2020: A New Era of Pirates Baseball

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    The 2020 Major League Baseball season is upon us, and all 30 teams have moved into the fast lane for a stretch of 60 games in 66 days during a widespread pandemic across the nation. For the Pittsburgh Pirates, this season is one of what someone might describe as a fresh start or a new beginning.

    Prior to the pandemic, the Pirates had one of their most eventful offseasons in recent history that came as a result of a dreadful second half implosion.  Everything went wrong after the All-Star break, and I mean everything. The team was plagued with injuries, especially within their starting rotation that included the news of ace RHP Jameson Taillon needing Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career. Tensions were high in the clubhouse as well, with altercations occurring between players and coaches showing the lack of control by manager Clint Hurdle. The icing on the cake was the disgusting and inexcusable criminal charges handed to top closer Felipe Vazquez in mid-September, which was completely gut-wrenching on so many levels.

    A 4-24 record after the 2019 All-Star break seemed like a train wreck at the time, but it was enough for ownership to realize that change was needed in the organization. Pirates’ principal owner and chairman Bob Nutting saw enough and worked with other executives to clean the house. Long-tenured manager Clint Hurdle was fired prior to the last game of the season, followed by pitching coach Ray Searage among others on the Major League staff. Not only did the team need to bring in coaches, but they dismissed general manager Neal  Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly as well and needed to fill their spots.

    While some may envision a productive offseason to be signing a superstar or some other quality players, the Pirates needed to fill several of these jobs in both their front office and coaching staff. It took a few months, but the Pirates finally hired Travis Williams as president and World Series champion Ben Cherington as their GM. Several interviews later, Cherington and company chose former Twins’ bench coach as the Bucs’ new manager, something the club and fans have not experienced since the beginning of the last decade.

    As the Pirates begin what some might call the “Shelton Era” or “Cherington Era”, expectations for the team should not be that high. GM Cherington essentially refused to refer to the team’s state as a rebuild, but the Pirates are going to have to keep adding to their farm if they wish to compete towards the middle of the decade. They have some talent and players with high upside within the organization, though not nearly enough to keep up with the top teams in the National League. With new management, there is a need to get a feel for what players may have a future in Pittsburgh, which is why you could call 2020 a year of evaluation.

    First baseman Josh Bell is the first position player that comes to mind. Bell has been with the team consistently since making the Opening Day roster in 2017, finally breaking out last year slashing .277/.367/.569 with 37 HR and a wRC+ of 135. The problem with Bell is that he is a client of well-known MLB agent Scott Boras, who is a very good negotiator and won’t let up until his client gets the contract he is asking for. This does not pair well with Pirates’ history, where their largest contract in terms of guaranteed money has not surpassed $60M. Other players to look at are last season’s rookies Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman. Both had impressive campaigns in their first full years, especially with Reynolds being a candidate for rookie of the year. They will look to steer clear of the sophomore slump. Cole Tucker is another guy to keep an eye on. Tucker, 24, made his major league debut last season and struggled offensively in his first stint, likely due to minimal time with the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate. He turned the corner a bit in the second half and improved his plate discipline vastly. As of now, Newman has the job at short, so manager Derek Shelton has looked for opportunities for him in the outfield to improve his versatility and to get him at-bats to progress at the plate.

    With Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer deemed out for the season, the Pirates’ rotation looks like this: RHPs Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Mitch Keller, and Chad Kuhl; LHPs Derek Holland and Steven Brault. Musgrove is widely considered the “ace” of the team with Taillon out, but he has yet to prove himself as a fully reliable arm on the staff. This is a big year for him to step it up and earn some money with him rumored to have talked with the Bucs about an extension. Williams worked hard in the offseason with first-year pitching coach Oscar Marin, developing a curveball and looking for ways to strike guys out rather than using a pitch-to-contact system that former pitching coach Ray Searage promoted. Mitch Keller, who was ranked the Pirates number one prospect who was recently stripped of his prospect status, is definitely the guy in the rotation to look out for. Keller may have posted a 7.13 ERA in 11 starts last season, but he did have a 3.19 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), meaning that with league average defense behind him, his numbers would have been much better. Keller is one that could highly benefit from the new regime’s emphasis on player development, a department where the “old” front office lacked success.

    The Pirates’ bullpen has fallen off since their success in the 2018 season. Edgar Santana is serving a suspension, Felipe Vazquez is behind bars, Keone Kela has been out with COVID-19 struggles, and some players have just regressed or fallen off at this point. Unfortunately, the promising 27-year old RHP Nick Burdi has been ruled for the season with an undisclosed injury as well. There are still a few pieces you want to look out for this year if you are a Pirates’ fan. A surprise to many people so far has been the work of RHP Dovydas Neverauskas. A Lithuanian product, Neverauskas has struggled in limited opportunities since making his Major League debut in 2017. He has always had some solid pitches to work with and is starting to have a breakout season even with only a few appearances under his bet. Neverauskas has allowed two earned runs over 6 innings pitched in 2020 and carries one of the highest spin rates with his curveball at more than 2800 revolutions per minute. Dovydas definitely seems to have benefited from the analytics program set in stone by pitching coach Oscar Marin. One final guy to cover needs to be RHP JT Brubaker. Brubaker has had an injury history that has set him back, and people have seemed to forget about him. JT was the minor league pitcher of the year in the Pirates’ organization in 2018, and made the Opening Day 30-man roster this season coming off of injury in 2019. Now 26, Brubaker has made three appearances thus far, showcasing three swing-and-miss pitches, a rare thing to find in the league today. He is naturally a starting pitcher, so he may eventually make a run for the rotation within the next few seasons, but he will likely be cemented into the bullpen for the time being.

    While the Pirates’ chances to bring back Buctober are better with the addition of two playoff spots in each league for 2020, it is clear that this shortened season is meant to be an evaluation year for the new coaching staff and front office. It would be entertaining if the Pirates could be in the mix towards the end of September, and you can still root for them to do so, but realistically the Pirates are far from being competitive, but they are heading in the right direction. There are a handful of players and storylines to look out for this season that should excite you for the future. The future is indeed bright with new and historically successful general manager Ben Cherington, the man that will hopefully lead the Pirates’ franchise to their sixth championship.

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