The Pittsburgh Pirates are 149-235 over the last three seasons. One would think that with three consecutive last-place efforts (finishing 22, 15 and 34 games back) ownership would try to spend a little bit of money in hopes of improving the roster. One would be incorrect when it comes to the Pirates.
In the race to the bottom of the payroll chart, Pittsburgh is looking to be at the bottom for the third consecutive year and in the bottom five for the fifth consecutive season. In fact, if we go back to 2004, the Pirates have only been outside the bottom five in payroll three times. Pittsburgh is a small market by baseball standards, but owner Bob Nutting has a real aversion to spending money to improve the team.
I try to be a little more understanding of ownership groups. Franchises are worth a lot of money, but that doesn’t necessarily mean liquid capital and there are a lot more expenditures than we see on the MLB payroll. This is an ownership group that does not deserve the benefit of the doubt and it looks like another long season in the Steel City. What a waste of a beautiful venue for baseball at PNC Park.
The offense (and I use the term loosely) for the Pirates looks, well, offensive. The Pirates were dead last in wRC %plussign% last season, grading 17% below league average. Their .294 wOBA was only better than the Marlins and Rangers, and that’s because they drew walks at a much higher clip. Pittsburgh’s .364 SLG was the lowest in baseball and the fifth-lowest since the 2015 season. For good measure, Pittsburgh’s pitiful showing in 2020 ranks as the second-lowest.
The sad part is that Pirates don’t even strike out that much – they just have very few hitters that make really good contact. Bryan Reynolds was easily the team’s best hitter last season with a 142 wRC %plussign% . There were a lot of whispers that Reynolds, who is starting to get more expensive in his first year of arbitration, would be on the move, but he hasn’t been traded yet. Reynolds was the only player with at least 150 plate appearances to slug over .450 and the only .300 hitter on the team after Adam Frazier was traded to San Diego. He’s a really good player trapped on a terrible team, though maybe not for long. Reynolds was the subject of trade rumors at the end of March, and he and the team were $650,000 apart in his arbitration filing.
It would be nice if Ke’Bryan Hayes would figure it out offensively and help. Hayes played 24 games during the 2020 season and posted monster numbers with a .376/.442/.682 slash in 95 plate appearances, but battled injuries last season and limped to a .257/.316/.373 mark. He’s a terrific defender at the hot corner, but the bat needs to show something as we go forward. He never really showed much power in the minors, but he made a lot of contact.
The Pirates acquired Yoshi Tsutsugo last year and he posted a strong 134 wRC %plussign% in 43 games with regular playing time. Maybe he’ll end up being a bright spot for the team with the chance to play every day in a low-stress environment. Maybe Dan Vogelbach will do the same. He’s a league average sort of bat, but he walks a lot and has some good power in a platoon capacity against righties. Ben Gamel is also a decent platoon bat against righties coming off of his best offensive season since 2018.
A change of scenery could help Michael Chavis now that he’s out of Boston, but the park factor change won’t help, as PNC Park is much stingier than Fenway Park. He should have the chance to play a lot here and it won’t matter if he fails. After all, this is a team whose highest-paid player is catcher Roberto Perez, whom I love behind the plate and don’t love while he’s standing next to it. Perez walks a lot, but that’s about it.
The offense will likely be the worst in baseball this season and absolutely will be if Reynolds is traded at some point.
Surely the picture of the pitching staff has to be more exciting, right? It actually is, and could be what spares the Pirates from losing 100 games for the second straight season. It is amazing to see how far Jose Quintana has fallen, as he signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Pirates to try and rebuild his value after a couple of lost seasons. Quintana only pitched 10 innings in 2020 and 63 innings last season. He was once a really reliable pitcher that threw 200 innings in four straight seasons for the White Sox, but he’s a shell of that guy now.
If 2019 Quintana returns with a 3.80 FIP, I’d be stunned. His command and control just aren’t that great, even if he’s only 33 years old. Projection systems say he’ll be a little worse than league average. The Pirates are just hoping to eat up some innings and get a prospect.
Quintana is the only name in this rotation that the average fan knows, but the other four projected starters are all intriguing in their own ways. Mitch Keller is already 26 and we’ve been waiting for him to break out at the MLB level for a while, but injuries have really stunted his development. He looks great in spring training with increased velocity and there’s a chance that maybe it’s all coming together. It’s hard to say that about a guy with a 6.02 ERA in 170.1 MLB innings that has shown poor control and command, but, hey, we’ve got to get excited about something with this team.
JT Brubaker actually started out really well last season before it all fell apart. Brubaker ultimately posted a 5.36 ERA with a 5.16 FIP, but had a solid 2.63 ERA in 27.1 innings in April. May was rough and he bounced back a little in June, but the rest of the regular season was a waste and he was eventually shut down with a bad shoulder. In 59.1 innings at home, Brubaker did post a 3.79 ERA with a .306 wOBA against, so he may be a guy to look at for some home unders.
The Pirates traded a really good defensive catcher in Jacob Stallings to the Marlins and one of the players they got in return is Zach Thompson. Thompson had a 3.24 ERA with a 3.69 FIP in his 75 MLB innings last season. He posted a lot of pretty solid numbers with the White Sox in the low minors, but was converted to a reliever in 2018. The Pirates intend to use him as a starter, so we’ll see how that goes. He had a 3.25 ERA in 63.2 innings as a starter last season. There’s nothing flashy about the profile, but his stuff should play at the MLB level, at least into a league average starter.
Bryse Wilson may benefit from a change of scenery, as he simply wasn’t good enough in Atlanta to outperform the glut of MLB-ready arms. Wilson made eight uninspiring starts with the Pirates with a 4.91 ERA and a 5.35 FIP, but it was his first time spent in a different organization and it takes time for those things to come together. He should pitch every five or six days here and we’ll see what he does with it.
The upside guy is Roansy Contreras, who made his MLB debut last season with one three-inning start. Contreras has had solid minor league numbers throughout and throws a lot of strikes. He’s added a little more swing-and-miss upside as well. He should be up after the Super Two deadline passes so the cheapskates running the team can add that all-important extra year of control.
Along with a bad rotation that had the second-highest ERA in baseball last season, the Pirates had a bottom-10 bullpen. David Bednar had a really strong year and slots in as the closer with a 2.23 ERA and a 2.69 FIP over 60.2 innings. He struck out 77 and walked 19 in his first full MLB season. Chris Stratton used his high spin rates to posted a 3.63 ERA and a 3.76 FIP. Otherwise, the Pirates are hoping converted starters from other organizations like Duane Underwood Jr., Wil Crowe, and Anthony Banda can get outs.
Player to Watch
SS Oneil Cruz: I saved the best for last, as the Pirates have a consensus top-10 prospect in Cruz. He’s a 6-foot-7 shortstop who will probably have a hard time staying at the position, but the Pirates will let money talk and send him down to start the year in order to save money down the line. Whenever he gets to the majors, whether it’s to start the season or somewhere along the line, Cruz will hit. He’s hit at every minor league level. He got nine plate appearances last season and hit his first MLB HR.
Of the five balls he put in play, four were hit at least 95 mph, topping out at 118.2, which is elite contact. He’ll be a huge boost to this team whenever he gets a chance to play every day. For the sake of the game, hopefully it happens quickly.
When it comes to season win totals, I tend to avoid the extremes. I know the Pirates are going to be bad, but the idea of betting on just how bad they’re going to be doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather bet win totals of teams in the 70s and 80s where the range of outcomes is usually wider. The Pirates are lined in the mid-60s, so it’s really a question of whether or not they’ll lose 100 games.
This season is about watching Cruz, Contreras and Hayes develop. We might be able to pick off a few spots to back the Pirates. Fading them will be costly, but probably worthwhile. There just aren’t a lot of good things to say about the team or the organization and there will be even fewer if (when) Reynolds is traded.
Win Total Lean: Under 65.5