The Pittsburgh Pirates Winter of Guarded Optimism

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are a team in need. Just name a facet of the game and the Bucs are likely in at least a moderate need in that area. They are one of the lowest payroll teams in MLB which forces them to rely heavily on their farm system. Unfortunately, the farm system isn’t producing the number of prospects the big club needs just yet. It’s a tough spot, but the team has chosen their man to guide the franchise through this tough time.

Ben Cherington was brought aboard as General Manager and is tasked with revitalizing the distressed club. His choice for the man to lead the team on the field was Derek Shelton whose first season as their manager was truly challenging. The club finished 15 games behind the division lead in only a 60-game season. And the work just gets harder for both men as they move toward the 2021 season.

On the Field

Shelton faces both motivating a team that has struggled and to allow his younger players to develop at the major league level. Young stars-to-be Josh Bell (.669 OPS/8HR/22RBI) and Bryan Reynolds (.632 OPS/7HR/19RBI) both scuffled through the 2020 season. They will be counted upon heavily to return to their upward career arcs. Rookie third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes lit up his 85 at-bats to the tune of a 1.124 OPS and five homers. His development is key to bolstering the offense. The batting order is pretty much bereft of another run producer of any consequence.

The Bucs’ pitching staff sports a host of maybes who has shown flashes of brilliance at times but never been able to maintain success. The highly touted Mitch Keller was a disaster in 2019 but rebounded for five starts that produced a sub-3.00 ERA in 2020. Steven Brault (1-3 3.38 ERA) and Chad Kuhl (2-3 4.27 ERA) emerged as rotation leaders. Joe Musgrove (1-5 3.86 ERA) stepped up to pitch solidly. A big priority will be getting Jameson Taillon healthy and keeping him that way. After missing the majority of the 2019 season and all of the abbreviated 2020 campaign, 30 starts would be a huge step forward. With continued development, the rotation could turn out to be the absolute strength of the team. But on-field challenges notwithstanding, it’s the business needs of the team that are the most daunting.

Off the Field

A big concern is Gregory Polanco’s last guaranteed year on the payroll. The club had high hopes for the lefty hitter when they signed him to a lengthy extension in 2016. He has failed to meet that promise since and now has one more season and $11M left to go. There are two team options over the following two seasons that would add up to $26M. However, it doesn’t seem as though that would be likely even if Polanco cranked out an outstanding 2021 season. Then, what to do with Felipe Vazquez? The one-time closer awaits trial on a statutory sexual assault charge and remains on the suspended list. Vazquez’s talent is a given, but would the team want him back even if he is acquitted of the charge?

The most significant challenge the Pittsburgh Pirates face in the coming year is the slew of arbitration cases on the way after the 2021 season. Twelve players of varying significance are due for hearings before 2022. Bell, Brault, Kuhl, Musgrove, Keone Kela, Adam Frazier, Kyle Crick, Jacob Stallings, Jameson Taillon, Richard Rodriguez, Colin Moran, and Chris Stratton will all be eligible for arbitration and will be due pay increases. Cherington will have to decide which players he will offer contract extensions to rather than waiting for the sometimes contentious arbitration showdowns.

Down on the Farm

A team in such a bad way at the major league level should find hope in looking to the future. Hayes, Reynolds, and Keller represent the current influx of talent from the farm system and the next few seasons promise to be just as impactful. Shortstop Oniel Cruz is close and is a collection of intense athletic abilities. Still a raw athlete, Cruz could be on his way to 20/20 productivity at the big league level as soon as next season. Speedy outfielder Jared Oliva got a cup of coffee with the big club this season and could win a roster spot in spring training. The 24-year-old has the ability to roll out 30+ steals a season and bring stability to the leadoff spot.

First baseman Mason Martin cranked out a 35 HR, 129 RBI season between two single-A levels in 2019. He could hit his way into the big leagues sooner than expected. Kevin Kramer and Will Craig got to breathe some major league air this year. They could become part of the cast that holds down the fort until the organization’s other top prospects arrive. Farm hands Nick Gonzalez, Quinn Priester, Liover Peguero, and Travis Swaggerty all have high expectations riding with them.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans can take stock in that the starting rotation has potential and could be the foundation of a team. Combined with some of the talented hitters on the way from the farm system, the team could repeat the three consecutive playoff appearances the team had from 2013-2015. But that will be a waiting game. The team and the fans will have to remain patient over the next two or three seasons. Then again, that’s nothing new in Pittsburgh and it’s part of being a faithful Pirate fan.

 

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