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Ask Bucs Dugout: January edition answers

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

As I put out in a tweet earlier this week (shameless plug, but if you don’t follow me already, feel free to track my sports outrage and Bucco news @ethan_swer), I was so impressed by the sheer volume of questions asked in last weeks Ask Bucs Dugout: January Edition along with the overlap in topics of interest that I felt it would be better to highlight your queries and my answers in their own post. Today I’ll be getting back to you on all things Pittsburgh Pirates, from spring training and breakout stars down to free agent targets, trade possibilities, prospects, and projecting the 2020 major league season. Let’s dive in!

What remaining middle relievers would be good free agent targets? (@bmcferren)

I think that largely relies on what your definition of “good” is; good price range, good fit for the clubhouse, good talent to fill out holes in the bullpen, and so on and so forth. That being said, I agree with the idea that relying on the likes of Burdi, Santana, and possibly Kuhl and Brubaker would truly be a recipe for disaster. Unproven and injury prone are not a good mix when it comes to pitchers at any level. I’d be surprised to see the Pirates sign somebody more notable like former Astros’ reliever Collin McHugh, but it wouldn’t be out of the question. That’s a guy you could easily flip at the deadline if he proves his worth, or you could sign to a longer-term deal should he make a good fit. Padres’ arm Robbie Erlin would also be a nice add, but I’d specifically look for them to sign lower-pedigree guys as filler such as the CubsPedro Strop or RockiesChad Bettis.

Who will be a breakout star or surprise during spring training? The regular season? (@Casey Katzenstein)

I’m barely the legal age to gamble in the state of Pennsylvania but I can already tell you I’m no good at shooting craps. The same can be said for my or anyone’s ability to pinpoint someone to breakout during spring training, let alone the regular season. But there are always a few good candidates who seem able to finally capitalize on their potential from year to year (see Josh Bell). I really felt for starting pitcher Mitch Keller last season; the rookie was victimized by a horrendously high BABIP (.475) and the emotional weight of being a high-end prospect. There’s no doubt things like “not being the next Tyler Glasnow” crossed his mind last season. With a new pitching coach and hopefully the abandonment of the Ray Searage fastball-academy strategy, I’m willing to bet Keller starts slow in spring training while he tries to figure out pitching combinations that work for him. In the regular season, I can see him dominating earlier, perhaps jumping out to 10 wins in the first half of the season. He has amazing off-speed stuff and has the intellect to outthink opposing hitters.

As for spring training, there’s always one no-name guy who shocks the world it seems, but I’m going with third baseman and top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes as 2020’s ST All-Star. He’ll bat a ridiculous .375 and will go yard in his first at-bat, leaving yinzer nation ready to riot if Ben Cherington doesn’t ignore service-time rules and put him on the Opening Day roster.

Can you rank our prospects in order of trade availability? (@bmcferren)

BMac seems to always come in with these opinionated questions that get me in trouble with the community, but they are my opinions nonetheless. Great question. There’s no way the organization moves guys like Oneil Cruz, Quinn Priester, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Travis Swaggerty or Tahnaj Thomas. Out of those four however, I think Swaggerty could be the most likely candidate on the move should the Pirates receive an offer they like, a package that may include a Triple-A catcher or starting pitcher. Those things are harder to come by than outfielders. But let’s call those four the “protected” prospects for now. I hate to think the team trades away starting pitcher talent because it is lacking so much throughout the system, so I think the likelihood of parting with prospects starts with position players. Look for guys like Ji-Hwan Bae, Mason Martin, and Lolo Sanchez to be tossed around in discussions. I think the Pirates still like Will Craig enough to part with Bae and the likes of Calvin Mitchell and Jared Oliva make Martin and Sanchez expendable in part (Sanchez especially is a projectable guy with a lot of raw speed and potential for power but will need some work to reach even close to his ceiling). I think those are the most likely three to go.

Do you expect the new management to be more willing to part with prospects? (@AJF67)

I think Ben Cherington is less of a hoarder than Neal Huntington judging by his track record. Cherington inherited somewhat of a mess from big-spending Cubs’ VP of baseball operations Theo Epstein with expensive contracts to aging players (which everyone likes to forget about in lauding Epstein’s ability to break baseball curses). Cherington was more of a build through free agency guy when the Red Sox won in 2013; he signed Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, and Shane Victorino. He has been characterized as being “good with the small moves and bad with the big ones.” That being said, with the front office he has so far built, there’s reason to be hopeful in his ability to rebuild the farm system and supply the major league squad with a steady flow of prospects in the near future and supplementing with key (and affordable) free agents. He’ll need to part with prospects to do that effectively in this market; this was Huntington’s downfall and I believe Cherington wouldn’t have been hired if he didn’t have a different philosophy than hoarding your own prospects and drafting for need instead of talent. Look for him to be more active in packaging prospects for other prospects or major-league talent when the time comes.

Are the ML Pirates going to be traded away, bringing in new talent to matchup with some current young players? If so, is there any chance the Pirates see .500 before 2022?

I can’t see a scenario where Starling Marte and Adam Frazier are not shipped out this year for younger talent, perhaps closer to being major-league ready than they are to Double-A ball. I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see the departure of Josh Bell at the end of the year or in 2021 due to the reality that he is a client of Scott Boras and will most likely be overpaid to be a DH in the American League at some point in his career. Even Gregory Polanco could be on that same trajectory to be traded away before its too late and his injury overtakes his career. But the cornerstone of this team has become obvious to me this year; if Cherington is as smart as I think he is, he builds around Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman, Bryan Reynolds, Hayes, Keller, and even Craig, Joe Musgrove, and a recovering Jameson Taillon for the future. Finding a catcher, starting pitchers, relievers, and outfield/infield depth will be the key. The 2020 Pirates are a 75 win team at best this year, but 82 wins isn’t out of the question in 2021. I think 2022 will be the year the Bucs return to competition.