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Should Bucs tank or aim for mediocre?

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I’m not sure anyone’s penned a battle cry for the 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates yet, but perhaps “Tank for Elijah” or “Tank for Nate” is worthy of consideration.

You’ll recall that “Tank for Kumar” emerged as a slogan of note while the Bucs slogged through a forgettable 2020 season, as fans had their sights set on one Kumar Rocker, a strapping 6-foot-5, 250-pound right-handed man-child learning his pitching craft at Vanderbilt.

There’s no guarantee the Pirates will indeed select Rocker with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft; some say Rocker’s Commodore teammate, Jack Leiter, might be the safer pick. But Rocker’s physical gifts might be too good to pass up, and adding him to a future rotation that could include names such as Quinn Priester, Brennan Malone, Carmen Mlodzinski, Cody Bolton and Tahnaj Thomas could yield some high dividends a few years down the road.

However, Rocker’s not going to save the day anytime soon even if he is the Pirates’ top pick in the June draft. That means the club likely will scuffle through at least one more – and likely two or three – seasons before it it’s in a position to contend.

Which leads us to the 2021 season. What would you like to see the Pirates do, assuming there will be a ’21 season? Given their self-imposed financial constraints – you know Bob Nutting isn’t about to open his wallet at this point, given the roster makeup – what improvements should the Pirates attempt to make for the short-term?

In other words, how much in the way of resources – money and/or current players – should the Bucs devote to righting the ship right now? Coming off a 19-41 season, which extrapolated over a 162-game campaign would come out to, well, you don’t want to know, would it make sense to just bite another bitter bullet and sink quietly to the NL Central basement for one more year? If they sink far enough, they just might end up where they ended up this year – with the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft.

That’s where “Tank for Elijah” or “Tank for Nate” come into play. Elijah would be one Elijah Green, ranked as the No. 1 high school prospect by Baseball America. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Florida product is referred to by the Perfect Game website as a “true talent with significant present skills and unlimited upside.” Perfect Game lauded him for his “immense physicality with blistering speed and off the charts athleticism.” He even has a built-in Pittsburgh connection; his father, Eric, played 10 years in the NFL as a tight end, the first five of those with the Steelers. Eric Green had back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in 1993-94 when he caught a combined 109 passes for 1,560 yards and nine touchdowns.

Baseball America’s top collegiate prospect for the 2022 draft is Nate Savino, a left-handed pitcher from the University of Virginia. The publication noted that Savino was a potential first-round pick coming out of high school in the 2020 class but enrolled early at Virginia and pitched 10 2/3 innings for the Cavaliers before the season ended prematurely due to the pandemic. Savino is listed at 6-foot-3 and 195-pounds and hails from Sterling, Va. Perfect Game noted that Savino possesses a mid-90s fastball that topped out at 96 mph during the 2019 National Showcase and has the frame to increase his strength – and thus add to his velocity. He was referred to as “an elite level pitching prospect.”

So, would you rather see the Pirates have a shot at one of those two players – or maybe someone else who rises through the ranks this coming spring and summer? Or would you rather see them attempt to improve as much as possible and win as many games as they can with the roster they now have?

To me, as painful as it sounds, I’d rather see the Bucs sink to the bottom one last time and get another top draft pick than draft in the middle of the pack. If you’re in a rebuilding mode, nothing is worse than being mediocre because it reduces your odds of drafting a difference-maker. Finishing at or near the bottom would give the club three picks among the top seven in three successive years, and assuming Nick Gonzales and Kumar Rocker/Jack Leiter/PTBNL and the 2022 selections pan out, the Pirates might be on their way to contention. A 64-98 season certainly doesn’t sound attractive, but if the club uses those 1,460 innings to give young players game experience, whether it’s position players like Cole Tucker, Anthony Alford and Jared Oliva or arms like Blake Cederlind and JT Brubaker, then I wouldn’t consider it a lost season.