It’s going to be difficult for the Pittsburgh Pirates to go anywhere but up.
Their 2021 season was a pain to watch, after their abbreviated last place finish in 2020. The rebuild has been churning for well over a year now, and there are some positive signs emerging, with a lot of question marks remaining.
To wrap up this year, and look ahead to the New Year, let’s take a look at 22 things to watch for in the Pirates’ system in 2022. I hope everyone has a safe and happy New Year!
1. The Lockout
There’s a chance that this will be the only thing we watch this year. I hope that doesn’t happen. I have a bigger hope that the whole process results in a more even playing field for small market teams. I’d expect to hear a lot on this in the New Year.
2. More Wins
The projection systems are forecasting an increase in wins for the Pirates, putting them around the 75-win range. That would be much more enjoyable than the last two seasons, leaving hope for the future. So, where does that hope reside?
3. Bryan Reynolds
The highlight of this team, present day, is Bryan Reynolds. They’ll have Reynolds under team control through the 2025 season, assuming no changes in the new CBA. The question would be whether they trade him now to further boost their rebuild, extend him to keep him on a future contender longer, or just let him play out his season as normal on the team and see how everything develops. I think it would be a blow to the fanbase to deal him, but if the return was good enough, that could pay off in a big way down the line, making it worthwhile.
4. Ke’Bryan Hayes
I think an argument against trading Reynolds is the presence of Ke’Bryan Hayes. If you were to trade Reynolds, then it would make almost as much sense to deal Hayes, who is under control for one year longer. A big difference is that Reynolds has a high value now, while the Pirates are hoping for a breakout from Hayes at the plate. That will be a thing to watch this year, seeing if an injury-free season will lead to his offense catching up to the defense.
5. Oneil Cruz
The Pirates called up Cruz for three games last year, but it was enough for him to make a loud impression.
ONEIL CRUZ JUST HIT HIS FIRST MAJOR LEAGUE HOME RUN!!! pic.twitter.com/PIMMswXDYl
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) October 3, 2021
I mean loud.
Batted balls in the air of at least 117 MPH this year in all of professional baseball:
Giancarlo Stanton: 10
Oneil Cruz: 4
Aaron Judge: 3
Shohei Ohtani: 3
— Just Baseball (@JustBBMedia) December 16, 2021
Between Reynolds, the potential of Hayes improving his offense, and the massive potential of Cruz, this team has some exciting building blocks.
Not every building block is obvious. The Pirates have a lot of holes on their roster, and while they have prospects for some of those spots, they will spend the 2022 season churning through those guys to find a potential starter. The outfield has two long-term spots open. The Pirates will have Travis Swaggerty, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Matt Fraizer, Jack Suwinski, Cal Mitchell, and others competing for those spots. Ideally this group produces two starting outfielders, but the Pirates could settle for just one.
7. Second Base
Just like the outfield, I expect a prospect churn at second base. The Pirates gave Rodolfo Castro, Michael Chavis, and Hoy Park extended looks in 2021. I’d expect Tucupita Marcano, Diego Castillo, Kevin Newman, and Cole Tucker getting opportunities as well this year, with any shortstop options moving over after Cruz comes up and establishes himself. All of these guys might have a limited time to win the job, before one of the top prospects in the system enters the competition.
8. Nick Gonzales
I don’t expect Gonzales in the majors this year, but this will be a big year to get a preview of what he could bring to the Pirates in the future. Gonzales should move up to Double-A, which will test his contact skills. He had some alarming secondary numbers, and splits that favored his hitting-friendly home park in 2021. That doesn’t mean he won’t have success at the next level. It just raises some concern that this isn’t a situation where he will coast into the majors with a guaranteed starting job — especially if one of the previous guys steps up as a starter. This will be a big year for Gonzales to show why he was the Pirates’ top pick in 2020. On a side note, it will also be a fun year to watch Liover Peguero, who should be playing on the same team. I also don’t think Peguero makes the majors this year, but a good season could raise some future questions about what to do with Cruz if his defense is questionable.
9. Henry Davis
While we’re on the subject of hitting prospects, Henry Davis will be a very important player to follow. Davis was the first overall pick in 2021, and the catcher of the future in an organization that is just starting to build catching depth. The only other candidate to start in the system would be Endy Rodriguez, who might even end up at the same level as Davis in High-A to start the year. The Pirates have a short-term solution in the majors, and will need one of these two to emerge as an option, possibly even for some point in 2023.
10. Roansy Contreras
The outlook for the hitting is positive, but the pitching staff is another animal. We’ll start with an optimistic note: Roansy Contreras made his MLB debut at the end of 2021, throwing three solid innings. That’s not enough to put him in the 2022 Opening Day rotation, but it’s enough to start imagining him in the 2022 rotation at some point. He’s got top of the rotation stuff, and the Pirates severely lack impact starters.
11. Mitch Keller
I still believe in Mitch Keller, and believe that he can be one of the impact starters the Pirates need. He clearly needs an adjustment of some sorts to make his fastball less hittable, and to get the pitch under control. At this point, he leads a lot of question marks in the rotation.
12. Rotation Options
Those question marks include JT Brubaker, Wil Crowe, Max Kranick, Zach Thompson, Bryse Wilson, and Miguel Yajure. I think Thompson and Brubaker are good for the Opening Day rotation, especially after Thompson was added in the Jacob Stallings trade. Then again, Crowe (Josh Bell), Wilson (Richard Rodriguez), and Yajure (Jameson Taillon) were all added in trades as well. The Pirates have options here, and like the outfield situation, they could really benefit from multiple players from this group emerging as starters.
13. Jose Quintana
Prior to the lockout, the Pirates added Jose Quintana to their 2022 rotation. He’s more of a reclamation project at this point, with hope that he can return to being a 3+ WAR pitcher. He was that pitcher just two years ago. It would be encouraging if the Pirates got a steal here, after getting a valuable pitcher last year in Tyler Anderson. This would show an ability to find sleeper talent in free agency, which is something this low-budget team needs to see.
14. Free Agents
Ben Cherington has said the Pirates will look to add one more starter. They will need to at least find someone to eat innings, reducing the risk imposed by the young, inexperienced rotation above. This will be another opportunity to see if they can find values and sleepers. So far, they’ve added Quintana and Yoshi Tsutsugo for a combined $6 million, and I can envision both of those players being worth more than that individually.
15. Quinn Priester
There aren’t many top of the rotation guys above, unless some of the “other” group outperform expectations. Roansy Contreras and Mitch Keller are the top options in my mind. Down on the farm, Quinn Priester joins that group. I would be surprised to see him up this year, as he’s not on the 40-man roster, and doesn’t need to be any time soon. That makes his situation different from the callup of Contreras. It will be fun to watch his development in Altoona this year, with a very loaded prospect group.
David Bednar was the highlight last year, and we’ll get a chance to see if he can repeat in 2022. Chris Stratton will probably return as a potential deadline trade chip. Other than that, the focus here will be seeing if the Pirates can find more impact guys like Bednar. Internally, I think Blake Cederlind has the best chance.
17. Waiver Wire
Here’s a question: Will the Pirates use the waiver wire to the extreme again to find those relievers, and other options? I don’t think searching the waiver wire for relievers is a bad thing, but there are a few younger guys who you don’t want to block, including some of the starters above who might be better off in the bullpen in the short-term.
I’m interested in seeing how the promotions from the minors will work this year. The Pirates promoted a lot of guys without much Triple-A experience in 2021. They’ve got a loaded Altoona roster. Could the second half see an unexpected prospect wave skipping over Indianapolis?
For something like that to happen, you need to know that the development is on track. The Pirates have made changes to their development system, which will hopefully lead to better results in the majors than what they’ve seen from their prospects in the past. This will be the second minor league season under the new development approach.
Every year you’ll see prospects jump to the top of the system from the lower tiers. This happened in 2021 a few times, most notable with Roansy Contreras and Matt Fraizer. The 2022 season will give a chance to see if those guys can repeat their success, while seeing if a new group can join the top of the system. The benefit is that the Pirates have strong middle-tier depth, full of breakout potential candidates.
The first two drafts under Cherington have been strong, and they’ll get another top five pick in 2022. Will we see them get creative again and maximize their dollars on multiple prep players?
How much further will Ben Cherington blow up this team? I can see the free agents and anyone with two or fewer years of control remaining on the block. Will we see them start to build up, or continue to tear down?