With Pittsburgh Pirates spring training games starting today, it felt like a good time to put our prognosticator hats on provide some predictions for the upcoming season. As we go, feel free to chime in with your own thoughts. Bragging rights are pretty valuable after all.
So without further ado, let's get on with it.
Rookie who will impress
Gary: Mitch Keller – He has great stuff and started to learn how to navigate a lineup toward the end of last season. He has the most sure-fire spot of any rookie and I think he takes advantage of it. Still some growing pains, but more ups than downs.
Craig: Mitch Keller – l’ve got to go with Gary on this one. A 7.13 ERA and a 3.19 FIP are two things that just don’t mesh. Add in 12.19 K/9 rate and you’ve got the recipe for an impressive “sophomore” season.
Jared: Mitch Keller – This is in part because the Pirates need Keller to impress. New Pirates’ pitching coach, Oscar Marin will be investing a lot of time into Keller’s development, and for good reason. Mitch has all the talent, a mid-90s fastball, two excellent breaking pitches, and enough control to make it all work. If he doesn’t have a good year, it’ll be a real head-scratcher for me.
Bounce Back Performer
Gary: Gregory Polanco – How do you not go with El Coffee here? He has proven power and his time away from the game could make him hungry to prove himself,. With Marte gone, Gregory becomes the elder statesman on the offensive side of the squad.
Craig: Chris Archer – The dreads are gone and so is the sinker. Now I don’t expect Archer to be the pitcher he was for his last 18 innings of the season (3.00 ERA, 27K/4BB and 1.278 WHIP), but I see him being closer to that than the 5.49 ERA and 1.475 WHIP pitcher he was the first half of the season.
Jared: Kyle Crick – I wanted to pick Polanco here, but a bounce back for him is a rather low bar in that he hasn’t exactly put together a full, impressive season. Crick was really good in 2018 as evidenced by his 2.39 ERA and 1.127 WHIP.
In 2019, he struggled on and off the field, posting a 4.96 ERA and a 1.551 WHIP in 52 games before his season ended due to an injury sustained during a clubhouse fight with Felipe Vazquez.
His fastball velocity was a tick down in 2019 (compared to 2018), and so was its effectiveness. Crick gave up three total home runs in 60.1 innings in 2018 but gave up five to his fastball alone in 49 innings in 2019. He’s better than that and will get back on track this season.
Primed for Regression
Gary: Trevor Williams – I hope I’m wrong, but too much has to be firing on all cylinders for success with Trevor. The more ingredients in the dish, the more opportunity for something small to go wrong.
Craig: Kevin Newman – His hard hit rate, average exit velocity, xSLG and xwOBA are among the lowest in all of MLB. His OAA (Outs Above Average) was amongst the worst at his position from qualified Shortstops. Overall I am worried about his ability to maintain his .308 AVERAGE and .800 OPS for a second straight season.
Jared: Josh Bell – This might be a cop-out due to his exceptional 2019, but I do foresee a regression from Bell. Part of this is due to stark contrast in power his first and second half splits last season. He slugged a fantastic .648 in the first half of 2019, but only .429 in the second half.
Teams adjusted to the switch-hitting Bell by forcing him to his weaker right side with southpaw matchups, and pitchers adjusted by throwing more first-pitch breaking balls. Bell will need to counter with some adjustments of his own to have similar success next season. He could benefit from the new three batter rule for relief pitchers. It could prevent managers from ensuring those matchups happen, but his 2019 is a lot for any player to live up to.
I think Bell will still have a fine year, just not something of the .277/37 HRs/116 RBI caliber.
Starting Pitching Thoughts
Gary: Overall, I like the chances for Joe Musgrove and Mitch Keller to take a step forward. Brault is what he is, Williams with less pitch options from the left side. Archer is the wildcard, does he get back to what he was, which wasn’t terribly impressive in the first place, or fall of the cliff? I think he will do better but not ultimately figure out how to stick deeper into games. Kuhl is potentially a difference maker either as a starter or in the pen.
Craig: To me the Starting Rotation’s ability to rebound from a clearly disappointing season last year is dependent on one thing…health. Musgrove will remain a strong constant, Keller can only improve, and, based on his advanced metrics he will, and Archer is still out to prove himself in a Pirates uniform. Trevor Williams is the wild card in my opinion, as he has been working on refining his technique and attempting to regain his 2018 second half form. The fifth starter is up in the air right now, but I would say Brault has the inside track. Just know I am not counting out the possibility of Kuhl coming back claim the spot he lost due to injury.
Jared: There are a LOT of questions marks for this group. From top-to-bottom, there isn’t a member of this staff that provides any real level of certainty as to what they will bring this year, good or bad.
You have guys who have underperformed when compared to their “stuff” such as Chris Archer, Mitch Keller, and Chad Kuhl. Any one of those guys reaching their potential and becoming an ace of the staff, could completely change this rotation.
There are other guys like Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, and Joe Musgrove who rely more on precision and pitch sequencing. They would sure benefit from a new pitching coach, and they have one in Oscar Marin.
I think we will see an improvement over 2018. The range of that improvement is pretty wide.
Gary: This could be the strength of the team in the run prevention category. Some great pieces came back from injury in the form of Burdi, Santana, Crick. Rodriguez and Feliz had strong second halves as did Clay Holmes. Kela is a solid back of the pen pitcher but can he stay healthy? Can he pitch more than every other day? The pen is not what they tossed out there last season.
Gary: Another extreme weakness for the Pirates last year could become their best asset if the offense struggles to put runs on the board, resulting in many close games. Feliz, Burdi, Santana, Crick, Rich Rod, and Kela aim to shut down opposing batters and steal a few wins for the Buccos in 2020.
Jared: I actually feel surprisingly good about the bullpen. After the disaster that was the 2019 season, I’d expect a bounce back from this group. Yes, Felipe Vazquez is gone, and that will hurt, but others are returning from injury and that should lead to a better, deeper unit.
They won’t have the star in Vazquez, but Kela should prove himself capable of handling the ninth. Between Crick, Richard Rodriguez, Edgar Santana, and Michael Feliz, they should be able to put together a reliable bullpen.
Who Gets Called Up in 2020 for Good
Gary: Tucker and Hayes – These two will not be held in the minors long if at all.
Craig: Cody Ponce – Acquired from the Brewers last season for Jordan Lyles at the trade deadline, Ponce brings versatility as a swing man, starter, reliever or opener. He is pretty much a Swiss Army Knife on the Pirates Pitching staff.
Jared: Ke’Bryan Hayes – Colin Moran’s days in Pittsburgh are numbered. He expressed recently that he understood that defensive improvement was essential to him keeping his job, and he’s not wrong. The problem for him is that I don’t think that improvement is in him.
Hayes could compete right now for a Gold Glove at third base, but his offense will need to improve. I think his ability to get on base will improve enough to keep him in Pittsburgh for good until the power comes along.
Who is Primed for Trade Bait?
Gary: Adam Frazier and Keone Kela – Each would bring a decent return, and each are movable for different reasons. Frazier is playing at one of the organization’s deepest positions, and Kela is going to save games for a team that won’t need it by the deadline.
Craig: Archer and Kela– Pitchers will be at a premium at the trade deadline as teams make their final push into and through the playoffs.
Jared: Adam Frazier – Frazier’s trade value could be sneaky good in July. He does a lot of things well and has two years of control beyond this season.
On top of that, he’s currently blocking Cole Tucker’s path to Pittsburgh. I’d love to see Kevin Newman move to second, and Tucker take short. With Hayes at third, this suddenly looks like a formidable defensive team.
Rising Star in the System
Gary: Oneil Cruz – If you can watch this kid play and not get excited, you don’t like baseball. Honorable mention, Mason Martin.
Craig: Mason Martin – Gary’s honorable mention is the clear choice for me. After exploding into the scene with 35 HRs and MiLB leading 129 RBI’s, Martin is poised from a quick jump to Altoona; as long as he can bring his K rate back down, while maintaining a healthy walk rate.
Jared: Quinn Priester – And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Pirates absolutely need some young arms to develop, and Priester will be it.
Priester is a student of the game and takes it upon himself to refine his own game. He didn’t have a pitching coach in his life until he was drafted by the Pirates. The more professional coaching he receives, the more that raw ability will be refined into something special. I’d expect him to shoot up the prospect list this season as some of the top prospects are called up.
Potential Surprise Cut
Gary: Jose Osuna – I don’t think this will happen, but there are only so many positions on the field and Jose hasn’t taken any and put it in a strangle hold. He could be a victim of a numbers game.
Craig: Jose Osuna – Out of minor league options and fighting for playing time between 2 to 3 positions, he could easily be the odd-man out.
Jared: Erik Gonzalez – I’m going with Erik Gonzalez. I don’t necessarily think he will be cut, but I don’t think he’s a lock to make this team. His position flexibility will help him, but I already listed a handful of younger, more talented infielders ahead of him for playing time. If there is a surprise player in spring training, and they need to find someone to cut to make room, Gonzalez could be it.
Gary: The biggest disappointment beside the Reds winning the division for me will be on the mound. The starting pitching will leave this club short more often than not, but the offense will keep them competitive. Nobody is running away with this division and each will beat up on each other as the season plays out. No seriously, I’d hate to see David Bell keep his job.
Craig: Not being at the level to compete when the Central Division is at its weakest state in years. The last time the Pirates were one of the best teams in MLB, so were the Cards, Cubs and Reds (at least for one season).
Jared: A decrease in power numbers. In a league-wide record-setting year, the Pirates didn't hit for power in 2019, and I think those numbers will decrease this season. I don't expect Bell to hit 37 home runs again, and Starling Marte's 23 from a year ago was replaced by Jarrod Dyson's 7. Derek Shelton was the bench coach (with a hitting coach background) for record-setting Twins last season. So, maybe he can pull some levers and get some extra power from this group, but, if that doesn't happen, they could be playing a small ball game this lineup isn't quite ready for.
There you have it. We are on record. We will be taking a look back at these as the season goes on to see how right we were. You should too. Let us know below what your predictions are.