Let’s Talk Pirates 2021 Starting Rotation

I know, I know, it’s incredibly early for this, but I believe we can do this anyway. Couple reasons, first I feel fairly confident that if they bring in a starter, it won’t be a better option than what is currently here, and on top of that I don’t see the Pirates making a whole lot of moves this off-season to the starting pitching.

Now before I begin, I know this isn’t what many want to hear, and I’ll be honest I think they could go get someone that would really help for even a short two year contract close to what they would pay Archer (I’ll get to that in a minute) and if nothing else come out of it with a nice piece to flip for prospects.

Where to start? OK, Archer, he is as good as gone. No matter how many attention seeking radio hosts say they think it’s a good idea, no matter how nice a guy he is, no matter how much money Ben Cherington thinks he is ok spending, this is not a good risk. I’m not going to repeat myself on this much more but this just isn’t going to happen.

So let’s talk about who I do believe will be here.

Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, Joe Musgrove, Mitch Keller and Jameson Taillon. Additional options would be Cody Ponce, JT Brubaker and Clay Holmes.

This is with me, right now, deciding for the Pirates that Trevor Williams isn’t part of this picture. This also makes Cody Bolton start in AAA (which I think is a no brainer). This also supposes that Joe Musgrove doesn’t get dealt.

Now before I get into why I picked who I did, let’s start with why I don’t think Big Joe gets dealt. I’d call it a hunch, but an educated hunch. Listening to comments from Derek Shelton and Ben Cherington during the week I picked up on both of them calling out Joe as a positive thing to build on in 2020 with his strong finish. Of course this could just be complimentary stuff about a guy you’re trying to sell, but to paint it as a reason to look forward to 2021 and then turn around and move him, well, let’s just say I’d like to think neither of these guys are that bad at PR, but we’ve certainly seen worse.

So, of course I could be dead wrong about Joe. But being where we are in the off season let’s go with it.

Chad Kuhl worked his way through the shortened season and after a blister setback and scheduled ramp down finally got himself stretched out to 7 innings and over 100 pitches. Tommy John is a process to recover from and I think Chad came through it fine, he showed he still has the velocity and his control with his 3 and 4 pitches make him extremely formidable if he stays on track.

Mitch Keller is quite honestly the Pirates great youth hope on the mound. This is the closest thing to a lock the Bucs have to be tossing meaningful games in September some day soon. He showed us why after returning from his own injury this year and something drastic would have to happen for him to not start.

Steven Brault has arguably been the best starter in a Pirates uniform the past two seasons. Adding length and an ability to get through the lineup more than twice has been his greatest weakness beside occasional bouts of his fastball tailing a foot outside to righties. But for the most part Steven has really been a great innings eater and extra credit for being a left hander, so badly needed in PNC and so often neglected. This season Steven should go in having to have his job taken rather than doing the taking as he has the past two campaigns.

My last pick is Jameson Taillon and this one is a bit creative. First, no the Pirates aren’t interested in making Jamo the closer or moving him to the bullpen, but we just watched what a player coming back from Tommy John can look like and this is Jameson’s second. I’m not a doctor and I’ve seen the same videos you have but I saw similar for Chad Kuhl and he was slow walked into pitching like nothing I’ve ever seen. If they handle Jameson in the same way I could very easily see him being part of a piggy back situation not unlike what the Pirates did last year with JT Brubaker and he would be my selection again.

Now the biggest problem I have with that is the roster isn’t going to sit at 28 this season and almost more importantly the National League is leaning toward not returning the DH. That means the Pirates can’t short their bench in order to stockpile relievers, and they may not be able to afford to keep a guy in the “bullpen” who only pitches once every five days.

Another way to look at it is the Brubaker himself probably earned a good look in Spring to land himself a spot in the rotation.

Injuries happen, nobody knows that more than Pirates fans so imagine having Brubaker, Ponce, Bolton and Holmes in reserves.

This isn’t a bad starting rotation. Don’t get me wrong it’d look better with Trevor Bauer in for Joe, but this is Pittsburgh, I’m not going to waste my breath. When you add up all the parts it could be pretty steady, certainly good enough to hang with an NL Central that promises to continue taking steps backward next season.

When you look at that potential, you could make an argument that they really should trade one of them. The Bucs need the prospects and Musgrove makes a hell of a lot of sense. I’m not saying he’s going to return a boatload but he’d bring a nice prospect, hell maybe he even returns a nice bullpen piece.

And of all those pitchers, can you argue that Trevor Williams should be above them? I really can’t. I’ve been asked can’t the Pirates get something for Williams? I guess it’s possible, but if they offer him a tender and go to arbitration they could move him, that said, I just told you I can’t find a spot for him on the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 19-41 Pittsburgh Pirates. I’d non-tender him, it solves a bit of a 40-man issue and removes the temptation to make a bad decision based on a decent Spring.

I’m not trying to sell you on this being a rock solid rotation. What I am trying to say is, there is no way this club pays for a pitcher better than 6 of the 8 I mentioned.

Ben Cherington already mentioned the Pirates like most teams who have a whole lot more money going out currently will look to tighten the belt. Now I’m not sure how he thought that would be received but I can say the savings will come without additional dumps. Holland, Archer and Kela alone constitute 13.725 Million and even with arbitration for far more players than you’d like they will still have a lower payroll. For instance if Musgrove gets moved it won’t be a dump per se, after arbitration he will most likely end up with a salary in the high 3’s or low 4’s. Hardly worth getting the calculator out.

If there is a big trade it will be Bell or Moran (but not both), Frazier or Gonzalez (but not both) with a very unlikely outcome of finding a buyer for Polanco.

I’m not one of those guys who is going to try to sell you on the best free agent possible could be Jameson Taillon, but sometimes that is very much so the case. If he is a real MLB starting pitcher by mid-season that is one hell of a pick up.

I feel like I need to go overboard telling you I don’t think this is a “winning” ballclub in 2021, but I do think it starts to trend the right direction. And starting pitching is where it starts. I’ll also add if they don’t move a pitcher they need to extend one. Almost all these guys are 2 years away from walking away, if they want to keep a couple to have a steady platform for Bolton, and some of the younger prospects to land when the time comes, it’d be best if we weren’t staring at Keller, Brubaker and an abyss. They can always move them later if they so choose but I’d be comfortable extending Taillon (if he looks strong), Musgrove, Kuhl or Brault to start creating some stability, while we’re at it, Keller too. I wouldn’t lock them all up, this isn’t the 1991 Braves, but two or three leaves room for Brubaker to evolve and youngsters to get there but not be counted on as the savior.

Rebuilds start and finish with pitching, I truly believe that, when you have it, you have a chance. When you don’t you might as well call it what many referred to this season as, a tank.

Late Season Means Short Off Season, Quick Decisions Coming for Pirates

The Pirates started making changes this week, starting with Larry Broadway being removed from the Farm Director position. Today the Pirates claimed Sean Poppen a right handed relief pitcher, to keep the roster at 40 JT Riddle was DFA’d. Yesterday the Pirates activated Edgar Santana from the restricted list and the corresponding move was out righting Susak.

The significance of the Santana move is that it means his suspension is over. The rules were written in such a way as to leave it up for discussion as to whether he would still have time to serve entering 2021 or not, clearly behind the scenes the question was answered, 2020 in its entirety was the punishment.

Those moves aside the Pirates have until right after the World Series to make some moves and unless something very unforeseen happens they will lose someone they don’t want to lose.

The first thing to assume is that the Pirates decline to pick up Chris Archer’s option and pay him his 250K. I’ve explained multiple times why but if you want to see the reasoning check out this piece. Other players who automatically come off the list are Holland, and Kela.

The Pirates will need to clear 8 spots by my count and some of the choices make themselves. This number could be bigger if they just want to clear room.
1. Carson Fulmer
2. Yaksil Rios
3. Tyler Bashlor
4. Brandon Waddell
5. Dovydas Neverauskas

Those are the pretty safe bets to hit the street. Nothing new for any of them really and I don’t think many fans will not shed a tear although it would be a shame to lose Bashlor and the depth he could provide. So that get’s us to 3 and this is where the choices get hard.

Trevor Williams has to be on the short list for possibilities, it’s either that or commit to taking him to arbitration. The deadline for deciding to offer him a tender is December 5th, five days after the World Series but these decisions will blend together.

I’d put my money on Kevin Kramer, at this point he’s little more than a utility guy and fair or not he hasn’t made an impact. After that you need one of Jason Martin, Nik Turley, and Clay Holmes. I truly can’t see them dropping any of those three but they have to be considered.

If Crick’s velocity is shot, aka dead armed, he would be my choice to take it the rest of the way. I’d rather have Turley and Giving up on Kramer says you can’t give up on Martin yet. Holmes is just too talented, if he stays healthy I’ll be blunt he could push to join the rotation at some point in the next season or two.

All of these changes don’t take into account any additions the club picks up but these decisions will also start to show what Cherington is thinking. It’s a perfect excuse to waive goodbye to some players who have more than fairly had their time of evaluation and honestly there is nowhere to hide.

These moves have to happen. When your club only wins 19 games in a 60 game season it’s easy to assume all these choices are simple but the Pirates had so many injuries this season especially in the pitching staff that they are forced to make some bets on players returning who they didn’t lay eyes on versus players who stepped in and auditioned. What do they trust more, who they’ve seen or what they thought they had? Time will tell, just not much time.

The Player development system is going to be Ben’s main focus this off season as he just told the media on Tuesday in a conference call, he’ll be shuffling some chairs and making additions to the scouting department but nothing earth shattering. This is a bit of a departure from what he had said but the outcome of the draft in 2020 could have rightly changed his feelings about what he had. He said he has changed some of the methods and areas of focus for certain members of the department.

I should also say that free agency starts the very next day December 6th and another tidbit from Cherington was saying payroll may decrease and it probably sounds worse than it is as Kela, Holland and Archer minimally come off the payroll, but on the other hand I wouldn’t waste much time seeing which pitchers will be available with an eye toward them wearing black and gold.

The hot stove this year will be all about the trade market and we’ll dig in soon.

Pirates Top Five Prospect Edition: A Way Too Early Projection Of The 26 Man Roster

The dust hasn’t completely settled from the Pirates disappointing 19-41 season and we are still about a month away from decisions concerning options and qualifying offers for arbitration, as well as the beginning of free agency, yet I can’t stop myself from thinking about the composition of Pittsburgh Opening Day Roster for 2021; especially the potential prospects that may find their way on to it.

Each year coming out of Spring Training there are prospects that end up making the final cut and find themselves in the field, on the bench, as a part of the starting rotation or getting ready to warm up in the bullpen. As the past year began this was even more likely with the Opening Day Rosters expanded to 30 players due to COVID-19. For the Pirates there were technically only two players that met this criteria; Jason Martin and JT Brubaker. If you want to add Mitch Keller to this list I wouldn’t argue with you due to the fact that he fell just shy of exceeding his rookie status eligibility by two innings during 2019. That’s three out of 30, with Martin unlikely to make in a normal year and only being on it this one, when Gregory Polanco was placed on the COVID IL. It goes down to one if you don’t count Keller. One out of 26 roster spots. The odds are clearly against a prospect making the Opening Day Roster, even on a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates; where there are a limited number of guaranteed positions in the lineup due to poor play by many in 2020.

However, as the season progressed we did get to see several of the team’s Minor Leaguers make their debuts; some of whom ended their seasons on the active roster. Although, not one of them, including Ke’Bryan Hayes, exceeded the service time limits and will all maintain rookie/prospect status as they move into 2021. So which ones, other than Hayes, are most likely to make the Opening Day 26-Man Roster as I already have Ke’Bryan penned in at third base to begin the year? In my estimation there are probably five that have a pretty good shot.

1) Kevin Kramer

With all of the craziness surrounding the 2020 season some of you may have forgotten about him. Originally seen as the eventual double play partner for Kevin Newman up the middle, Kramer has suffered setbacks on the field at the Major and Minor League Levels; including his season ending hip surgery in May of this year.

Now I know that Kramer technically accrued a year of service time on the IL, so that would make him ineligible for this list. However, in only 79 career at bats for the Pirates, Kramer has slashed a measly .152/.222/.165 with only one extra base hit, a double, across two seasons; so for this purpose I focused on actual MLB performance. His best year came back in 2018, with the AAA Indianapolis Indians when he batted .311 with 15 home runs. However, he regressed in 2019 as his average dropped to .260 and his home run total fell to 10.

If Kramer is able to return healthy in 2021, his role would more than likely be that of a utility man; of which the Pirates have plenty options in that area currently. So, it is also possible that he finds himself the odd man out, having missed the opportunity to prove himself due to a poorly timed opportunity injury.

2) Blake Cederlind

Already being dubbed as the closer of the future by some, “Baby Thor” took Spring Training by storm with his blazing fastball, now infamous K-Strut and flowing, golden locks. When he eventually made it up to the Majors this season, the locks were gone, but the 99 mph fastball and of course the K-Strut remained. Making only 5 appearances and pitching just 4 innings Cederlind struck out 4 batters, walked one and allowed 2 hits; good for a 4.50 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP, in the smallest of sample sizes.

In 2019, the Merced College product, pitched in 7 games for the High A Bradenton Marauders, 31 games for the AA Altoona Curve, 3 games for the AAA Indianapolis Indians and 8 games for Peoria in the Arizona Fall League; posting a 2.28 ERA and a 1.180 WHIP during the regular season, along with a 1.13 ERA and a 1.375 WHIP in the AZFL.

As a reliever, Cederlind possibly has the best shot of anyone on this list to start the year with the big league club due to the general inconsistent nature of bullpens; plus nearly touching 100 mph on the radar gun doesn’t hurt his cause either.

3) Jared Oliva

After a strong performance in the second half of the season in AA Altoona last year, which won him team MVP honors, continuing to excel in the Arizona Fall League and consistently impressive effort at the alternate site in Altoona, Olivia earned his first taste of Major League Baseball in late September. In 6 games and 16 at bats he collected 3 hits and stole one base; which of course is not very notable, but at least he got to shake the jitters off.

Currently sitting at the #10 spot in the Pirates Top 30 Prospects according to MLB Pipeline, Olivia has one of the more direct paths to playing time as he is one of the most advanced natural centerfielders in the system. Bryan Reynolds has reported that he would like to play the position and Travis Swaggerty is a more highly touted prospect, but I couldn’t see what it would hurt to give Oliva the nod out of the gate to begin 2021 or at the very least have an open competition in Spring Training.

4) Cody Ponce

During the 2020 season Ponce was the equivalent of the 6th man off the bench in basketball as he became the Pirates go to player when the rosters were expanded to 29 for the occasional doubleheader. In three starts Ponce the posted a 2.63 ERA and a 1.024 WHIP, striking out 9 and walking 5 in 13.2 innings of work. His best outing came in the second game of the Pirates doubleheader with the Cardinals. In 5.2 innings he did not allow a single run on 5 hits; earning his first big league win in the process.

As we all know by now Ponce was the player the Pirates received from the Brewers in the Jordan Lyles Trade last year. Once ranked as high as 17th on Milwaukee’s Top 30 Prospects, it’s not like this guy came from out of nowhere. However, there was some uncertainty as to whether or not he would remain a starter in the long term. He has, for the time being, shown that this is still a possibility.

There could be some stiff competition for a role in the starting rotation next year, especially since JT Brubaker also performed fairly well in his 9 starts for the Pirates this past season. Of course all of this could change if Ben Cherington were to make any significant moves via trade, non-tenders, etc., ultimately opening up one or more spots in the top 5.

Even if this doesn’t happen I could see Ponce competing for a spot in the rotation or sliding back into the bullpen to begin the 2021 season.

5) Nick Mears

Mears was one of the more surprising call ups of the Pirates truncated 2020 Season. Having pitched only 5 innings in AA Altoona in 2019, after beginning the year in Low A Greensboro, he had truly gone from relative unknown to a Major League reliever in a period of about 16 months. Throw in 8 scoreless innings in the Arizona Fall League for good measure and that was Nick Mears’ professional baseball career in a nutshell.

For Pittsburgh he would appear in 4 games; posting a 5.40 ERA and a 2.200 WHIP, while he struggled with control by walking as many as he struck out, 7. This is obviously not ideal, but it also hasn’t been the norm for Mears and can more than likely chalked up to inexperience, which will only be gained over time. At only 23 years old, Mears has plenty to spare, with not a whole lot of miles on the arm.

Although it is unlikely that Mears begins the season on the Open Day Roster, stranger things have happened. You know, like calling up a 23 year old kid with only a little bit of time in AA.

Is it possible that one or more of these guys are at Wrigley Field on April 1st next year? Yes. Is it possible that none of them are? Also, yes. With a lot of normal transactions and other roster decisions already on the docket between now and then, it is evident that things could look a lot different come Spring Training. So, anything that comes out now trying to predict what will happen in 6 months time is nothing but speculation. However, that is half the fun of any off-season.

Pirates Expect Oneil Cruz Back for Spring Training

We all saw the story about Oneil Cruz and his situation in the Dominican Republic. This is not an indictment of the media, they are reporting what they believe to be fact as it comes. No this is more to show how stories like this evolve but not everyone comes along on the ride.

Let’s start at the beginning, on the 22nd of September news broke out of the Dominican that Pittsburgh Pirates top prospect Oneil Cruz was involved in a motorcycle accident that cost the lives of 3 people. As with any story such as this wait 20 minutes and there’ll be an update, this time is was that alcohol was involved.

Fans and some media for that matter of course shared thoughts about what an idiot Cruz is, how spoiled these athletes are, he should never play again, on and on. When a story like this breaks, more eyes will be on it than at any other time in the life cycle of breaking facts. It becomes a feeding frenzy, a virtual orgy playing out on social media of people deciding the fate of the player and for that matter the organization.

People actually wrote pieces talking about how the organization doesn’t install moral fortitude into their players. Fans blamed Cherington for sending him home to the Dominican, so did some writers.

All along the Pirates stood firm that they had no information that led them to believe alcohol was involved, but that did little to change the story.

Patience is important for things like this, especially when it involves a country that has a less than stellar history with fairness in their legal system and even less in their media.

Then the story evolved again only a few days later. The three people on the motorcycle who lost their lives were allegedly without a headlight and driving on the wrong side of the road. There was no evidence that Cruz had any alcohol in his system and he had his pregnant girlfriend and sick child in the car with him.

In fact as it turns out he would have been in Pittsburgh to end the season after the training bubble in Altoona closed up but Cruz asked the organization if he could go home because his girlfriend was late in her pregnancy and he felt he needed to be with her.

Ben Cherington just reiterated yesterday in interviews with the media that he has no reason to believe Cruz will be anything less than a full participant come Spring Training and the club has no sense that this was anything more than a tragic accident.

I’m not here to tell you that’s the end of the story, I’ll still refer to Cruz as an if until the day he shows up with his glove. The larger point is this story has evolved and what sucks is there are a whole bunch of people that haven’t heard one damn thing new since the 22nd.

That’s not anyone’s fault, not everyone lives on social media waiting for updates, but if the updates to the story were treated with the same ravenous hunger that the original ‘sexy’ story was perhaps the new facts would be a bit more prevalent. Well, I don’t have the biggest platform in the industry but I’m at least going to put it all in one place here and say right now, fully expect Oneil Cruz to make his way to Bradenton once this is all cleared up and it won’t require the Pirates to turn a blind eye to alcohol abuse or the tragic loss of life.

The rush of making sure everyone knows your opinion first has made most of us form locked in opinions long before the facts are gathered. Nobody likes to be wrong so changing that original opinion is harder than is should be. In fact when/if he does show up for Spring Training there will be questions about how he ‘got off’ or who the Pirates paid to get him off from fans, because it’s so much better than admitting they jumped the gun in forming an opinion and or didn’t pay attention because the aforementioned feeding frenzy of initial takes doesn’t happen for corrections.

In many ways the damage is done, to a certain percentage this will be part of his reputation no matter who writes what on the subject.

I called for patience on the 22nd because we’ve seen this before as recently as two years ago when David Ortiz was shot at his friends bar, rumors ranged from he was in with a gang, to he was vocally against a gang to he owed gambling debts. People talked about him destroying his legacy and many of those takes ignored the very critical situation he was in fighting for his life. If that can happen to a name that big, an actual hero for so many players from the region, how could you take verbatim a story about a kid who hasn’t set foot on an MLB diamond yet?

There are many things that the minute by minute news breaking of social media has made better in our lives, but I’d argue the worst thing it’s spawned is the rush to be first has created an environment where sources and methods are at the very least less scrutinized than they should be and when you’re playing with someone’s reputation, it’d be good if everyone cared as much about correcting the misinformation they’ve put out as they did originally condemning the person.

Again, the media is giving you information they receive for the most part, sans opinion. It’s not their fault what you do with it or how you ignore the cautions of some of them to understand even their level of trust in the source is less than great. The point is don’t come out of this blaming the media for this story, instead take a good look at how you ingest news and don’t be afraid to be wrong and admit it.

Social media has changed us forever, but at some point we need to stop blaming the machines for what we have willingly become.

Top Ten Pirates Questions & Answers We Hear All the Time

There are many questions that readers have about the Buccos, each and every one has a variable but for the most part we answer these in one form or another almost daily. So let’s put them all in one place and see if we can’t get past them and on to a new set.

  1. Why don’t you list Chris Archer in the rotation for 2021? So, this is a long answer but only because I have to spend time telling you what it isn’t as well. Chris Archer lost 2020 due to injury, the specific injury is TOS and it is just about the most difficult to recover from. Here is a wonderful piece about the condition and the history of recovering from it. His option is for 11 Million if they pick it up or they can buy out of it for 250K. Picking up the option with the expectation he will perform well enough to move at the deadline would be quite the roll of the dice as he’d be a rental and this club will already have to non-tender some players they’d rather not. Kind of cheating here but another angle on this question is why not pass on his option and sign him for less? Even if the Pirates think that’s a good idea, Archer would most likely bet on himself that he could get more than the Bucs would offer, but I suppose if he would take 7-8 maybe it’s possible, just not likely.
  2. Should the Pirates extend Ke’Bryan Hayes now? The quick answer most other readers will tend to toss at the asker is No, he just started. There is precedent for this sort of move and the White Sox just did it with Luis Robert. If you feel reasonably assured a player will make himself very expensive via arbitration alone it might be wise to pay more now to avoid making tough choices later. Craig covered this well right here. It’s a gamble to be sure but again, gaining traction in the league as a method of gaining cost control.
  3. What’s the point? This team won’t ever win until they spend money. Well, yes, of course that’s true. Building a team the way the Pirates have to approach it is a slow climb. Let’s just for the sake of argument pretend the Pirates have 60% of the pieces that will eventually make them a winning club. When players they draft or acquire start to make their way into the MLB scene that 60% will have either reached arbitration or been signed to extensions. The payroll will go up organically and it will most likely top the 2016 level. If you’re waiting for them to do something like the Reds or Brewers and sign someone to a monster deal (Votto or Yelich) I’d first tell you they haven’t had a player like that in decades, no not even Cutch, and a free agent of that level isn’t coming here, even if Bob’s wallet was open on the coffee table. You can rightly count Cole, but he didn’t want to be here and that’s part of the equation too. You’re absolutely right they won’t win until they spend money, but at the same time they can’t buy their way out of where they are. Personally, I’d add 30 to 40 million in free agent acquisitions to improve the product right now and provide trade capital to accelerate the farm restocking, but let’s face it, I’m not the GM so when you ask, you’re not going to get my plan, you’ll get what I think Ben’s is.
  4. The Pirates are the League’s farm team! Ok so this isn’t a question as much as a statement but it is extremely popular. First let’s talk about what makes this a reality. The Pirates have been in a constant state of trying to pretend they had a competitive team since 2015 ended. Rather than biting the bullet and moving what they had all at once (or at least close) they have moved one or two players who were nearing the end of their contract or control with the club every year. Tampa does this all the time, and they soon will again when you start hearing names like Snell being put on the market. The difference is they have talent pushing their way onto the team and by the time they sell a player the downside is already in view or predicted, see Archer. It sure helps when you can sell a name for three big pieces doesn’t it? As dumb as the Archer trade was in hindsight (and yes I know, you all knew it was dumb at the time) that move was at least in Huntington’s eyes, a starting OF in the future, a failed SP prospect and a top pick who they wanted to start but profiled as a bullpen arm. He was wrong, period but this wasn’t a dump, just a dumb move. Overall, you’re right, they have been. Hard to assign that to the new management just now.
  5. Who is the most likely player to be traded? Wow, there are plenty of options but to me it’s one of Colin Moran and Josh Bell. MLB is leaning toward no DH in 2021 for the National League if that happens you simply can’t have both of these guys. The Pirates need to decide which one is not necessarily the future, but the bridge to Mason Martin or Will Craig. Adam Frazier is there and I’ll say this, adding him to the OF mix made me feel a bit less sure. The Pirates need OF help and if they insist on keeping Gonzalez at SS Adam needs a place to play so Newman can slide over. Musgrove is the most likely starter, but he’s also exactly the type of starter I’d like to see them extend. He’s one of those guys who isn’t going to be your number one but he’ll pitch like it on occasion. Pitching is hard to develop and having someone as an anchor is good idea. That said if they can get a good package, have at it.
  6. Would you DFA anyone unexpected? Well let’s be honest, what they mean is beside Riddle and the like, will the Bucs cut ties with someone that would shock us? Trevor Williams is my pick. If you’ve followed what I’ve written this season with any regularity chances are you came across some rather harsh takes on Trevor. For half a season in 2018 he was a decent starting pitcher, good even, but throughout his entire career including MiLB that one instance was the outlier. Holding out hope that he’ll return to that level, one must believe bad luck was at play for literally every other season he has played. Enough. If you want to show the fans that you won’t accept performance like that, cut ties and no I don’t think anyone will trade for him.
  7. Why won’t the Pirates cut Gregory Polanco? Simple but yet somehow not. He hit 7 home runs out of his total of 24 hits in 2020. Somehow led the team in RBI, and struck out 65 times in 157 ABs. Is that cut worthy, oh yes. He’ll make 11.6 Million in 2022 and that counts even if the Pirates cut him as it’s a guaranteed contract. In 2023 the Pirates can pay 3 Million to cut ties with him, and unless something drastic happens with his game, they’ll do exactly that. Best case scenario, he performs in 2021 and the Pirates have offers on him. Even then they’ll be accused of dumping should they move him but how can you trust he’ll be worth 12.5 Million in 2022 and not revert to the Polanco we’ve all seen for years? I like Gregory, and I would love to be wrong here, but the evidence is overwhelming that I’m dead on.
  8. Sell the team to Mark Cuban. You know, some of these are too easy. Let’s pick off Cuban first, he doesn’t want them. There was a time when he was interested but that time has passed, blame Bob Nutting for that as he flatly told him he wasn’t interested in selling when Cuban inquired. Mario won’t buy them either. Bob Nutting has no interest in selling this team and has a stated goal of handing it to his daughter when he’s done. If you really want to see it happen, stop picking individual names and understand MLB changing the rules to allow hedge funds to own teams is more likely. That said, it would be a bit like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, because what do hedge funds do? They make money, and they ‘hedge’ toward the most likely way to make more. That doesn’t often lead to purchasing 10 years of a pitcher’s services. If this takes you out of following the team or talking about current issues that are going on under the current framework, sorry, talk to you later when and if you get your wish. For the record, most people covering the team would love him to sell as well, we just have to deal with reality and the realities that creates. I’m not here to sell you false hope, I’m here to discuss ways this team can overcome ownership.
  9. 2021 is going to be just as bad isn’t it? Well, probably not. The Pirates got off to a historically bad start in 2020 and while injuries played a role, no team is going to do well when the supposed stars can’t hit. I can’t wrap my head around believing Bryan Reynolds is this player we just watched. The pitching staff is the one area where injury really did come into play and when it started to get healthy is really improved. As bad, no I don’t think so. Bad, yeah, probably especially when you consider they really do need to make moves. I’d settle for cutting bait on Williams, Crick, Riddle, Neverauskas, and the like to make room for others like Alford, Santana (after his suspension), Cederlind for more than 3 or 4 games, Oliva, maybe even Cruz. There is room for improvement without much moving from outside the organization.
  10. Why won’t they just cut all these guys and play the young players? Oh man, we hear this one a ton. I understand the sentiment and Ke’Bryan Hayes sure made it look like a no brainer didn’t he? Truth be told, they don’t have enough young players to really do this right now. That could change if they receive players who could help right now in exchange for trading veterans, but for the most part, they ARE playing the young guys. That’s an issue for a whole bunch of reasons, first being this is the result of Huntington’s building effort. And when we talk about age, I’m thinking service time, while I assume most of you mean actual age. For instance Jacob Stallings isn’t a young player, but he is a controlled and young (service time wise) player. I don’t need to envision a guy wearing black and gold in 2030 to think he is part of the solution right now. Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds are just ending their 2nd year in the show. This isn’t a team loaded with grizzled veterans who have fizzled out and playing so the team doesn’t eat contract, well Polanco is, instead it is a club loaded with young players who may very well emerge, but just as likely won’t. Cutting ties with controllable assets is something clubs like Pittsburgh are loathed to do and it quite literally is because they can’t afford to flush them without getting something to backfill the system.

Pirates Are In The Business Of Identifying Talent and Value, As Well As A Lack Thereof

Baseball is team sport; always has been and always will be. And as a team sport, a ball club can only be as good as their weakest link or in the Pirates case this year, links and one great player, no matter the position, can’t carry his team to a World Series alone. A starting pitcher can keep the opposing team off the scoreboard, while the defense plays flawlessly behind him and the batters hit the ball over the place to give their team the lead; only to have it all fall apart when the closer loads the bases and gives up a game winning grand slam. Things like this happen all the time. Just like Mike Trout has been one of the best, if not the best player in Major League Baseball for the past eight years; compiling 74.3 WAR during this time, yet the Angels have only been to the playoffs once in his career and were immediately bounced by the Royals in three games. However, this doesn’t mean that Trout is not a great player or that they haven’t had any other great or even good players on these teams with him. It just means that collectively they haven’t done enough to put together a winner.

When you look at a team like the Pirates that finishes dead last in MLB with a record of 19-41, it is evident they are nowhere near competing, much less winning anything. Does this mean that individual performances should be ignored because they couldn’t help Pittsburgh win more games? Of course not. Especially when it’s not like the Pirates were trying to put together a World Series caliber product on the field; which is exactly what the Angels tried to do this past off-season by adding players, including Anthony Rendon, only to finish 4th in the AL West, 8 games under .500 and 10 games back of the 1st place Oakland Athletics. Does it mean that they should allow players to regularly take the field if they are severely underperforming and are essentially the weak links; costing the team wins or at least making this a little more difficult? Absolutely not. A baker wouldn’t continuously put moldy bread on the shelves with his finest pastries and expect to make a profit, right?

So, what should the Pirates, and specifically Ben Cherington, be doing in the first days of this off-season and beyond? Simply put, they need to be carefully assessing and evaluating every single player; looking for the individual efforts, that when strung together or traded for more valuable pieces, could eventually lead to more wins, while checking the shelves for moldy bread that can be thrown away to make room for his eclairs and cannoli.

Luckily for Cherington and the Pirates there is some low hanging fruit in each of these categories. Ke’Bryan Hayes was the NL Rookie of the Month for September, his first in MLB; posting a .376 AVG, a .682 SLG and 1.124 OPS with 5 homers and 14 total extra base hits. Joe Musgrove earned a 3.86 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP while striking out 55 batters in 39.2 innings. On the other side of the coin were Trevor Williams and JT Riddle. Williams had a 6.18 ERA, a 1.57 WHIP and gave up a MLB worst 15 homers across 55.1 innings of work. Riddle slashed .149/.174/.224 at the plate and earned a -3 OAA in the field. You could probably plant Gregory Polanco’s flag in this camp, but in some ways it’s a whole different story thanks to the contract that Neil Huntington strapped him with.

After evaluating these few players, Cherington’s job gets a little bit harder as so many Pirates fill up the middle ground in between, with some closer to either extreme; causing the question marks to pile up. Is Bryan Reynolds more of the hitter he has always been or did this season expose some holes in his game? Can Colin Moran maintain the power he displayed, hitting 10 homers in 178 plate appearances, which can be extrapolated to approximately 26 over a full season? And this is just the tip of the iceberg!

For those of you who might think that Cherington and crew have plenty of time to answer these and countless other questions; they truly don’t. The World Series is set to wrap up between October 24th and 28th. Exactly five days after this decisions concerning picking up options and making qualifying offers for arbitration are due; not to mention this is also the start of free agency.

It is clear that things are going to start moving sooner rather than later and when they do it is going to be fast and furious, so GMBC and the Pirates better come prepared.

A Big Reason to Believe the Pirates Have Begun Correcting Course

There isn’t much that can be written to show the Pirates have changed the way they develop talent, Even if the 2020 season had been normal the club made minimal changes to the development system because of how late in the game Cherington was brought in.

We’ve been writing in this space for most of the season that many more changes were on the way for the development system this off season and sure enough the Pirates announced yesterday that Larry Broadway was out as the Farm Director. Because it’s the Pirates, of course people wanted to see a list of 20 names so that fans could pretend they knew all these guys and had been calling for their heads.

Reality is, even people who closely cover the club don’t have much clue as to what all these moving parts do. Broadway is the head of the snake when it comes to player development, he get’s a special announcement because it’s a big enough role that they need to actively job search to fill the seat. That new hire will have input on how the rest of the dominoes fall and much of the pool of potentials are actively with their clubs right now in the playoffs.

Development has been an issue for quite some time in Pittsburgh, paired with struggles in the talent acquisition side of life, it was a match made in hell.

This wasn’t an organization finding many diamonds in the rough, in fact if anything they were holding their breath hoping a diamond they brought in wouldn’t get nicked up to the point it no longer shined by the time it was brought to market.

In short, don’t get frustrated you haven’t heard a laundry list of Pirates brass hitting the unemployment line, those changes will come and again, you won’t know most of them.

The point of optimism really comes from a devastating reality truth be told. Out of the Pirates top ten prospects Ben Cherington has brought in 4 or them. Nick Gonzales (1), Liover Peguero (5), Brennan Malone (7), and Carmen Mlodzinski (8).

Two from a trade, and two from the draft. That’s great news that they’ve been able to add four players to the top end of their talent pool so quickly, but it’s also frightening it got so bad.

When you look at the other members of the top ten you find players who are prospects in name only such as Jared Oliva (10) and Ke’Bryan Hayes (2), both clearly already in the plans for the MLB squad. We don’t know what will happen with O’neil Cruz (3) as of right now but he too is probable for 2021 if he somehow escapes whatever is going on in DR right now.

It’s bittersweet news. This means that he’s at least done a better job at bringing in top talent but he’s also had the benefit of having an earlier pick than they’ve had since the 2011 selection of Gerrit Cole.

2021 will obviously bring an even higher level pick and based on the very short track record we have to go on it should be an exciting infusion of talent and I don’t just mean whomever they choose number one overall.

Think about this for a moment, two players who have already made appearances in MLB for the Pirates, Kevin Kramer (21) and Will Craig (22) are ranked below 3 of Cherington’s 7 draft picks. They also rank below his 2 trade acquired players. That’s a second round and a first round pick, and it’s hard to imagine either cracking even the lineup we just wrapped up watching.

It’s not that you discount the possibility they could improve and I certainly don’t, but this is evidence that either the development or identification was broken, probably both in reality.

Fans have a picture in their head of what change looks like when a new GM is brought in, they expect big visible moves and brash statements, but sometimes the biggest statement is in the results themselves.

Ben Cherington is actually remaking this system, and the results are already starting to show. This is where the team’s foundation get’s built and the future spawns from.

In 2021 the Pirates will most likely have ten rounds of selections plus compensation choices, if Ben can have even close to the same level of quality he achieved in 2020 the entire system starts to look different.

If you believe all of this good news is superseded by Bob Nutting standing behind Ben waiting to stab him in the back, I’d say perhaps the system being built correctly will become the reason players move, rather than the near constant effort to get something for someone we’ve lived with.

Through The Prospect Porthole: Eye On The Future

In the shortened 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates Season we have seen quite a few prospects given the opportunity to perform. Some of been given longer leashes than others and at least one in particular looks like he is here to stay. In only 24 games and 85 at bats Hayes launched 5 home runs and 14 extra base hits while boasting a .376 AVG and a 1.124 OPS. I will be the first to admit that I wasn’t extremely high on Hayes coming into the year and for now I will eat crow based on my previous assessments of the how the bat would play in the majors. What I saw in Hayes was the .279 career Minor League hitter, who’s highest OPS of .819 came in AA Altoona two years ago. He was a “glove first”, three time gold glove winner and any offense he would provide beyond this was seen as a bonus. I put some credence in discussions that he was working on a change to his swing, but wasn’t sure how much this could improve upon the overall numbers. Like I said before, thus far Hayes has proven me wrong; his work in the off-season, the changes to his swing and time with Jon Nunnally at the alternate site in Altoona have really paid off. My hope is that this young Pirates Prospect continues to show me I was mistaken for many years to come.

With all of the excitement surrounding Hayes it has gotten many, including myself, trying to predict who will be the next Pirates Prospects to make an impact on the future and when they will arrive at PNC Park. This task has been made even more difficult than it had been in previous years due to the cancellation of the Minor League Baseball season and a limited amount of information leaking out of the alternate site in Altoona. However, this won’t stop me from trying to figure it out and giving you my impressions because it’s something I enjoy doing and it creates some degree of hope for the future of the General Manager Ben Cherington led Pittsburgh Pirates.

In order to keep this as an article rather than a full prospect guide, I am going to keep the number at only ten and limit it to players that we have yet to see at the Major League Level. However, I am positive that I will providing more coverage on these prospects and many others throughout the off-season, so continue reading and stay tuned.

1) Braeden Ogle

Ogle was drafted by Pittsburgh in the 4th Round of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft from Jensen Beach High School in Florida. Immediately after being picked by the Pirates the 6’2” 170 lb left handed pitcher was assigned to the Gulf Coast League Pirates where he had a solid start to his professional career. At over two years younger than the rest of the competition, Ogle posted a 2.60 ERA, a 1.048 WHIP and a lowly .210 BABIP in 8 starts and 27.2 innings. He did struggle at times with a walk rate of 3.58 BB/9 and didn’t produce much of a swing and miss to the tune of 6.51 K/9. However, I consider this production a result of youth and need for further development, so I wouldn’t look to deep into it.

After an entire offseason to prepare for his first full year of professional ball, Ogle was ultimately promoted to the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Advanced Rookie League Affiliate) of the Appalachian League. He continued to grow as far as command and control by increasing his K/9 to 7.33 and slightly reducing his BB/9 to 3.35. However, he fell victim to an ever rising BABIP, which soared from .210 to .300 resulting in a less than optimal 1.302 in his 10 starts and 43 innings. It’s is possible that a lingering knee injury was responsible for a decline in production, as his season was cut short by surgery due a right knee meniscus tear.

After an intense rehab and plenty of hard work Ogle started 2018 with the West Virginia Power (Pittsburgh’s Low-A Affiliate through 2018). His first start was a struggle. He fought through 3 innings, giving up 3 runs while walking 4 batters and striking out 4. The next two games he hit his stride pitching 6 innings each game striking out 12 and allowing 2 runs. The fourth game of season he struck out 5 batters in 2 innings, only to be removed with shoulder inflammation. He did not return the remainder of the the season.

Due to concerns about his ability to maintain health as well as the fact that he was able to increase his K/9 to 11.12 the Pirates made the decision to move him to the bullpen. In an attempt to adjust Ogle to a reliever role he began the season with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s Low-A Affiliate) for the second season in a row, appearing in 20 games and starting 2. In those 20 appearances Ogle was able to live up to his potential, increasing his command and reduced his BB/9 to a career low 2.84. He also maintained a K/9 above 1 per inning. This resulted in Ogle being promoted midsession to the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A-Advanced Affiliate) of the Florida State League. In 11 innings, a small sample size, he reduced his WHIP from 1.200 to .971, his ERA from 3.69 to 3.18 and continued his decline in BB/9, landing at 2.4.

2) Aaron Shortridge

In the 4th round (114 overall) of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft the Pirates drafted right-handed pitcher, Aaron Shortridge out of the University of California, Berkeley. The then 20-year-old had just spent his first year as a majority of the time starter for the Golden Bears after spending the first two years in the bullpen, mostly due to the fact that he was working toward becoming a pitcher after being a shortstop for the majority of his baseball life. In his final year at CAL, the 6’3’’ 196 lb. righty posted a 2.77 ERA, a 1.132 WHIP, had 74 strike outs, 2 saves and only 14 walks across 91 innings, 17 appearances and 12 starts. Much of the success that Shortridge experienced during his last year in college could be credited to all of the hard work that he put in while playing in the Northwoods Collegiate Summer League as a starter for 11 games over two seasons for the Eau Claire Express.

Immediately after being drafted, the Pirates sent Shortridge to the West Virginia Black Bears (Pittsburgh’s Short Season/ Low A Affiliate) of the New York-Pennsylvania League. In his first taste of professional baseball, the success that he experienced in his season at CAL continued throughout the entire season. In 8 games and 8 starts he had a 2.67 ERA, a 1.121 WHIP, 38 Strike Outs and Only 7 Walks in 30.1 innings. Due to his accomplishments and clear command of his pitches it was an easy decision of the Pirates to bypass Low A and promote Shortridge Straight to the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A Affiliate) of the Florida State League, where he participated in extended Spring Training prior to beginning the season.

In his first full year in the minors, Shortridge was the same consistent and solid pitcher he has been since converting from a position player. He started 24 games for the Marauders and pitched 135.2 innings, averaging a little over 5 and 1/3 innings per start. His ERA rose slightly to 3.25, but his WHIP remained consistent at 1.14, mostly due to his extremely low walk rate of 1.66 per 9 innings. The only area in which he struggled was with the swing and miss. His K/9 rate was almost cut in half; going from 11.27 the previous year to 6.90 in 2019. After I saw these numbers I had to “nerd-out“ for just a moment to attempt to discover if there was any reasoning for this or if his numbers changed drastically in any other areas. I will save you the pain of reading through all of the advanced metrics I dove into by letting you know that I couldn’t find anything. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) decreased from the previous year, he didn’t have a “bad” month or slump and his LOB% (Left On Base Percentage) actually rose. Whatever happened, it is something that I will definitely be keeping an eye on as he progresses through the system.

3) Max Kranick

For years the Pittsburgh Pirates’ have gone heavy on young RHP in the MLB June amateur draft every year and 2016 was no different. That year the Pirates drafted 17 young RHP out of their 40 available picks. The fifth of his kind, Max Kranick was drafted in the 11th Round (340 overall) out of Valley View High School in Archbald, PA, a small suburb outside Scranton. It should be noted that the Pirates liked this young man so much that they paid him triple the slot value at the time for a player selected after the 10th round, $300,000.

Immediately after being drafted, Kranick a 6’3” 175 lb heater-throwing right hander was sent to the GCL Pirates of the Gulf Coast Rookie League, were he performed extremely well for being a full 2 and half years younger than average in that league. Kranick appeared in 9 games, starting 6 of them, while posting a 2.43 ERA, a 1.050 WHIP and 21K/4BB in 33.1 innings. In spite of this strong start to his professional career he was once again sent to the GCL Pirates to begin his first full season of pro-ball. This time around he improved in every area except for WHIP (1.263) as he did not allow any earned runs and struck out 9 batters in 12.1 innings.

After only 3 games, all of which he started, he was sent to play for the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Rookie League affiliate) of the Appalachian League. Due to ongoing issues with shoulder fatigue, Kranick would only go on to appear in 2 games the remainder of the 2017 season. However, he was impressive in both of his appearances; striking out 9 batters in 11.2 innings, while sporting a 2.30 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. 

After resting, rehabbing and conditioning in between the 2017 and 2018 Kranick came out for his second full season, with something to prove; granted he was held back from reporting to the team until late May. The Pirates assigned him to the West Virginia Power (Pittsburgh’s Low A/Full Season Affiliate up through 2018) of the South Atlantic League. Kranick had similar success to what he had experienced the previous years, but this year was different as he appeared in almost as many games (17) as he had the previous 2 years combined (19). His ERA rose a little to 3.81, his strike out numbers continued to improve by sitting down 77 batters in 78 innings (a rate of 8.9 per 9 innings) and his WHIP (1.154) leveled out to where it had been in previous years.

To begin the 2019 season it was originally believed that the Pirates would continue to manage his workload and kept him down in Low A for the second season in a row with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s New Low A/Full Season Affiliate) of the South Atlantic League. Just prior to the season a decision was made to send Kranick to the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A/Advanced Affiliate) of the Florida State League, so that he could attend extended spring training with the team. Kranick once again participated in a full season, this time starting all 20 games he appeared in and pitching a career high 109.1 innings. All in all his season was a little like a rollercoaster as he came out on fire in April, cooled off in May, got things back together in June and fell off again in July. He did finish the season on a high note as he allowed only 2 hits and struck out 4 batters in 5.1 innings against the St. Lucie Mets on July 26. He ended the year sporting a 3.79 ERA and a 1.189 WHIP, but his strike out rate dropped a full 2.5 batters per nine innings to 6.4.

4) Travis Swaggerty

Swaggerty was drafted in the 1st Round (10th Overall) in the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of South Alabama. During his junior year with the Jaguars he had shown an increase in power by belting 13 home runs, which paired very nicely with his defensive prowess and overall athleticism. In his first assignment, with the West Virginia Black Bears he was able to put all of this on display as he hit 4 homers and 14 total extra base hits in 36 games. He was quickly bumped up to Low A, also in West Virginia at the time for the final 16 games. He struggled mightily in his time with Power; batting only .129 and adding a single home run to his yearly total. Nevertheless, he was shuffled up the ranks and began 2019 in Bradenton.

While playing with the Marauders some of his power did return as he belted 9 home runs, but his batting average fell to .265. Another set of positives was a slight increase in his BB% to 10.9 and a decrease in his K% to 22.1. This would insinuate a better approach at the plate, in spite of it not really showing up in all the statistical categories.

According to most, if not all of the major sites, have Swaggerty’s potential being very high; nearing what could be a five-tool player. With 2021 approaching, Pirates Fans have to be anxious to see if he can finally breakout.

5) Rodolfo Castro

After speaking with Garett Mansfield from the Altoona Curve at length about the notable performances of Jason Martin and Jared Oliva at the alternative site, he brought up the somewhat unexpected play of Pirates Infield Prospect Rodolfo Castro. Mansfield noted that Castro has executed well at the plate, making regular hard contact, as well as looking comfortable at multiple positions in the field.

On October 30, 2015 the Pittsburgh Pirates signed the 16-year-old shortstop during the international amateur free-agency period to a $150,000 contract. His first taste of professional baseball would come the following summer as the Pirates assigned him to the DSL Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Foreign Rookie Level Affiliate) of the Dominican Summer League. For being only 17 years old the 6’, 200 pound, switch-hitting shortstop performed very well.

In 56 games and 230 plate appearances the young Castro posted a slash line of .271/.360/.411, with 2 home runs and 20 extra base hits. The next year in three less games, Castro produced very similar numbers (.277/.344/479 with 6 homers and 22 extra base hits for the GCL Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Rookie Level Affiliate) in the Gulf Coast League. During this season Castro began to split his time defensively almost exactly three ways, between second base (15), third base (17) and shortstop (19). It was clear that his best positions were his natural SS and his adopted second base, but he performed well at third as well.

 After his second full winter off in a row, Castro joined the West Virginia Power (Pittsburgh’s former Low A Affiliate) in the South Atlantic League for the 2018 season. The consistency that he had exhibited in his first two years in the Pirate’s farm system did not continue through his third season. His strike out rate swelled to 26%, his walk rate fell to 6.8%, his batting average dropped to .231 and he only totaled 35 extra base hits in twice as many games as the previous two seasons. Another change was that for the first time in his career he played more games at another position, second base (89 Games) than he did at his drafted position, SS (12 Games). 

Due to his struggles during this season, as well as an stint on the IL at the end of July, with the Power it was determined that Castro would be assigned to Gigantes de Carolina of the Puerto Rican Winter League during the 2018-2019 off-season. Castro would only go on to appear in 8 games for Carolina that off-season and get 27 plate appearances. Unsurprisingly his numbers were not that impressive as he batted .269, with a .672 OPS and 12 strike outs. 

Following this disappointing season it was not a shock when he was assigned to the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s Low A Affiliate beginning in 2019) of the South Atlantic League, his second year in a row at this level. However, this year was going to be a little different. For the first two months of the season, his strike out rate still hovered between 25% and 30%, but his batting average once again returned to around .263 and his power rebounded as he hit 13 home runs, accounting for a .901 OPS. 

This resurgence led to a promotion to the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A/Advanced Affiliate) of the Florida State League at the end of June. At this point Castro began to labor and slump more than he had in his entire career thus far, as he batted only .132/.192/.206 in the month of July and hit a only a single home run. It looked like things might not get better for the young Dominican. Luckily for Castro things did get better, a lot better. For the month of August he hit .299/.346/.443, with 2 homers and 10 extra base hits in only 26 games. It should be noted that in his short time in Bradenton he did play third base in 4 games, which has always been the position where he performed the worst. It is possible that this change in position and level threw off the rhythm that he found earlier in the season.

6) Matt Eckelman

If you can think back to the Pirates Spring Training game with the Phillies on Tuesday February 25, you should remember seeing Eckelman on your screen. He is a little bit on an imposing figure. It should also be noted that he pitched 1.1 innings that day and recorded 2 K/0BB, no hits and no earned runs.

Eckelman was drafted in the 21st round of the 2016 June MLB Amateur Draft out of St. Louis University. An imposing figure, Eckelman stands 6’3” tall and weighs in anywhere between 240 and 280 lbs. When the Pirates drafted him Eckelman had just spent his senior season as the #1 starter for the Billikens, where he posted an impressive 8-4 record with 3.12 ERA. He rebounded during his senior season after his junior season was cut short by an elbow injury that limited him to only 14 innings.

The 2018 season was a turning point for Eckelman, as he started the season for Bradenton as the team’s closer. After only 17 appearances for the Marauder’s, he was promoted to the Altoona Curve. For the season, between the two levels, he had a 5-1 record, a 2.05 ERA, a 1.241 WHIP and 17 saves. This earned him some attention from the big league club and a spot in the Arizona Fall League after the season. 

Unfortunately for Eckelman, he struggled in his 9.0 innings; posting a 13.00 ERA, walking 11 batters and only striking out 3. This was a disappointing ending to an otherwise successful season for him. 

Eckelman started and finished last year in Altoona where he got off to a very slow start in April and May by giving up 16 ER in 16.2 innings and only striking out 13 batters. It should be noted that one of his worst outings was when he was deployed as an “opener” in late May. He gave up 6 ERs on 6 hits, including 2 HRs.

June was a completely different story. He didn’t allow a single run the entire month in 11 games and 11 innings, while striking out 11 batters and earning 8 saves. Eckelman’s success continued in July and most of August as he added 10 additional saves in 19 appearances. He ended his season in Altoona with a 3.33 ERA, 23 Saves and 45 Ks in 48.2 Innings. 

Due to his performance in Altoona, he earned a late season promotion to the Indianapolis Indians. However he had a 15.34 ERA, a 4.286 WHIP and only 2 Ks in 3 appearances. Prior to the season it was my belief that he would be reunited with his pitching coach from last year, Joel Hanrahan, who was promoted to the Indians during the off-season. However, we all know now that this reunion would take place, but in at a different time and in a different, yet familiar place.

7) Cody Bolton

Bolton was drafted by the Pirates in the 6th Round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft from Tracy High School in California. As it has been with many high school draftees his professional baseball career with Pittsburgh began in the Gulf Coast League, where he started 9 games; posting a 3.16 ERA and 1.208 WHIP in 25 innings, relying mostly on soft contact and command to get him through.

Bolton would go on to spend the entire 2018 season, the first full one of his career, with the West Virginia Power in Low A. He once again started only 9 games due to being placed on the IL with a forearm strain in late July of that year. This decision was noted to be a precaution at the time, based on the amount of innings he had already thrown in Extended Spring Training. Over 44.1 innings with the Power, Bolton’s ERA rose slightly to 3.65, but so did his K/9 (7.71 to 9.14).

In the end the choice to shut him down turned out to be a favorable one, as evident by Bolton’s electric start to the 2019 season. In 12 starts for the Bradenton Marauders he earned an exceptionally low ERA (1.61) to go along with his ever declining WHIP (.859). His K/9 also continued to rise, just as it had over the previous season, reaching a career high 10.1. Due to such his breakout performance he was promoted to Altoona mid-season. Unfortunately this jump in levels would not come without its hiccups. Bolton’s ERA ballooned to 5.85, his WHIP rose to 1.325 and his K/9 dropped for the first time; back down to 7.4.

However, the Pirates new regime clearly saw the potential in his two-seam/four-seam fastball combination (60 grade) with a strong and firm slider (55 grade) mixed in by inviting him to join the taxi squad; without an invitation to the first round of Spring Training.

8) Mason Martin

Martin was drafted in the 17th round (508 overall) of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Southridge High School in Kennewick, Washington. Upon being drafted he started his professional career in the Gulf Coast League where he split his time between 1st Base and each of the outfield positions. After hitting .309 with a 1.087 OPS and 11 home runs he was promoted to the West Virginia Black Bears and ultimately the Bristol Pirates by the end of the 2018 season. His power continued throughout this season as he hit 11 home runs, but his batting average sank to .220. Because of these 2018 struggles Mason started this past season with the Pirates Low A team, the Greensboro Grasshoppers instead of beginning the year in High A. It was apparent from the beginning of the season that Mason was ready to move up to the next level. 

He hit 23 home runs in 82 games for the Grasshoppers, to go along with a .262/.361/.578 slash line and 83 RBI’s. After earning the promotion to the Bradenton Marauders of the Florida State League, Martin went on to hit 12 additional home runs and drive in 46 more RBI’s for a total of 35 home runs (tied for 4 in all of MILB) and 129 RBI’s (#1 in all of MILB). 

Since he entered the Pirates Minor League system his power has never been a question. He is rated as a 65 for his raw power on a scale from 20-80, with 50 being the average. His two main issues thus far has been his strike-out rate and his speed, which at times limits his defensive ability . This past summer he posted a 29% Strike-Out Percentage in Greensboro and a 32.3% Strike-Out Percentage in Bradenton. Both a lack of speed and a high strike out rate are common among hitters with Martin’s power, but we’ve seen guys become successful at the Major League level with very similar tools. 

Currently his Major League options are limited to playing 1st Base and DH, which could ultimately be a benefit to him if the designated hitter remains in the National League beyond the 2020 season. Other potential good news for Mason is that the only people I really see as obstacles to playing time for the Pirates are Will Craig and Josh Bell. Craig has seen very limited action thus far for the Pirates and Bell will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023, if he remains on the Pirates through his entire contract. Prior to the 2020 season most experts were of the opinion Martin was set to reach the major league club in 2023, which would put him right in line to take over the starting role from the word go.

9) Chris Sharpe

I had my first interaction with Sharpe during the 2019 MiLB season when he was playing left field for the Altoona Curve and he threw a ball to my nephew after making the final out of the half-inning in a double header at the end of June. Kids remember that kind of stuff and so do the adults in their lives; it leaves a really good impression.

Sharpe was drafted by the Pirates in the 14th round of the MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. He then began to follow the same path that many in the Pirates organization have trailed over the years by starting in West Virginia with the Black Bears immediately after being drafted, moving to the West Virginia Power from there and then ending up starting the year with the Bradenton Marauders this past season.

Sharpe had decent stats during his time in West Virginia, but nothing that really jumped off the page. Then last year we started seeing something a little different. He started to hit at a higher rate, raising his average to .292 in 64 games. With that higher average, power that he had only flashed in final year in college began to show itself again as he hit 5 home runs and slugged .451. He was also getting on base more and striking out less; his strike rate dropped from 29.4% the previous year to 19.5% in his time with the Marauders. Everyone can already see where this is going, as I tipped my hand at the beginning of this evaluation.

With his new found success in many of the major categories, Sharpe earned a promotion to Altoona approximately a week before I attended the double header with my family. Initially he struggled with the transition only batting .218 for the month of July. However, the power never went away as he hit 11 home runs in 68 games. Following the season Sharpe went on to play 25 games in the Puerto Rican Winter, where it was obvious that he was focusing on working the counts, recognizing pitches, etc. as his strike out rate had also swelled during his transition to AA, back up to 26.0% and his walk rate had dropped from his normal average of around 10% down to 6.6%.

10) Quinn Priester

Priester was drafted in the first round (18th Overall) in the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft from Cary-Grove High School in Illinois. A self taught 6’3” 195 lb hurler, he is an enigma in a world of pitching clubs; settling for YouTube videos in his back yard and at the local high school field. Through hard work and repetition he developed an arsenal of two above average fastballs (60 grades), a curveball (60 grade) with spin and movement and strong out pitch, a change up (50 grade) that he has started to deploy on a more consistent basis.

Since being selected by the Pirates, Priester pitches at two levels in the Gulf Coast League and for the Black Bears in Short Season A ball. In nine appearances, eight of them starts, he posted a 3.19 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP with 41 strikeouts in 36.2 innings.

During the shutdown Priester continued to work on his craft, eventually getting to put it on full display at the alternate site in Altoona. It was reported that in 3 innings of work in a sim game, he struck out 6 and allowed only one hit; touching 98 with the fastball.

This is in no way a Top 10 Pirates Prospects or a ETA guide from one to ten in order of when the could and/or should arrive in Pittsburgh. It is more more of a free flowing process of those Minor League Players that could have an impact in the upcoming years; each of them to varying degrees because not many players will burst onto the scene like Hayes has and others will never reach any top prospect list, but still contribute to the big league club.

It should be noted that Braeden Ogle, Aaron Shortridge, Max Kranick, Travis Swaggerty, Rodolfo Castro, Cody Bolton and Mason Martin were all on the original Taxi Squad in Altoona, Quinn Priester was brought in toward the end on September 2nd and neither Matt Eckelman nor Chris Sharpe made it beyond the Spring Training invites back in February and March.

For the purpose of research in compiling data and assisting me drawing conclusions for this article many different sites were used; including MLB Pipleline, FanGraphs, Pirates Prospects, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant.

Everyone Wants to Know; What Will the Pirates Do Now?

For sixteen teams the point of this 60 game season has just become apparent. A chance to win a championship, for some a rare opportunity, for others an annoying extended battle more difficult than their yearly coronation tends to be.

Here in Pittsburgh, a familiar position, outside looking in, but the path to get here has provided less evidence than a typical 162 game season would provide. Today we’re going to discuss what we learned, what we would have liked to have learned and potential paths forward. I’m not ready to try to predict how they’ll proceed yet, truth be told anyone who is you can bet is guessing, but we still can easily lay out the possible paths.

What We Learned
1. Ke’Bryan Hayes isn’t a hopeful figure anymore. I mean he isn’t going to hit .380 next season either, but I’m quite sure we now know he has power to all fields and an ability to bat in the middle of the order. If anything he’ll be challenged more next season as scouting reports make their way around the league. The exciting part there is his hits have come from all over the zone and to all fields, typically I’d tell you that is scouting kryptonite but I watched Bryan Reynolds this season so…
2. Young Starting Pitching isn’t Hopeless. Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, Cody Ponce and Steven Brault all showed sparks of brilliance right along side growing pains but still overall impressive. Focusing on the young starters is important if only because we can be reasonably assured they’ll be here in 2021.
3. Joe Musgrove has the stuff. We’ve known this for some time, but we’ve rarely seen him put it together for more than a few innings at any one time, this season we saw him finish the season with two elite starts. That’s not an overstatement in any way either. Now, will they keep him or deal him?
4. Jacob Stallings is an elite defender. If we’re honest, most of us knew this before we started the season, but he really stepped it up. He’ll be a Gold Glove finalist in all likelihood and the season could have been 500 games long, he’d still have gotten that recognition.
5. Trevor Williams Odd man out? Unless the Pirates move multiple starting options out of town, I can’t see a spot for Trevor in the rotation. His last start was pretty good, but pretty good is his pinnacle. If you got that consistently you could make an argument that he is an anchor type pitcher, no extreme lows in exchange for no extreme highs, but he hasn’t been that. I think we’ve seen enough evidence to know what he is now.

What We Didn’t Learn
1. What Does Cole Tucker’s Future look like? Is he the center fielder? Does he jump back to SS? Let’s be honest, he’s not a natural in the outfield. He’s a talented defender with speed and athleticism but he needs real training. If they choose to continue using him as an outfielder they have to help him find the confidence to recognize what balls are his and to recognize when to break off the bat. I believe he could do this, but it isn’t fair to the pitching staff or the team to have him learn by attrition in MLB.
2. Who is this club’s first baseman? Colin Moran outplayed Josh Bell for most of the season. I wish that meant he hit .320 but he did hit 10 home runs and held down the position with more confidence than bell. If the league reverts to no DH this is very much so an either or situation. Heading back to third isn’t an option for Colin now that Hayes has provided a sample of what he can provide. This is one of those real 60 game discussions because Josh could very well have hit one of those meteoric hot streaks and surpassed Colin’s output but there is little denying that Moran provided the closest thing they have to a consistent power bat in 2020.
3. Did Kevin Newman’s analytics match his output? In a word, yes. He came back to earth a bit but his saving grace is he also didn’t have the same contact numbers he enjoyed in 2019. I still consider Newman as someone who needs to play, and while he isn’t the best defender at SS, it might just be where he fits.

What Option Will They Take this Off Season?
1. Option 1, Almost Nothing This would be an option for more than a few reasons. One the starting rotation of Taillon, Musgrove, Keller, Brubaker, Kuhl, Brault (and yes I know I listed 6) could actually be pretty solid. I could see them potentially moving one (probably Musgrove) and leaving it alone beside that. The next wave of prospects are really Cruz (and who knows what will come of that), Craig (I already talked about first base being congested) and Oliva. They may not feel they’re ready to dismantle.
2. Option 2, Tear Down This is making the most of positional depth and players who have value. For this to work they need to put themselves in position for the team to take a leap in 2022-23 and moving a Musgrove, Bell, Moran, Gonzalez, Polanco if you can, Frazier and a few relievers who showed themselves useful. Next year would suffer but honestly it certainly couldn’t be much worse than this season was.
3. Option 3, Strategic Alterations Move players they have ready replacements for. One of the starters, Maybe Frazier or Gonzalez, Moran or Bell, Polanco (could really fit any option) and give some of the youngsters a chance to increase their value or show you their worth.

Certainly not all the options but I really don’t feel like having an argument that they won’t spend any money right this second. Especially when I don’t have any evidence they will. But I do see a way they could add about 30 million in payroll and make the club more competitive for 2021 plus give themselves more trade capital to accelerate the restocking of the system. I think it’s fair to say even a Corey Dickerson type pick up would accomplish this sort of change and with the likelihood that MLB returns another expanded playoff in 2021 why not see if you can stumble into the dance?

First things first, let’s watch for organizational changes, the Pirates clearly didn’t experience a whole lot of success with the bats this season and the last two weeks gave hope that the pitching program might take root. For those of us who love team building, this is the best time of the year, well, you know, aside from actually enjoying the fruits of a successful build in the first place.

Pirates End The Year By Giving Away Another Game

It feels like the Pittsburgh Pirates season should just be hitting its stride with only 59 games completed. However, thanks to an unexpected shutdown, a lengthy back and forth between MLB and MLBPA and Commissioner Rob Manfred finally telling the players when and where, 60 games is all we will get. Some have said that this is more than enough or too much to take, mostly due to the Pirates disappointing 19-40 record coming into today’s contest. However, in what is clearly a year of evaluation for the future, I can’t help but think that this small sample size isn’t enough; at times leaving us, and possibly General Manager Ben Cherington, with more questions than answers. Unfortunately it is the hand that was dealt and everyone will have to make do in preparation for what should be a pretty interesting off-season. Nevertheless, there was still one more game to be played before the Pirates Front Office could continue the process of building and looking toward the next window of opportunity.

Up until the bottom of the sixth inning it looked like the Pirates were almost certain to Raise The Jolly Roger to end the year as Ke’Bryan Hayes hit his fifth home run on the “season”, Adam Frazier had himself a pair of doubles, Jose Osuna was three-fourths of the way through a potential cycle and JT Brubaker had only allowed two runs on a homer by Carlos Santana. Unfortunately that’s when when the wheels started to come off as Brubaker gave up another home run; a three run job to Franmil Reyes, which ended his day.

The Pirates bullpen, that has become a little shaky recently, was unable to hold the lead as Nik Turley surrendered three runs in the bottom of the seventh. That combined with Pittsburgh’s bats falling silent, resulted in a 8-6 loss to end the season.

News and Notes:

  • Ke’Bryan Hayes extended his consecutive hit streak to eight with a single and a home run before being intentionally walked in his third plate appearance of the game.
  • Since being recalled by the Pirates on September 17th Jose Osuna went 8 for 24, including 6 extra base hits, 3 which went out of the park. Don’t be fooled. Osuna is what he is; a solid bat off the bench with some defensive flexibility.

  • A little bit of disappointing last outing of the season for JT Brubaker. In 5 innings of work he gave up 5 earned runs on 7 hits, two of them homers, while striking out 3 and walking 2, all on 89 pitches. In spite of his last appearance not being ideal, I would still pencil JT in for the starting rotation competition of Spring Training 2021.
  • Geoff Hartlieb had his second strong relief appearance in a row
  • The Pirates season came to a close with loss and a final record of 19-41. It wasn’t a great year to be a Pirates fan. They were the only team in the NL Central to not make the playoffs.