Roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2021 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates are where most people figured they would be – struggling in last place in the National League Central.
With a 23-44 record and in the midst of a 10-game losing streak, the long-range forecast doesn’t look good, but in a bizarre sort of way, maybe that IS good.
Perhaps this isn’t a popular stance, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Pirates continue to lose at a steady clip and – in fact – lose more than any other club in the Major Leagues. I’d rather see them pocket yet another No. 1 overall draft pick in 2022 than play semi-respectably the rest of the way and end up picking fourth or fifth.
That doesn’t mean they need to play nine innings of horrific ball every night. And so far, they haven’t. In fact, 19 of their 44 losses have come by two runs or less, which means – theoretically, at least – they were a bloop and a blast away from being in a tie game.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course, but if you look past the W’s and L’s, you’ll see that the Pirates haven’t played terrible baseball every single game. There have been times when they played a pretty solid game and just came out on the short end. No crime in that.
Still, that doesn’t mean I’m good with the way the Bucs are going about their business. Specifically, I’ve seen enough of two players: Ka’ai Tom and Kevin Newman.
Tom was claimed by the Pirates in April after he was waived by the Oakland A’s, who had selected him in the Rule 5 draft after he was left unprotected by the Cleveland Indians.
When the Pirates claimed Tom, they also inherited his Rule 5 status, meaning he could not be sent down to the Minor Leagues without exposing him to waivers.
But after watching Tom come to the plate 93 times as a Pirate, I’ve seen enough. He’s hitting just .156 with a .586 OPS, cracking a pair of homers and driving in 11 runs in 99 plate appearances. He has walked 14 times, but that’s not enough, at least for me. I’d rather see anyone else on the current roster take his spot in left field. Or perhaps it’s time to give Anthony Alford another shot.
You remember Alford: the former highly regarded Toronto Blue Jays prospect whom many tabbed to win the center field job in spring training this year was actually designated for assignment so the Pirates could add Tom to the roster.
Alford made the team out of Spring Training and appeared in 11 games for the Pirates but flopped miserably, hitting just .083 with a .325 OPS in 24 at-bats.
That earned him a ticket to Indianapolis, where he scuffled at the start, but has come on in recent weeks. In 86 at-bats, Alford is hitting .279 with a .949 OPS. He’s hit six home runs and driven in 19. Granted, he’s still striking out way too much — 39 Ks – but he’s also walked 20 times for an on-base percentage of .426. I’m all for trying to add him to the roster in place of Tom, inserting him in center field and sliding Reynolds over to left field. Reynolds has done nothing wrong in center, but Alford’s superior speed might play better there.
Even if Alford, who turns 27 in July, flops – again – it’s hard to imagine him being any worse than Tom, who’s also 27.
As for Newman, I’m not completely down on him. He’s played fine defense at shortstop; in fact, he hasn’t made an error in 462 2/3 innings at shortstop and another 28 innings at second base. But he’s hitting a paltry .202 with a .502 OPS in 223 at-bats.
So what should the Pirates do? Let him play virtually every day the rest of the season and hope that he begins to resemble the 2019 version of Kevin Newman?
I’m willing to carry a solid defensive shortstop with subpar offensive numbers, but not .202/.502. So what’s the alternative? Why not give Cole Tucker a shot? And by a shot, I don’t mean starting him two or three times a week in a rotation that includes Newman and Erik Gonzalez. I mean giving Tucker the same 60-game stretch that Newman has been given, as long as he provides the Pirates the same level of defense and can hit at least .202.
I’m not saying Tucker will be an upgrade; his numbers at Triple-A Indianapolis are not promising. In 63 at-bats there, Tucker is hitting .233/.766 with two homers and eight RBIs. But at least if you give him a steady dose of starts, you’ll find out whether he’s a part of your group going forward or not.
I’ve always envisioned that Tucker could develop into a sort of poor man’s Chris Taylor of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both are versatile; Taylor has played every outfield position as well as second, third and shortstop during his big league career, and Tucker showed last year that he could handle the outfield in a competent fashion despite having never played there before. And his glove has always been his calling card at short, so I don’t see why he couldn’t handle second or third in a pinch.
Taylor also took a while to develop offensively. In 2014 – his age 23 season – Taylor hit a respectable .287, although his OPS was just .697. In parts of the next two seasons, he batted .170/.443 and .213/.622 before breaking out in 2017 as a 26-year-old with the Dodgers with marks of .288/.850.
Tucker, who looks thoroughly overmatched at the plate too much of the time, will turn 25 next month. Perhaps he’ll never be the player that Taylor has turned out to be. But to me, it’s too early to give up on him – and he at least deserves a legitimate shot in this lost season of 2021.