We’re about a week and a half away from the first game of the 2021 regular season. The Pittsburgh Pirates play nine more games this spring, including today’s contest which will see the debuts of Trevor Cahill and Duane Underwood Jr. Every Monday this spring, I’ll be looking at three trends with this team. Let’s take a look at the trends this week.
First Cut Leftovers
The first cuts of Spring Training for big league clubs typically see a bulk of prospects sent down to the minors. In normal years, minor league Spring Training begins around the third week of March. There are prospects on the roster each year who will obviously not make the Opening Day roster, or any big league roster in the current season. Those are the guys who typically get cut first.
The cuts over the last week weren’t different. The top prospects in the system were all sent down to prepare for their regular seasons, which are expected to begin at the start of May.
A few of the guys who were cut might return to the majors this year. You’re more likely to see that on the pitching side, with relief options like Blake Weiman, Jandel Gustave, and Nick Mears standing out as the most likely candidates. The Pirates could see one of their younger catchers return if they run into a depth issue this year. The biggest potential impact prospects to watch are Oneil Cruz and Cody Bolton.
What might be more interesting right now is watching what happens to the prospects who are remaining in major league camp. Most of those guys are on the wrong side of age 25, at least in terms of being a baseball prospect. The guys who stood out to me were Will Craig, Braeden Ogle, Kevin Kramer, Hunter Owen, James Marvel, and Jared Oliva.
Oliva might be the best bet of this group to eventually start in the majors, outside of a depth scenario. Most of these guys have seen the shine of their prospect star fade. Pitchers like Marvel and Ogle are looking at relief roles, if they can find a way to reach and stick in the majors. Former top draft picks like Craig and Kramer are now hoping to reach the majors and stick as bench players. And with the upper levels of the minors crowded, this group could be on their last chance to reach the majors with the Pirates.
A Sophomore Slump?
Heading into the 2020 season, the Pirates had very little hope, and very few productive players in the majors to count on. Two of the standouts were Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman, who each made their rookie debuts in 2019 with impressive results.
Reynolds had an .880 OPS in 491 at-bats in 2019. Newman had an .800 OPS in 493 at-bats. The 2020 season saw them both struggle, with a .632 OPS for Reynolds and a .556 for Newman.
Typically you don’t want to forecast a career based on the results of a rookie season. I’m just not sure we should forecast anything off of a sophomore slump season in the middle of a global pandemic and a massively adjusted schedule.
The Pirates enter 2021 in a similar situation that they entered 2020. There are very few productive players to count on. Reynolds and Newman aren’t on that list, due to their 2020 struggles. Both players are off to good starts in Spring Training, which is encouraging. This team looks a lot more promising when the hope on the position player side extends beyond just Ke’Bryan Hayes. Reynolds and Newman can still give the Pirates a pair of average starters to plug into the lineup.
Limited Time Remaining
Today’s game will see the 2021 spring debuts of Trevor Cahill, Duane Underwood Jr., and Luis Oviedo. All three pitchers need to be on the active roster on Opening Day.
Cahill was signed to a $1.5 M deal with $1 M in performance bonuses as a starter. He’s expected to start for the Pirates. The question is whether he’ll be ready for the start of the season. At this point, he can make two starts before Opening Day, which might not be enough time.
The Pirates have some breaks in their April schedule, and could arrange the rotation to where they only need four starters. In this scenario, they would need a spot starter on April 7th and April 16th. This could give Cahill some extra time to build up for the season.
Underwood Jr. is out of options, and more likely to make the team as a reliever. He’s still going to need to build up for the season. Most of the relievers in camp have been pitching every three days. That would give Underwood two appearances before Opening Day. Like Cahill, he might benefit from a week or two extra in camp.
Oviedo is a Rule 5 pick, and the Pirates would need to keep him on the active roster or injured list all season. It might benefit them to slow play his progress this spring, putting him on the injured list to build up at the beginning of the year, and buying an extra roster spot in the process.
I expect all three of these guys to be on the roster by the end of April. The Pirates don’t have a reason to rush that process, and could delay these three further to get early looks at some other players.