11-9-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
Believe it or not, Ben Cherington doesn’t care what I think. I know, it’s shocking. So he surely doesn’t care that I disagree with the idea that this season the only way this team will measurably improve has to come from internal growth and improvement.
I certainly expect some of that, but I’d like to see the club go out and buy some help, hedge their bet a bit if you will.
So I got to thinking, what are some things I could realistically see happening this year that could make me wrong and vindicate the GM for his stated stance. I’ve come up with 5 things, and I think if you can say this team wins 70 games in 2022 most reasonable fans would consider that progress.
Realistic is obviously in the eye of the beholder, but I at least think these things are doable, so let’s dig in and see how we feel on the other end.
1. Rookie Contribution
The Pirates as currently constructed don’t have enough to really produce the minimum 9 more wins so somewhere, new talent needs injected. Under the constraints the Pirates are seemingly placing on themselves take a stab at where that comes from.
Roansy Contreras, Oneil Cruz, Miguel Yajure, and Travis Swaggerty are all the closest at least as we sit here right now. To get those 9 extra wins they’ll need real impact from two of them. You can go off and list the myriad players right behind these 4 but each of these have the best shot to break through and actually carry a load when they do in my mind.
Now let’s define that a bit, carry a load is a bit up for interpretation. I think this team needs to add at least 40 homeruns and 100 clean innings to show the kind of realistic improvement we’re seeking, I don’t see all of that in this group but I’d think between the 4 of them 15-20 homeruns and 60-70 good innings isn’t asking too much. We can obviously hope for more but those are good baselines for rookie expectation.
If they get nothing from any of them, I think it might be a struggle to get there, even giving you the expectation there will be others called up. Mid season isn’t going to cut it for adding what the Pirates need to add, so I’ve highlighted guys I think could really help by no later than June.
2. Take a Step
This is an incredibly young team, at least when it comes to baseball age so there ought to be plenty of this happening all around the field. For this entry though, I mean on the mound. Bryse Wilson, Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker in particular have to bear the brunt of this need. All three will most likely make the rotation on opening day, All three of them have question marks.
Bryse has done well here in Pittsburgh, but he needs to become more consistent and keep the ball in the park. He’s been efficient and in today’s game that can sometimes lead to dingers. I like the command, but I’d like to see him use his stuff to keep the ball on the ground a bit more.
Brubaker was a pitching machine after he wore down. Homeruns were just flying out of the park against him and much like Wilson, JT has to find a way to balance his goal of attacking hitters with protecting himself from the kind of contact he often generated. His stuff is plenty good, he just needs to place it better and his year over year performance has been impressive even with this glaring issue.
Keller is entering his most critical season as a pro. He showed some payoff for adjustments as the 2021 season wore down, but it took far too long and he simply can’t have a repeat or relapse. If Mitch can look the part, even fighting back to a .500 pitcher he could prove himself valuable.
I know I just listed a couple rookies that could factor in on the mound, but this group of three hold the keys to this being a better than average rotation or one that struggles night in and out.
Again, I’d go get a guy or two here to help lead this group, but if the GM wants to stick with what’s here, these are the three that have to step up and for one of them at least, it might be a last shot at it.
3. Improved Coaching
Sounds vague and difficult to measure right?
Show me someone improving, a pitcher, a hitter, I really don’t care, but show me something. I don’t want to watch a guy beat his head against the wall doing the same thing over and over for 5 months before finally showing signs he’s getting it. Kevin Newman and Mitch Keller were easily the poster boys for this eventuality last season. Something’s gotta give, and if indeed it was about the hitting coach who they fired or the pitching coach they chose not to, it can’t be allowed to happen again.
When your only stated intention is to “get better” it stands to reason you should well, you know, have guys actually do so.
You can count Bryan Reynolds if you want, but I saw a guy show up for Spring determined to show he had figured out his own issues. For what it’s worth, Newman looked the same, until the games started counting that is.
Mitch looked bad in Spring, looked worse in the regular season and finally after a demotion found something that worked better for him. That’s simply too long to wait to identify, and adjust issues.
If evaluating talent and helping it improve is really the goal, and we’re sticking to the fact it primarily needs to be internally done, they can’t swing and miss on the coaching.
On this front, it’s at least a little weird they haven’t hired a hitting coach yet, I mean, you’d want off season plans developed with this dude involved right? Sure would suck to have everyone working on what Derek Shelton told them to do only to have a completely new voice show up in Spring with new ideas.
Whatever happened with that coaching position, there is little doubt the team showed improvement at the plate after firing Eckstein, and no folks, it wasn’t all Yoshi.
On the mound this team has almost all young, moldable clay, so if it looks like Marin is making an ashtray out of what you wanted to be a flower pot, maybe pull the rip cord earlier.
Missing on talent happens to every team in the league, but taking too long to recognize your coaching was sub par is the easiest way to ensure you’ll see “your” guys performing well elsewhere.
4. Stars Shining Even Brighter
First of all, let’s be honest, they don’t have many you’d classify as stars. Therefore this list is of course going to be concise.
Bryan Reynolds was great in 2021, not good, great. Funny thing is, you can tell he wasn’t satisfied with himself especially at the plate. That’s what winners do, they expect more and they loath missed opportunities. I’d like to see Bryan improve on the only thing that’s really left, recognizing the down and in off speed. Last season he beat back the high fastball issue, but this one remained a bit of a bugaboo. To his credit, pitchers were so scared to leave one over the plate he ended up drawing walks just spitting on those pitches, but with a bit of increased recognition I bet he’d add another 5 homeruns by golfing a few out.
Ke’Bryan Hayes had what I’d consider to be a good rookie campaign in 2020-2021. I like ganging them together because if he started in like May or Early June that’s what his career numbers look like right now. Overall a very solid effort, but he absolutely felt the league push back and at points let his approach get a little too opposite field to maximize his power tool. I have every confidence he’ll do exactly that. I’d also be remiss to not mention the very real issue his wrist and hands were this year, but neither he or the team acknowledged it until the season was almost over, so it’s hard to go view everything through that prism after the fact. He’s got more in there, and I’d like to see him work back to the heart of the order, lead off was cute, but that’s not where he fits best if we’re being honest.
David Bednar is going to enter 2022 as the only nailed on, bullpen arm this club has, and I kinda mean that even if they sign someone because c’mon they aren’t going to get a big established guy. David needs to show up next year ready to pick up right where he left off, this time armed with a Curve he developed during the season. I’d like to see him get back to throwing 4 pitches, he may not need them all, but just having and showing them makes him even more dangerous and makes his fastball that much more explosive. It’s almost a shame this team doesn’t have anyone else you’d want to use as a closer because David is exactly the guy you want to be the bridge to winning, especially on a team where his opportunities might be limited in a closer’s role. In other words, use him, even if it’s not a save.
5. Stay on the Field
Injury is something a team like this simply can’t have. Colin Moran was fairly consistent last season, unfortunately he was also consistent about not being available. The pitching injuries I’m hoping were overly cautious moves due to dealing with the aftermath of a pandemic, but lack of depth on the mound make this extra important.
We already discussed Hayes and what he dealt with, but one thing we didn’t touch on is just how lucky they got that Jacob Stallings and Bryan Reynolds were available all year for the most part.
One injury to either of those two men and you can forget an improvement for next year, they simply don’t have the depth to survive it. When I suggest getting a veteran backup catcher and a real live MLB outfielder, it’s not because I think no prospect will step up, it’s because I fully expect the club to not get so lucky on this front next season.