Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

1-3-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Every week on Monday, right at 5, this entry makes it’s way to wherever you are and sometimes these thoughts will evolve into a full blown piece. Believe it or not, this entry is quite literally just a flurry of thoughts, and your discussions that this piece spawns help me form those longer form fleshed out looks at a subject.

We’ve done this for over 2 years now, and I’m still excited every week that someone is going to see something I missed on a topic and take me to school, because rest assured, every week someone does.

Let’s dig in.

1. 124 – 49 = Uh Oh

The Pittsburgh Pirates hit 124 homeruns in 2021 and that was good for dead last in the league, a full 20 behind the number 29 team the Arizona Diamondbacks and 138 behind the number one Toronto Blue Jays.

Power was an issue, and was going to be an issue in 2022 regardless of who they let go, but as we prepare for the 2022 season, it’s important to realize the Bucs have moved on from 49 of those 124 homers before we see one pitch.

That’s players like Colin Moran who hit 10, Gregory Polanco with 11, Phil Evans with 5. What that number doesn’t factor in is the very real possibility that Michael Perez who hit 7 isn’t on the 40-man and is no lock to make the roster, Rodolfo Castro and his 5 dingers isn’t a lock either.

Power is a real problem.

They don’t need to hit as many as the Jays to be successful, but I’d like to think topping 150 is about the bare minimum. So where does it come from?

Reynolds already popped 24 last season and his style isn’t to swing for 50, but he’s probably good for in the ballpark of 25-30 you’d figure. Yoshi Tsutsugo hit 8 in his truncated time with the Bucs, a full season of him could certainly help. A healthy Ke’Bryan Hayes you’d hope would add to his total a bit too, the power drop from him was dramatic after the injury.

After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Oneil Cruz could certainly add pop, but he’s got to get here first, maybe one of the outfield prospects can contribute. Either way, it’s a huge problem and will be moving forward because of all the talent coming, power isn’t plentiful. Something to keep an eye on as the team makes moves. Don’t be shocked if you see them targeting more with this skill set and maybe not just this skill set emerging like it did for Jack Suwinski.

There’s no magic number they have to hit, but it stands to reason if they’re last in this category, and aren’t efficient at manufacturing runs, we’ll see similar results.

2. Thank History for Keeping Your Baseball Team in Pittsburgh

There are exactly two major reasons that this baseball team has survived utter incompetence for decades. One is their status as the oldest National League team that hasn’t changed it’s name since joining from the American Association in 1887. The Reds would join them shortly thereafter in 1889 despite minor name changes they’ve remained some version of Reds.

The other is Roberto Clemente. When people tell you that the Great One is seen as a saint in his native Puerto Rico, they aren’t exaggerating. There are life size statues sprinkled everywhere and he’s still the king both on and off the field.

Fans of Roberto won’t adapt well to seeing his uniform no longer exist and MLB has moved mountains to ensure this team doesn’t move.

In fact that’s largely how Bob Nutting came to own the team in the first place. He was part of the group that purchased the Pirates back when PNC Park was still a twinkle in someone’s eye. They were underfunded, but MLB turned a blind eye, only really ensuring MLB didn’t lose this franchise, right where it’s supposed to be.

I say this because many of you seem to think this club is one shift of whim by Nutting from being moved, and I’m here to tell you this isn’t the same as Ford deciding to make cars outside Detroit. MLB would, and has stood in the way of this every time it’s come up. Most recently during 1995 MLB wanted to put a team back in DC, and the Pirates were up for sale and playing in a dual purpose cookie cutter stadium we all still loved named Three Rivers Stadium. Enter Kevin McClatchy who led the group, negotiated a new ball park and ultimately forced the Expos to move instead.

Never say never, but there’d be no real rationale for doing so at this point. The Pirates as an on field product have underwhelmed and been run poorly, but as a business, have done quite well, plus the ballpark is universally seen as one of the best in the game.

Even if Nutting wanted to, MLB won’t move the line on this anytime soon, and I’ll leave it on this, if they do ever wind up moving it, we’d wind up a lot more like Montreal than DC getting their third crack at a franchise. Be careful what you wish for, but also realize if you’re wishing for the team to relocate you better get a pickup truck full of quarters to wish with, there’s a lot working against you.

3. We Should Start to See Trades Change in Style

Way back when I was first getting into baseball, I can clearly remember my Grandma crying. It was 1987, and I had just secured my first ever set of Topps Baseball Cards I was excited to show her, but that was all pushed aside as she told me our favorite player Tony Pena was traded to St. Louis. The Pirates got a pitcher Mike Dunne, some fire plug looking dude named Mike LaValliere and this lanky outfielder named Andy Van Slyke.

We were devastated. She swore she’d never watch again (a regular occurrence in her house) but this wasn’t the disaster we thought it was going to be, in fact it was a key move that really kicked the team into overdrive as they steadily headed toward their first pennant since the 70’s.

Point is, this is the type of move we’re going to have to see before this story is written. I won’t guess as to who that’ll be, but I’m positive it’s going to confirm the “they trade everyone as soon as they get good” narrative. Let’s say for giggles that Kevin Newman finds his way back to being an offensive spark plug and keeps playing defense like last season. Well, the competition on the way for his position could make him expendable and more importantly, he could return something they don’t have, like a starting pitcher, or a solid young backup catcher.

Keep your eyes open this year, trades aren’t primarily going to be driven by moving stars for prospects moving forward through the next 3-4 seasons, now they should start to be methods for addressing holes in the build and before it’s all over you might find your grandma crying too.

4. Play To Your Strengths

As we discussed in point number one today, power isn’t this team’s friend. So adopting an approach to swing like they’re the ’27 Yankees might not be wise.

I think the beauty of baseball is that there are different ways to win, but some of the ways your talent might lead you aren’t exactly analytics friendly.

When you look at the Pirates active roster, and even the first wave of talent coming up, one thing stands out to me, speed and athleticism. That’s great, but this league has all but eliminated the stolen base from the game. It’s seen as a bad bet analytically speaking, and in little over 30 years we’ve gone from guys routinely cracking 100 swipes in a season to 47 taking the crown (via old friend Starling Marte) in 2021. Even that number is misleading, only one other player hit 40, 4 more had 30+, it’s just not a part of the game like it used to be.

We often look at the Pirates talent pool and ask questions just like I did about the homeruns, but maybe this self described analytics driven team should toss aside the modern “rule” book and take advantage of what they have. It doesn’t have to be stolen bases, but putting the runners in motion to avoid double plays, and bunting guys over (I know, bunts are bad too) to keep the lineup rolling to the few guys who can hit dingers might just work for this team.

Look, I believe in analytics, it’s based in fact and statistics and I’d normally never advise such a thing, but the makeup of this club tells me they might need to see if being an outlier could swing things into them being a team that shows those rules aren’t universal.

The stolen base numbers dwindling is almost willful in the league. Guys aren’t trying and none of that has changed the percentage of success when they do. Perhaps there’s a sweet spot in there where the Bucs could take advantage of some teams who haven’t seen old school baseball in a minute and catch a few flat footed.

Hey, it’s a thought. Power is expensive and rarely available on the market. To me, they’ll either have to do something different along the lines of what I just touched on, or plug their nose to the strikeout problems some power hitters have (like Mason Martin) and use him for the 20-25 he’ll run into anyway.

I don’t mean that Reynolds and Hayes or Yoshi should be taking off every 1-1 count. But maybe when Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker bat and one get’s on, the other should primarily focus on getting to the next man with a runner in scoring position. This isn’t revolutionary, I’m simply saying someone needs to be a Jay Bell type in that lineup, and while I don’t hold out a ton of hope they’ll do more of it, short of waiting for them to develop or acquire 7 guys who can hit like the rest of the league seemingly does, hey, think different.

5. The Next Two Weeks are Key

If we don’t start hearing some major nuggets in the next couple weeks from MLB and the MLBPA I expect we’ll lose some of Spring minimally.

Many have speculated that neither side would be willing to lose money in this process following a the 2020 season that cost both dearly, but most of the player negotiators aren’t going to struggle as they’re the highest earners by in large to begin with and the owners won’t worry until what they aren’t paying players starts to even out with what they’re losing in revenue.

Bottom line, I don’t think an early lock out would have been called in the first place if these sides were close. They could have easily waited until a week before camp if they thought there was any chance they’d avoid missing time.

I can’t stress this one enough, this is so much bigger than Millionaires vs Billionaires. Simplify it if you choose, but this head didn’t form without multiple pressure points pushing and pulling to create a perfect storm. The longer it goes, the more likely it is that the league actually changes something that matters. Over time, nature will take it’s course on some of baseball’s inequities anyway, and it’d be great if someone would demonstrate to each side how streaming services and the continued slow death of cable will eliminate much of the revenue imbalance all on it’s own.

MLB owns 100% of the streaming rights and as this method continues to evolve it’ll become more and more of the dominant way fans get access to their team’s game. Well, MLB splits that revenue evenly already, so in many ways, problem solved.

Dejan Kovacevic did a great job covering this subject today in his Daily Shot of Pirates. Check it out if you get time. I’ve written about this before, specifically the lawsuit filed by a large cable company in LA, but his synopsis is really good.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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