2021 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

(Image source: MLB.com)

Pittsburgh Pirates
By Anthony Brown

2020 Record: 19-41 (.317 win%, 5th in NL Central)

2020 Payroll: $44,755,000 (29th)

Projected 2021 Lineup (All projections from Steamer and Rotochamp):

  1. 2B Adam Frazier, .265 AVG, .330 OBP, .402 SLG, 1.3 fWAR
  2. 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes, .280 AVG, .348 OBP, .461 SLG, 2.9 fWAR
  3. 1B Colin Moran, .264 AVG, .329 OBP, .438 SLG, 0.4 fWAR
  4. LF Bryan Reynolds, .263 AVG, .334 OBP, .431 SLG, 1.2 fWAR
  5. RF Gregory Polanco, .228 AVG, .305 OBP, .428 SLG, 0.0 fWAR
  6. CF Anthony Alford, .224 AVG, .291 OBP, .352 SLG, -0.5 fWAR
  7. C Jacob Stallings, .247 AVG, .311 OBP, .381 SLG, 1.4 fWAR
  8. SS Kevin Newman, .272 AVG, .323 OBP, .384 SLG, 0.5 fWAR

Projected 2021 Rotation:

  1. Chad Kuhl, 137 IP, 4.84 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 1.1 fWAR
  2. Tyler Anderson, 152 IP, 4.92 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 1.3 fWAR
  3. Mitch Keller, 136 IP, 4.45 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 1.6 fWAR
  4. JT Brubaker, 137 IP, 4.22 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 1.8 fWAR
  5. Trevor Cahill, 98 IP, 4.71 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 1.2 fWAR
  6. *Steven Brault, 121 IP, 4.70 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 0.9 fWAR

*currently injured

Offseason Recap:

Well, they finally did it. After years of refusing to go all-in on a rebuild despite never competing, the Pirates have begun the tear-down. It started on Christmas Eve, when they traded Josh Bell to the Nationals for pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean. The consensus was that the return was light for the Pirates, even when considering the fact that Bell’s value comes mostly from the first half of 2019, he was coming off his worst season in the majors, and he is a defensive liability even at first base. Crowe was a 2nd round pick in 2017 and has shown flashes of competence in the minor leagues, but struggled mightily in his debut last year and is 26 years old. Yean is 19 years old and does not have much experience, but has an impressive fastball and has been moving up prospect rankings recently. MLB Pipeline currently has Yean ranked 13th in the Pirates’ farm system and Crowe ranked 23rd.

Nearly a month later, the Pirates traded their best trade chip in Joe Musgrove to the Padres in a three-team deal that included the Mets. From the Mets, they received catching prospect Endy Rodriguez; from the Padres, they received pitching prospects David Bednar, Drake Fellows, and Omar Cruz, as well as outfield prospect Hudson Head. Although the consensus was that this return was better, it still felt like they were valuing quantity over quality, especially considering Musgrove’s breakout last season. Head is the crown jewel of this deal: after being a 3rd round pick in 2019, he’s been moving up prospect rankings ever since. Rodriguez is an advanced hitter for a 20-year-old and gives the Pirates the catching prospect they desperately needed, though he is also athletic enough to play the outfield. Cruz and Fellows are seen as projects due to their young age and raw stuff, and Bednar is a reliever who has struggled in his brief time in the majors but could start the year in the Pirates bullpen. MLB Pipeline has Head, Cruz, and Rodriguez ranked 6th, 24th, and 27nd in the Pirates’ system, respectively, while Bednar and Fellows are unranked.

Just five days later, the Pirates sent pitcher Jameson Taillon to the Yankees for pitching prospects Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras, shortstop prospect Maikol Escotto, and outfield prospect Canaan Smith-Njigba. Taillon was coming off his second Tommy John surgery, but he has shown the potential to be an impact pitcher when healthy. Yajure is the best of the prospects and will have a chance to win a spot in the starting rotation this season. He doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but has exceptional command and has seen an increase in velocity this spring. Smith-Njigba is a power-hitting outfielder who has struggled to make contact at times but walks at a high rate and dominated A-ball as a 20-year-old in 2019 with a 154 wRC+. Contreras’ and Escotto’s outlook depends on the site, but the consensus is that Contreras has good control but lacks a plus pitch, and Escotto is just too young to accurately measure but has big potential. MLB Pipeline ranks Yajure, Contreras, and Smith-Njigba at 12th, 20th, and 26th, respectively, while Escotto is unranked.

Since the Red Wedding, the Pirates have made a number of small major league and minor league acquisitions. Trevor Cahill and Tyler Anderson will likely slide into the rotation, but Anderson could be better off in the bullpen, where Sam Howard is currently the only other lefty. Of the minor league signings, Todd Frazier, Tony Wolters, and Chasen Shreve are the most likely ones to break camp with the team, but that’s mostly out of necessity and not talent level. 

2021 Season Preview:

For three glorious seasons in the mid-2010s, I believed that my days of suffering as a Pirates fan were over. Then, mostly due to ownership’s unwillingness to spend money, the Pirates have fallen back into their old ways and finished below .500 in four of the last five seasons. Last year, despite a weakened division and a shortened season where anything could happen, the Pirates finished with the worst record in all of baseball. This year will likely be just as bad, as the Pirates are widely projected to be one of the worst teams in the league. 

Starting on the pitching side, the Pirates will likely finish with one of the weakest rotations in the league. Steven Brault had a surprisingly good season last year, but he is expected to miss the first couple of months with a lat strain. Also, he released an album covering songs from Broadway last year, so there’s that. Taking his place at the head of the rotation is Chad Kuhl, who returned from Tommy John surgery last season. Kuhl was solid outside of one bad start against the Royals and should have every opportunity to prove himself this season. Mitch Keller will be focused on later in this article, but after two inconsistent seasons, the former top prospect will be looking to take a step forward. The last returning starter from last season is JT Brubaker, who made nine starts in his debut last year. Despite an ugly ERA, Brubaker finished with a 4.08 FIP and a 23.4% strikeout rate, showing that he may be better than expected this season.

As mentioned earlier in this piece, joining the Pirates rotation this season are Tyler Anderson and Trevor Cahill. Anderson returned from a knee injury to put up a 4.37 ERA in 11 starts for the Giants last season and was able to limit hard contact, finishing in the 86th percentile in HardHit%. However, he is 31 years old, doesn’t strike anybody out, and struggles with home runs at times. Cahill finished 2020 with a 3.24 ERA in six starts and five relief appearances for the Giants, and also set a career-high in both strikeout rate and walk rate. Cahill is 33 years old now, and he’ll be expected to eat innings and lose games for the Pirates this season. New trade acquisitions Wil Crowe and Miguel Yajure will likely find starts at some point this year, with Crowe likely getting the first crack at it due to his age, but all in all, it is not a very exciting rotation for the Pirates this season.

If you thought the rotation was uninspiring, in the words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Richard Rodriguez will start the season as closer after a great 2020 where he set a career-best strikeout rate and walk rate. Unfortunately, he is a prime trade candidate, so it’s unlikely he will be in Pittsburgh the whole season. Behind him is some combination of Chris Stratton, Michael Feliz, and Kyle Crick. Stratton had an unexpectedly solid season last year, but Feliz only pitched 1.2 innings before getting hurt, and Crick returned from an injury only to see his velocity drop from 95 MPH to 91 MPH. With Blake Cederlind out for the season with Tommy John, the only other potential bright spot in the bullpen is new addition David Bednar, who has struggled in his brief time in the majors, but dominated the minors and has looked great in Spring Training.

On the offensive side of the ball, Jacob Stallings will get the majority of starts at catcher this season after finishing as a Gold Glove finalist last year and having one of the better offensive performances on the team. Backing him up will be either Tony Wolters or Michael Perez, which is perhaps the saddest sentence I’ve had to write so far. Colin Moran will move to first base now that Josh Bell is gone, but could end up as the strong side of a platoon given his poor splits against lefties. For the time being, Adam Frazier will be the starting second baseman but has been mentioned as a trade candidate for years. Frazier is a two-time Gold Glove finalist and was pretty consistently solid with the bat, but was one of the many Pirates hitters to struggle offensively last season. At shortstop, Kevin Newman has once again beaten Cole Tucker and Erik Gonzales for the starting job after hitting .700 in Spring Training. After hitting .308 his rookie year, Newman’s average fell to .224 and his stolen base total went from 16 to 0. Ke’Bryan Hayes is the starting third baseman and the NL Rookie of the Year favorite. I’ll sing praises about him later on in this article, so for now I will just say that he showed he is the complete package last season.

In the outfield, Bryan Reynolds will look to bounce back after a rough 2020 season. After finishing 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2019, he fell off big time last season, with his wRC+ falling from 130 to 72. His true performance likely lies somewhere in between, which should make him a league-average player. In right field is Gregory Polanco, who will start the season healthy for the first time since 2018. Polanco hit the ball very hard last season, finishing in the 95th percentile in exit velocity, but he also struck out 37.4% of the time. If his swing and miss rate doesn’t drop, this will likely be his last season in Pittsburgh, given that he has a club option each of the next two seasons. Center field is more of a competition this season, but Anthony Alford appears to be the frontrunner. New acquisitions Dustin Fowler and Brian Goodwin are also competing for the starting job as well as the backup outfield job, but after a strong spring, the starting job appears to be Alford’s to lose.

Overall, it is going to be a rough season for the Pirates.  The rotation is rough, the bullpen may be worse, and the offense is uninspiring at best. All that adds up to a season that will feature a lot of big losses and yet another last-place finish. They have some players worth looking out for, but for the most part, the tank is in full swing this season.

Record Prediction: 60-102 (5th in NL Central)

As far as predictions go, this might actually be an optimistic look at the Pirates. The second-worst offense in the league lost one of its best hitters. The team with the third-worst FIP among starters lost its two best pitchers. Despite the NL Central arguably at its weakest in a decade, the Pirates will challenge for the worst record in baseball. The only things for Pirates fans to look forward to this season are Ke’Bryan Hayes and whether they draft Kumar Rocker or Jack Leiter.

Player to Watch #1: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes

What can I say about Ke’Bryan Hayes that hasn’t already been said? Any questions about his hitting in the minors are gone after hitting .376 with 5 home runs in only 24 games. His average exit velocity would have tied for 11th best among qualified hitters and his spray chart shows that he spreads the ball around the field. His launch angle is on the low end of the spectrum, but if he were to raise it, that would unlock a new power potential to his game. Not to mention his defense was as advertised in the short amount of playing time he got, ranking 4th among third basemen in Outs Above Average, despite playing only half as many innings as the three players ahead of him. Hayes is the clear frontrunner for NL Rookie of the Year, should be a finalist for a Gold Glove, and is by far the brightest spot in the Pirates organization. 

Player to Watch #2: SP Mitch Keller

In his two MLB seasons, Mitch Keller has been both extremely lucky and extremely unlucky. He made 11 starts his rookie season, ending with a 7.13 ERA but a 3.19 FIP and a .475 BABIP, which was over 100 points higher than the next starting pitcher with at least 40 innings pitched. On the other hand, in his 5 starts this past year he had a 2.91 ERA but 6.75 FIP, and led the league with a .104 BABIP. The key for Keller this year will be to stay healthy, as he suffered an oblique injury last August, which could have affected his pitching after he returned. He’s still only 24 and was ranked #16 on MLB Pipeline’s prospect rankings as recently as 2018. If the Pirates want to feel good about their future, they will need Mitch Keller to display some of the potential he showed in the minors.

Player to Watch #3: CF Anthony Alford

As I was writing this blurb, Alford just left a Spring Training game after getting hit by a pitch in the same arm that he broke at the end of last season. Injuries have been the main problem for Alford, as the former top prospect has been placed on the IL in 3 of the 4 seasons he has played in. Getting consistent playing time has also been a trouble for him, as he topped out with a career-high 18 games played last year, but he was supposed to compete for the starting center field job with the Pirates this season. It was starting to look like he was running away with it too, hitting .385 with two home runs and a couple of web gems before getting hurt. He probably won’t end up being the player we thought he would be years ago, but he might end up being half-decent, and these are the kinds of players the Pirates should target for the next couple of seasons.

Categories: 2021 Season Preview, Articles

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