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Thoughts on the Pirates at the halfway point

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Things are looking up, kids.

MLB: Game One-Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets
This guy is one of the reasons for optimism.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Well, here we are in mid-July, the middle of the baseball season as determined by the timing of the All-Star Game. While I’m still giggling at the unexpected sight of Adam Frazier cruising the ASG red purple carpet in that now-famous green suit, I did want to take a look at where the Pirates stand now that the world is pretty much back to normal.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way—the Bucs are 34-56, 22 games under .500 as of this writing. No one considers this a good thing. However, I’ll point out that at the sixty-game mark, which was the total of games played in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, they’d won 23 games, so it can be said that they did improve over the 19 total wins of last year. Many predicted that they wouldn’t win sixty games this year. They will. How much more than that is up in the air, but I don’t think that seventy is out of the realm of possibility. It points to how bad the Pirates have been for seventy wins to look like a successful season, but baby steps, okay?

Ben Cherington is aware of this. As longtime BD readers know, I’ve been on the BC bandwagon from the beginning, and he’s yet to shake my faith. It seems like one of my main jobs these days is to reassure people that Bob Nutting really does want to win, and Cherington’s hire is the strongest sign of this. His inaugural draft in 2020 was a good one, but his 2021 draft is getting universally high marks. Taking University of Louisville catcher Henry Davis as the overall number one pick (which I totally called by the way, go me) was pretty typical of his approach to drafting—get what you need. I think that #TankForHenry is going to pay big dividends, and since he’s coming out of college, should he progress the way it’s believed he will, it won’t be long before we see him in The Show. The prospects that arrived from the trades of Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove are progressing extremely well to boot. This is what happens when you have a GM who knows what he’s doing, a concept that Bucs fans have trouble grasping—with very good reason, I might add.

But let’s look at the existing big league club. I do have to admit that Adam Frazier’s stellar performance this year (and stylish dress sense) has been a very pleasant surprise. Is he still on the trading block? I added my voice to the “trade him” chorus last year, but now? I won’t say it won’t happen, but keeping Frazier, who currently leads MLB in hits, could be the first tangible sign of Nutting opening his wallet and paying someone to stay. Bryan Reynolds, who is bouncing back nicely from a dismal 2020, will be on that list in a couple of years.

The biggest surprise, though, has been the number of players basically rescued off the scrap heap who have been making big differences as Buccos. The current favorite is John Nogowski, who has stepped in for the getting-injured-way-too-much Colin Moran both with great fielding and timely hitting. Tyler Anderson has kind of come out of nowhere to be the closest thing to the Bucs’ ace that they have. Wilmer Difo more often than not comes off the bench with timely pinch-hitting. Ben Gamel, aka the Other Redbeard, is a fun player to watch and adds some power to the lineup.

And this is a lineup that definitely could use some power. It’s very apparent that if Frazier and Reynolds—and what the hell, let’s add Gamel and Nogowski—are having an off game, no one is coming in to pick up the slack. Kevin Newman, he of the .700 spring training batting average, is cold. Gregory Polanco ... well, I’ll take the “if you can’t say anything nice, keep silent” road on Plinko. Phillip Evans is still very much a rookie. Speaking of rookies, you don’t hear too much about Ke’Bryan Hayes being in the running for Rookie of the Year anymore. After a wrist injury that sidelined him for much longer than expected, his bat has frozen somewhat, although his fielding remains outstanding. Erik Gonzalez, Will Craig and Ka’ai Tom are just kind of ... there. Jacob Stallings seems to have settled into the starting catcher role, but obviously Davis’s drafting has started the clock ticking on his Bucs tenure as well as Michael Perez, who still makes too many mistakes for my taste.

As for pitching, Anderson and, to a lesser extent, JT Brubaker, are pulling their weight despite their less-than-stellar records (see chilly battery). Chase De Jong and Chad Kuhl can be maddeningly hot and cold, and Kyle Crick can join Polanco in the “can’t say anything nice” club. David Bednar, though, is pulling his weight, as are Chris Stratton, Clay Holmes and Sam Howard. Richard Rodriguez, in my opinion, is the most obvious trade bait right now, Frazier notwithstanding. Could Bednar be turned into the closer? I think it could happen. Chasen Shreve is showing encouraging signs of being a solid middle reliever as well. Max Kranick needs some more innings, but he too is cause for optimism.

What about Derek Shelton? I believe he’s an excellent motivator. Despite the Bucs’ record, he seems to be really good at making the team believe that they can win on any given night. He’s still very new to managing at the major league level, which shows in his difficulty in knowing when to pull a pitcher. I don’t know how much input Oscar Marin has in the pulling process, but he’s very new at his job too.

Overall, the 2021 Pirates are very much a work in progress. At the same time, though, they’re a lot more fun to watch than they have been. Good things are happening, they really are.

Besides, I have no doubt you’ll yell at me at the end of the season if things go totally off the rails.