Now that the bats and gloves have been put away, and a bow has been placed on the most bizarre season in baseball history, it would be an appropriate time to consider what we learned about the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020.
No, that would be too easy, although it’s likely the response many Pirates fans would have as Day 1 of the offseason dawns. They wouldn’t be wrong, at least if you look solely at the numbers. Worst record in baseball at 19-41. One of the worst winning percentages in franchise history (.317). Five regular position players with averages of .230 or less, including two who finished at .189 and .153. That’s so far below the Mendoza Line they might get the bends trying to reach it. Then there’s the pitching, which – until a late-season surge – looked nearly as bad as the hitting.
Offensively, it would be hard to imagine a player having a worse season than Gregory Polanco. The big right fielder, coming off an injury-shortened 2019 season, looked healthy all year but his numbers were sick. And not in a good way. He owned the aforementioned .153 batting average, which is hard to do in 157 at-bats. Supporters of Polanco pointed to his exit velocity as proof that he still had something, but he struck out a whopping 65 times, which negated his exit velocity strengths.
Bryan Reynolds, meanwhile, limped home to a .189 finish and a .632 OPS –- a poor mark indeed yet nearly 100 points higher than Polanco’s. Reynolds was just one season removed from battling for a batting title down to the final month of the year. So, which is the real Reynolds? While I’m not as high on Polanco as I was coming into this season, I still have faith in Reynolds. I’m not convinced he’s a .320 hitter, but do believe he’s capable of hitting in the .280 range with 20 homers and 85 RBI potential. With his fielding ability and his arm, I’ll take those offensive numbers, particularly if he moves full time to center field. As for Polanco, I have no idea what to do with him, since they’re on the hook for an $11 million contract for 2021. I say pray that the DH remains in play and let him shuttle between DH and right field and hope that he can go back to using more of the field and rely less on trying to hit the ball 200 mph with every swing.
Josh Bell also was a major disappointment, finishing at .226/.669 with eight homers and 22 RBIs. I say they ride with him at least through the first half of 2021; if he turns things around, see if there are any takers at the trade deadline and if not, hope he puts together a solid year overall and then try dealing him in the offseason following the 2021 campaign.
Jacob Stallings was everyone’s favorite story – at least until Ke’Bryan Hayes arrived – and he played better than anyone could have hoped for, finishing with a .248 mark and a .702 OPS. I’m still not a fan, though, and I have a hard time pinpointing why. He has the reputation of being one of the better defensive catchers in baseball, but I still see him stabbing and swiping at pitches, trying to steal strikes by “framing” pitches. Call me crazy, but I’d rather see my catchers quiet behind home plate.
Erik Gonzalez turned many a head at least for the first half of the season but cooled off down the stretch to finish at .227/.614. I’m not sure if the league just punched back and – due to the shortened season — he didn’t have time to counterpunch, or if that’s what you’re going to get with Gonzalez. I tend to think it’s the latter, but he’s solid defensively, and I’d say run him out there on Opening Day in 2021 and hope Nick Gonzales or Liover Peguero or one of the other shortstop prospects is ready by 2022.
That brings us to Hayes, who proved to be a revelation. Known for his triple Gold Glove wins in the minor leagues, Hayes proved to be more than capable at the plate, as he finished at .376/1.124 in 85 at-bats. I don’t expect him to equal those numbers over a full 162-game slate, but I would gladly take .280/.800 with 20 homers and 80 RBIs in his first full season at third base. I would expect his power numbers to increase as he adds strength, and he figures to be the cornerstone upon which this rebuild will take place.
Other position players are at least worth mentioning. Colin Moran did what Colin Moran does – and what he figures to do going forward. He’ll give you a professional at-bat, won’t wow you but will hit just enough to make you want to keep him around as a bench piece. Kevin Newman? Not sure what to make of him. I was never a big fan, but last year he made me question myself. And then this year he came back to earth with a thud. Maybe a spare middle infield piece until the younger middle infielders arrive.
On the mound, rotation mainstays Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove showed nothing that would indicate they might be more than fourth or fifth starters, although I’m willing to cut Musgrove a little slack since he missed significant time with injuries.
Elsewhere, the aforementioned late surge gave one hope that Mitch Keller and Steven Brault might have turned a proverbial corner in their respective bids to solidify slots in next season’s starting rotation. And Chad Kuhl, coming off a season of inactivity while recovering from Tommy John surgery, showed flashes of outstanding stuff.
Keller, sidelined most of the season with an oblique injury, finished with a 2.91 ERA in five starts, allowing just nine hits and striking out 12 in 21 2/3 innings. That was the good news. The bad news? Keller walked 18 – nearly a batter per inning. That can’t happen.
Brault, the erstwhile show tune crooner, wound up with a 3.38 ERA in 10 starts, working 42 2/3 innings and giving up 29 hits while striking out 38. Brault didn’t walk as many batters as Keller, but 22 is still too many.
Kuhl wound up making nine starts and 11 appearances overall, giving up 35 hits and 28 walks while striking out 44 in putting together a 4.27 ERA. He had one horrendous outing that skewed those numbers – he gave up nine earned runs in 2 1/3 innings against the Royals on Sept. 13 – but otherwise pitched competently for the most part.
Musgrove, meanwhile, finished at 1-5 with a 3.86 ERA in eight starts. He led the team in strikeouts with 55 in 39 2/3 innings and walked 16 while yielding 33 hits. His WHIP of 1.24 is not horrible, at least compared to his buddy Williams, who logged a 1.57 WHIP after giving up 66 hits and 21 walks in 55 1/3 innings. He finished 2-8 with a 6.18 ERA, and that was after giving up just one earned run and three hits in 5 2/3 innings in his final start.
The Pirates found themselves a rotation candidate in rookie JT Brubaker, who finished with a 4.94 ERA in 11 appearances – nine starts. Brubaker gave up 48 hits in his 47 1/3 innings of work – not eyepopping numbers, to say the least – but he struck out 48 and walked only 17, so that was a plus.
Next year’s rotation could have two more arms who sat out this season with injury – Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer. There’s no telling what to expect from the hard-luck Taillon, coming off his second Tommy John surgery. I wouldn’t count on him for much, but if he does prove to be healthy, perhaps he could be a middle of the rotation guy. Archer might slot a little later, and while he hasn’t come close to living up to his end of the trade bargain the Bucs made with Tampa Bay several years ago, I wouldn’t count him out. Those two, along with Keller, Brault, Kuhl and Brubaker or Musgrove, at least give the Pirates the skeleton of a starting rotation. I can’t imagine Musgrove failing to improve on his numbers from this year, and I believe the arrows are pointing up on the others (Keller, Brault, Kuhl and Brubaker). Call me wildly optimistic, but I think the starting pitching could surprise in 2021 – and it has nothing to do with the hot streak at the end of the season. I just think there’s more talent there than the numbers showed this year, and with a full offseason and spring training under pitching coach Oscar Marin, I predict an improved rotation for 2021?
The bottom line? I just don’t see the Pirates fighting for the worst record in baseball next year. Some who know the game say that’s exactly what the Pirates should be doing – stockpiling another No. 1 pick to go with (hopefully) the 2021 top pick and this year’s No. 7 (Gonzales). Perhaps that is the way to go in building a team, but I just can’t imagine the Pirates winning at a
.317 clip next year. I’d say more in the range of 70-92 sounds about right.
One last note. For Pirates fan, the season truly was agonizing in many respects. But if you look at the bigger picture, at least we had two months of actual baseball. The rules changed and no fans were permitted in ballparks, but you could turn on the radio or TV or your phone just about every night for the past two months and hear a game. And for that, I’m thankful.