3 Thoughts: Bucs' power, rotation, division

January 8th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- The Padres ended 2020 with a bang, trading for two aces and signing infielder Ha-Seong Kim within the span of a few days. The Mets and their new leadership group are doing their part to heat up the Hot Stove in the new year, swinging a huge trade for star shortstop Francisco Lindor and starter Carlos Carrasco.

As far away as Opening Day might feel during an otherwise quiet offseason, it’s time to start ramping up for the 2021 season. Much of the Pirates’ focus has been on the future and building up the farm system, and that work will likely continue as they make more trades this year. But let’s focus this week on the big league roster and some of the ways the Pirates will be affected by one move they’ve already made, a move they might make soon and the moves their division rivals have (or haven’t) made.

1. Where will the power come from?

You almost have to begin every assessment of the Pirates’ Major League roster with the caveat that they’re aiming to contend down the road, as general manager Ben Cherington himself has stated they need to add more talent to their system to build a sustainable winning team. They’re not going all-out to find short-term solutions, so the questions we ask here might ultimately go unanswered.

But this is a question that should at least be asked because, even though Josh Bell struggled through the summer months of 2019 and all of last season, he still represented the greatest power threat in the Pirates' lineup. Bell was second on the team with eight home runs last season despite a slugging percentage of just .364, and odds are he’ll bounce back to land somewhere between that and his 37-homer output two years ago. Who will fill that void in Pittsburgh's lineup, though?

The Pirates are hoping for another step forward from first baseman , who slashed .247/.325/.472 with a team-leading 10 homers last year while his average exit velocity jumped from 88.2 mph in 2018 and ’19 to 91.9 mph last year. They’re hoping for similar power but far more contact from right fielder , who hit seven homers in 50 games but struck out in 65 of his 174 plate appearances.

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The Pirates hit 59 home runs last year, more than only the Cardinals and D-backs, and had the Majors’ lowest-scoring offense. But there is room for offensive growth beyond just improving their home run total. They’re bound to get more overall production out of , a high-average hitter who batted just .189 last year. They’d like to see , if he wins the shortstop job, get back to being the table-setting, top-of-the-order hitter he was for most of 2019. They still believe there’s untapped potential in and . Utility man was quietly off to a nice start before his season ended early last year.

And they should get a full season out of third baseman , who displayed patience and a surprising amount of extra-base power with five homers, two triples and seven doubles in his first 95 plate appearances. That’ll play, but they’ll need more players like him to build a consistently competitive lineup -- and they're still not likely to outslug many opponents.

2. There's still potential in the rotation.

This came to mind while thinking about the likelihood of a rotation that doesn’t include Joe Musgrove, their best remaining trade chip and a likely candidate to be dealt this month.

Let’s say they do trade Musgrove before Opening Day. At that point, barring further moves, you’re probably looking at a five-man starting rotation consisting of , , , and , with less experienced pitchers like and the recently acquired waiting in the wings.

The issue is depth, and that will be amplified more than ever as the Pirates try to figure out how to cover so many innings due to all the workload concerns that come along with a bunch of recently injured pitchers further limited by a 60-game season. Ponce was effective in spot start duty and could be ready for more work, while Crowe might need some time to establish himself in Triple-A. It gets pretty thin after that, which is why you might see more depth options added on Minor League deals like Derek Holland last year or right-hander Chase De Jong earlier this week.

But if they stay healthy, that starting five probably won’t be the reason the Pirates lose games this year. They’ll all work with good defensive catchers, Jacob Stallings and Michael Perez, and they should have a solid defensive group behind them. It’s a lot harder to figure out the bullpen picture right now, but the rotation would be fairly interesting even if Musgrove is moved out.

The last time we saw a healthy Taillon, he put up top-of-the-rotation type numbers in 2018. Keller’s good stuff came back in his final three starts last season, and it’s hard to see the spike in his walk rate as anything other than a fluke given his track record of control. Neither is a top prospect anymore, of course, but they haven’t lost the talent that helped them earn that title in the past.

Take away one blister-related disaster in Kansas City last year, and Kuhl had a 2.66 ERA in his return from Tommy John surgery. Brubaker struck out a batter per inning and made some solid starts in September. Brault obviously finished strong and generally pitched well last year aside from one nightmare relief outing against Detroit.

3. The rest of the division has been very quiet, too.

So what, exactly, is going on in the National League Central?

The Cubs traded Yu Darvish, and despite their stable of position player talent, new president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said they must “make sure that we continue to bolster our farm system and make sure that we can build a future.” (Sound familiar?) The Brewers are talking about making moves with financial flexibility in mind. (Again, sound familiar?)

The Cardinals have plenty of pitching talent, but they’re scaling back their payroll while still looking at a lineup that struggled last year and a roster currently without Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Kolten Wong. The Reds have cut payroll and still need a shortstop, a couple starters and a closer to replace Raisel Iglesias. The Pirates traded Bell and probably aren’t done.

My first season here in Pittsburgh, the NL Central boasted the Majors’ three best teams in the regular season: the Cardinals (100 wins), Pirates (98) and Cubs (97). It was such a tough grind in 2015 that it prompted former GM Neal Huntington to quip, “Thank goodness the Astros aren’t still in the division.” It's not quite that imposing anymore.

The NL Central was hardly bad last year, sending four teams to the expanded postseason bracket. But the Cubs, Reds and Brewers were swept out, the Cardinals secured the NL Central’s lone playoff win before falling to the Padres, and it looked much more like a division of good-enough teams with no great teams. And now, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s particularly desperate to get better.

This lack of activity probably won’t affect the Pirates this year, as they’ll be projected to finish fifth again. But it will be interesting to see if any of their division rivals’ efforts to retool/retrench/rebuild, whatever their choice of word may be, have changed the shape of the division by the time Pittsburgh is ready to contend.