First Pitch: Which Players Will Be Members of the Next Winning Pirates Team?

How many players from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2021 Opening Day roster will be on the next winning Pirates team?

Ideally, the answer is all of them, which would put their next winning season in 2021.

I mean, who hasn’t had that thought at least once since yesterday?

“What can the Pirates do to actually have a winning season this year?”

“Maybe if the bullpen surprises everyone…”

“If I can see them winning with an offensive trio of Hayes, Newman, and Reynolds, then what else do they need?”

“Maybe with the right moves at the deadline…”

As I wrote yesterday, I don’t think this team is a lock for the number one overall pick in 2022. I think they’re far from a lock for that pick. And that feels about the appropriate level of optimism for this group, without going too far or making too much out of Opening Day.

The beauty of Opening Day is that a game like yesterday could take place in the middle of any last-place season. We’ll see the Pirates look that good at least once more, no matter how bad they do in the remaining 160 games. When it happens on Opening Day, it sets a powerful first impression.

I’m holding my ground that the Pirates aren’t going to have a winning team this year.

So, how many players from yesterday’s Opening Day roster will be on the next winning Pirates team?

The Cornerstones

Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes

The two guys that this team can build around are Hayes and Keller. We’ve seen nothing but great things from Hayes, from his strong debut last September, to a strong Spring Training, to a home run on Opening Day.

I want to just take a moment to think about something: What if Ke’Bryan Hayes is already there?

I see him turning into a star, capable of 4+ WAR on an annual basis.

When was the last time the Pirates had that type of annual production from a non-outfielder?

Hayes could give the Pirates a special player, at a position where they haven’t had a lot of consistency of special players, and he could start doing all of that special stuff this year.

Or, maybe he runs into his struggles in 2021, and this isn’t the year that he turns into a star.

Even if it doesn’t happen in 2021, turning into a star looks like it’s an inevitable “when”, rather than “if” for Hayes.

As for Keller, anyone who has seen him coming up through the minors knows that he’s got the stuff to make it in the majors, as high as a top of the rotation guy.

We’ll all wait to see his debut this weekend. We’ll overreact to the good or bad from one start.

Keller is in a clearly different boat than Hayes. We can talk about how good Hayes will become. We’re still talking about whether Keller will be good.

I still see that happening eventually, but the fact that you can’t safely anticipate positive production from Keller in 2021 is a big reason why I don’t see the Pirates having a winning season this year.

Other Starters

Kevin Newman, Bryan Reynolds

I wrote in yesterday’s First Pitch about how Reynolds and Newman are two of the more interesting players I’ll be focusing on from the roster this year. Outside of Keller and Hayes, they are the remaining players on this roster who could start for a contending team.

Both would need to hit like they did in 2019. Both had down years in 2020, raising questions about their production.

I like the aggressiveness that I’ve seen from Newman on a contact approach. He’s a guy who is going to have success as a “professional hitter” stepping into the box and ripping one of the first pitches he sees into an open spot in the outfield.

Reynolds is going to need more power to his game to have the same impact with the bat. Newman benefits from the fact that he plays a harder defensive position. Eventually, I see Newman moving to second base, which raises the pressure on the bat. I think Newman will be able to hit enough to justify that move, but not enough to be more than an average starter.

As for Reynolds, I don’t anticipate a future position change, and there’s nothing stopping him from average starter production right now in left field. I just wouldn’t be comfortable projecting more — for this year or beyond — until he shows it.

I can see both of these guys looking like average starters or better this year, and both should sustain their current level of production for a few more seasons.

Fringe Starters

JT Brubaker, Wil Crowe

I’m not ready to put JT Brubaker or Wil Crowe into future rotations, even though they could both be back-of-the-rotation options on a contending team. I think these two are the most likely from the current pitching staff — Keller excluded — to be on the next contending team. Even if they don’t make it as starters, they’ll have a chance as versatile relievers who can go multiple innings.

I wouldn’t pencil them in as starters in the future in large part because the Pirates have more talent coming up through the system on the pitching side, which will push the fringe guys out eventually.

I think that Brubaker has the best shot of being more than a fringe guy, and of being a starter on a contending team.

The Bullpen

David Bednar, Clay Holmes, Sam Howard, Luis Oviedo, Duane Underwood Jr.

Again, who isn’t dreaming about the bullpen after yesterday’s game?

That group has hard-throwers, former starters who might not be finished starting, or maybe the Pirates just accept the easy layup and end up with a few long-term relievers from this group.

Underwood Jr. interests me as a potential starter in the future, and for that reason I think he’s got a better chance of sticking with the Pirates and being on their next contender. I’m also very interested in what Bednar can do over a full season, and finally want to see if Clay Holmes can stick in the majors.

I’d expect one or two of these guys to emerge as solid relievers and end up on the next winning team.

The Bench

Jacob Stallings, Michael Perez, Phillip Evans, Erik Gonzalez, Anthony Alford, Dustin Fowler

Erik Gonzalez was actually the inspiration for this article. I thought “Would Erik Gonzalez be on the next winning Pirates team?”

The answer is “yes.”

Gonzalez is exactly the type of player you find on a winning team’s bench. Strong defense up the middle, enough offensive potential that he could be a fringe-average starter. Maybe a guy who can be a 1.5+ WAR player as a replacement.

I don’t think anyone wants him to be the starter of the future, and there are too many talented shortstops in this organization to allow that scenario. But Gonzalez could fit on the bench of the next winning Pirates team.

That’s not a high bar to cross from where he is standing right now. The same goes for the other guys on this list. One of the catchers could still be around as a backup. The bench guys could still be around as bench guys.

Most of the guys above are guys who you’d hope could end up as fringe-average starters. I think they’re all going to get enough playing time this year to at least establish themselves as future members of the bench.

Just like the bullpen will probably produce a few relievers for the future winning team, I think this group of position players will net one or two players for the next Pirates winning team.

Song of the Day

Daily Links

**Game Recap: Bullpen Locks Down Opener for Bucs

**Pirates Make Final Roster Moves Ahead of Opening Day

**This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: April 1st, the Pena and Thompson Trades

**Card of the Day: 1983 Drake’s Jason Thompson

**1925 Pirate Replay, August 22: Pirates Sweep Twinbill From Giants

**SPORCLE QUIZ

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