Pirates set for another rebuilding season

Luke Henne | Sports Editor | PNC Park — home of the Pirates since 2001 — will welcome fans back in for the team’s home opener, which is scheduled for Tuesday. With Tuesday being Pittsburgh’s 412 Day, the game will start at 4:12 p.m.

Sean O’Donnell | Staff Writer

April 7, 2022

With Major League Baseball’s season set to get underway on Thursday, the Pittsburgh Pirates are still deep in the midst of a long rebuild, seeking to replenish the organizational talent in hopes of becoming competitive a few years down the line.

The Pirates finished the 2021 season with a 61-101 record, earning a last-place finish in the National League Central division for the third season in a row.

Although more roster turnover dominated general manager Ben Cherington’s offseason plans, there are still some core pieces for third-year manager Derek Shelton to build around in 2022.

The catalysts for this team, in all likelihood, are going to be: center fielder Bryan Reynolds, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and relief pitcher David Bednar.

Reynolds earned his first MLB All-Star Game appearance a season ago, and he finished the campaign with a .302 batting average, 24 home runs and 90 RBIs. In two of his three seasons at the MLB level, Reynolds has batted over .300, hit at least 15 home runs and recorded at least 65 RBIs.

Another bat to keep an eye on is Hayes. In what was his first-full MLB season in 2021, Hayes hit six home runs and recorded 38 RBIs, playing in just 96 games due to multiple injuries.

While his offensive numbers could and should improve, it’s his defense that stands out. He won the 2021 MLB Fielding Bible Award as the league’s best-defensive third baseman. With room to grow offensively and his defense already proven to be high-caliber, Hayes appears to be ready to take the next step in his growth as a franchise cornerstone.

The Pirates have recognized this talent and are looking to keep Hayes around for the foreseeable future. Last week, MLB Network insider Jon Heyman reported that Pittsburgh offered Hayes a long-term contract extension.

In the bullpen, Bednar appears to be one of the few household names.

The Pittsburgh native who grew up in nearby Mars, Pa., emerged as the team’s closer in his first season with his hometown Pirates in 2021. He struck out 77 batters and posted a solid 2.23 earned run average in just over 60 innings of action, and he’ll be counted on as a solidified arm.

The rest of the roster, however, is riddled with issues related to depth and inconsistency.

Aside from Hayes, the infield is loaded with players that Pittsburgh is counting on to bounce back and/or take the next step forward.

The catcher spot is as weak as it’s been in a long time for Pittsburgh. After trading Jacob Stallings — a 2021 National League Gold Glove Award recipient — to the Miami Marlins in late November, the Pirates filled Stallings’ void by agreeing to a one-year deal with Roberto Perez.

The former member of the then-Cleveland Indians had an impressive 2019 campaign, hitting 24 home runs and producing 63 RBIs. It’s been an offensive struggle for Perez since then, however. In 2021, he hit just .149 in a season where injuries limited him to just 44 games.

Perez was an American League Gold Glove Award winner in both 2019 and 2020, so it appears that Pittsburgh signed him for his defense, and anything that comes at the plate will be a bonus.

While the Pirates used the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft to select phenom catcher Henry Davis, he’s not MLB-ready just yet. As a result, the catcher position remains pretty thin.

At first base, the path looks clear for Yoshi Tsutsugo. In just 43 games with Pittsburgh in 2021 following rough patches with both the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tsutsugo hit an impressive .268 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs.

The team opted not to renew the contract of first baseman Colin Moran, who eventually signed with the rival Cincinnati Reds after four seasons in Pittsburgh.

With the MLB implementing a universal designated hitter for all 30 teams, the Pirates needed to find a serviceable power option. They found this power in the form of Daniel Vogelbach, who hit 30 home runs and recorded 76 RBIs with the Seattle Mariners in 2019.

Following a disappointing 2021 campaign with the Milwaukee Brewers in which he hit just .219 with nine home runs, Pittsburgh signed him to a one-year contract in hopes that he can recapture the promise he displayed just three seasons ago.

The middle infield will likely be occupied by Michael Chavis at second base and Kevin Newman at shortstop.

After being acquired from the Boston Red Sox in late July of last season, Chavis — Boston’s first-round selection in the 2014 MLB Draft — hit an impressive .357 with four extra-base hits in 12 games with the Pirates, missing some time due to injury.

Newman batted just .226 in 2021, but his defense earned him recognition as a finalist for the National League Gold Glove Award at the shortstop position. He’s also just three seasons removed from a 2019 campaign in which he hit .308 and recorded 64 RBIs.

Look for rising star second baseman/shortstop Oneil Cruz — one of Pittsburgh’s most-promising prospects — to be up at any point in the season.

The outfield will be anchored by Reynolds in center field, but the corner spots could be a fluid situation.

Ben Gamel will likely start in left field after hitting .255 with Pittsburgh in 2021.

Anthony Alford and Greg Allen looked to be candidates to start in right field, but Alex Stumpf of DK Pittsburgh Sports reported on Tuesday that they’ll both start the season on the injured list.

That could leave the door open for Cole Tucker — who played some right field for Pittsburgh in 2021 — to help fill the hole.

Tucker — Pittsburgh’s first-round selection in the 2014 MLB Draft — hit an uninspiring .222 in 2021, but provides the Pirates with speed and versatility.

Rising outfield prospects like Bligh Madris, Jack Suwinski, Canaan Smith-Njigba and Travis Swaggerty could all wind up seeing playing time with the Pirates in 2022.

Three of the team’s bench spots will likely be occupied by backup catcher Andrew Knapp and outfielder Jake Marisnick (who reportedly each signed with the team earlier this week, according Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh-Post-Gazette), along with infielder Diego Castillo (who officially earned a roster spot on Monday). The other spots could belong to utilitymen Hoy Park and Josh VanMeter.

Switching gears and flipping the focus toward pitching, Pittsburgh’s starting rotation is characterized by lots of potential, but also lots of inexperience and inconsistency.

After choosing to not re-sign starting pitchers Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault — who’d both been rostered by Pittsburgh since 2016 — the rotation will look a lot younger.

JT Brubaker and Mitch Keller will probably be counted on to take the next step, but reliability has been a major issue for both of them.

Brubaker — who will get the nod on opening day when the Pirates take on the Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Thursday — held an impressive 2.63 ERA at the end of April and a 3.74 ERA at the end of May a season ago. By season’s end, however, that ERA had ballooned all the way up to 5.36.

As for Keller — Pittsburgh’s second-round selection in the 2014 MLB Draft — it’s been a rollercoaster ride. After posting a 7.13 ERA in his rookie season of 2019, Keller bounced back with a quality 2.91 ERA in 2020. That was followed by a less-than-stellar 6.17 ERA a season ago, so his consistency remains a question.

In return for Stallings, the Pirates acquired starting pitcher Zach Thompson, who pitched to a 3.24 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 75 innings during his rookie season in 2021.

While Brubaker, Keller and Thompson seem to have solidified three of the rotation’s spots, Mackey reported on Wednesday that the other two spots will belong to Jose Quintana and Bryse Wilson.

Quintana — an MLB All-Star with the Chicago White Sox in 2016 — has played for three different teams over the past two seasons. He split the 2021 campaign between the Los Angeles Angels and San Francisco Giants, combining for a 6.43 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 29 appearances.

While Quintana has seen better days, he still boasts a career 3.84 ERA. He’ll look to provide veteran leadership to a rotation that lacks experience.

Although they’ll start the season in the bullpen, don’t be surprised if Wil Crowe, Dillon Peters or Miguel Yajure find their way into the rotation at some point, as all three started games for Pittsburgh in 2021.

Look for young arms like Roansy Contreras and Yajure — who were acquired from the New York Yankees along with Smith-Njigba in a January 2021 trade — to make a significant impact on this starting rotation sooner rather than later.

Along with Bednar, Crowe, Peters and Yajure, the bullpen will likely include: Anthony Banda, Aaron Fletcher, Heath Hembree, Chris Stratton and Duane Underwood Jr.

The most-notable names to keep an eye on in this group are Stratton and Banda. Stratton pitched to a 3.63 ERA and struck out 86 batters last season, while Banda turned in a 3.42 ERA in 25 games after the Pirates claimed him off waivers from the New York Mets in early August.

In addition to Alford and Allen, Stumpf reported that pitchers Sam Howard, Max Kranick and Luis Oviedo will all begin the season on the injured list.

In all likelihood, it’ll be another year of growing pains for the Pirates, who are looking to find their way back to relevance.

With a bevy of young and promising players, however, that time might be coming much sooner than people think.

After opening the season with four games in St. Louis, the Pirates will return to PNC Park to host the Chicago Cubs in their home opener on Tuesday afternoon.

*Note: The writer offered his opinion on who he believes will be selected to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ opening day roster. Pittsburgh will finalize its 28-man roster just prior to Thursday’s game in St. Louis.