Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

12-20-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

It won’t be long, and we’ll all be gathering with family and friends to celebrate and before I start getting into the Pittsburgh Pirates today, I’d like to start with thanking all of you for making us part of your reading, listening and in general Pirates fan experience.

1. Ch-ch-ch-changes…

When a team heads off into a rebuild and you start reaching the fan fatigue part of the show it’s hard to feel progress is being made. Let’s consider a few things.

6 players remain from the 2020 Opening Day Roster. Chris Stratton, Bryan Reynolds, Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman, JT Brubaker, Mitch Keller. This means the roster has been almost completely turned over in 222 games. The perception that this rebuild has drug on for eons really doesn’t add up.

16 is the MLB Pipeline ranking for the Pirates farm system in 2020 and as we wait for baseball to come back the system currently sits at number 4. More importantly, some of them are actually close to MLB now, meaning we’re not far from starting to see this ranking show itself where it matters.

The MLB club has been bad, but it’s also almost entirely different and the minor league system has been almost completely restocked. This is a process, but this isn’t a process that allows you to just look at the MLB product and assume nothing is better or different. We’ll soon find out what 2022 provides, but I’d expect that number of players who remain to dwindle to 3 or 4 by season’s end.

2. Andy Haines the Right Guy?

I mean, who really knows, we’ll have to let the season start to paint the picture, but unlike some hires this team has made, we do have a limited track record to look to.

He has an extensive independent and minor league resume, but his first taste of the major leagues was in 2018 with Chicago, and after one season he would jump to Milwaukee.

Just looking at those teams the 2018 Cubs, and the 2019-2021 Brewers you see a philosophy start to emerge.

First let’s talk results, in 2018 the Cubs scored 761 Runs. The Brewers from 2019 – 2021 scored respectively, 769, 247 (60 games), 738.

So his teams have scored, but it’s entirely fair to look at those rosters with players like Kris Bryant, Javi Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Christian Yelich, Avi Garcia and on and on, and diminish his credit a bit.

Power seems to be a priority over contact for Andy and I think it’s fair to ask if that can possibly be the philosophy with the current make up of the 2022 Pittsburgh Pirates.

In Milwaukee it’s a mixed bag. Many criticized Haines for the deterioration of Keston Hiura and Christian Yelich both from a power and hitting ability standpoint, but he also is credited with improvements to Kolten Wong, Luis Urias and Willy Adames.

As much as cumulative stats matter in baseball, Stars still drive this game, and coaches are still judged on their ability to maintain, improve or even just help stars stay that way.

Walking into the job in Pittsburgh, let’s be real honest here, he has maybe 3 guys we should be watching. Bryan Reynolds has emerged as a star, and fair or not, ANY step back will be attributed in part to the new hitting coach. Ke’Bryan Hayes spent much of 2021 injured or recovering from injury, he’s another guy that fans and the organization alike will expect to take a step this year. The 3rd I’ll say if he finds a way to draw something resembling an offensive threat out of Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman or Yoshi Tsutsugo kudos would be due.

Overall, this hire doesn’t inspire me but as I said right after Rick Eckstein was fired, this is now Derek Shelton’s hitting plan, so perhaps they’ve just hired a shepherd here, as opposed to a guy bringing in his own philosophy. Either way, this is the last year they’ll have the lack of talent on the roster to experiment. Answers have to come or they need to move on, and quickly.

Here’s a quote about the hiring from Derek Shelton and courtesy of Jason Mackey of the Post Gazette, “He’s really open-minded. We’ve seen the hitting space grow exponentially in the last few years. I think when you find guys who have done it, they’re not as open-minded as we thought Andy was. We thought that was kind of a unique blend, a guy who has been a major league hitting coach and been around some really good hitters, but he’s still open-minded.”

You could read that a couple different ways right? First I think it confirms that the coach is going to do what the organization wants, or read from the right playbook minimally. And it really means in his short career Haines hasn’t really developed anything he personally feels hard line convicted in.

As I started with, it’s a whole lot easier to decide a coach isn’t doing a good job than to decide they will do one. There just isn’t a way around this one, but there is absolutely nothing that could damage this club worse than stunting Bryan Reynolds in any way. New coach, meet measuring stick.

3. Talking, but Avoiding the Big Stuff

For the first time since the lockout went into effect the MLB and MLBPA met on the 16th and reportedly didn’t touch any of the big stuff. Focusing instead on minor housekeeping aspects such as Grievance procedures, as well as drug and domestic abuse policies. It’s a start, and sometimes the best way to start big negotiations like this is to remind everyone in the room that they’re capable of agreeing on something.

A lockout has never in league history led to missing games, only a strike has done that, so I’d expect that the league feels fairly confident they’ll get something done here.

The big economic issues are still there, and while this whole thing could get done with just a little give and take the sides are both in need of a fairly big win on one or more items.

The Players simply can’t come out of this without some sort of a win on arbitration. They need to reduce the time it takes for players to start making money, and that could come in the form of a new MLB minimum salary on the low end, or decreased arbitration years on the high end. The owners can’t come out of this without some changes to revenue sharing, competitive balance and expanded playoffs. Grey area for the league, they could try to sell expanded playoffs as competitive balance, which it won’t be but if push comes to shove, I bet they’ll try to sell it that way.

Either way, I didn’t expect them to meet prior to Christmas, so I’m encouraged that they did so, because no matter what you think of either side, nothing happens without them meeting.

4. Expediting Prospects

The Pirates are now on record saying that they consider a players development to be MLB ready even if they haven’t hit AAA yet. We saw this play out last season with Rodolfo Castro, but it sounds like we could see more of that play out in the future. Many teams will put prospects on the 40-man roster simply to protect them from the Rule Five draft but the Pirates philosophy is to only protect guys they legitimately feel could contribute at the MLB level.

At least that’s what they’ve shown. I mean Roansy Contreras and Oneil Cruz weren’t exactly seasoned in AAA before making their debuts either. This could mean despite not touching a AA field yet, Liover Peguero could be in play for a cup of coffee as early as this season, although I think that would take quite a few injuries or overt failures from the glut of players in front of him. The point is, they’ve shown us this is possible, they’ve said it’s part of their philosophy so we can reasonably assume they weren’t forced into these decisions, and maybe we’ll see some other guys take relatively big jumps this year.

I take from this, that the staff trust what they’re seeing, and they don’t feel the drop off from AAA competition to AA competition to be all that drastic. That’s a different take than I’ve seen around the sport, but we can hardly say they’ve been wrong so far. Castro wasn’t polished, but he sure did some exciting things up here. In 31 games, his 5 homeruns tied him for 9th on the club in 2021. That’s a stat that’s both frightening and enlightening at the same time. That said, he only hit .198 and made some very rookie looking plays in the field. When plays were based on athleticism he excelled, when plays were based on experience, like throwing to the right bag or making the turn at second base on a double play, he struggled.

So what the Pirates seem to believe is that they can sacrifice polish for talent at times, and that’s at least different.

I don’t think I can say bad or good yet, but I can say it’s something worth keeping our eyes on, and should Henry Davis make it to AA this year (he should), we shouldn’t rule out that he’s a possibility to make the club in 2023.

5. 72-77 Wins in 2022?

I’ve seen projections all over the map for the Pirates but most credible projections seem to be in this range. I’ll be honest, it’s hard to look at this projected lineup and see those numbers, but if you believe in WAR the math works out.

Baseball isn’t played on a calculator though, so I’ll wait and study a bit more before I make any suggested record predictions.

I expect the rotation (year long, not opening day) to improve over what we saw last year. If you like to number starters, I’d say last season was a bunch of 5’s, 6’s and overt shouldn’t be here’s and 2022 will be more 4’s, and 5’s. The bullpen scares the hell out of me and is primarily why I won’t predict anything right now, because if this bullpen remains unchanged I might be inclined to predict a worse record than last season.

The bats are just about where they were in my mind. Yoshi for Moran is a wash with a chance to be a bit better. Hayes if healthy has a chance to really improve but it’ll be eroded by the loss at catcher and Reynolds is still THE outfielder.

Additions like Cruz will help, but rookies aren’t something I like to project as huge contributors before I see it.

As I sit here right now, best I can do is say 72 seems “doable”, 77 seems pie in the sky. That said, it’s hard to lose 100 games, so you’ll rarely see that predicted by anyone. OK, I remember the comment section of everything I wrote last year, yes, you’re all smart and absolutely predicted it last year but I’m talking national baseball writers.

I think the team will look similar to even a bit better early in the season, and by season’s end they’ll be more exciting and loaded with rookies.

Really need to see Cherington’s finished work before we judge.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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