We’re now about two weeks into Spring Training games, meaning the 2021 season is starting its engines and getting ready to roll for an April 1 Opening Day. A lot of the media fanfare surrounding baseball this offseason had to do with the New York Mets, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Fernando Tatis, Jr., and Trevor Bauer. Not much attention was paid to the Pirates, except when being referenced as the cellar dweller of a depleted NL Central.
But will the Pirates actually be that bad?
I live in Tennessee. Many of those around me are fans of the Tennessee Volunteers and, in particular, the university’s football program. Folks around here are relentlessly optimistic, even in the face of crippling adversity. Just recently, the football program was embroiled in drama surrounding a head coach, Jeremy Pruitt, who they ostensibly wanted to get rid of but owed a ton of money. Cue: Recruiting violations. Now the program is in a complete overhaul with a new coaching staff, a new athletic director, and many, many new players.
Despite all that, Vol Twitter was abuzz when the new schedule came out, with many declaring, “I could see them going 7-5.” That’s a long shot, no doubt, especially in the powerhouse SEC, but these fans have long believed that the ascent to the top of the college football world is right around the corner.
Now let’s contrast that with the apathy surrounding the Pirates. There are key differences between Tennessee and the Pirates: Namely, it’s clear that Tennessee wants to win; many might contest that the goal of winning isn’t so explicit in Pittsburgh.
In fact, the primary complaint surrounding baseball Pirates’ baseball is the owner. Many think that if that problem were solved, then many other problems would work themselves out or be worked out under new management. That could be the case, but maybe not. All that to say, many think the Pirates are going to be downright abysmal this year, winning south of 60 games — even south of 50 by some downtrodden fan estimates.
Websites like Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have been somewhat generous in their models of how good (or, not good) the Pirates will be in 2021. For example, the former has the Pirates at 62 wins — not good, but we’ve seen plenty of teams go 62-100. The latter has them — perhaps unbelievably — at 66 wins. Pretty good, right?
66 wins for those aforementioned teams, like the Dodgers or Yankees, wouldn’t very good, of course. But in Pittsburgh? Where it’s the opposite of the television sitcom Cheers? Where everybody doesn’t know your name (at least outside of Pittsburgh)? That’s downright astonishing. 57-105 seems perfectly achievable for the Pirates, but the models suggest otherwise.
The Pirates do have Jacob Stallings, who contributed 1.6 fWAR a year ago; there’s Adam Frazier (for now); Kevin Newman might prove to be a worthy recipient of praise once again; Ke’Bryan Hayes, of course; Bryan Reynolds could bounce back; and maybe Todd Frazier will regain some semblance of what he was in Cincinnati.
Those guys seem talented enough. Then there’s the pitching: Steven Brault had a strong campaign; maybe Mitch Keller will come around; Chad Kuhl pitched well in a comeback year; the bullpen sees the return of Richard Rodriguez; perhaps Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick can contribute; then my dark horse, Blake Cederlind.
When you break the roster down piece by piece, you’re left thinking that this team isn’t that bad after all. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. This team isn’t going to be in the contention for a playoff spot: Not on April 1 and not during the final day of the season. Conversely, they might not be the sure bet to finish last in all of baseball. Tanking is a concept employed by the front office, not the players on the field. Just by looking over the roster, it’s not inconceivable to think that the Pirates could win more games than the Orioles, Rockies, and maybe even the Tigers or Rangers.
As fans, what do you want to see happen in 2021? Wins or losses? Do you want to see a somewhat respectable record (although still a losing one)? Or do you want to lock up that first round pick for the second consecutive year (like the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper)?
The Pirates will be bad this year, but they won’t be as bad as your Twitter feed might lead you to believe. They will win north of 60 games, even if it’s just barely. There will also be a lot of fun along the way. My money is on a 63-99 finish, just missing that dreaded 100-loss mark, and securing the second pick in the draft.