2020 Record: 19-41
Last Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 4.68 (19th)
Team OPS: .641 (30th)
What Went Right
Digging for positive takeaways from this group is quite a chore, but Ke’Bryan Hayes certainly stands out. The 23-year-old top third base prospect arrived in the major leagues as the calendar flipped to September and went on to deliver a .376/.442/.682 slash line with 14 extra-base hits (five homers, seven doubles, two triples) over his first 24 major league games. Hayes batted seventh in his MLB debut on September 1 against the Cubs but quickly climbed to the No. 2 spot in the lineup and could be locked in there for years to come. He ranked first among all rookie hitters in both average exit velocity (92.8 mph) and hard-hit rate (55.4 percent) while also living up to his strong defensive reputation at the hot corner. A few members of the Pirates’ pitching staff deserve love too. Steven Brault made a successful transition from swingman to rotation mainstay, pitching to a 2.53 ERA and 8.0 K/9 in 10 starts. Joe Musgrove had a rough first half but rolled to a 2.16 ERA and 38/5 K/BB ratio across 25 innings in September. Mitch Keller didn’t allow a hit over his final two outings -- more on that later -- and finished with a 2.91 ERA. And here’s a weird final note, fitting for this weird pandemic baseball season: All of the Pirates’ wins this year -- yes, all 19 of them -- came against teams that qualified for the postseason. They beat the Brewers five times, the Cardinals and Cubs four times, the Reds three times, and also earned a win apiece against the White Sox, Indians, and Twins. Granted, not one of those Central-based clubs was able to advance past the Wild Card Series round.
What Went Wrong
Where to begin? Pittsburgh won just 19 of 60 games, finishing with the worst record in baseball and the fifth-worst winning percentage (.317) in the 139-year history of the franchise. Over the first 30 games of the condensed 2020 campaign, the Pirates went 9-21. Over the final 30, they went 10-20. They suffered through an eight-game losing streak, a seven-game losing streak, and at one point dropped 13 of 14. Their longest winning streak lasted only three games. In their 20 interleague games against American League Central opponents, their record was 3-17. They finished on pace for only 51 wins over a full 162-game slate, which would have been the lowest win total for a Pirates team since 1917. On a more individual basis, Chris Archer did not throw a pitch in a meaningful game this year after requiring surgery in June to relieve symptoms of neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome. Josh Bell cratered from a .936 OPS and 14.24 AB/HR (at-bats per home run) in 2019 to a .669 OPS and 24.38 AB/HR in 2020. Bryan Reynolds went from a .314 batting average and .880 OPS as a rookie to a .189 batting average and .632 OPS as a sophomore. Keone Kela, the presumptive closer in the lead-up to the season, logged just two total innings because of a COVID-19 diagnosis in July and a forearm issue that popped up shortly after he returned from the injured list in August. And then there’s the still-developing story with top shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz, who was arrested in the Dominican Republic on September 21 after being involved in an automobile accident that killed three people. It remains unclear, two weeks later, whether Cruz was under the influence of alcohol.
** Josh Bell was the most popular Pirates player in fantasy drafts this spring and summer with an ADP (average draft position) of 94 on Yahoo. He obviously failed to deliver top-100 value and figures to see a steep drop in popularity leading into 2021, after also struggling in the second half of the 2019 season. Bell hit the ball hard this year when he did make contact -- his exit velocity ranked in the 88th percentile of all MLB position players -- but the other offensive metrics tell a concerning story, and the supporting cast around him continues to deteriorate. It may take a change of scenery for there to be renewed buzz on Bell, who just turned 28 years old this August. A hot start next season could help him find his way to a contender.
** To briefly elaborate on Mitch Keller, who made the What Went Right section somewhat by default: Across those two hitless outings to close out the 2020 campaign, the 24-year-old right-hander issued a whopping 10 walks in 11 innings, giving him 18 walks in 21 2/3 total innings for the season. And in those 21 2/3 innings, he tallied only 16 strikeouts. Keller has the talent and the arsenal to possibly become an impactful fantasy starter at some point, but 2021 will be a prove-it year. As it stands, he holds a career 5.81 ERA and 1.65 WHIP in 69 2/3 innings (16 starts) at baseball’s highest level.
** Gregory Polanco probably deserved a mention in the What Went Wrong section, but he’s kind of a forgettable guy at this juncture. Since undergoing major shoulder surgery in September 2018 to repair a dislocation and labrum tear, the 29-year-old outfielder has appeared in only 92 games and batted just .197/.257/.374 across 341 plate appearances. The rebuilding Pirates would probably love to find a trade partner this winter, but Polanco is owed $11.6 million in 2021 and carries club options (with $4 million in total buyouts) for both 2022 and 2023.
** There was some fantasy hype around Kevin Newman as a late-round middle infield sleeper after he slashed .308/.353/.446 with 12 home runs and 16 stolen bases over 130 games in 2019. That hype won’t be there in 2021, coming off a .224/.281/.276 slash line with one homer and zero steals over 44 games in 2020. Like many of the Pirates’ hitters and pitchers, Newman needs to plant some seeds for any fantasy belief to grow.
** As a group, the Pirates’ bullpen earned only six total saves in 2020. The leader in the clubhouse was Richard Rodriguez, who tallied four saves alongside a sharp 2.70 ERA, 0.857 WHIP, and 34/5 K/BB ratio in 23 1/3 innings. He’s probably going to be the favorite for the closer role heading into 2021, unless of course he gets traded. Chad Kuhl? A reclamation-project veteran? Good luck with this one.
Team Needs: Everything ... and Pirates general manager Ben Cherington has acknowledged as much. 2021 could be even uglier in some ways than 2020, but the rebuild is fully underway.