First Pitch: The Pirates and Strength Up the Middle

One of the oldest adages in baseball is that you need to be strong up the middle in order to win a championship.

The middle would be catcher, pitchers, shortstop, second base, and center field.

The adage makes sense, just for the sole fact that if you’re strong at those positions, you’re strong at over two-thirds of a team’s roster.

It’s hard to not take the adage at face value. It played out this way the last time the Pirates were successful.

They led with Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli behind the plate. They had Andrew McCutchen in center field. Their rotation constantly had found gems like A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, J.A. Happ, and more. Their bullpen did the same with top relievers like Joel Hanrahan, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, and Tony Watson. They never really excelled at second and short, but they had guys who could at least be average starters, with Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer at short, and Neil Walker at second providing some above-average production in most years.

I started a series of articles last week, breaking down each position with a recap of where the Pirates were in 2020, and where they could be headed going forward. The entire point of this recap is to get a feel for each individual position throughout the system, and how the Pirates measure up at that position in the future. I started with the rotation, center field, and catcher to keep that “up-the-middle” aspect, but also because these are the areas where the Pirates have some of the biggest question marks.

The rotation has some promise. The Pirates have Mitch Keller, Jameson Taillon, and Joe Musgrove in 2021. They have prospects like Quinn Priester, Tahnaj Thomas, Brennan Malone, Cody Bolton, and the potential to add right-handed pitching phenom Kumar Rocker in the 2021 draft.

Jacob Stallings shows some promise behind the plate in the short-term, with a chance to be an average starter or better. He’s not a good long-term bet, and the Pirates are weak in the system behind the plate, which makes catching a long-term concern.

Bryan Reynolds could be the answer for now in center field. Travis Swaggerty could be the answer in the future in center field. The 2021 season will be huge to see how Swaggerty develops in the upper levels of the system, and whether Reynolds has 2019 or 2020 production in the majors.

A few years from now, the Pirates could be looking strong up the middle. They could be sitting in a window where Stallings, Keller, and Reynolds are still around, while Priester, Bolton, Swaggerty, and others are joining the team and living up to expectations.

The Pirates could also look weak up the middle in a few years. Their rotation is full of question marks, Stallings is banking on less than a season of success in the majors, and Reynolds and Swaggerty both have their own question marks and limitations to their ceilings, which I discussed in the recap articles last week.

The other positions on the field are obviously important, but these three areas are the positions that will make or break the Pirates going forward. They have the talent to succeed in these positions. They don’t have enough talent to weather seeing a few of these guys fail to live up to expectations.

Do you think the Pirates project to be strong up the middle in 2021 or beyond?

I’ll continue the “up-the-middle” approach with second base and shortstop this week, along with a look at Ke’Bryan Hayes at third base the next few days, which will be a huge key to the future.

The 2020 Prospect Guide returns to print for our tenth  we are releasing three variant covers, featuring Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes. Visit our shop page to order these extremely limited items!


First Pitch