I’ve been recapping the 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates season over the last month, and the common theme expressed is that the Pirates have very little chance of contending in 2022.
The Pirates were one of the worst teams in the majors in 2021. They had some highlights on their roster, led by Bryan Reynolds and Jacob Stallings. They have money to spend, with a payroll that is still low after the signings of Jose Quintana and Yoshi Tsutsugo. They also have a lot of young players who are either on the roster, or set to join the roster.
I think the 2022 season will be far more entertaining than the 2021 season. That’s not saying a lot in terms of records, but the 2021 season was entertaining at times, despite following a bad team. There were signs of hope for the future, most notably with Reynolds and Stallings, and I think 2022 will give more signs of hope.
That’s not to say that the Pirates absolutely can’t contend in 2022. They just need to do a lot of work, both with internal improvements, and with outside additions. If I were building a contender, I would want to aim for average or better production at every position. Right now, the Pirates can count on that at two positions, with very few pitchers who they can rely on to even be average.
The chances of the Pirates contending are low. If it were to happen, here’s what I think the Pirates would need at each position.
Jacob Stallings is already there as an above-average player at his position. Most of his production is fueled by defense that should be expected to be repeated, along with offense that looks sustainable. The fact that the Pirates have Stallings at catcher gives them a key building block if they want to contend in the next year.
Yoshi Tsutsugo would be my choice here. His defensive work at first base in the majors is limited, but he’s shown better defensive numbers than Colin Moran. His offense could slot into the middle of the lineup if he repeats what he showed in Pittsburgh last year. I think he could be an average overall starter, or better, depending on the offense.
This position is open, although the Pirates have a lot of good candidates who could produce average or better production. The immediate candidates for the job will be Rodolfo Castro, Michael Chavis, and Hoy Park. They could be joined by Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, and Tucupita Marcano from the shortstop battle. I also wouldn’t rule out Diego Castillo factoring into the 2022 mix.
I’d expect Kevin Newman to get a final chance, and Cole Tucker to actually get a chance at shortstop in the majors. I also think we’ll see Tucupita Marcano getting an opportunity. The best chance for average or better production would come from the bat of Oneil Cruz at this position. I think that could be seen in 2022.
Ke’Bryan Hayes was below-average in 2021, needing improvements to his offense to move up the third base ranks. I think he can improve enough in 2022 to be an average starter. I have his upside higher than that, and I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing the best from Hayes. I think the Pirates are more likely to get average or better production from this spot than second or shortstop.
Ben Gamel was below-average in 2021, which isn’t bad for a waiver claim. The question is whether he can add another win in value and be an average starter in 2022, his final year of control. The alternative is Anthony Alford, who had a strong finish to the end of the 2021 season. I’d expect below-average starting quality from either of these guys, but wouldn’t rule out average production.
The good thing about having Bryan Reynolds on the team is that you know he will be above-average, and likely to a point where his production will make up for at least one position that fell short. Reynolds had a 5.5 WAR in 2021, which was among the best in the majors. The Pirates will need him to be a 5+ WAR player again if they want to contend in 2022.
You could split this position with left field and bank on Ben Gamel and Anthony Alford to both be starters. I think you could get two 1+ WAR outfielders from that plan, but the odds of two average-or-better starters declines. If the Pirates want to contend, they’d be better off adding an outfielder. They do have a lot of outfield candidates in the minors — led by Travis Swaggerty, Matt Fraizer, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski, and Cal Mitchell in the upper levels. Any one of these guys could join the Pirates in 2022 to give them at least average production. I wouldn’t bank on that happening. A free agent would be a key addition at one of the corner outfield spots.
I’d expect Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, and Steven Brault to get rotation spots to open the 2022 season. I think we can also expect Jose Quintana to be in the rotation. Outside of hopes that Quintana returns to his former 3-4 WAR production levels, there’s not much hope here for a contending rotation. If the Pirates are going to spend money, adding a more established starter to boost this group would be the best area. They would also need Quintana to regain some of his value, and at least one of Keller/Brubaker/Brault to establish themselves in the rotation.
The Pirates do have some starters in the upper levels who can help immediately. Miguel Yajure, Bryse Wilson, Wil Crowe, and Max Kranick can all be back-of-the-rotation starters, with a chance for middle-of-the-rotation production. I wouldn’t bank on that in 2022. The same goes for any production from Roansy Contreras, which I feel could be closer to middle-of-the-rotation. Any production from these guys should be viewed as a bonus from the pitching depth, rather than part of a plan to contend.
The big reliever that stands out right now is David Bednar. The Pirates have Chris Stratton, who has been a solid reliever. I think that Chad Kuhl could do well returning to a relief role. Blake Cederlind and Nick Mears are two prospects who could pitch in the bullpen in 2022. I’d treat those two like the prospects above and wouldn’t expect anything from them in terms of planning a contender. The Pirates would definitely need a boost or two in the bullpen, as right now their group is heavily relying on Bednar.
Overall, the pitching is why I don’t think this team will contend in 2022. That’s not saying they can’t contend in 2022. The Pirates would just need to invest more in this part of the game this offseason to enter that conversation in a more serious way.
Happy GAHD DAMN Thanksgiving folks. I’m very thankful for you guys and the interactions we’ve had. Without further ado I give you guys our Thanksgiving episode featuring Tim the Tool Man Williams! Listen to it while the 🦃 cooks! https://t.co/MCfG7FN4aa pic.twitter.com/3z3NparrTw
— The Murphanko Experience (@Murphanko) November 25, 2021