The Pittsburgh Pirates offense was one of the worst in baseball during the 2021 season.
Despite leading the National League in triples (35), the Bucs struggled in every other category. Pittsburgh finished 11th in hits (1,261), 12th in doubles (240), dead last in runs (609) and home runs (124), and 12th in batting average (.244 not including pitchers).
As a result, the 61-win Pirates fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein at the end of August before the conclusion of the year in a decision manager Derek Shelton proclaimed needed to be made for the Bucs’ bats moving forward.
The offensive woes aren’t a complete blueprint of Eckstein’s influence, with a brevity of roster influxes and below-average candidates filling starting roles.
Eckstein’s departure opens the door for a new hitting coach to initiate the Pirates' top prospects to the Majors, being one of the first voices in their ear on the everyday grind it takes to succeed in the big leagues.
There are a number of different options and directions Pittsburgh could go to fill the position with someone able to bring viable change and success to the batter's box.
Marrero was the Pirates assistant hitting coach for the Pirates in 2021 working alongside Eckstein. Only 35-years old, the former Minor League first baseman played 1187 career games and 734 at AA spanning 12 seasons, ending his playing career after the 2017 campaign. Marrero coached three years in the Phillies system before being hired in January to Derek Shelton’s staff. A quick riser in the ranks, Marrero could continue to climb up the ladder as the Pirates’ new hitting coach. A younger voice could resonate as well with the Bucs’ incoming youth movement.
Nunnally, 49, is another internal candidate the Pirates will likely consider for the job. He was the outfield and baserunning coordinator for the Los Angeles Angels from 2017-18 before joining the Pirates in 2019. Nunnally became the AA Altoona Curve hitting coach that season, and transitioned to the same position with AAA Indianapolis in 2021 after the 2020 season was canceled. Nunnally has gotten an opportunity to work with the likes of Oneil Cruz, Travis Swaggerty, Mason Martin, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and others who will make a major impact on the Pirates’ future. The Pirates have a history of promoting and keeping coaches from within, so don’t rule out Nunally despite a lackluster season for Indianapolis in 2021.
A possible candidate from a hot and cold offense, Marcus Thames was relieved of his duties as the New York Yankees hitting coach after four seasons. The Yankees finished 19th in runs-per-game and 23rd in batting average and hits-per-game this past season, losing in 6-2 the AL Wild Card Game to the Boston Red Sox. Thames was a candidate to replace Ron Gardenhire as the next manager of the Minnesota Twins after the 2020 season and is now looking for a new opportunity after his dismissal. Working with stars like Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Giancarlo Stanton, and others provided peaks and valleys for the high-profile hitters, but building from the ground up in Pittsburgh with fewer expectations could be a stepping stone for Thames to re-establish himself as a hitting coach.
A familiar name to the Pirates, Cruz served on Eckstein’s staff in 2019 as an assistant hitting coach before taking the same job with the Milwaukee Brewers following Clint Hurdle’s departure. The Brewers have had difficulties keeping players consistent with the stick throughout the season, but shortstop Willy Adames blossomed into one of the best shortstops in the National League this year. Cruz, 48, could return to an organization he is already familiar with and sees frequently throughout NL Central play, already in tune with some of the Bucs’ young players. Cruz should also be on Cherington’s shortlist of potential options moving forward.
An unknown to some in the baseball world, DeMent hails from the Tampa Bay Rays organization as a Minor League hitting coordinator. The 43-year-old coached previously for the Durham Bulls as well, and has experience working with Rays’ hitters who find ways to put the ball in play and collect timely hits to catapult to this year’s 100-win season and last year’s World Series appearance. Wander Franco, Randy Arozarena, Yandy Diaz and countless over players have become viable threats at the plate with increased coaching and development. Coaches and executives that leave the Rays organization typically go on to have increased success, and DeMent could fill the hitting coach position, a role owned by Shelton years ago on the Rays major league staff.
Recently Retired Star
This is the most far fetched and unlikely option, but bringing in a recently retired star such as Brian Dozier, Ben Zobrist, David Freese (if he would want to come back), or Ian Kinsler, currently a front office advisor for the San Diego Padres, could be a good addition to the staff. More likely in an assistant role, these former players would be able to coincide with what the current hitters are thinking after only being out of the game a few seasons. It’s unlikely but has happened before with David Ross a few short years after winning a World Series with the Chicago Cubs replacing Joe Madden as manager.
The Pirates have numerous directions they can take in deciding the next hitting coach to serve on Shelton’s staff, but the decision will be a costly one for the manager if the bats continue to falter. Year three will be a critical season for Shelton to prove to the front office and city of Pittsburgh that he is the right man to steer the ship out of the basement and back to sailing over .500. A strong new hitting coach in the clubhouse will go a long way in achieving it.
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Recently Retired Star