AnalysisNL Central

Pittsburgh Pirates 2020 Season Preview

Entering the 2019 season, the Pirates were on the verge of being a fringe playoff contender. They were coming off of an 82-win season and appeared to have enough offensive depth to support a strong pitching staff. 2019 could have been the year the Pirates returned to the playoffs and avenged the Wild Card Game losses from years prior.

But it wasn’t. It didn’t go anything like that. After racing to a 12-6 start, the Bucs limped to a 69-93 record, their worst finish since 2010. Throughout the season, the Pirates fought the injury bug, other teams, and even among themselves. What few bright spots the team did have were largely overshadowed by disappointment and controversy.

All of the above factors led to drastic changes in the front office and coaching staff. Among the new personnel are 2013 World Series champion Ben Cherington as general manager; Derek Shelton, Rocco Baldelli’s bench coach in Minnesota, as manager; and Oscar Marin as pitching coach, whose understanding of modern analytics and technology and ability to communicate them to his players has drawn rave reviews since the start of Spring Training 1.0. This new-look staff has already had their work cut out for them, as evidenced by an uncharacteristically noisy offseason in Pittsburgh.

Key additions:

C Luke Maile, OF Guillermo Heredia, OF Jarrod Dyson, C John Ryan Murphy, P Robbie Erlin, P Derek Holland

Key subtractions:

OF Starling Marte, P Francisco Liriano, OF Melky Cabrera, C Elias Diaz, P Dario Agrazal

The biggest move of the offseason was the trade of Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks for two low-level prospects. The trade, Cherington’s first major swap as Pittsburgh’s GM, proved that an era of change was truly on the horizon. The Pirates lineup will surely look different without Marte, who owns a career 116 wRC+, 24.1 fWAR, and two Gold Gloves. His departure leaves Gregory Polanco as the final remaining player from the team’s last playoff appearance. The free agent signings of outfielders Jarrod Dyson and Guillermo Heredia are part of an attempt to improve a defense that registered -46 defensive runs saved and finished dead last with -51 defensive runs above average last season, per Fangraphs. Here’s a breakdown of what the revamped 2020 roster might look like:

Catcher:

Gone are the days of Francisco Cervelli. Longtime Pirate farmhand Jacob Stallings got his first crack at regular catching duties in 2019, and he enters 2020 as the clear starter. Stallings was quietly a very pleasant surprise last season. While his .262/.325/.382 slash didn’t exactly catch many eyes, his defense did. In just 61 games behind the dish last season, Stallings registered 1.4 dWAR and finished in the 69th percentile in pitch framing. Luke Maile was signed to be the backup catcher but is now expected to miss the 2020 season after suffering a broken finger during an intrasquad game. His duties will now likely fall to non-roster signees John Ryan Murphy and Andrew Susac.

Infield:

There’s a lot of carryover from last season on the infield. First base will primarily be manned by Josh Bell. 2019 was finally the breakout season Pirates fans have been waiting for from Bell, whose 37 homers were the most by a Pirate since 2002. Bell will likely get a good share of at bats as the DH, as last season continued the trend of him playing well below-average defense. Adam Frazier wasn’t 100 percent healthy for most of 2019 but still maintained his status as a league-average bat and was also a Gold Glove finalist at second base. 2020 may be Colin Moran’s last chance to prove himself as a starting third baseman. The former 6th overall pick has yet to perform above replacement level thanks in large part to his dreadful defense. Ke’Bryan Hayes was knocking on the door but a positive COVID-19 test has kept him out of camp. Shortstop Kevin Newman also had a breakout season in 2019. An offseason swing adjustment resulted in a .308 batting average, .800 OPS, and 2.4 fWAR. However, he may be forced off of shortstop if Cole Tucker’s bat comes around. Jose Osuna proved himself capable of being a solid bench bat last season. He may also see time as the DH and can spell Bell and Moran on the corners when they serve as the DH. Erik Gonzalez, JT Riddle, and Phillip Evans also provide multi-positional versatility off the bench.

Outfield:

Nobody saw this coming from Bryan Reynolds, but that doesn’t mean he’s not here to stay. If his 2019 season is any indication of what’s to come, Pirates fans may finally forgive the team for trading Andrew McCutchen. The switch-hitting rookie finished the season with a .314/.377/.503 slash line and a 131 wRC+. He also graded positively at all three outfield spots, although the plan for now is to keep him in left. Jarrod Dyson has never been even a league-average hitter, but his defense alone makes him a valuable asset and, if nothing else, the Pirates’ young pitching staff will benefit from having Dyson roaming PNC Park’s spacious center field. Gregory Polanco was gearing up for a comeback bid after another disappointing, injury-riddled season where he played in only 42 games and was below-average both offensively and defensively. However, he recently stepped away after testing positive for COVID-19 and will miss the start of the season. That paves the way for Guillermo Heredia to get most of the playing time in right field. Heredia has a career .737 OPS against lefties and, while getting the majority of his playing time in center field, has played both outfield corners at an elite level. Socrates Brito, Jason Martin, Kevin Kramer, and Jared Oliva could all see some action in 2020 as well.

Starting Pitching:

The pitching staff was supposed to be the strength of the 2019 Pirates, but now enters the 2020 season as a large question mark. To make matters worse, the Bucs will spend the duration of the 2020 campaign without Jameson Taillon, who underwent a second Tommy John surgery in August, and Chris Archer, who also underwent surgery following a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome in his pitching arm in June. That leaves Joe Musgrove as the staff ace. Musgrove pitched to a 4.44 ERA in 32 appearances last season but made a mechanical adjustment late in the season and recorded a 2.25 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 11.8 K/9 in September. He looked dominant in a Summer Camp exhibition against Cleveland and could establish himself as a legitimate front-line starter if he can hone his skills on the mound. Trevor Williams was unable to repeat his 2018 success and was pummeled by left-handed hitters to the tune of a .944 OPS last season. Look for a breakout season from Mitch Keller. Keller had a 7.13 ERA in 11 starts last year despite an elite strikeout rate and a strong ability to limit walks and home runs. It turns out that Keller was historically unlucky last season, as his .475 BABIP allowed was the highest ever recorded. The rest of the rotation will likely consist of a combination of Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, and Derek Holland. Brault spent most of last year in the rotation and sported a 2.84 ERA across a 13-start stretch in the middle of the season but has largely been inconsistent his whole career. Kuhl missed all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery but has always had plus stuff and just might be the perfect candidate to rebound under Oscar Marin’s tutelage. Holland struggled mightily in 2019 but isn’t far removed from a 106 ERA+ campaign the season prior, which was his last season as a full-time starter.

Bullpen:

This group has the potential to be either really good or really bad. Unfortunately, the latter seems more likely, largely due to the fact that closer Keone Kela will start the year on the injured list as he has yet to report to camp due to COVID-19. Kela has had trouble staying healthy but has been very effective since coming to Pittsburgh at the 2018 trade deadline. His absence likely leaves Kyle Crick first in line for closing duties. Crick failed to duplicate a strong 2018 as both his walk and home run rates skyrocketed. His potential lies in his mid-to-high-nineties fastball and baseball’s highest slider spin rate. Similarly, Richard Rodriguez posted a very solid 2018 season but saw a dip in strikeouts and a massive spike in home runs allowed (he nearly tripled his 2018 total and surpassed it on May 3). Michael Feliz could also get a chance to close out games. Still only 27 years old, his ability to miss bats and limit hard contact makes him a valuable asset. Nick Burdi is one of the more interesting arms in this bullpen. He appeared to be on his way towards a dominant 2019 campaign before blowing out his arm in April. He finished the season with a 9.35 ERA but a 1.83 FIP. He could easily emerge as the best arm in this group if he gets the chance to pitch over the course of a full season. The only other real guarantee in the bullpen is Chris Stratton, who didn’t pan out as a starter with the Giants and Angels but proved himself an above-average reliever capable of multi-inning relief outings or late, high-leverage situations. The rest of the bullpen configuration looks to feature home-grown right-handers such as Clay Holmes, Dovydas Neverauskas, Geoff Hartlieb, Blake Cederlind, and JT Brubaker, as well as journeyman southpaws Robbie Erlin, Sam Howard, and Nik Turley. Edgar Santana figured to come back after missing all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but he was hit with an 80-game PED suspension in June.

Projected Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Kevin Newman, SS
  2. Bryan Reynolds, LF
  3. Adam Frazier, 2B
  4. Josh Bell, DH
  5. Colin Moran, 3B
  6. Jose Osuna, 1B
  7. Guillermo Heredia, RF
  8. Jacob Stallings, C
  9. Jarrod Dyson, CF

Projected Bench:

  • John Ryan Murphy
  • Erik Gonzalez
  • Cole Tucker
  • Phillip Evans
  • Jason Martin

Projected Rotation:

  1. Joe Musgrove
  2. Trevor Williams
  3. Mitch Keller
  4. Steven Brault/Chad Kuhl
  5. Derek Holland

Projected Bullpen:

  • Kyle Crick
  • Richard Rodriguez
  • Michael Feliz
  • Nick Burdi
  • Chris Stratton
  • Clay Holmes
  • Dovydas Neverauskas
  • Robbie Erlin
  • Nik Turley
  • JT Brubaker
  • Chad Kuhl/Steven Brault

2020 Prediction:

PECOTA projects the Pirates to finish 26-34, although that seems generous, as the Pirates’ six games against the Royals and Tigers are their only games against teams with projected losing records. They are definitely one of the biggest losers resulting from the new scheduling format in the shortened season. Expect a win total closer to the 22-24-win range and another last place finish in the NL Central.

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Featured Photo: @Pirates

Ethan Fisher

Saved by grace through faith. It also takes grace and faith to be a Pirates fan. I used to think Ronny Cedeno was good; I know that Ke'Bryan Hayes is going to be good. Follow me on Twitter: @efisher330

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