If I’m projecting the 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates bench right now, I’d have a difficult time.
A lot of the position battles won’t be finalized until we see what the Pirates do this offseason. Even after all of the moves, the final bench might not be finalized until we see the performances in Spring Training.
The bench is such a wild card that it’s almost foolish to try and predict the composition of the group ahead of time. It’s also very important to have depth off the bench if you want to be a contender, which we saw with teams like the Rays and their unknown band of depth heroes throughout the playoffs.
The Pirates need depth in the future from their bench, and that depth will need to come from their farm system. Rather than look at individual guys who could make up a future team, I wanted to break down the farm system based on the typical bench roles.
The Pirates don’t have a lot of options for future starting catchers in their organization. They do have some catching prospects who profile as potential backups, with the chance to pull a Jacob Stallings and work into a starter role on a weaker team. Christian Kelley leads the group, and will likely start off as depth out of Triple-A. He’s strong defensively, and works really well with his pitching staff. He’s worked extensively with most of the younger pitchers in the majors, which will make an easier transition if he’s called up in 2021 for depth. I could see that happening, although I’d expect the Pirates to add a few more options to try and delay his debut for when it’s absolutely ready.
Eli Wilson, Jason Delay, Arden Pabst, and Deon Stafford are guys to watch below Triple-A. Right now none of them profile as potential starters. Pabst and Delay are stronger defenders, while Wilson and Stafford have better offensive upside. With only four full-season levels, and five catchers, I’d expect one of these guys to move to a backup role. I could see that being Delay or Pabst.
Middle Infield Depth
This is where things get interesting in the system. By our rankings, the Pirates have four of their top ten prospects in the system at shortstop, and another three guys in the top 50 at second base. I project that some of these middle infielders will move to other positions, such as Oneil Cruz to the outfield. Obviously you don’t want to be talking about any of these guys as bench options, since the hope is that any one of them could start at shortstop or second base.
Not every prospect from this group will work out. Some will get close, reach the majors, but never take that final step toward becoming the starter that we’re dreaming about today. At worst, the hope is the Pirates can get two starters from this group. At best, the hope would be the Pirates getting good enough results that they’ll get at least two starters from this group and at least one strong bench option for depth.
It’s too far away to discuss a Dream Middle Infield. Right now the focus is on which players will emerge as starters. This is the best area of depth in the system, and thus the best chance for future depth in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates are thin as far as outfield starting options go. They might have better luck with their depth. Travis Swaggerty, Jared Oliva, and Cal Mitchell are all inside our top 20. We project each with the chance to start, but they’re all projected to be average-to-above average starters at best. It doesn’t take much to drop from that to being a strong bench option.
Having a guy with Swaggerty or Oliva’s speed and defense in center field off the bench isn’t a bad thing, but only if you have better options in the majors to start ahead of them. Right now, the Pirates are banking on Swaggerty, and even relying a little bit on Mitchell. I look at the current outfield prospect group and see a lot of projectable guys across different stages of their careers.
The Pirates didn’t have the best results developing their players under Neal Huntington. The outfield class will be the best area to watch for results from the new group, as there’s more ground for depth to be made up here than any other position group.
Super Utility Players
In the past, the Pirates pushed their players to be super utility players. They’d move infielders to the outfield when they didn’t look like they had a chance to start in the infield in the majors. They’d move outfielders to the infield to see if they could get even more rare positional flexibility. It led to a system where you had a bunch of guys who could help off the bench, and very few guys who could enter the majors as starters.
It’s not that this approach didn’t eventually lead to starters. Josh Harrison and Adam Frazier emerged as starting options from the utility player situation. Frazier ended up starting at one of his original positions in the minors, but was able to make the jump to the majors and stick with extra outfield work. I saw Harrison play all over the field in the lower levels after joining the Pirates, so it’s hard to say if he’s naturally an outfielder or an infielder. He found starting time all over the field for the Pirates during their run as contenders, and is probably the best outcome.
Under Ben Cherington, the Pirates have continued this practice in some ways. Cole Tucker, normally a shortstop, spent the entire 2020 season in the outfield. This approach wasn’t unique to Huntington. I would say it got more attention when Huntington was doing it because they were using it as a strategy to almost create a back-door approach to developing a starter. It worked in two big cases, justifying the approach.
The downside is that this approach has a very low success rate. Kevin Kramer, for example, is a prime candidate for this approach in 2021. At this point, he’s lost his ground to the guys at his level, and guys below him are starting to catch up. He’s unlikely to find as much time in the infield, but still needs time to see if he can develop his game to the next level. Therefore, playing time in the outfield would make sense to get him more opportunities. If he does well in Triple-A, he’d come up to the majors in a bench role, where the outfield time would be even more useful to getting him extra playing time. The odds of Kramer breaking out at this stage in his career are small, but the super utility path is one of the ways where you can still maximize your small chances at finishing his development.
The Pirates have an interesting outlook for the future. They’ve got starting candidates in the minors at every position but catcher. They don’t have many starting candidates at each individual position, which means they’ve got a limited chance at a home-grown starter who is average or above.
Some of those guys will fail to hit their ceiling, and will end up as bench guys. This could lead to a strong bench in the future for the Pirates. The problem is that it’s hard to see that strong bench backing up a strong starting group, since the prospects who fell short of their projections would leave holes in the MLB roster.
All of this will boil down to how good Ben Cherington’s group is at development. If they’re good, the Pirates shouldn’t have an issue getting starters and bench depth from their system in the long-run. If Cherington’s group struggles, then it might be a one-or-the-other situation.