First Pitch: Things to Watch in 2021 For the Future of the Pittsburgh Pirates

Happy Opening Day!

The Pittsburgh Pirates take on the Chicago Cubs today at 2:20 PM EST, kicking off what will inevitably be a losing season, surrounded by any and every attempt to cling to any and every sign of hope for the future of this franchise.

We know that the Pirates are going to have a losing season this year, and that knowledge comes to us before Chad Kuhl can make his first pitch as the Opening Day starter.

Man, remember all of the “Chad Kuhl isn’t a starting pitcher” debates? At the very least, he’s on Ron Villone level right now.

This year I’ll be using the Thursday First Pitch article to track some ongoing season trends with this team. The first article in that series looks at the three things I’ll be watching at the big league level for the 2021 Pirates. All three largely focus on building up the next winning Pirates team, which again is sadly not going to be in 2021.

I hope that by saying this fact blatantly enough, it will set off a reverse jinx of 1997-level proportions.

Let’s take a look at what I’m watching this year. I’m sure many of you will be right there with me.

The Cornerstones of the Rebuild

If there’s one thing the Pirates need to go right this year, it’s the development of Ke’Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller.

Hayes is expected to lead the offense. Keller is expected to lead the pitching staff. Together, they are the cornerstones of this rebuilding process, and keys to the Pirates winning sooner, rather than later.

There is a lot to be excited about by Hayes. He arrived in the majors last September, and hit so well in a month that he became a Rookie of the Year candidate. Granted, it was a two-month season, and Hayes only playing half the time hurt his chances. It did preserve his eligibility for 2021, where he enters the season as an NL Rookie of the Year favorite.

Hayes had a monster spring, hitting for a 1.208 OPS with two homers, two triples, and six doubles. He had a 1.124 OPS last year in his debut.

The Pirates don’t just have a good player in Hayes. They have the potential for one of the best third basemen in the game. This is the type of impact potential we haven’t seen since Andrew McCutchen, and I can’t remember a time when the Pirates had a non-outfielder leading the way with the potential for 4+ WAR. Hayes is the cornerstone to the offense.

Things aren’t as reassuring on the pitching side. Mitch Keller has the stuff and ability to be a top of the rotation starter. He’s shown flashes of that, even in his time in the majors. So far, the results have been bad.

Keller finished spring with an 11.91 ERA. He has a 5.81 career ERA in the majors. His 2020 season looks better, but that’s largely influenced by his final two starts. Those starts provide a microcosm for the issues that surround Keller. He threw nine, no-hit innings, but also walked ten batters.

The weird thing here is that Keller didn’t have control problems in the lower levels. His fastball command was considered a strength, and he was automatic on being able to paint the outside corner with the pitch for a strike against right-handers. I haven’t seen that version of Keller much in the majors, after he started showing some control issues in the upper levels.

I still believe that Keller can get beyond this and become at least a middle of the rotation starter in the big leagues, with the chance to lead a rotation. The Pirates weren’t exactly developing pitchers well under Neal Huntington, which is why I give Keller a bit of a pass right now. This just raises a question of whether the development under Ben Cherington can fix whatever is wrong in time. Keller is the cornerstone to the pitching staff.

The good news is that the Pirates have more contingency plans in the minors for Keller than Hayes.

A Bounce Back For Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds

The 2019 season saw Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds break out in their rookie campaigns.

The 2020 season saw both of them struggle in an unusual season.

What can we expect for 2021? Will we see the players who looked like they’d be part of the next winning team in Pittsburgh? Or, will we see a repeat of 2020, which gives the Pirates two more positions to fill?

The good news is that both Newman and Reynolds looked great in Spring Training.

Newman had a 1.429 OPS, picking up six doubles in the process. I don’t want to make anything big about Spring Training numbers, but I want to point something out. Newman’s big season in 2019 was fueled by a power surge, seeing him hit 12 homers. While coming up through the system, Newman was expected to be a good contact hitter, with a bit of power, but mostly in the form of gap power and extra base hits.

I don’t think the 2019 version of Newman is sustainable, as he was too geared toward power, and that runs opposite his strengths. I like the version we saw during spring, as this was a version closer to the Newman that was expected as he was moving through the system.

As for Reynolds, he had a strong Spring Training last year, which shows you that results don’t always matter. He had a .906 OPS this spring. The Pirates don’t have any long-term outfielders stepping up on the roster right now. Reynolds is the main guy who you could envision as a starter on a future contending Pirates team. He’s hit since arriving in the majors in 2019, with one exception — the weird 2020 season. Can his struggles be contained to that year?

Trading For Future Help

I feel like half the roster this year will be watchable to envision what the future of the Pirates will look like. The other half will be watchable to see what the Pirates can get at the trade deadline — again, focusing on a stronger future for the organization.

The biggest trade chip remaining appears to be Adam Frazier. He just finished a monster spring, with a 1.372 OPS. Frazier has been productive in the majors, capable of 2+ WAR as a starter. He has also been inconsistent, and a lot of his struggles have been confined to the first half. It doesn’t need to be said that the Pirates will need a strong first half from him, in order to maximize his trade value.

There are other players who are obvious trade options this year. Some are more obvious, such as free agent rentals like Trevor Cahill and Tyler Anderson. Others are guys who need to improve their values, like Colin Moran or Gregory Polanco.

This section is a very long-term look, as I don’t think the Pirates have anyone to trade who would command more than lower-level lottery tickets. That’s very similar to the trades they made this offseason, meaning we’ll likely be waiting years before any of the big 2021 trade deadline returns arrive in the majors.

Song of the Day

Daily Links

**First Pitch: Expectations For the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021 and Beyond

**This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: March 31st, Carson Bigbee and the DiMaggio Trade

**Card of the Day: 1922 Neilson’s Chocolate Carson Bigbee

**1925 Pirate Replay, August 20: Ray Kremer Pitches Bucs to 2-1 Win

**SPORCLE QUIZ

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