It feels like the Pittsburgh Pirates have been in a rebuilding phase for the last decade. Since finishing with a rock-solid 98-64 in 2015, all they have done is lose. The best they’ve done is an 82-78 finish in 2017. Every time they have an established star nearing free agency, they flip this player for prospects: it happened with Andrew McCutchen, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Gerrit Cole in 2018, Corey Dickerson in 2019, Starling Marte and Josh Bell in 2020, and Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, and Clay Holmes in 2021.
To be fair, Meadows, Glasnow, and Holmes weren’t established stars: they were underachieving players with loads of untapped potential that Pittsburgh didn’t know how to help. Player development has been a major flaw in the last few years for the franchise.
It hasn’t been all bad, though: the McCutchen trade netted them Bryan Reynolds, and the Cole one got them Musgrove, for example. But think about the roster that the Pirates could have if they held on to most of those players and spent a bit to retain their talent. Which leads us to another flaw (choice may be a better word) of the modern Pirates: frustratingly low payrolls.
The projected 2022 payroll for the Bucs is just $34.4 million at the moment, ranking 28th out of 30 organizations. In 2021, they also ranked 28th, at $54.3 million. The situation was similar in 2020, 2019, 2018… you get the point.
Pittsburgh is the definition of a tanking team, something that the Players Association hates because it means they take longer to call up prospects that are clearly ready, they trade established players for prospects, and they don’t pay for free agents.
Clearly, the Pirates are hoping to line up some of their top prospects’ timelines, which could happen, but at what cost? Fans have already endured too many years of mediocrity. However, there may be something brewing there.
The building blocks
Bryan Reynolds has blossomed into a bonafide star, posting a .302/.390/.522 line with a 142 wRC+, 24 home runs, and 5.5 fWAR. With four additional years of service time (barring any changes after the CBA negotiations), he is the single most valuable Pirate.
Ke’Bryan Hayes had a down 2021 (88 wRC+ in 396 plate appearances) but is a defensive ace at third base and has been very good before, including a short 24-game sample as a rookie in 2020 (195 wRC+).
Mitch Keller is the Pirates’ eternal underachiever since he struggled once again in 2021 with a 6.17 ERA in 100.2 frames. His 4.30 FIP was much more decent, though, and if he can regain some of his strikeout potential, he could finally break out.
Speedster Cole Tucker hasn’t been able to make the leap despite some good minor league seasons, while pitcher Bryse Wilson, obtained from the Atlanta Braves, is a similar case as Keller, as is Michael Chavis. If any of them pan out, Pittsburgh would be in much better shape. They are still young and will get the playing time.
The top prospects
Here is where the whole thing gets a bit more exciting. Shortstop Oneil Cruz displayed his legendary exit velocity over a very short MLB sample in 2021, and oozes potential. Outfielder Jared Oliva has some promise, while pitchers Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras, obtained from the New York Yankees, could have a golden chance to establish themselves in 2022.
Yajure has a big arm but could use a couple of extra months of experience in the upper-minors, but Contreras (2.65 ERA and a 12.59 K/9 in 54.1 Double-A innings, three perfect frames in MLB) is shaping up as an immediate contributor in 2022.
Catcher Henry Davis, infielder Liover Peguero, and pitcher Quinn Priester are even more exciting and promising, but they are all at least a couple of years away.
Jose Quintana was brought this offseason to anchor a young rotation, while Yoshi Tsutsugo was a smart choice to bring back: he had a .268/.347/.535 line with a 134 wRC+ in 144 plate appearances in Pittsburgh last season. Ben Gamel should be a solid placeholder even if his power is lacking.
The solid contributors
The Pirates appear to have found a solid one-two punch in relief with David Bednar (2.23 ERA, 32.5 K%) and Chris Stratton (3.63 ERA in 79.1 innings). They have high hopes for former Miami Marlins righty Zach Thompson, who they deemed good enough to trade Jacob Stallings for.
This roster still figures to finish last in the NL Central again next season, but that could potentially change in a best-case scenario in which some of the underachievers and the top prospects break out. They do have two solid building blocks and about a dozen additional interesting pieces. It’s a start!
Player development and keeping Reynolds around will be the key for the Pirates and will let us see if they are finally serious about trying to compete soon or if they will eventually hit the reset button again.
Andrés Chávez loves the game of baseball and writes about it at Beyond the Box Score, Pinstripe Alley, and other sites. He is on Twitter as @andres_chavez13