Pittsburgh Pirates 2020: Reasons for optimism

What happened in 2019?
Three weeks into the season, when Jung Ho Kang mashed his third homer of the season, and Jameson Taillon took the win in a rain-shortened game against the Giants, the Pirates sat atop the NL Central. Life was good.

Josh Bell received May’s Player of the Month award, and at the All-Star break, the Pirates were still contenders, just 2½ games back of the joint-division-leading Cubs and Brewers, having picked up series wins over both of them in the previous week. It was close; it was exciting.

Then the wheels fell off. Or, more specifically, the arms did. Worst of all was local hero Taillon, who went down with an elbow injury, eventually requiring a second Tommy John surgery thus restoring his place as undisputed unluckiest human being on the planet. He doesn’t even play for the Mets, I mean, come on. Setup man Keone Kela spent extended time on the injury list, before being suspended for beating up Pirates’ staffer Hector Morales, then suspended AGAIN along with Jose Osuna, Kyle Crick and Chris Archer for beating up the Cincinnati Reds. Then one of MLB’s best closers got arrested and is likely going to prison because it turns out he’s an abhorrent human being. When it rains, it pours. What is it with closers?

The vaunted pitching staff, full of promise on Opening Day but dealing with injuries and mechanics issues all season, ended fifth-worst in the majors with a 5.18 ERA, with only the division-winning Cardinals starters earning fewer Quality Starts. To top it all off, Jordan Lyles pitched really badly in Pittsburgh after a bright start, before being traded to the Brewers (for the second year in a row) and becoming a key part of Milwaukee’s wild card run. Only the Angels finished with less Wins Above Average from pitchers than the Pirates’ -9.3.

The hitters, under the watchful eye of Rick Eckstein, finished seventh in batting average and fifth in hits, but tellingly, 27th in home runs and 21st in runs scored. That combination of stats makes a team fun to watch, but infuriating to support, especially with the pitching issues mixed in. The Pirates were also dead last in Defensive Efficiency (tied with Detroit), and only Seattle had a worse team fielding percentage.

The NL Central lived up to its billing as the most competitive division with only 22 games between the first-place Cardinals and fifth-place Pirates, however as soon as late-July the writing was on the wall and the Pirates felt like the divisional punching bag, again. I think Baseball Reference’s win/loss graph shows it best.

Just look at the mess after the All-Star Game:

The Pirates didn’t win two games in a row until 13-14 August. The All-Star Game was 9 July. Eesh.

Moves & shakes
OUT: Starling Marte (trade, Arizona), Elias Diaz (FA, Colorado), Lonnie Chisenhall (FA, retired? Abducted by aliens?), Melky Cabrera (FA, unsigned), Francisco Liriano (FA, Philadelphia), Felipe Vasquez (restricted list, prison).

IN: Derek Holland (FA, Texas), JT Riddle (FA, Miami), Robbie Erlin (FA, San Diego), John-Ryan Murphy (FA, Arizona), Jarrod Dyson (FA, Arizona).

One to watch
We are indebted to @Pirates_UK for the suggestion of Cole Tucker. Follow them on Twitter.

Embed from Getty Images

Cole is potentially the most likeable guy on the planet. He radiates childish innocence, fun and good vibes, while at the same time being an eloquent and confident interview and displaying a genuine love for the sport. He’s even got the Show Hair to make him stand out in a crowd. It’s impossible not to like the guy.

What he doesn’t have quite yet is offensive prowess, with below-average numbers at Triple-A last term and objectively poor numbers in limited action in the bigs, but all projections and scouting reports agree he has an eventual floor of a league-average bat, which when added to plus defence at shortstop and a near-elite arm, definitely qualifies as an exciting prospect.

He’ll have to fight his way into a team with a potential logjam of middle infielders at or near the Majors, but with respect to the likes of Frazier, Newman, Kramer, Cruz and JT Riddle, I think Tucker is the clear fan favourite for the long term.

Five reasons for optimism for 2020
(1) As always with a regime change, there’s naive hope for the future, that this time it’ll be different. Cherington and Shelton have been saying most of the right things this offseason. The refusal to call it a rebuild is likely PR-mandated but actions speak louder than words and trading Starling Marte for two high-ceiling young prospects is a positive move in my opinion. The old regime likely would’ve settled for something along the lines of a Quad-A middle infielder and a high-floor relief pitcher to help them maintain status as the most mediocre, safe and boring team in the league with the most mediocre, safe and boring farm system. Neither good enough to contend nor bad enough to tear down. This trade seems to be heading in the right direction though, especially considering that Marte, like Gerrit Cole (but unlike Cutch) had clearly given up on playing for Pittsburgh and was never going to be as good here as his potential indicated. Not that I can blame him too much. I’ve worked jobs where the owner didn’t care; I get it.

(2) Continuing on from that, the end of the Ray Searage era could be a major positive for the Pirates’ pitching this year. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Uncle Ray as much as the next guy and what he did for the likes of Liriano and J.A. Happ will live long in the memory, but he did become more and more of a stubborn one-trick pony in the later years. His answer to everything seemed to become “throw a two-seamer, and if that doesn’t work throw it more!”. When the rest of the league zigged, he zagged, and the Pirates got to the postseason three years running, but then the rest of the league adjusted and Searage didn’t seem able to. I’m genuinely excited to see what this pitching staff can accomplish under a guy like Oscar Marin, who seems to “get it”. Even without Taillon, I’m optimistic for a marked improvement on last season’s pitching.

(3) Sticking with pitching: Chris Archer. Yes, he had a terrible year last year by “staff ace” standards and the trade that landed him here looked worse and worse as time went on. But after reducing the usage of his awful two-seamer (a pitch Ray Searage loved for its ground ball potential despite the Pirates’ well-below-average infield defence), Archer was actually really good. Eno Sarris in his “5 bounce-back pitcher candidates to watch” article in The Athletic agrees:

“From July 1 on, Archer was his old self, throwing mostly four-seamers and sliders and the occasional changeup. He struck out 12 per nine, walked three per nine, and gave up 1.3 homers per nine”.

Back to the good old days, pretty much. No reason to think Archer can’t return to at least most of his “strikeout king” Tampa Bay Rays form that got us all so excited when he arrived. Remembering what we gave them in return still hurts, though.

(4) Gregory Polanco says he’s healthy, and if that’s true, he has the tools to put together a really good season like he did in 2018. The Pirates really need that to happen. Polanco, Marte and McCutchen were a great trio. Polanco, Reynolds and (mumbles incoherently) could also be stellar.

(5) The vanguard of the new core arrived last season, and seeing them continue to develop will be fun. Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds had brilliant seasons, with ROTY-snub Reynolds getting close at one stage to being the third player (and first-ever National League player) to win the batting title as a rookie, before falling off a little in the last two weeks of the season. Reynolds spent just two games below .300 and only five below .310 (all of them in May). Mitch Keller, too, despite his struggles should come back strong this year with experience under his belt and a new pitching coach to help him. Along with Tucker later in the year, the young emerging core should be worth tuning in to watch even if it’s not expected to produce many positive results just yet. We may not have Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr. or Ozzie Albies, but we have our fair share of young exciting prospects. I genuinely believe if Reynolds played almost anywhere else he’d be one of the most talked-about rookies of 2019. Plus we have a 6-foot-7 shortstop built like a tank; if nothing else, Oneil Cruz will help out next time Amir Garrett wants to start something.

Jason Toms is one of the new writers contributing at Bat Flips and Nerds. You can enjoy his knowledgable takes on the Pirates throughout the season as he joins our team for 2020. Follow him on Twitter @cornishyinzer

Make sure you subscribe to the Bat Flips and Nerds podcasts and follow us on Twitter @BatFlips_Nerds. News, views and interviews, all with a British twist.

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