It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Pirates during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
The last time the Pirates lost 100 games, three years later they were in the NLDS (and giving the Cardinals a bit of a scare in it). Expecting Pittsburgh to be regular contenders may have gone out with the ’70s, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t ride the roller coaster back to the top at some point. When will that point be? Maybe these fine folks can help us out.
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Pittsburgh’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Marty: Re-signing Yoshi Tsutsugo and inking Daniel Vogelbach were both positives. The Pirates will not be very good in 2022, but between these two, Bryan Reynolds and Oneil Cruz the team should hit a lot more home runs than last season. Would have liked to see them add more starting pitching help, but I understand wanting to give young arms an extended look. The main negative take away from the offseason for me was failing to get an extension done with Reynolds. He’s the face of the franchise and a bona-fide superstar, lock him up and build around him.
Patricia: When Henry Davis was drafted in June, the clock started ticking on Jacob Stallings, so it didn’t come as a big shock that he was traded to the Marlins for young pitching, namely Zach Thompson. Ben Cherington made his version of a huge deal when he signed Yoshi Tsutsugo to a one-year, $4 million contract, which meant “adios” to Colin Moran, and gave $5 million to Roberto Perez, who will hopefully hold down the catcher position until Davis is ready. My expectations are always low in the offseason–plugging in some stopgaps is pretty much all I ask.
C70: Pittsburgh’s payroll is going to be just slightly more than Max Scherzer makes this season. Is there a way to win on such a limited budget and are the Pirates making the right moves to do so?
Marty: Can you win with this payroll? Absolutely not. At the same time the Pirates are making the right moves to win. Their farm system is a consensus top 5 farm system which is what small market teams need. When they’re ready to compete I believe they will spend more, their four highest payrolls in franchise history were 2013-2016 and they made the postseason in 3 of those 4 seasons. While this ownership group is not good, they have proven they will spend more when the team is in a position to compete.
Patricia: I grew up as a Yankees fan, which meant that every winter I would watch George Steinbrenner throw money at the hot free agent du jour, who more often than not didn’t pan out. For every Dodgers team that has success with a high payroll, there are the Mets, who spend and spend and don’t even make the playoffs. The main reason Ben Cherington was brought in was his ability to recognize and develop talent. The two Pirates drafts he’s overseen have been almost universally praised. I have been saying since he arrived that if Bob Nutting hadn’t indicated at some point in time that he was willing to spend when the opportunity came up, Ben wouldn’t be here. I’m sticking to that, which brings us to the next question.
C70: Bryan Reynolds had a very good season last year. Can he do it again and, if he does, does he make it past the trade deadline in Pittsburgh?
Marty: I do not believe Reynolds will be traded any time soon. He is controlled through 2025 and the Pirates should start to become competitive again in 2023. No reason to move him when he can be the centerpiece of your next postseason team.
Patricia: There have been reports that Reynolds turned down two long-term offers from the Pirates in the offseason. Since these offers happened during the lockout, I’m inclined to believe that he and his agent were waiting to see what would happen in the lockout. B-Rey is the real deal–he hits for power, is a tremendous outfielder, and is in his age 27 season. He will be the litmus test for Nutting opening his wallet and doing what the Brewers did with Ryan Braun–paying him to stay in Pittsburgh and building the team around him. Does that make him trade-proof? Of course not, but both Nutting and Cherington have made it obvious that they do listen to the complaints that the Pirates get rid of every good player so they don’t have to pay him. Reynolds may be the first to dispel that belief. And if he does go, it won’t be for prospects–it will be for someone ready to take the field at PNC Park now.
C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?
Marty: In this farm system there are plenty of prospects to be excited about, so I’ll just stick to a few. Roansy Contreras looks like a future ace and Oneil Cruz a power hitting lineup anchor, both debuted last September and should earn full-time roles this season. 2021 no.1 overall pick Henry Davis may already be the best hitting catching prospect in baseball and could debut next season, while 2020 first-round pick Nick Gonzales appears to have the floor of a .300 hitter with plus defense at second base, he should debut this season at some point. Shortstop Liover Peguero, who could also debut this season or in early 2023, should form a heck of a double play combo with Gonzales for a long time.
Patricia: Oneil Cruz played in the last two games of the 2021 season and got Pirates fans very excited, and he’s mashing in spring training. The Bucs veteran most likely to be traded isn’t Reynolds, but Kevin Newman, whose glovework is stellar in the infield but whose bat went very quiet last season. I’m not sure if Cruz will make the team out of ST–Rodolfo Castro and Cole Tucker are battling for at least a utility infield position–but I do see him making the team sometime this summer. I’m also excited to see if RHP Quinn Priester can fulfill his early promise. He was the Pirates’ 2019 first-round pick and should make it to Double-A Altoona this year. The kid packs some heat and reportedly has added a nasty slurve to his repertoire. Starting pitching remains a Pirate problem, so to see someone coming up that can change that is always a good thing.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Marty: I think this team wins around 68-71 wins. That said, due to prospects graduating and young players making strides during the season this team should be a lot better and more talented on the last day of the season than they will be on Opening Day.
Patricia: I think they’ll do better. Not hugely better, but better. The bar is low. As I said, starting pitching is still a problem. Mitch Keller always makes me ask the same question when he starts–will he be a good Mitch or a bad Mitch?–and despite the addition of Jose Quintana, there’s not a lot of veteran presence on the starting staff. However, relief pitching improved during 2021, with a legit closer emerging in local hero David Bednar. Ke’Bryan Hayes seems to be living up to the hype; he’s the only infielder who doesn’t hear the footsteps of someone who can take his job behind him. Manager Derek Shelton and his staff have to know that none of them can use the excuse of being new this season. Ben Cherington is patient, but not that patient. The NL Central isn’t that strong of a division, so it’s possible the Pirates can surprise. Then again, I’m routinely slagged for my optimism, so take that as you will.
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Pirates Twitter accounts to follow.
Marty: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) is an absolute must follow for all Pirate news and some great feature pieces on players. Jim Rosati (@northsidenotch) is a great fan account to follow, and former Pirate catcher turned TV analyst Michael McKenry (@TheFortMcKenry) is great to follow for analysis and breakdown.
Patricia: Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (@JMackeyPG on Twitter) covers the Pirates and shares my belief that Bob Nutting isn’t the Antichrist, and I enjoy his sense of humor, which one needs when writing about the Bucs. I also enjoy the Young Bucs Twitter (@YoungBucsPIT), which focuses on prospects and the kids in the Show. If I’m reading Twitter and you hear me chuckle, it’s usually over a Young Bucs tweet.