All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Ethan Fisher takes a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates!
Expectations were not high at all for the Pirates entering the 2020 season, even before the COVID shutdown. Some pegged the Bucs as the worst team in baseball going into the regular season (I was not one of those people), but that is precisely what transpired. The Pirates were the lone team to not reach the 20-win threshold in 2020. As has been commonplace for the Pirates in recent years, it seemed like just about everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Here’s a breakdown of the disaster that was the 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates and how they can start to right the ship in 2021:
2020 Record: 19-41, 5th Place in NL Central
Team MVP: Jacob Stallings
Team Cy Young: Steven Brault
Biggest Positive Surprise: Ke’Bryan Hayes
Biggest Negative Surprise: Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman, Adam Frazier, Gregory Polanco (basically the entire offense)
I feel bad saying that the entire offense was a negative surprise, but there isn’t really a point in sugar-coating just how bad the 2020 Pirates were at the plate. The whole unit collectively was just awful. The Pirates as a team slashed .220/.284/.357 last year and were worth just 1.1 fWAR. There were two teams with a lower batting average but their on-base and slugging percentages were both the worst in baseball in 2020. Their .284 on-base percentage was actually the lowest by any Major League team since the 1972 Padres. It was especially puzzling because, aside from Starling Marte, they returned a majority of their 2019 offense (which ranked 19th in wRC+), and they still struggled mightily:
My dear goodness. Where do I even start? I’ll start with the two positives – Colin Moran and Jacob Stallings. Moran quietly had a really solid season and started to unpack the power potential that got him drafted sixth overall by the Marlins in 2013. He actually hit nearly 58% of his batted balls on the ground but increased his average exit velocity by almost 4 MPH and saw noticeable boosts in his hard-hit and walk rates. He looked more comfortable both at the plate and in the field as he benefitted greatly from the new DH rule, which allowed him to move off of third base and split the 1B/DH role with Josh Bell.
It was a tale of two halves for Jacob Stallings in 2020. Between July and September, he hit .149/.220/.270, but August was a completely different story, as he exploded for a .392/.475/.510 slash in that period. That evened out to a .248/.326/.376 mark, which looks rather unspectacular but still allows for him to be a perfectly serviceable catcher, given his defense. And he is a phenomenal defensive catcher. Since the start of 2019, he has been behind the plate 103 times and caught 808.2 innings. In that span, only Cleveland’s Roberto Perez topped Stallings’ 21 DRS, and per Fangraphs, Stallings is 8th in pitch framing and tied for 3rd in rSB (Stolen Base Runs Above Average). The Pirates’ young pitching staff has also raved at how much having Stallings behind the plate has helped them improve and develop, so as long as Stallings is playable offensively, he provides great value, and that’s why I picked him as the team’s MVP.
The other bright spot from the Pirates’ offense was rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes, who made his MLB debut on September 1 and ended up running away with the NL Rookie of the Month award. I won’t go too in-depth about Hayes (I already did that here), but I will say that Hayes hit .522 and slugged .913 after I wrote that article, which brought his final season slash to .376/.442/.682. Award voters ultimately concluded that his 24-game sample wasn’t enough for him to garner legitimate NL Rookie of the Year candidacy, as he didn’t end up as a finalist for the award, but he has definitely put himself in a position to contend for that honor again in 2021.
Now here is where things start to get ugly. It’s no secret that strikeouts are on the rise league-wide, but if you go back and look at the chart, you will see that all of those players increased their strikeout rates from 2019 to 2020 – every single one of them. The team’s 24.4% strikeout rate was tied for tenth-worst in baseball. That, coupled with a bottom-five walk rate, contributed to the demise of an offense that was already unspectacular when they did manage to make contact.
Almost everyone who projected to have a key role in the Pirates’ offense took a step backward and some of them made leaps in the wrong direction. Case in point, Josh Bell:
Bell’s case is a curious one, as he was still hitting the ball hard with some regularity but he all of a sudden became bad at hitting the ball at all. He didn’t drastically alter his approach in terms of plate discipline, as his swing, zone swing, and chase rates were all roughly in the same ballpark as his career figures. But his contact rates plummeted. His zone contact rate dipped below 80% for the first time in his career (74.5%) and his out-of-zone contact rate nearly fell below 50% (his previous career-low was 61.2%). He whiffed at 39.4% of all pitches he saw that weren’t fastballs and had a .155 batting average on those pitches that he did hit. He also raised his ground ball rate to over 56%, which subsequently dropped his launch angle to a career-worst 5.9 degrees. All of those factors spelled disaster for Bell, whose season-long funk surely did no favors to both his wallet and his trade value.
Bell was far from the only Pirate who suffered serious regression at the plate in 2020. Bryan Reynolds also enjoyed a breakout 2019 season then seemingly spent all of 2020 in a slump. Reynolds slashed just .189/.275/.357 in 2020, a far cry from his .314/.377/.503 rookie showing. While there could be a number of culprits behind his regression, it should be noted that Reynolds suffered the greatest drop in BABIP among all qualified hitters from 2019 to 2020. Nobody really came close to matching his -.156 BABIP differential. His batted ball profile didn’t change much, so expect him to look closer to his 2019 performance over a full season as he will almost surely see his .231 BABIP increase closer to the norm.
The Pirates’ offense also boasted a very underwhelming double-play combination in Adam Frazier and Kevin Newman. They both profile as the scrappy, speedy middle-infielder prototype, meaning that the ability to hit for high average and get on base consistently is what drives their success. In 2019, they combined for a .292/.344/.431 slash line, putting them both in position to be table-setters atop the 2020 batting order. Instead, their combined slash sunk to .227/.290/.326, and each finished with an exit velocity and hard-hit rate in the bottom ten percent of all qualified hitters. The only real difference between them came in the field, where Frazier excels (99th percentile in Outs Above Average at 2B, NL Gold Glove finalist) and Newman struggles (2nd percentile in OAA, graded very poorly at both 2B and SS).
And then there’s Gregory Polanco. Polanco took the Josh Bell strategy to another level in 2020. He hit the ball even harder than Bell but with even less frequency than Bell. Polanco’s 92.9 MPH average exit velocity ranked in the 95th percentile of MLB hitters but his 37.4% strikeout rate was in the 2nd percentile. He was one of baseball’s most prominent “three true outcomes” hitters of 2020, with 48.9% of his plate appearances resulting in a strikeout, walk, or home run. Unfortunately for Polanco, that total was so heavily influenced by strikeouts that he was not nearly as productive as some of baseball’s three true outcomes darlings like Miguel Sano, Ronald Acuna Jr., or Joey Gallo.
On the other side of the ball, the starting pitching was, for the most part, a pleasant surprise. That did not apply to Trevor Williams, however. He sported a 6.18 ERA, 5.01 xERA, and a 1.57 WHIP in 11 starts. Among all pitchers who tossed at least 50 innings in 2020, Williams’ 2.44 HR/9 was the worst, and his HR/FB rate of 24.2% trailed only Chris Paddack, Kyle Gibson, and Blake Snell. Williams made a name for himself by allowing just 11 earned runs in 12 second-half starts in 2018, but in 37 starts (201 innings) since the beginning of 2019 his 5.60 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, and 5.45 FIP have left a lot to be desired. His failure to capitalize on an opportunity to rebound in 2020 may leave him searching for a spot on a different roster this offseason.
Joe Musgrove, the team’s top trade asset on the roster, showed flashes of utter dominance in 2020 and proved that a pitcher’s record is by no means a strong evaluator of player performance (Musgrove went 1-5 in 2020). He set career-best marks in ERA (3.86), H/9 (7.5), and K/9 (12.5) and altered his pitch usage by turning 10% of his 4-seam fastballs into curveballs. As a result, hitters went 1-for-20 with 13 strikeouts against his curveball. His Baseball Savant page is a thing of beauty:
It’s still hard to say who or what the real Mitch Keller is. He only made 5 starts in 2020 as he had trouble staying healthy but he was basically the complete opposite of what we saw in 2019:
While the uncertainty is unsettling, it is worth noting that Keller went his final two starts (11 innings) without allowing a hit, so it was good to at least see him go out on a strong note.
Three guys who entered 2020 either as a question mark (Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl) or a complete unknown (JT Brubaker) all pitched well enough to likely have rotation spots secured going into 2021. Brault’s season line was marred by one really bad inning against the Tigers but still managed to post a 3.38 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 11 appearances, good enough to earn my selection for team Cy Young. Kuhl struggled some with his control (a career-worst 5.4 BB/9) in his return from Tommy John surgery but his stuff looked far better than it did before his injury. Brubaker made his MLB debut in 2020 and made a strong first impression thanks in large part to hitters batting just .197 and whiffing nearly 40% of the time against his breaking balls.
The biggest issue with the bullpen, by a significant margin, was health. Keone Kela, Nick Burdi, Kyle Crick, and Michael Feliz were arguably their top four relievers going into the season and they combined to pitch only 11.2 innings. The pitchers who subsequently were forced into pitching key innings late in games largely did so adequately. Richard Rodriguez and Chris Stratton were a dominant 1-2 punch who both figure to garner plenty of interest from contending teams in need of bullpen help. Left-handers Sam Howard and Nik Turley, both of whom were invited to Spring Training on Minor League deals, also made strong impressions and will surely be pitching important innings again in 2021.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
I don’t anticipate this being a very noisy offseason for the Bucs. They have never been key players in free agency and that isn’t going to change this year. The only real question is in regards to how active GM Ben Cherington will be on the trade market. I expected a slew of moves at this past trade deadline and they did nothing. That largely can be attributed to most of their trade chips either being hurt (Kela, Musgrove, Archer) or playing so poorly that their markets essentially evaporated (Bell, Frazier, Holland). That being said, I think that the Pirates will hold off until the deadline to do most of their dealing, hoping that some of their veterans can boost their trade value again. I still think they’ll move a few pieces, which we’ll get into shortly.
The biggest departing names are the prizes from the 2018 trade deadline buying spree, Chris Archer and Keone Kela. Hindsight has proven that day to be tragic to the Pirates as a franchise. With Archer missing all of 2020 after undergoing surgery on his pitching arm, there was never a chance of the team picking up his $11 million option for next season. Kela, too, departs after an injury-riddled 2020 season. He pitched well in parts of three seasons as a Pirate, posting a 2.49 ERA in 51 appearances. He could still be brought back on a cheap deal but given how effective he has been when healthy the Pirates would most likely be outbid for his services.
The only real surprise here is Trevor Williams. I think that he will be non-tendered following his struggles from this year. This hinges on whether the Pirates trade anyone out of their current rotation (most likely Musgrove or Kuhl) before the season starts. If one of them gets traded, Williams probably gets one more shot to try to return to his 2018 form. But I ultimately think they hold off and he will have to prove himself elsewhere.
The Pirates already made one move to bolster their 2021 roster, claiming catcher Michael Perez off waivers from Tampa Bay. He presumably will be the backup catcher next year, eliminating one position of need early in the process. I still think the Bucs will enter the free agency period in search of some veteran bullpen arms as well as an outfielder. Anthony Alford is currently projected to be the starting center fielder next year. With Ben Cherington hinting at Cole Tucker (who played outfield almost exclusively in 2020, and did so poorly) returning to the infield next year, the Pirates could very much be in the mix for one of the cheaper outfield options.
Desired Targets: Jackie Bradley Jr., Jarrod Dyson, Billy Hamilton, Jon Jay, Jake Marisnick, Kevin Pillar, Michael A. Taylor, Cameron Maybin, Yasiel Puig, Anthony Bass, Brad Boxberger, Jesse Chavez, Oliver Drake, Jared Hughes, Keone Kela, AJ Ramos, Pedro Strop
It goes without saying that listing 17 desired targets doesn’t mean that the Pirates are going to sign 17 free agents this winter. I don’t think it’s going to be close to that number. But with outfield and bullpen depth being the obvious holes on the current roster, this is my estimation of guys on whom the front office will do their due diligence.
Cherington took over as the team’s general manager last offseason, and he dipped into the outfield market last winter after trading Starling Marte, signing both Jarrod Dyson and Guillermo Heredia to Major League deals. With the Pirates expressing their desire to mostly keep Bryan Reynolds in left field (despite his capability of playing all three outfield spots), I anticipate them going after someone who, like Dyson last year, is a reliable defender in center field above anything else. I think Jackie Bradley Jr. will ultimately prove too costly, and the Pirates have had opportunities to acquire Kevin Pillar, Cameron Maybin, and Billy Hamilton among others in the past and decided against it. So I think the guy they end up with this time around is Michael A. Taylor, signing him to a 1-year, $2 million deal to roam PNC Park’s spacious center field.
As for the bullpen, another strategy the Pirates have utilized, especially recently, is being extremely active on the waiver wire, particularly with relief pitchers. So I think that a majority of new names the Bucs bring to camp in 2021 will be guys who were either designated for assignment or unsuccessfully passed through waivers – in other words, players who are not current free agents and thus not on the above list. The best-case scenario here is for them to sign a low-risk, high-reward reliever and then flip him for a prospect or two at the trade deadline. As much as I’d love for the Pirates to go after Kirby Yates, he was too good too recently for him to really fall in their price range, I’m afraid. So instead I’m going to go with former All-Star AJ Ramos, who, after only pitching 2.2 innings last season and none the year before, can probably be had for 1-year, $1 million, plus incentives.
If it is the case that the National League returns to DH-less play in 2021, then I believe that there is an extremely high likelihood that either Moran or Josh Bell is traded this offseason. Given how much Bell struggled in 2020, I think a Moran trade is more likely. In this scenario, the Pirates would land Mason Denaburg, the Nationals’ 5th-ranked prospect per Fangraphs, and their first-round pick from the 2018 draft. Denaburg fell to 27th overall in the 2018 draft after dealing with injuries in high school and that has continued into his professional career, but he has the potential to be a mid-to-front of the rotation starter if he can stay healthy. In 24-year-old Jakson Reetz, the Pirates may be able to find another Jacob Stallings, as Reetz profiles as a defense-first backstop with a strong arm whose bat took a little bit of time to develop in the Minors. The Pirates’ depth behind the plate in the Minor Leagues is very thin, so Reetz would prove much more valuable to the Pirates than the Nationals.
As for the Nationals, they are a few pieces away from returning to playoff contention in 2021, and their biggest hole is at first base, where they are currently projected to start Jake Noll, who has 30 career Major League plate appearances. Moran is coming off of a strong 2020 season and would provide better protection for Juan Soto than Starlin Castro or Yan Gomes would. With the first base free agent pool consisting of largely underwhelming names, Washington may be better-served trading for a controllable player like Moran, who is under team control until 2024.
This constitutes another trade that probably would not have been accepted under the old regime, where the Pirates tended to prefer quantity over quality. Will Benson was Cleveland’s first-round pick in 2016 but has yet to play above high-A ball, posting just a .212/.331/.426 slash in his professional career. The raw power is there (70-grade per Fangraphs), but he will need to cut down on the strikeouts in order to be productive at the higher levels. Mikolajchak is a long ways away from a Major League call-up but has been an incredibly effective reliever in the low Minors and will continue to develop as a back-end bullpen arm.
With Cleveland looking to trade star shortstop Francisco Lindor ahead of the 2021 season, they could still be on the market for a bat or two, as they will likely remain in playoff contention thanks to their pitching staff. Should Frazier return to his pre-2020 form, he would slot in nicely atop the Cleveland batting order and help replace some of Lindor’s offensive production while playing stellar defense at second base.
2021 Projected Roster
- Kevin Newman, 2B
- Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B
- Bryan Reynolds, LF
- Josh Bell, 1B
- Gregory Polanco, RF
- Jacob Stallings, C
- Anthony Alford/Michael A. Taylor, CF
- Erik Gonzalez/Cole Tucker, SS
The hypothetical trade of Adam Frazier gives Kevin Newman the opportunity to shift to second base full-time. His defense has always been an issue and I think he would be relieved of a lot of pressure by not having to handle regular duties at shortstop anymore. That also leaves a potential hole at shortstop, where Erik Gonzalez (who had one good week in 2020) is a non-tender candidate and Cole Tucker has yet to contribute at all offensively. Either one is a substantial defensive upgrade over Newman. Aside from those question marks, if the trio of Reynolds, Bell, and Polanco can bounce back after struggling mightily in 2020 then this offense may begin to look at least competent in 2021.
- Joe Musgrove
- Jameson Taillon
- Steven Brault
- Mitch Keller
- Chad Kuhl
The wild card here is Jameson Taillon. The Pirates drafted Taillon ahead of Manny Machado in 2010, but the fact that they probably wish they could have that draft choice back is of no fault to Taillon. The 29-year-old is an uber-talented pitcher but has been incredibly unlucky throughout his career, having had to overcome a hernia surgery, testicular cancer, and two Tommy John surgeries in his professional career. In 2018, his last full season, he started 32 games, posted a 3.20 ERA, and was worth 3.9 fWAR. His struggles in 2019 largely stemmed from his inability to effectively throw his breaking pitches, which was attributed to his elbow pain that resulted in his second Tommy John surgery. The other question mark hovering over the rotation is Joe Musgrove, as he has a solid chance of being dealt before the season. Should he be moved, expect one of Trevor Williams, JT Brubaker, or Cody Ponce to occupy the final rotation spot.
- Richard Rodriguez
- Chris Stratton
- Kyle Crick
- AJ Ramos
- Sam Howard
- Nik Turley
- Geoff Hartlieb
- JT Brubaker
The key to success for the Pirates’ bullpen in 2021 is going to depend on their ability to be consistent. The arms that survived the majority of the season last year performed relatively well. But they had to go through 25 different bullpen arms (excluding one inning from catcher John Ryan Murphy) and a lot of the bad relief outings came from guys who were only called upon because of injuries (hat-tip to Miguel Del Pozo, the worst pitcher I’ve ever seen). If the above group, plus a few depth arms (Ponce, Blake Cederlind, Edgar Santana, to name a few) can stay healthy and productive, this bullpen will be much improved in 2021.
The Pirates, as they stand right now, are better than people will give them credit for. I don’t anticipate them competing for a playoff spot next year, but I don’t think they are a 100-loss team either. A lot had to go wrong for the Bucs to finish as 2020’s worst team. 2021 should allow Pirates fans to begin to see light at the end of the tunnel. They will most likely draft Kumar Rocker in June, they’ll land a few prospects at the trade deadline, and Ke’Bryan Hayes is going to be right in the thick of the NL Rookie of the Year race. I expect them to lose between 90-94 games next year, far from something to brag about, but far from what we had to endure in 2020.