Playing Pepper 2020: Pittsburgh Pirates

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

Pittsburgh Pirates
69-93, fifth in NL Central
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Last year’s Pepper

It’s tough being a Pirates fan.  Those playoff years of the mid-2010s seem so far away now and even when the club broke the .500 mark two years ago (by one game) they still wound up fourth in the division.  This winter saw more dismantling as the rebuilding process takes hold yet again.  Will it bear fruit?  That’s what we have Pittsburgh bloggers for!

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Patricia Beninato Bucs Dugout PTBeninato
Marty Leap Rum Bunter msj41817
Michael Clair Cut4 michaelsclair

C70: The Pirates have slipped over the last few years, culminating in a last-place finish in 2019. Even tough years have good moments, though. What were some of them for Pittsburgh last year?

Patricia: Josh Bell’s first-half performance was pretty fun to watch, even though there was an undercurrent of expectation that he’d do so in 2019. For me, though, it was the breakouts of Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman. Reynolds was not only a beast at the plate, but did some pretty amazing work in the outfield, too. Newman’s batting was a legitimate surprise for many Bucs fans, and his glovework is improving. Right now he and Adam Frazier are looking like a pretty solid infield duo. Also, although his record didn’t reflect it, Joe Musgrove is emerging as a credible starter and a clubhouse leader, as is Trevor Williams. This team is still very young, so there’s going to be some exciting growth ahead.

Marty: There’s no denying that 2019 did not go according to plan for the Pirates or their fans. While no one was thinking pennant, the team appeared to have one of the better pitching staffs in the National League entering the season. Factoring in the team was coming off a winning season, and many people expected 85 or so wins and a team that would compete for a Wild Card spot.

WELP…. 69 wins later there is an all new front office and coaching staff.

While the season was a poor one, most of that came after the All-Star Break. So, there were come good moments. The emergence of rookies Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman were among those. So was the team’s yearly pre-ASB hot streak that saw them go 5-2 leading up to the Mid-Summer Classic to enter the break just 2 games out of first place. There was also Josh Bell’s month of May which was one of the best in franchise history. Hopefully, 2020’s good moments won’t end in July.

Michael: Oof, last year was a rough one — and following the Pirates is basically an exercise in finding the gems buried in the trash. You could point to Josh Bell — and his muscles — having a huge breakout last year. The only problem? After his scorching hot May, he hit just .232/.342/.476. Not bad numbers, but with home runs flying out of stadiums faster than bobbleheads on giveaway day, it’s not exactly what the team needs. Bryan Reynolds was a revelation in the outfield, so hey, that’s not bad! And I always enjoyed watching Cole Tucker flip his hair, and Colin Moran‘s 1850s beard brought me plenty of happiness.

But really, the only answer is Kevin Newman. Not only did the middle infielder have the kind of breakout rookie season that I never foresaw coming, but he also hit a walk-off home run for the Pirates’ final win of the season that was also Steve Blass‘ final game in the broadcast booth.

C70: It’s been a pretty quiet offseason for the Pirates. Where are they looking for their improvement this year to come from?

Patricia: With all the upper management changes, no one should have expected any huge offseason moves. This is going to be a fairly intense spring training because the players know that they are being watched with brand new eyes, and a lot of those eyes are going to be focused on 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes. Many in Bucs Nation were disappointed that Hayes wasn’t called up last year, particularly with Colin Moran’s less-than-great play, but I think it’s Hayes’s job to win in ST. A common complaint about Pirates owner Bob Nutting is that he’s cheap. With Ben Cherington and Steve Sanders in the front office, both of them credited with improving the Blue Jays’ farm system, I think that instead of chasing high-priced free agents, Nutting is going to start looking at giving home-grown players the big bucks to entice them to stay in Pittsburgh.

Marty: This team has plenty of holes, but there is also a lot of untapped potential on this roster. New general manager Ben Cherington knows he has a 2-3 year rebuild in front of him, so a lot of 2020 will be about figuring out who is and is not part of the core moving forward.

Due to this, the team is banking on a lot of internal improvement in 2020. The team expects top prospect Mitch Keller, who made 11 starts last season, to take a big step forward and begin to anchor this rotation. Gregory Polanco is back after missing essentially all of 2019 with shoulder issues, and he has looked great thus far this spring. Top hitting prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes should be manning third base by the end of June. If these three things happen and pitchers such as Chris Archer and Trevor Williams pitch the way they did pre-2019, and this team should improve. The new regime is also putting a renewed emphasis on fundamentals in the field, defense, and analytics. All of that should help, too.

Michael: Being a Pirates fan means being prepared for quiet offseasons. And really, that’s where a lot of the fan frustration comes from: Most fans know that the team is set up to compete in cycles, but they never really pushed in during the best chances between 2013-15 and now certainly isn’t the time. The return for the Starling Marte is promising, as the new front office seems ready to go in on risky high-upside guys. Liover Peguero and Brennan Malone, who the team got for Marte, have much higher ceilings than the players like Colin Moran and Joe Musgrove that they received in return for Gerrit Cole.

While it would be nice if the rotation could get back on track this year, the real improvement Pirates fans will be looking for is a player development system that can actually produce the stars needed to lead the team in the future.

C70: There’s a new manager at the helm in Derek Shelton. What are your thoughts about the hire?

Patricia: Although I like Clint Hurdle as a person, there were a lot of times last season where I was yelling HOW DOES THIS MAN STILL HAVE A MANAGER’S JOB?!?! Shelton was on the Bucs’ radar almost from the moment Hurdle was fired, so no one was really surprised when he got the job. He’s been a solid batting coach in the past and is credited for a lot of the Twins’ success last season, and he does have managerial experience, albeit at the minor league level. The players seem pretty stoked about him as well. Although he’s not super-young–he’ll be 50 this year–he’s energetic and is more in touch with the technology used in MLB these days. I have hope.

Marty: Thus far Shelton looks like a great hire. He is widely respected in baseball circles and interviewed for multiple other jobs this off-season. He has also worked for some terrific organizations and managers over the years. He also has created a different, better atmosphere in camp this spring. The team is much looser and having fun again. For most of last season, the Pirates looked like baseball was torture instead of fun. The clubhouse culture appears to be positive again, which is something it was not last year.

Michael: He seems like a totally likable dude. He’s relaxed and the players seem to like him. It was obvious that there was a problem at the core of the Pirates last year, so it made sense that there was a cleaning of house. I don’t expect Shelton to be in charge when the Pirates are competitive again (that’s sadly the case for guys hired at the outset of a rebuild), but I’d love to be proven wrong. As long as the players like him and the clubhouse hums instead of the kind of in-fighting that plagued the team last year, I’ll be happy. 

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Patricia: As I wrote above, this is going to be, if not a true rebuilding year, an observation year. There are a lot of new front office and coaching faces, none of whom are familiar with the current team. Sure, it’d be awesome if the Pirates have a great year in 2020, but there’s a lot of stuff that needs to happen. They’re in a division with three strong teams (Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers). I think the overriding mindset is going to be “what can we do with what we’ve got?” Only the Miami Marlins were worse than the Pirates in the NL last year. Strictly based on last year and the hope that the pitching staff doesn’t fall apart like a leper (thanks, Bill Simmons), I think that the Bucs can be better than the Reds. Right now, that’s as high as I’m willing to go.

Marty: I expect the Pirates to finish last in the division. That said, I am not as high on Cincinnati or Milwaukee as others are. Combine that with my feelings that the Pirates have a good bit of untapped potential that is set to benefit from a new coaching staff, and I would not shock me to see this team crawl up to 3rd or 4th in the NL Central. Right now I have the Pirates pegged for somewhere in the 70-73 win range. But it would not shock me to see them do better than that.

Michael: My expectations couldn’t be lower. I wouldn’t be shocked if they won a few more games than last year just because losing 93 games is hard, but I’d give them a good chance to push for 100 losses — especially if they end up trading more players as the summer progresses to help give the prospect field a little boost. The Central is becoming one of the more competitive divisions in the game, so they are going to finish in last place and, if I had to put a number on it, I’ll say they lose 97 games. It’s going to be a long year. 

C70: What’s the main topic Pirates fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Patricia: The success of a pitching staff isn’t just about strong arms. A good catcher directs the course of a game, calms down young pitchers and guides erratic ones. Francisco Cervelli understood that and was a strong pitch framer, but with his concussion history and hefty paycheck, sadly it wasn’t a surprise when the Pirates cut him loose. I’d hoped that the Pirates would go after a lower-priced free-agent catcher in the offseason, such as Austin Romine or Travis d’Arnaud, but obviously that didn’t happen. Elias Diaz wasn’t the answer, and Jacob Stallings doesn’t inspire much confidence either. Luke Maile is known to Cherington and Sanders during his time in the Jays’ farm system, and it seems like they’re taking a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” approach with him, but again, not exactly a vote of confidence.

Marty: A big topic within Pirate circles is the future of the shortstop position and to the outside world this may seem odd after the rookie season Kevin Newman had last year. Considering Newman is coming off a 110 wRC+ and a 2.4 fWAR season you would think there would be no reason for any sort of uncertainty at shortstop. Well, there is. Newman’s 24.4% hard contact rate and 84.7 MPH exit velocity were both in the bottom 5% of baseball. That screams of a hitter due for some serious regression in 2020. He was also just average defensively at shortstop.

Behind Newman is former 1st round pick Cole Tucker. While Tucker’s offense struggled during his first MLB call up last season, his OPS was over .800 in his second trip to the Majors. He is also a Gold Glove caliber shortstop who the Pirate front office believes can be a star. Then there is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, Oneil Cruz. The left-handed slugger stands 6-foot-7, so his future may not be at shortstop. But, for now at least, that’s where he wants to play and he still is. Odds are, Cruz will reach the Triple-A level at some point this season.

While Newman will start the season as the starting shortstop, it would not be a surprise to see it be Tucker by the end of the year. The possibility of moving Newman to second base and either trading Adam Frazier, who they shopped all off-season, or moving him back to a super utility role should not be ruled out either. Especially if Newman can repeat his 2019 offensive output.

Michael: Oneil Cruz. Oneil Cruz. Oneil Cruz. Honestly, more Pirates fans could be watching to see how this 21-year-old 6’6″ homer-blasting shortstop does in the Minors than how the big league club is doing. I can’t imagine that he stays at shortstop longterm — mostly because no one that tall has done it. But if he does — and his glove so far has earned rave reviews, so it’s possible — oh my lord. His swing is special, and he’s putting on batting practice displays that have fans salivating. I mean, when there’s a guy the size of Aaron Judge that plays shortstop, who even knows what could happen. 

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Patricia: It’s been over a decade since there’s been a significant change in the Pirates’ front office and coaching staff. All of the newbies have experience in working with small market teams and limited payrolls, and although a lot of people are still suspicious of Nutting’s motives, the moves he’s made all point to steps in the right direction. I’d love for Reynolds and Newman to show that last season wasn’t rookie luck, for Bell to continue to swing a hot bat, and for the pitching staff to display some consistency. I’m not expecting miracles, but for the first time in a while, there’s some optimism floating around the Jolly Roger.

Marty: Having a new regime in place. From new team president Travis Williams, to Ben Cherington and his scouting department, and Derek Shelton’s coaching staff. The Pirates were in desperate need of a total and complete overhaul. That overhaul has happened and now, for the first time in a few years, the organization appears to be trending in the right direction again. 

Michael: It’s another year of just enjoying baseball for being baseball. I’m hoping Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman can build on their rookie campaigns and I’ll be watching to see if Josh Bell can be the first Pirate player since Willie Stargell to crack 40 dingers in a season. Other than that, strap in, and just ignore the scorebug and standings for the next six months. 

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