Pirates take next step in arduous rebuild

Luke Henne | Sports Editor | PNC Park sits relatively empty during Pittsburgh's 9-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Friday.

Luke Henne | Sports Editor

Oct. 7, 2021

For the Pittsburgh Pirates, the 2021 season wasn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination. There’s validity in the pessimism expressed among some fans, as the team lost upwards of 100 games for the first time since 2010.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. How far away that light might be is not yet clear.

On Sunday, the Pirates’ season ended with a 6-3 loss against the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park. Pittsburgh finished the campaign 61-101, earning its third consecutive last-place finish in the National League Central division.

This was not a surprise. Coming off an abbreviated 2020 season in which the Pirates went 19-41 and secured the worst record in all of Major League Baseball, there were little to no expectations for this year’s team.

Pittsburgh raised some eyebrows in the season’s first month, entering an April 28 contest against the Kansas City Royals with a 12-11 record. A loss against Kansas City in that game was the first in a five-game losing streak, and the Pirates never recovered from that point on.

The team endured losing streaks of five-plus games on eight separate occasions, including a 10-game losing streak which spanned from June 6 to June 16. It’s hard to resemble anything close to competitive when losing so frequently.

As mentioned, there were little to no expectations for the Pirates coming into this season. Nonetheless, there were a few bright spots for the team.

Third-year outfielder Bryan Reynolds, who batted just .189 in the 2020 season, bounced back with a .302 batting average (seventh best in the National League). He also hit 24 home runs and recorded 90 runs batted in. His performance at the season’s halfway point earned him a spot as the NL’s starting center fielder at the MLB All-Star Game in Denver.

Relief pitcher David Bednar, who was pitching for his hometown team for the first time since being acquired from the San Diego Padres, excelled. The native of nearby Mars, Pa., posted a 2.23 earned run average and 77 strikeouts in just 60.2 innings of work.

Veteran catcher Jacob Stallings, despite missing time with a concussion, recorded walk-offs on four occasions. The most notable of these came on July 17, when Stallings hit a walk-off grand slam to lead the Pirates to a 9-7, come-from-behind victory over the New York Mets.

While they weren’t expected to improve at the MLB level, Pittsburgh’s pool of minor league players was expected to be restocked and revamped. General manager Ben Cherington was very effective in making sure that expectation became a reality.

At the midway point of the 2020 season, MLB.com ranked the Pirates’ farm system 16th (out of 30 MLB teams). On Aug. 25 (about a year since the prior ranking), Pittsburgh had climbed all the way to fourth in MLB.com’s rankings.

This can be attributed to a few factors: prospects selected during the 2021 MLB Draft, the progression of prospects already in the system and players acquired via trade.

With the first overall selection in the draft, the Pirates selected Henry Davis. Davis, a catcher from the University of Louisville, helped fill a position that the Pirates are thin at throughout the entire organization.

In a limited sample size with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s High-A affiliate), Davis, Pittsburgh’s top prospect (according to MLB.com), posted an impressive .308 batting average with three home runs across just 26 at-bats.

Other notable players who were drafted in July and have already ascended to the top of Pittsburgh’s prospect pool include pitchers Anthony Solometo and Bubba Chandler and outfielder Lonnie White.

With a record of 61-101, the Pirates earned the fourth selection in the 2022 MLB Draft. This will mark the third consecutive draft in which Pittsburgh has a top-10 draft positioning, affording them another opportunity to continue building the farm system.

Thanks in large part to the continued emergence of highly-touted prospects like infielder Nick Gonzales (.302 batting average and 18 home runs) and pitcher Quinn Priester (3.04 earned run average and 98 strikeouts), the Grasshoppers made it all the way to the High-A East League Championship Series, where they were defeated by the Bowling Green Hot Rods.

The Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s Low-A affiliate) swept the Tampa Tarpons en route to capturing the Low-A Southeast League title.

Cherington was also extremely active on the trade market, making a handful of deals in the days leading up to the league’s trade deadline.

Starting pitcher Tyler Anderson was dealt to the Seattle Mariners. Relievers Austin Davis and Clay Holmes were shipped to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, respectively. Closer Richard Rodriguez was moved to the Atlanta Braves. All-star second baseman Adam Frazier was sent to the San Diego Padres.

All of these moves happened in the span of just five days, and Cherington brought back a handful of individuals who were ready to immediately contribute at the big-league level.

Second baseman Michael Chavis, a former first-round draft choice who Pittsburgh received in exchange for Davis, batted .357 with four extra-base hits in 42 at-bats with Pittsburgh.

Utility infielder Hoy Park, who was acquired from the Yankees, drove in 14 runs in 127 at-bats with the Pirates.

Starting pitcher Bryse Wilson, the key piece of the deal for Rodriguez, allowed three runs or fewer in five of his eight starts with Pittsburgh.

In the final week of the season, two of Pittsburgh’s well-known prospects were finally given the opportunity to make their big-league debuts.

Starting pitcher Roansy Contreras (sixth-ranked prospect) struck out four batters and didn’t allow a run in three innings of work against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 29. Infielder Oneil Cruz (third-ranked prospect) played in the final two games of the season. He drove in three runs in nine at-bats, hitting his first-career home run in the ninth inning of Sunday’s contest.

In all likelihood, there is still at least two or three years before the Pirates will be expected to compete for a playoff berth. That’s how far they’ve still got to go in their rebuilding process.

Despite this inevitable reality, the 2021 Pirates took many steps forward in pursuit of the franchise’s ultimate goal: building a relevant and postseason-caliber team that Pittsburgh will begin to care about and support on a regular basis.