The NL Central is easily the worst division in baseball. There are four mediocre teams who each had a wide open door for a playoff berth, but each refused to step through it. The Reds nontendered players they had acquired in midseason trades. The Cubs are going to try Joc Pederson as an everyday player and they traded away Yu Darvish. The Brewers added Kolten Wong and stockpiled on buy-low players like Travis Shaw. The Cardinals fleeced the Rockies for Nolan Arenado, but they’d look much better with Wong. These four teams are essentially competing to see who gets eliminated by the Padres or the Dodgers in the Divisional Series.
Then there’s the Pirates who are competing for nothing in division that could be won with 88 wins according to PECOTA and 82 per FanGraphs’ playoff odds. FanGraphs gives the Pirates a 0.3 percent chance to make it to the postseason, and frankly, that seems high. That Pittsburgh could make it to the postseason in any simulation is really more of an indictment of the NL Central than anything.
The Sam Miller article exploring the alternate reality in which the Pirates are playing in October would begin with the rest of the division imploding: Kris Bryant never gets right, Tommy Edman turns back into a pumpkin, Christian Yelich gets stuck in 2020, the Yankees finally trade for Luis Castillo, etc. Way down the list of concatenations needed for the Pirates to be divisional champs would be Ke’Bryan Hayes wins the MVP, Bryan Reynolds gets groove back, and Steven Brault proves that 2020 wasn’t a fluke.
It would take much more than Hayes, Reynolds, and Brault to hit their 90th percentile projections, but those three players exceeding expectations isn’t all that unlikely.
Regardless of how barren the rest of the roster is, Hayes is an easy player to get excited about. His debut was certainly encouraging enough. In 95 plate appearances, he slashed .376/.442/.682 which was good for a 195 wRC+. A .450 BABIP clearly isn’t sustainable, but he wasn’t surviving on dinks and doinks. Per Baseball Savant, 55.4 percent of Hayes’s batted balls were hit at 95 mph or harder, and he topped out at 110.3 mph.
Coming up, Hayes had more of an up-the-middle approach, but in 2020, he started to create more loft which led to him hitting five homers in a handful of chances. It’ll be interesting to see how big league pitching adapts to him and how much the deadened ball affects his power, but he’s only 24 and the bat keeps getting better.
That Hayes’s offensive game has improved this much is just a bonus. With his glove, Hayes didn’t need to hit a ton to be a productive player. He was considered to be one of the best defenders in the minor leagues, and there’s definitely gold glove potential there. Defensive stats are hardly worth looking at for a 24-game sample, but four Defensive Runs Saved and three Outs Above Average match up with his reputation.
After coming out of nowhere, Bryan Reynolds went through a sophomore slump. After hitting .314/.377/.503 for a 130 wRC+ in his rookie 2019, Reynolds never got it together in the brief 2020 season. His .387 BABIP from 2019 portended regression, but the batted ball gods overcorrected and Reynolds didn’t do himself any favors. His .302 xwOBA was subpar and his strikeout rate rose 5.2 percentage points.
There’s talent on the team and on the farm, so the Pirates’ woeful state is all self-inflicted. According to Spotrac, only Cleveland figures to have a lower payroll in 2021 than Pittsburgh’s $41.7 million. The only player making more than $5 million this year is Gregory Polanco, and the only reason he’s still there is because it would be difficult to convince any other team to take him and his $11.6 million salary. Anyone making money that they could get rid of, they got rid of.
Joe Musgrove went to the Padres, Jameson Taillon went to the Yankees, and Josh Bell went to the Nationals. Trade rumors have circulated around Adam Frazier all winter, and it would be surprising if he ended the year with the Pirates.
So far, the lone major league contract given out by the Pirates has been to Tyler Anderson who will make $2.5 million in 2021. Anderson would have to fight for a rotation spot on virtually any other team—he was nontendered by the Giants who don’t have a ton of starting pitching depth—but in Pittsburgh’s depleted rotation, he’s their number three.
Bob Nutting didn’t need a pandemic as an excuse to cut costs. He would have done that regardless. He has done that regardless. The biggest free agent contract the Pirates have given out under Nutting is a three-year $39 million deal to Francisco Liriano. There are two explanations for that sort of frugality. Either Nutting’s Pirates can’t afford middle-tier free agents and he shouldn’t own a team, or Nutting doesn’t want spend for middle-tier free agents and he shouldn’t own a team.
That’s the tragic thing about the Pirates. There’s plenty of talent in the system beyond Ke’Bryan Hayes including Travis Swaggerty, Quinn Preister, and Oneill Cruz. Ben Cherington and his team have done a fine job rebuilding the system, but if he’s never allowed to spend, then it’s all going to be for naught. It won’t be long before Hayes is too expensive to keep. If they want to follow the Rays model and trade everyone before they reach their second year of arbitration, then the Pirates too could come up short of a World Series before tearing it all down to try again in a couple years. With the way Nutting has operated his team for the last 15 years, that’s the best case scenario.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.