Henne: Where do Pirates go from here?

AP Photo | Pittsburgh third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes — who made his Major League debut on Sept. 1 — finished the 2020 season with a .376 batting average through 24 games, giving the Pirates a much-needed bright spot as the team enters the offseason.

Luke Henne | Staff Writer

Oct. 1, 2020

As another autumn descends upon Pittsburgh’s North Shore, fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates are left wondering what they watched this past summer and where the team is headed from here.

Following an 8-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Sunday, the Pirates closed the abbreviated 2020 campaign with an MLB-worst 19-41 record (.317 winning percentage), securing a sub-.500 record for the fourth time in the past five seasons and a top-10 draft pick for the second consecutive year.

The empty seats at PNC Park did not miss much, as a season littered with losing streaks, inconsistency, injuries and inexperience all contributed to the dismal campaign.

So, what went wrong (and right) for the Pirates in 2020, and where do they go from here?

Lack of Superstar Production:

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the Pirates’ season was their inability to depend on reliable talent.

Arguably the lineup’s five biggest bats saw their production drop off from the previous campaign.

Bryan Reynolds, who batted .314 (good for seventh-best in the National League) with just 121 strikeouts during his full rookie season in 2019, saw his average plummet to .189 while striking out in over 30% of his at-bats. Kevin Newman, another stellar rookie in 2019, saw his average fall from .308 to .224, while his extra-base hits fell from 38 to just six.

Josh Bell, a participant in the 2019 MLB Home Run Derby and the team’s main source of power, was nowhere to be found this year. Following a career year in which Bell hit .277 with 37 home runs and 116 runs batted in, Bell hit just eight home runs and drove in 22 runs while seeing his slugging percentage slide from .569 to .364. All three of these bats were expected to be key contributors, but all three miserably failed to live up to expectations.

Limited Production from Offseason Acquisitions:

Following the hiring of new general manager Ben Cherington and new manager Derek Shelton, the team was tasked with overhauling the roster and building for the future.

This process began in January, when the team dealt longtime center fielder Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks before signing his replacement in Jarrod Dyson; Dyson hit just .157 with the Pirates before being dealt to the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline.

Derek Holland, a veteran pitcher, was brought in to eat innings for the pitching staff. He did that by pitching 40.2 innings, but he managed a miserable 6.86 earned run average in the process.

One promising acquisition was third baseman Phillip Evans, who hit .359 with nine runs batted in before a broken jaw and concussion ended his season just two weeks after it started.

Although the talent brought in was not intended to be awe-inspiring, the team simply did not get enough production from the signings it made this past winter.

Abundance of Injuries to Key Pitchers:

The Pirates were already thin on talent and depth to begin with entering the 2020 season, but injuries simply derailed the pitching staff. Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer, arguably the team’s two best starting pitchers, missed the entire season while recovering from respective surgeries.

The bullpen was dealt devastating blows, as well. Kyle Crick, who posted a spectacular 2.39 earned run average with 65 strikeouts in 60.1 innings pitched two seasons ago, pitched in just 5.2 innings this season while dealing with a shoulder strain.

Michael Feliz, who posted a career-best 3.99 ERA in 2019, did not have the chance to replicate his past success, as he pitched just 1.2 innings before right forearm discomfort ended his season.

Keone Kela, who registered a spectacular 2.12 ERA in 2019 and became the team’s closer following the September 2019 arrest of Felipe Vazquez, pitched in just two innings this season while dealing with both the coronavirus and right forearm tightness. Kela, who is now a free agent, has likely pitched his last game for the Pirates.

In short, a thinned out pitching staff did not get any help in terms of staying healthy this season.

Despite all of the adversity from the 41-loss campaign, however, there were many bright spots and building blocks to move forward with.

Unexpected Bright Spots:

Many atypical superstars produced at a high level for the Pirates this season.

Erik Gonzalez, who missed much of the 2019 season due to a collarbone injury, recorded a career-high in doubles (13) and runs batted in (20). Colin Moran stayed consistent, leading the team in home runs (10) and runs batted in (23).

The majority of the starting rotation exceeded expectations, as well. In his final two starts of the season, Steven Brault pitched 16 innings, including a complete game on Sept. 17, surrendering just one run on four hits and trimming his ERA from 5.06 to a career-best 3.38.

Mitch Keller, the team’s top pitching prospect, pitched 11 straight no-hit innings to end his season, lowering his ERA from 5.06 to 2.91 in the process.

Joe Musgrove, a clubhouse leader who has struggled to consistently perform, pitched 13 innings in his final two starts, surrendering zero runs and just six hits while striking out 21 batters in that same frame.

While some of these Pirates are older — relatively speaking — their successful contributions could be vital to the future direction of this team.

Major League Debuts/In-Season Acquisitions

The team, littered with inexperience, saw a handful of individuals make their MLB debuts this season.

The most noteworthy was Ke’Bryan Hayes, one of the team’s top prospects. In his Major League debut on Sept. 1, Hayes went 2-for-5 with a game-tying home run in the eighth inning. His bat shined throughout the entire final month, and he finished his rookie season with a team-best .386 batting average.

Another noteworthy debut was pitcher Cody Ponce, who was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in July 2019. Ponce was used by the team in three doubleheaders; in these instances, Ponce pitched 13.2 innings, allowing just four earned runs.

Cherington also managed to add some key young contributors to the team for 2020 and, potentially, beyond. Anthony Alford, a longtime top-prospect for the Toronto Blue Jays who was claimed off of waivers, hit a home run and drove in four runs in 12 at-bats before a broken right elbow ended his season.

Nick Tropeano, a journeyman pitcher from the New York Yankees, dazzled in his relief efforts following his claim by Cherington, recording an eye-popping 1.15 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 15.2 innings of work.

All of these young pieces proved, in some form or another, that they could contribute to the team moving forward.

Final Thoughts

The 2020 Pirates were not going to be competitive or make the postseason, even with an expanded field, and nobody expected them to. The National League Central was too competitive (as evidenced by its four other members reaching the postseason), and the Pirates were too young and inexperienced to keep up. Additionally, the Bucs won just four of their first 21 games, while also enduring losing streaks of five, seven and eight games — especially detrimental in a shortened, 60-game season.

Following the first year of the new regime, it has become clear that Cherington and Shelton want to have a young group of their own players in order to build the future success of the Pirates’ organization. That’s fine, but they bear the responsibility of successfully drafting and acquiring promising players moving forward.

Barring any adjustments to the typical draft order, the Pirates had the league’s worst record and will, therefore, hold the top selection in the 2021 MLB Draft. This will allow the team to potentially draft Kumar Rocker, a flame-throwing pitcher from Vanderbilt and the consensus top pick, who threw a 19-strikeout no-hitter in his freshman season.

For the success of this franchise moving forward, it is critical that the front office does not mess this draft up.