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2021 NL Central Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

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The Pirates will be in full rebuild in 2021.

Ben Cherington Leaves Red Sox Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in the midst of a major rebuild. Their winning percentage in 2020 was .317, which placed them thoroughly into the proverbial cellar of MLB. The good news for the Pirates is they got the #1 pick in the 2021 draft. The bad news is that they are trading away assets, and from the look of this team, they might be cellar dwellers for the next 3-5 years.

As we know, things can change pretty quickly, and as they make trades and obtain high draft picks, the Pirates are apt to have one of the top ranked farm systems in baseball in the coming years. To oversee this rebuild, Pittsburgh hired former Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington, who was also the Assistant GM under Theo Epstein during their World Series runs. During that time they built a home grown core around players like Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Xander Bogaerts.

Once Epstein and Jed Hoyer took jobs with the Chicago Cubs, Cherington took over as the GM. The players Cherington drafted and acquired have yet to achieve the renown of the players mentioned. However they still could. Yoan Moncada and Andrew Benintendi have been good players at the MLB level. Michael Chavis and Michael Kopech could be good.

For a small market team like the Pirates, costs are a major concern, and Cherington knows how to reduce a team’s payroll. Remember he pulled off a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers that sent out Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett and took $250 million off the Red Sox payroll. Unfortunately for Boston, some of the trades Cherington made were not the best. He traded away players like Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Iglesias, John Lackey, and Jed Lowrie for what amounted to a lot less return than the teams he traded with got.

Cherington gets a lot of credit for building the base of those great Red Sox teams, and he probably should to some extent. Nonetheless, he is being brought into Pittsburgh to overhaul the team. He does not have the talent to trade that he had in Boston. He does not have the financial resources he had in Boston. He just does not have the room to make mistakes in Pittsburgh like he did in Boston. That said, he may have learned from those mistakes, and that experience along with the experience of helping build those great Boston teams under Epstein might prove beneficial in the end for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Additions:

Additions are not the name of the game for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The only additions being made to this team are meant to trade at the deadline, to fill out the roster, or to come as young controllable assets for the future. The immediate future is bleak for the Pirates, but they do hope some of the additions play well enough to attract buyers come trade time.

With their fingers crossed, the Pirates signed Todd Frazier, Steven Wright, Chasen Shreve, Tony Wolters, and Chase De Jong to minor league contracts. They also signed Trevor Cahill and Tyler Anderson to 1-year contracts.

Subtractions:

There are a few significant subtractions, and there are likely more to come. Jameson Taillon was traded to the New York Yankees. The Pirates got RHP Miguel Yajure, RHP Roansy Contreras, OF Canaan Smith, SS Maikol Escort. Three of the four prospects ranked in the Yankees’ top 21, but none in the top 10. Taillon was the #2 selection in the 2010 MLB draft. Injuries and illness have left a once promising career mostly derailed to this point. He did make 32 starts in 2018 and pitched to a 3.20 ERA.

Pittsburgh also sent Joe Musgrove to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Hudson Head, Omar Cruz, Drake Fellows, David Bednar, and Endy Rodriguez (via Mets). Head was a top 10 prospect in San Diego’s system, while Rodriguez was top 15 in the Mets’ system. Musgrove had proved to be a back-of-the-rotation arm until last season. In 2020, Musgrove jumped from about eight strikeouts per nine to 12.5 per nine.

Josh Bell was the third big trade the Pirates made. This time they traded with the Washington Nationals. Pittsburgh got Will Crowe and Eddy Yean in exchange. While the Pirates likely sold high on Musgrove, they probably sold low on Bell. Bell put up an 77 wRC+ in 2020, but that was just removed from a season where he put up a 135 wRC+ and hit 37 bombs. Yean does come in at #13 and Crowe at #23 on Pittsburgh’s prospect list.

With the three trades, the Pirates added 11 new players to their farm system. Yet with the subtractions of Taillon, Musgrove, and Josh Bell along with previous trades that saw Starling Marte, Tyler Glasnow, and Austin Meadows leave, the Pirates have seen an abundance of talent fly away. The Pirates hope that Cherington finds better results than his predecessor did.

Infield:

It looks like the Pirates are give Ke’Bryan Hayes the opportunity to man the hot corner and send Colin Moran over the first base. It makes perfect sense. Hayes is the Pirates top prospect and the #9 prospect in all of baseball. Hayes rates well defensively and he was good enough in his first stint in the majors to garner Rookie of the Year votes. In 24 games he slashed .346/.442/.682.

Moran has been okay for the Bucs over the years, although he did put up a 113 wRC+ in 2020. Moran was a long time top prospect in the Astros’ system. As of right now, he looks like an average major leaguer.

Adam Frazier will handle second base for the most part. In 2018, it looked like Frazier was going to be a really good player slashing .277/.342/.456. While his defensive profile has improved, his bat has not. He is essentially a league average hitter, but he can play multiple positions. A league average hitter in multiple positions is an asset. Nonetheless the keystone is likely his primary position in 2021.

The Bucs top pick in 2015, Kevin Newman, will play shortstop. In 2019, he proved to be a pretty good hitter. Posting a 109 wRC+ in his first full season was a good beginning to his career. Unfortunately he did not fare well in 2020 with the bat. The Pirates need him to hit, especially if he continues to be on the negative side of DRS.

Outfield:

What was once one of the best outfields in baseball is simply no more. The likes of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Austin Meadows roamed the Pirates’ outfield. The only outfielder left is Gregory Polanco. In 2018 it looked as if he was going to breakout, and he did for that season slashing .254/.340/.499. Injuries took their toll on the young outfielder who is still just 25 years old. Polanco will man right field for Pittsburgh in 2021.

The Pirates hope he performs well enough to start the season. On an affordable contract and not eligible for free agency until 2024, this talented player would potentially bring the biggest package back to Pittsburgh in trade.

Bryan Reynolds will handle duties in left field most days. As with many players in 2020, he had a rough year. However in his rookie season of 2019, he was really good at the plate. He slashed .314/.377/.503. A .387 BABIP that year suggests that luck was part of the equation, but if the Pirates get performances out of Reynolds similar to 2019, they will have a good player that might still be around when the Pirates are good again.

Anthony Alford looks like he is going to get the chance in center field this season. Once a highly touted prospect in the Blue Jays’ system, Alford failed to pan out. The Pirates hope he is a late bloomer.

Rotation:

A rotation of that includes Jameson Taillon, Mitch Keller, and Joe Musgrove sounds pretty good. Oh wait, well Mitch Keller is supposed to be good. Keller was a top prospect, and his 2020 season showed up in the results column as he posted a 2.91 ERA. A 6.75 FIP and a strike out percentage below 7 per 9 are concerning. The Pirates hope Keller will become their ace.

Steven Brault was set to be at the top of the Pirates rotation in 2021. Unfortunately he will be shut down for a month due to a muscle strain in his arm. Chad Kuhl will likely get a rotation spot, and offseason acquisitions Trevor Cahill and Tyler Anderson will get shots at making the rotation. J.T. Brubaker and Wil Crowe might take one of the rotation spots as well.

Whatever the case, the trades of Taillon and Musgrove removed two significant arms from the rotation. Most of the pitchers in this rotation are there to eat innings. Brault and Keller might be exceptions. This staff is not one that strikes fear into the hearts of their opponents.

Bullpen:

The Pirates have not announced anyone that will fill in as the “closer.” Richard Rodriguez closed some games for them in 2020. Kyle Crick is a hard throwing right hander that could turn see high leverage situations. Chris Stratton, Michael Feliz, Duane Underwood Jr., David Bednar, Chasen Shreve, and Luis Oviedo will probably make up the bullpen along with those that fail to make the starting rotation. The bullpen does not stand out, but there are a couple of intriguing arms that might perform well. Of course any reliever that pitches well in the first half of 2021 is apt to be on the trade block by the deadline.

Prospects:

Through three trades, the Pirates have built up their farm system. The top prospect in their system, however, is set to the starting third baseman on Opening Day, Ke’Bryan Hayes. As mentioned before, he is a top 10 prospect in all of baseball, and he has already shown he can hit major league pitching at a high level. This year he needs to demonstrate he can adapt to the adjustments his opponents make when facing him.

Hayes is the one of four players currently ranked in MLB Pipeline’s top 100. Nick Gonzalez is #43r. Gonzalez, a second baseman, was the the Pirates first round draft pick in 2020 and #7 overall. Scouting reports rave about his bat speed and his ability to hit.

Their 2019 first rounder is a big hard throwing right handed pitcher, Quinn Priester. He is the #52 prospect. Oneil Cruz is a 6’7” shortstop with significant power potential and comes in at #64. It would be really interesting seeing a player that tall play shortstop at the major league level.

With 11 new prospects coming to the Pirates via trade, you would think they would have a couple that were in the top 100. That is not the case yet, but Wil Crowe and David Bednar are likely to help the major league club immediately. Plus Hudson Head falls into the #6 slot of the Pirates’ prospect list, and don’t be surprised if the 19 year old outfielder cracks the top 100 soon.

Right now the Pirates are not the top ranked farm system. Look for that to change and to change soon. Ben Cherington will bring in more talent via trade. They will have the top pick in this year’s draft. They will have high picks in 2022 and maybe 2023 as well. Look for them to land talent from the international market. The Pirates might not be the Padres of a couple of years ago, but they might be close.

Prediction:

Who will be worse than the Pittsburgh Pirates, not just in the NL Central, but in all of baseball? It is hard to see a team closer to the bottom than the Pirates are right now, and they will probably tear down this team even more by the trade deadline. The Cardinals, Cubs, Reds, and Brewers are going to have their way with the Pirates. The Pirates will have the worst record in baseball, and get the #1 pick in the draft once again with a record of 54-108.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs