AnalysisNL Central

2021 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Ethan Fisher takes a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates!

The 2020 season, and all of the unprecedented hurdles that came with it, proved to be a challenge to every club across Major League Baseball. This was especially true for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished with the league’s worst record and the second-worst record in its modern franchise history. 2020 also saw the beginning of the Bucs diving head-first into a rebuild, meaning that there won’t be much competitive baseball in Pittsburgh for quite some time.

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 19-41, 5th Place in NL Central

Team MVP: Jacob Stallings

Team Cy Young: Steven Brault

The Pirates were not expected to be a playoff-contending team in 2020, but still, it seemed as if no cards were dealt in their favor. The reshuffling of the schedules for the 60-game season resulted in Pittsburgh playing only 6 games against non-playoff teams (they lost all 6 of those games). Outside of Ke’Bryan Hayes‘ long-awaited and exhilarating debut, there was hardly anything for Pirates fans to be excited about last season. Hayes posted a 195 wRC+, 4 DRS, and 1.9 bWAR across just a 24-game sample, firmly entrenching himself as one of the NL Rookie of the Year favorites in 2021. Jacob Stallings and Colin Moran were the only other position players of value, as Stallings combined slightly-below-average offense with stellar defense and game-calling. Moran was the only regular who topped Stallings’ .376 slugging percentage. Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco, Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman, and Adam Frazier all simultaneously had career-worst seasons, leaving the Pirates to hope that those monumental struggles were simply the product of the pandemic-induced shortened season.

The new player-specific philosophy of first-year pitching coach Oscar Marin was often seen at work, as many pitchers had their most productive, albeit brief, seasons in 2020. This includes starters Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, and Joe Musgrove, the latter of whom parlayed his successful 8-game stretch into a trade to his hometown and World-Series contending Padres. Health was the biggest issue with the bullpen, as Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi, and Michael Feliz, all of whom were expected to be key contributors in the back end, combined to pitch just 11.2 innings. Both Kela and Burdi join Musgrove in San Diego for 2021, while Crick and Feliz will have to prove that they’re healthy to earn bullpen spots.

Off-season Review

Key losses from 2020: Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, Nik Turley, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer, Keone Kela, Derek Holland, Nick Burdi,

Notable Free Agent Additions: Tyler Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Chasen Shreve, Michael Perez, Tony Wolters, Wilmer Difo, Todd Frazier, Brian Goodwin

Notable Trades: Josh Bell to the Nationals for Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean; Joe Musgrove to the Padres for Hudson Head, Omar Cruz, David Bednar, Drake Fellows, and Endy Rodriguez (from Mets); Jameson Taillon to the Yankees for Miguel Yajure, Roansy Contreras, Canaan Smith-Njigba, and Maikol Escotto; Nik Turley to the Athletics for cash considerations; Dustin Fowler from the Athletics for cash considerations; Duane Underwood Jr. from the Cubs for Shendrik Apostel

Pirates GM Ben Cherington was recently asked about his strategy for bringing competitive baseball back to Pittsburgh, and he laid out his plan in three stages:

  • Accumulate as much talent as possible through trades, the draft, and international free agency
  • Accelerate the development of that talent at both the Major and Minor League levels
  • As the window to contention reopens, replenish the Major League roster via trades and free agency

The Pirates are clearly still in the first stage, as evidenced by the trades of Bell, Musgrove, and Taillon this off-season. I wrote about the Pirates’ rebuild much more extensively here, where I went in-depth about Cherington’s strategy regarding prospect acquisition (which greatly contrasts that of the old regime) and the overall drastic improvements he has made to the farm system during his short tenure.

The main question surrounding the Pirates entering the off-season was how active the team would be on the trade front. They were obvious candidates to unload some pieces at the trade deadline but stood pat aside from a swap of Jarrod Dyson for international bonus pool space. Cherington made his intentions clear for the off-season, though, by making three key moves in a span of about a month. The Musgrove trade was not particularly surprising, as he was widely expected to be one of the most sought-after arms available on the trade market. However, the trade of Jameson Taillon, whose appearances this spring were his first competitive action since May of 2019 when he underwent a second Tommy John surgery, proves just how dead-set Cherington is on tearing this thing down and accumulating as much prospect capital as possible.

Knowing the state the Pirates are currently in, they were not expected to be key players in free agency. That held true, as they only dished out a total of $4 million in Major League deals to Tyler Anderson (1/$2.5M) and Trevor Cahill (1/$1.5M plus incentives). A handful of veterans were brought in on Minor League deals that have an inside shot at regular playing time, most notably infielder Todd Frazier, outfielder Brian Goodwin, and reliever Chasen Shreve. The 35-year-old Frazier is, by a significant margin, the oldest player in camp with the Bucs and said that the opportunity to be a mentor and not just a player factored into his decision to sign with the Pirates.

2021 Season Preview

Projected Roster

Projected Lineup:

  1. Adam Frazier, 2B
  2. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B
  3. Bryan Reynolds, LF
  4. Colin Moran, 1B
  5. Gregory Polanco, RF
  6. Brian Goodwin, CF
  7. Jacob Stallings, C
  8. Kevin Newman, SS

Projected Bench:

The Rest: Michael Perez, Phillip Evans, Will Craig, Cole Tucker, Rodolfo Castro, Wilmer Difo, Jared Oliva, Troy Stokes Jr., Dustin Fowler

Many of the same names are returning on offense aside from Josh Bell. However, there’s reason to believe that a Moran/Frazier platoon at first base would wind up more productive than the 77 wRC+, .297 xwOBA, and subpar defense (-1 DRS, -3 OAA) that Bell produced last season. Moran had a career-best hard-hit rate (47.2%) and walk rate (9.5%) in 2020 and should be much more comfortable playing just first base as opposed to third base (or even the utility role in which he was briefly deployed in 2019).

There’s a logjam at shortstop, with Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, and Erik Gonzalez all competing for the starting gig. Newman had a very successful rookie campaign in 2019 but failed to replicate any of that success last year. Gonzalez looked like a competent hitter for about two weeks in August yet still posted a career-worst .614 OPS on the season. Tucker didn’t even play shortstop at all last year, as he started shagging fly balls in Spring Training and wound up playing 247.2 of his 250.2 defensive innings in the outfield. He also has yet to prove that he can consistently hit Major League pitching.

It was widely expected that Adam Frazier would be traded this off-season, allowing the aforementioned trio to get at-bats at second base also (particularly Newman, who is by far the worst defender of the three). However, despite reported interest both during and after the regular season, Frazier is still here. With him currently hampered by mild groin tightness, it seems unlikely he will be moved this spring. Assuming he’s still around and healthy by Opening Day, I would expect Tucker to be optioned, given his career struggles at the plate.

Bryan Reynolds and Gregory Polanco can expect to appear on most lineup cards this season, but the center field and 4th outfielder jobs are far less certain. Brian Goodwin has a good chance to make the team despite being the only man in the center field competition that isn’t currently on the 40-man roster. He has a career 101 wRC+ and considerable playing time at all three outfield spots. Anthony Alford was off to a hot start as a Pirate before breaking his elbow, which was still restricting his ability to throw from the outfield early in camp. The team also acquired former top-100 prospect Dustin Fowler just before the start of Spring Training, providing the club with some more depth in case of a setback with Alford’s elbow.

Projected Rotation:

  1. Mitch Keller
  2. Steven Brault
  3. Chad Kuhl
  4. Tyler Anderson
  5. Trevor Cahill
  6. JT Brubaker

The Rest: Wil Crowe, Cody Ponce, Miguel Yajure, James Marvel, Cody Bolton

The starting rotation is likely set in stone barring an injury, although manager Derek Shelton has stated numerous times that the Pirates (and probably all MLB teams) will attempt to ease their starters back into the rhythm of a 162-game season by deploying more than five healthy starting pitchers. This means that Miguel Yajure, Wil Crowe, Cody Ponce, and others are expected to be mixed into the rotation and the bullpen to prevent overworking the main five starters.

The 2021 season will prove to be a crucial one to many Pirates, but perhaps none more so than Mitch Keller. Keller is entering his third MLB season but has just 16 career starts to his name. While his ERA dropped from 7.13 to 2.91 in 2020, he saw his strikeout, walk, and hard-hit rates all dip in the wrong direction. His BABIP of .475 in 2019 was the highest by a starting pitcher in league history. He countered that with an equally-unsustainable .104 mark in 2020. He only allowed 9 hits in 21.2 innings, but 4 of those hits left the ballpark. The nasty stuff is still there, as his fastball has been clocked upwards of 98 MPH this spring, and the sharp secondary pitches still play. But a full season of Mitch Keller will help give the Pirates a sense of direction in the future.

JT Brubaker is another pitcher to watch closely this season, regardless of whatever role he may wind up filling. He made the Opening Day roster last season as a reliever but ended up pitching out of the starting rotation for the majority of the season due to injuries to other members of the staff. He may find himself back in the bullpen in a multi-inning role after the signings of Tyler Anderson and Trevor Cahill but will surely get an opportunity to start as well. Brubaker is primarily a sinker-baller whose fastball reached as high as 97 MPH last year, who also has a pair of strong breaking balls. His raw stuff indicates that he should be able to miss bats more frequently moving forward, potentially making him an integral part of the team’s future either as a starter or a reliever.

Projected Bullpen:

The Rest: Michael Feliz, Geoff Hartlieb, Blake Cederlind, Edgar Santana, Nick Mears, Austin Davis, Tyler Bashlor, Clay Holmes, Sean Poppen, Chase De Jong, Jandel Gustave, Jose Soriano

While Shelton has not committed to naming anyone as the team’s closer yet, expect Richard Rodriguez to fill that role. Rodriguez has been one of the most under-appreciated relievers in baseball since joining the Pirates in 2018. Among all relievers to pitch at least 100 innings since 2018, Rodriguez has a better:

Chris Stratton may be the only other reliever guaranteed a roster spot. He has a tendency to give up hard contact, but he was in the 98th percentile in both fastball and curveball spin in 2020 and generates whiffs very well with both pitches, as well as a changeup that he now throws exclusively to left-handed hitters and had a whiff rate over 50%.

A couple of other relievers I’ll be watching for in particular are Kyle Crick and Edgar Santana. Crick, formerly a top prospect with the Giants, had a brief run of success after being acquired in the Andrew McCutchen trade but has seen an alarming dive in velocity since a locker room altercation in 2019 resulted in a broken right index finger. He was routinely hitting as high as 98 MPH with his fastball but has been sitting in the 91-92 MPH range ever since. It will be very concerning if he is unable to regain his velocity. However, he still utilizes a slider that has averaged between 15-22 inches of horizontal break throughout his MLB career.

Santana also is a few years removed from a string of 88 relief appearances with a 3.31 ERA and 1.20 WHIP from 2017-2018. He missed all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and all of 2020 following a PED-related suspension. Although he has somewhat of a track record, it has been some time since he pitched competitively, and he has two Minor League options remaining, so a demotion, at least to start the season, seems likely.

I had previously included Blake Cederlind in this section as well, but he has since been diagnosed with a UCL strain in his throwing elbow. Cederlind made his MLB debut in 2020 and prominently featured a sinker that can reach upwards of 100 MPH and a slider/cutter hybrid that he worked on re-shaping in the off-season. He was unlikely to make the Opening Day roster due to the number of out-of-options and Rule 5 relievers the Pirates currently employ. But Cederlind is viewed by many fans as the likely “closer of the future,” which may be hampered depending on the severity of his injury. Nonetheless, it is now hard to imagine him making much of an impact this season, which is truly a shame.

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 65-97, 5th place in NL Central

PECOTA Projected Record: 60-102, 5th place in NL Central

Personal Projection: 64-98, 5th place in NL Central

One thing is for sure – the 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates are not going to be a very good baseball team, all but guaranteed to finish last in the NL Central and in the running for the top pick in the 2022 draft. How they get to that point, though, remains to be seen. They could duplicate last year’s approach of trucking through the season with the same roster they entered with and save all the wheeling and dealing for next off-season. Alternatively, Ben Cherington may decide to shake things up by the trade deadline, as most pitchers with a pulse besides Mitch Keller could be in play, as well as a handful of position players (Stallings, Newman, Reynolds, Polanco, and both Fraziers, in particular).

All that being said, the true talent level of the current roster doesn’t feel like a 100-loss team to me. Even though the team traded multiple proven players after performing at a 111-loss pace last year, many of the Bucs’ key players are better than they showed in 2020. Couple that with the fact that the Pirates play in the NL Central, which very well may be MLB’s worst division top-to-bottom, along with a full season of Ke’Bryan Hayes, and the Pirates may end up winning more games than many expect.

Final Thoughts

The return of Minor League play will be as critical for the Pirates organization as any in baseball. With that being the case, the 2021 season may be when the team begins to transition into the second phase of the Ben Cherington rebuild that focuses primarily on player development. Many prospects acquired in the last couple of seasons, including Quinn Priester and Nick Gonzales, the Pirates’ most recent top draft picks, have had little-to-no professional competitive reps and have thus been limited in their development. Pirates fans should be keeping a close eye on all levels of the Minors for the foreseeable future, especially because the Major League team will be much less exciting.

The 2021 season will be hard to watch, but at the same time, it will be crucial to the future success of the organization.

Ethan Fisher

Jesus paid it all. Forever hoping Bob Nutting will just pay anyone. Ke'Bryan Hayes is the best 3B in the NL Central. Always talking Pirates/baseball in general on Twitter @efisher330

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