Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series! OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter. It’s Playing Pepper! Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season. I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole. So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!
If you told a Pirates fan in 2015 that they would be winning at a .317 clip just five years later, chances are the Pirates fan would probably not be terribly surprised. After all, this is a franchise that has struggled more often than it has succeeded in putting together a winning baseball team. So to see them as an afterthought in what could be a competitive NL Central is tough, but not surprising. What’s up for this season? We’ve got some Pittsburgh bloggers to let us know.
C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?
Patricia: I was just glad there was baseball at all! I’m also one of those weirdos who likes the DH (I blame that on growing up watching an American League team), and I enjoyed the seven-inning doubleheaders. The fake crowd noise and empty seats could be kind of distracting, but I got used to it. Not being able to go to games kind of sucked, though. Pennsylvania isn’t opening up sports venues right now, and PNC Park is currently a COVID vaccine center, but Heinz Field will take over that, and I feel that PNC will be somewhat back open by summer.
Marty: To be honest, I was just excited to have baseball. When the world shutdown in March 2020 it felt like there was nothing to look forward to which sucked. When baseball returned, it gave fans something to look forward to every day. The crappy part was not being able to attend PNC Park at all. As for the rule changes, I loved the universal DH. So, of course, it’s gone this season. The runner on second base in extra innings was ridiculous, in my opinion. Wish that one would go way. As for the 7 inning doubleheaders, I was pretty neutral.
Michael: All I can say is how thankful I was to watch baseball last year. It was the most stressful, terrifying, punishing year in my existence and having baseball every night as that constant presence — especially when I couldn’t go out and see people — was amazingly calming. Sure, the Pirates were terrible, but everything was terrible last year! Why shouldn’t it be the case for the team as well?
As for the rule changes, I mostly liked them. I found myself really into the 7-inning doubleheaders because 1) doubleheaders are a lot of fun and 2) I’m a fan of starting pitcher matchups. These days, in a 9-inning game, you have your starter go 5-6, then some generic back-of-the-roster-churn middle relievers and then your late inning specialists. The 7-inning games meant that you were really only seeing the best players on each team. I was fine with the extra innings rule — not my thing, but I get it — and most shocking of all, I ended up loving the DH in both leagues. I’ve long considered myself a NL/traditionalist fan but last year I found myself quite pleased that when the 8th hitter was up I wasn’t preparing for an automatic out to end the inning.
C70: Ke’Bryan Hayes made his debut last year and looked like he belonged. What are your expectations for him this season?
Patricia: In a season that really didn’t have many highlights for the Pirates, Ke’Bryan Hayes was definitely a highlight. Third base has been a problem for the Bucs for a while, but Hayes handled it exceptionally well, and the dude can obviously hit. With Josh Bell gone, there’s a lot of pressure on him to become the face of the franchise. He seems to be a pretty level-headed guy who’s willing to handle that pressure, though, and the word out of spring training is that if anything, he’s improved from 2020. He was sixth in Rookie of the Year voting last year, and I feel the award is his to lose in 2021. Hayes was the one thing Pirates fans were excited about, and so far, he’s lived up to the expectations.
Marty: I expect Hayes to start to cement himself as one of the best third baseman in baseball this season. He has always been an elite defender at third base, as evident by his two minor league Gold Glove awards. The big question with Hayes was always his offense. Well, not only did he post excellent numbers last season he did it while murdering the baseball. This came after he posted a well above average exit velocity and hard hit rate at Triple-A in 2019. It appears Hayes is turning the corner as a hitter. If he does indeed become a plus hitter to go with his elite defense, he’ll quickly become one of the 3 or 4 best third basemen in all of MLB.
Michael: Perhaps the lone bright spot for the Pirates last season! He was everything the team needed: He was young! Exciting! And good! Really, really, really good! Obviously, he’s not going to hit .376 across a full year and he’s definitely going to have some long stretches where he slumps as pitchers figure him out. 86 plate appearances last year — against only Central division opponents — is a really hard thing to quantify.
He’s going to struggle at times this year and he’s also going to single-handedly give the team wins. At the end of the year, I’d imagine he’ll have around a dozen home runs with an OPS in the mid -.700s, basically a solid Colin Moran-type season. That might be disappointing to some, but I think that would give him a great base to really push to become a hopeful All-Star level player in future seasons. Would love to be proven wrong, though and he immediately becomes the greatest Pirates third baseman since … Freddy Sanchez?
C70: There are a lot of players that casual fans don’t recognize on this roster. Is there someone there that you expect to make a name for themselves in 2021?
Patricia: I’m still riding the Bryan Reynolds bandwagon. After an impressive rookie season in 2019, the left fielder slumped in 2020, only batting .187 (to be fair, he wasn’t the only one–hi, Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger). His fielding is still top-notch, though, and whenever anyone complains about the Pirates dealing Andrew McCutchen, I remind them that the trade brought Reynolds to the team. He’s a lot of fun to watch. If we’re talking about players rising in the system, righty Quinn Priester, the top pick in the 2019 draft, is getting a lot of attention. He’s got a nasty fastball and is developing an equally lethal curve. If he continues to progress, I won’t be surprised to see him in the Show towards the end of this season. He’s that good.
Marty: A player I would watch is reliever Blake Cederlind. Blake can hit 100+ regularly on the gun and has a wicked slider. Due to his flowing blonde locks he earned the nickname ‘Baby Thor’ last spring and he has all the tools needed to be a shutdown closer one day. Watch for Cederlind to breakout this season.
Michael: I really hope Phillip Evans is that answer this year. He entered last season as a utility player looking to get back on a Major League roster after being in the Minors for all of 2019 and was on his way to become a Pirates cult hero after his first 11 games when a collision with Gregory Polanco ended his season. Sadly, he’s more likely to be the team’s superutility player, but Rob Mackowiak became a hero for doing the same.
I’m most hopeful for Anthony Alford. A three-time top 100 prospect, he’s never had a long run in the Major Leagues to show what he can do. He may not be a star but the Pirates outfield hit a truly frightening .180/.238/.307 last year. If Alford can be league average or a little better with some defense? I’d be ecstatic.
C70: PNC Park is 20 years old this season and still considered one of the best parks in baseball. What’s your favorite aspect of the stadium and are there any modifications or improvements planned?
Patricia: My favorite aspect is that it’s five miles from my house. I can go from “are the Pirates at home today?” to in my seat with a cold beer in hand in under an hour. I’ve been to a bit more than half of the current MLB parks, and the first time I walked into PNC in 2019 I was like, “yeah, it deserves the hype.” There’s not a bad seat in the place, but my favorite section is 316, which is on the upper level directly behind home plate and under the broadcast booth. There’s that magnificent view of the Pittsburgh skyline and lots of knowledgeable fans. As for modifications, why mess with perfection?
Marty: My family has season tickets and our seats are in section 318 which is in the upper deck behind home plate. From these seats you get an amazing view of the Pittsburgh skyline as you look out over the Allegheny River. The view is absolutely beautiful, especially on a perfect summer night. As for improvements planned, the team did announce plans to change some of the designs to the ballpark with an updated PNC Bank logo. Other than that there is nothing I know of, and nothing is needed because the, as we call it in Pittsburgh, ‘Jewel of the North Shore’ is perfect.
Michael: I’ve only been to the park a handful of times, but it is just wonderful. The food is good, the beer is good and that view! It’s the best in baseball. I’m not sure of any modifications, but given the pandemic and how much of the work will be finding ways to let fans into the park while keeping them safely distanced, I’d imagine that’s the extent of the planned work.
C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?
Patricia: Pretty much everyone is putting the Pirates in the cellar. GM Ben Cherington famously turned Chris Archer, Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove, and Jameson Taillon loose in exchange for prospects. Given Cherington’s history, this should not have come as a surprise–don’t forget that he chopped nearly $200 million off the Red Sox’s payroll in one fell swoop in 2012. That bloodletting set the stage for the Red Sox’s World Series win the following year. Now I’m not suggesting that the Pirates will do that–even sniffing the postseason is a long shot at this point–but Cherington’s plugging in the pieces for future success, and I believe that it’s going to come sooner than people think.
Marty: The Pittsburgh Pirates, unfortunately, are going to be bad in 2021. The NL Central crown could easily be captured with just 85 or 86 wins, and I still feel confident saying the Pirates don’t finish within 10 games of first place. The team will take their lumps this season, especially with the starting rotation they will have at the start of the season, but the future is bright in Pittsburgh. I do believe that they will be a better team at the end of the season than at the beginning of the season due to top prospects such as Cody Bolton, Miguel Yajure, Travis Swaggerty, and potentially Oneil Cruz making their MLB debut this season.
Michael: It’s not going to be a good year. The pitching is worse, with Joe Musgrove dealt to San Diego, and Jameson Taillon (who missed all of last year recovering from Tommy John) is now in New York. The lineup is weaker with Josh Bell now on the Nationals.
It will likely be a successful season if they manage to lose fewer than 100 games. But if there are some key injuries — perhaps to Mitch Keller or Ke’Bryan Hayes, or if Bryan Reynolds doesn’t bounce back after a rough season last year (hey, we all had rough years. I’m not going to put much stock in 2020 performances), there’s a chance Pittsburgh could make a run at the 2003 Tigers. Enjoy the team, get excited about the prospects and your favorite players, but do your best not to pay any attention to the scoreboard.
C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?
Patricia: This might be surprising, but I’ll go there: C. We all know everyone loves to hate on Pirates owner Bob Nutting, to the point that if the media expresses even the slightest optimism about the team, particularly on social media, it’s immediately drowned out by HURR DURR NUTTING’S CHEAP. To which I say–do you really think that Cherington is that much of a masochist to want to work for an owner that won’t let him spend money? Pittsburgh’s a small market, so the Pirates will never get the high-priced free agent du jour, but I can definitely see the team paying someone to stay, much like the Brewers did with Ryan Braun. Cherington is very much a hands-on GM–one player told me that he’d never met Neal Huntington. It’s hard for fans, particularly younger ones, to be patient in the Win Everything Now mindset that 24/7 sports media promotes, but sports are cyclical. No one sucks forever, and the Pirates are pretty close to not sucking. Really.
Marty: Pirate fans are typically a pessimistic bunch, especially fans of my generation, and understandably so. After all, I was born two months before that infamous October night in Atlanta in 1992, and they have had just four winning seasons since then. This tends to lead to many fans grading the organization poorly. That said, things are definitely trending in the right direction. Ben Cherington has nuked this thing since becoming GM in November 2019, and in turn has built one of the best farm systems in baseball. As much as fans, myself included, complain about ownership, Bob Nutting proved in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2018 that when the Pirates can compete, he’ll let his GM spend money. Due to the work Cherington and his staff have done in their 16 months on the job, I’d give the organization a B with a real shot for it to become an A if young players such as Mitch Keller, Cody Bolton and Miguel Yajure take a step forward this year, and the farm system continues to progress.
Michael: I’ll give them a C for now. I have faith in Ben Cherington’s vision and the talent he has acquired, choosing risky, high-upside players in recent deals rather than the safer, lower-ceiling types that Neal Huntington usually opted for. (Though, there’s value in that too: Moran, the team’s starting first baseman, and Musgrove were both players he acquired in the Gerrit Cole trade.) It’s not pretty now, but brighter days are surely ahead. However, the front office will need to supplement the homegrown talent with free agent signings when they are able to compete, which didn’t happen from 2013-15.