Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Season Preview 2022: #29, Pittsburgh Pirates

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

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29. Pittsburgh Pirates (58-104, 583 RS, 812 RA, fifth in NL Central)

With the decision to start Oneil Cruz in the minors, the Pirates may have less MLB talent on their Opening Day roster than any team in baseball. I’d rather have Ke’Bryan Hayes and probably Bryan Reynolds than any individual Oriole, but man, who is the third-best Pirate? David Bednar? Yoshi Tsutsugo, cut twice last summer? Mitch Keller I Swear It’s Real This Time Honest? Diego Castillo and his zero MLB plate appearances?

I’ve admittedly been dismissive of the Pirates in recent seasons, arguing that if the team’s owner doesn’t care, why should I? The problem with that attitude is between Nutting and the nut lay millions of people who are invested in one of baseball’s oldest franchises, who go to PNC Park, who tune into Greg Brown and Bob Walk, who sweat those late-inning Bednar appearances. All these bad owners, Nutting and John Fisher and Paul Dolan and their ilk, are engaged in a fraud against these fans who pay for the tickets and the hot dogs and the cable packages, who walk across the Clemente Bridge and hope to raise the Jolly Roger.

Nutting isn’t my reader, though. Those fans are. The answer to the question above is, “Because Pirates fans read the Newsletter, too.”

Taking the Pirates seriously, you look for the core, and if Cruz comes back by summer, that’s Hayes, Cruz, Reynolds if he’s still here...maybe Keller...the issue facing the Pirates isn’t just that they’re bad, but that they are old and largely made up of waiver bait. Six of the team’s nine projected starters are free-talent pickups. Just four projected position players on the roster were developed by the Pirates, counting Reynolds, who was acquired as a prospect. What is a rebuilding team doing with Daniel Vogelbach and Ben Gamel and Greg Allen, all 29 or 30 with neither a past nor a future?

The pitching staff isn’t much better. JT Brubaker got the Opening Day nod at 28 with 171 MLB innings behind him. Keller is 26 with a 6.02 career ERA, and he’s the big hope at the moment. He really has shown out this spring, touching 100 mph. Bryse Wilson is the youth movement, at 24. The bullpen isn’t very good and doesn’t include much in the way of breakout candidates, just more of the pitching versions of Gamel and Allen and Vogelbach.

Over the winter, the Pirates were the core of some people's argument for a payroll floor. But to me, they show just how toothless one would be. If I give the Pirates Kris Bryant, Michael Conforto and Marcus Stroman, now they’re a 70-win team with a $100 million payroll. I can’t defend how Bob Nutting manages this franchise, especially when I look at what he did when the Pirates had a strong team in the middle of the last decade. However, the Pirates don’t need a higher payroll to win -- though they will, eventually. Instead, they need to develop a new core. That’s Hayes, and Cruz, and Henry Davis, and Nick Gonzales, and Liover Peguero, and Roansy Contreras, and high draft picks in 2022 and 2023.

The Pirates are bottoming out now, with a roster of never-weres and never-will-bes. For the first time since this cycle began, though, you can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Let’s just hope they’ve been sold by then.

Random Player Comment: Man, I believed in Kevin Newman, who I thought would combine contact and speed and just enough glove to be a three-win shortstop. For one glorious year, he was, hitting .308/.353/.446 in 2019 with 16 steals and exactly three bWAR. Since then, he’s hit .226/.268/.302, and probably keeps the shortstop job just long enough for the Pirates to keep Cruz an extra season.

Newman is the cautionary tale to my enthusiasm about Nick Madrigal. There is a bare minimum of hard contact you need to make to survive in the majors, and Newman does not rise to it.