’t The Pirates Cut Polanco?

There is so much to this. So much more than most people really think about. The easiest answer is look at the other options, or lack thereof. You can think Oliva will be better and maybe he would, but you can’t cut Polanco for a maybe. You can think Cruz could do better and maybe he could, but I’ll tell you right now, if Cruz came up with the extremely visible hole in his swing he needs to work out he’ll do no better.

Maybe that doesn’t matter. I mean maybe you’re just so sick of watching Greg play that you’d intentionally take a step back just to move on. I can get that aspect but from a baseball perspective, I’ll take the guy I know will look bad most of the season and still finish top 3 in homeruns over a rushed to the scene prospect.

When Polanco is going well, he’ll walk once a game. I look at that number for him more than I do for almost any other player because patience is what makes Greg tick. If he’s walking he’s not swinging at that outside and low pitch. If he isn’t, he’s chasing it. The contact numbers need to improve and Shelton has specifically mentioned it multiple times this season, but I see nobody better at this point.

I suggest we check back in on this in early July. We’ll know then how some of the younger options have faired in AAA and Greg himself will have laid out a good 2 or 3 months of work. No, this isn’t to get some magical trade pulled together, it’s just to give time to prospects that truly need the work. Oliva needs to add power (at least gap power), Tucker needs to show he can hit, in any meaningful way, Cruz needs to fix his swing and avoid the traps the Pirates fell into with Polanco way back when. It sucks to watch at times but unless we want to see more rushing and development failures I suggest look away when he hits and let it play out. If Fowler get’s going, great, he takes a seat more often.

5. Bryan Reynolds is Back

Oh, he never left of course, but his swing is back and so is the confidence that good things will happen when he makes contact.

I saw something yesterday from him that reminded me of 2019. He almost toyed with Trevor Williams. What I mean by this is he showed Williams he couldn’t catch up to his 93 MPH fastball up in the zone when it was thrown high and away, then he worked the count until he got it again this time barreling it up for a well struck line drive. That’s something he did in 2019 in almost every at bat.

When Bryan is seeing it and confident in his swing he plays a lot like Wade Boggs back in the day. He is the one in charge of the at bat, not the pitcher. He knows what he wants to hit and is determined to get that pitch. If that means he has to fight off balls in the zone until he sees it, that’s what he does and when he get’s it, he doesn’t miss.

One of Bryan’s best traits is his strike zone vision, it also can be one of his worst. Quite possibly no player will benefit more from robo strike zones than Reynolds because when he takes a pitch, 8 out of 10 times it’s a ball. When 5 of those are called for strikes he can really struggle. His vision is great, but being better at calling balls and strikes than the blue you have that day rarely helps.

Seeing him take control of that aspect by expanding his zone and wasting pitches is a sure sign Bryan is back, and man what a terrific storyline for this ballclub a resurgent season from that young man would be. The confidence many of us had that he would bounce back may have been completely based on our collective gut hunches but he is putting his approach back together and a confident Reynolds is a guy nobody wants to face. Couple that with Colin Moran having possibly the most consistent plate approach on the club and you have a 3-4 ready to maximize having Ke’Bryan Hayes back where he belongs.

This offense will improve, and it needed to start by getting Back in Black.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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