First Pitch: Focusing on the Rebuild During a Frustrating Pirates Season

I wrote the first draft of this article yesterday, before Mitch Keller threw a pitch yesterday.

I wanted to write something to capture just how up and down this season feels like it is going to be.

That first article would have talked about how the Pirates could have gotten to .500 today with a win from JT Brubaker. Of course, this would have also required another good start from Keller on Thursday.

This team started the season 1-6 against the Cubs and Reds.

Then, they took four of five against the Cubs and Padres.

I started the season saying that this team didn’t look like they would be in contention for the first pick in 2022. In other words, this wouldn’t be the worst team in baseball.

There are a lot of wins between “worst team in baseball” and being a contender. The last week might suggest that the Pirates have what it takes to cover some ground, and at least push above 70 wins.

I think the last week has shown us exactly why the Pirates aren’t going to be competitive this year.

It has also shown us that the Pirates could be competitive sooner than a lot of people thought.

Looking at the current rotation, the Pirates have a decent group. Trevor Cahill and Tyler Anderson could produce above-average results over the next few months, with the hope being that they perform well enough to generate trade interest.

If the Pirates wanted to win with those two, they would need Keller and Brubaker to step up with more consistency. Cahill and Anderson can help get a team above .500, but they’re not getting to that point with young, inconsistent pitchers.

I wouldn’t call Brubaker inconsistent in his first two starts, but I don’t think we will consistently see him perform to his current ERA level with his current walk rate.

Keller has the stuff to lead this group, but has struggled against left-handers, and his struggles yesterday were against both sides of the plate.

The Pirates have been surprising on offense, ranking just outside of the top ten in the majors in wOBA and wRC+. It’s too early to consider either of these numbers legit, but they’re positive signs from a team that has had one of the worst offenses the last two years.

They have seen an impressive group of relievers, led by Richard Rodriguez. The future hope in this bullpen comes from the 28-and-under group, which has seen David Bednar, Duane Underwood Jr., Sam Howard, Kyle Crick, and Michael Feliz off to good starts. I think Howard and Crick will be hurt the most in the future from this group, due to control issues.

The most interesting aspect to the bullpen, to me, is Luis Oviedo.

Naturally, a prospect writer would gravitate toward Oviedo. I mean, he’s the only guy under 26 on the MLB roster, outside of Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes, when he returns.

Oviedo is a Rule 5 pick, making his way up from A-ball, and has pitched 6.2 innings over four appearances so far. By comparison, Kyle Crick has pitched 4.1 innings over four appearances.

A team that was trying to win in 2021 probably wouldn’t be rolling the dice with Oviedo in the situations the Pirates have been using him in.

His first appearance was expected, coming in for an inning of work late in the game while down four runs.

The next outing saw him pitch two innings, entering with a one run lead and leaving with a tie game, after a Mike Moustakas home run.

He returned for another multi-inning outing in his third appearance. This time he entered in another high-stakes appearance, with a tie game. He gave up five runs in 1.2 innings.

Three days later, Oviedo was out there again, this time in a lower leverage situation. He entered with the team down four runs, and once again pitched two innings, giving up a run.

If you’re looking for this team to win games in 2021, you don’t want to see Oviedo coming in to pitch in a tie game.

For that matter, you don’t want to see Mitch Keller brought back out for a second inning after giving up four in the first. You also don’t want to see Keller brought out for the third, after giving up two more runs in the second.

But, what about if you are only focused on winning beyond 2021?

I look at this roster and see a team that clearly says two things:

This team isn’t winning in 2021.

This team isn’t winning in the future.

The top five players leading the offensive surge right now are Phillip Evans, Jacob Stallings, Adam Frazier, Colin Moran, and Wilmer Difo. This group doesn’t project well for the future. You can add Hayes to the mix when he returns, but the group is still lacking.

The Pirates would need Phillip Evans to become this decade’s Garrett Jones, Jacob Stallings to be a starting catcher into his 30s, and Adam Frazier and Colin Moran to at least generate some trade value.

Even with those developments, there are some obvious holes for this offense. The biggest is in center field, where Pirates’ General Manager Ben Cherington feels that the struggling pair of Anthony Alford and Dustin Fowler need more time.

Both are 26 and out of options.

That makes them some of the youngest players on this team, which means they have more of a chance to help a future team than someone like Gregory Polanco, who is only riding out the remainder of his deal at this point.

We know that the Pirates need Polanco to surprise to give the team any kind of chance in 2021.

The Pirates need either Alford or Fowler to surprise and get adjusted to the majors in 2021 to give the future teams a better chance at winning.

I think either scenario is unlikely, based on what we’ve seen so far. That said, I’d take the risk on Alford/Fowler, since the potential return is much greater.

This is that year.

This is the year to take those risks.

This might as well be extended Spring Training.

We know that the games don’t really matter, because does any game matter when you’re trying to talk yourself into a team winning more than 70 games?

We see that the Pirates are treating this as if it was an exhibition with some players. The usage of the 28-and-under guys is interesting, especially how there seems to be more accepted room for error with the younger guys in this group.

This is the year to see Keller bomb in the majors as he figures out what works and what doesn’t.

This is the year to give Oviedo as much development, hoping that by the end of a season in the majors, the young Oviedo won’t be far from a legit return to the majors.

This is the year to painfully churn through 26-year-old post-prospects in center field.

That also makes this a year to watch Jared Oliva’s every move, to see if hope exists from the players within the system who are approaching the post-prospect age.

Sure, this is a year to hope that the Adam Frazier’s of the world hit well enough to land a good prospect at the deadline. But that exercise is just waiting to see if we have another player to wait and see. I find it more entertaining watching the players who might have a chance at winning in Pittsburgh in future years.

Unfortunately, this team doesn’t have a lot of those players. This is a roster with only three players who are 25-and-under. The team looks more promising in the future when you consider that age might have less of an impact on the 28-year-old hard-throwing relievers. That promise starts to fade as you remember how inconsistent any reliever can be.

This is a bad team in 2021, although they don’t appear to be as bad as the initial expectations.

There aren’t a lot of players on this team to watch for future hope. The saving grace is that the players who provide that future hope are mostly providing hope for impact players.

I think this is going to be a long season.

It’s going to be frustrating if you want to see a Major League team win, or even if you want to see a Major League team operate as if they want to win.

But, if your focus is on the future of this franchise, I think there will be some entertaining players to follow.

Just prepare for bumps along the journey.

Pirates Highlights

Daily Links

**Game Recap: Derek Shelton Goes for the Tie

**This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: April 15th, King, Rambo and Abbaticchio

**Card of the Day: 1909-11 T206 Ed Abbaticchio

**1925 Pirate Replay, September 6: Quick Chicago Trip Goes Well for Bucs

**SPORCLE QUIZ

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