BRADENTON, Fla. -- Most years, clubs report to Spring Training with a pretty good idea of what’s about to take place.
They’ll allow themselves to be swayed by some surprises, sure. Like the time Juan Nicasio “turned into Nolan Ryan for a month,” in the words of one former teammate, and surprisingly earned a spot in Pittsburgh’s Opening Day rotation four years ago. But more often than not, what you expect is what you get.
This spring should be different in Pirates camp. There are a bunch of variables -- some new players, a new general manager, a new manager, new coaches, position battles, out-of-options arms all over the place -- that make this Opening Day roster a little more difficult to forecast.
Spring Training predictions are destined to become swings and misses, but here are four things you can expect to see as the Pirates get ready for the 2020 season.
1. Good vibes only
The start of Spring Training is usually the time for unbridled optimism, relaxed attitudes and happy players in every camp. It’s been no different at Pirate City throughout the first week, with players expressing confidence and excitement regarding the leadership of general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton.
Sometimes, those good feelings fade. Pirates camp was a pleasant place during the first few days of Spring Training in 2018, then David Freese and Josh Harrison vocalized their concerns about the direction of the team. Pittsburgh wound up winning 82 games that season, but their comments nonetheless confirmed that players weren’t totally happy across the board.
Don’t expect any of that this spring. Players genuinely seem to be pleased with what they’ve seen and heard, despite some of the external negativity and pessimism about the team. Closer Keone Kela summarized their feelings when he said he wants to “change the narrative of Pirates baseball and the culture here.”
2. Top prospect for a reason
The Pirates aren’t guaranteeing many roster spots, but it seems highly likely that Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer and Trevor Williams will be in the Opening Day rotation. Mitch Keller, Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl and Derek Holland are the top candidates for the final two spots.
It’s easy to see a scenario where Pittsburgh’s top prospect Mitch Keller quickly earns one of those spots this spring. The right-hander is undoubtedly motivated by the shaky surface-level statistics he put together in his Major League debut last season, but he still has potential top-of-the-rotation stuff and command. He’s also going to work with a forward-thinking pitching coach, Oscar Marin, who is focused on helping Pittsburgh’s pitchers to do what they do best more often.
Last Spring Training didn’t go so well for Keller, but we’ll predict that the right-hander reminds everyone this spring -- and throughout the season -- why he was such a highly ranked prospect for so long.
3. Still pounding the table
A year ago, Erik González reported for his first Spring Training with the Pirates and wound up locking down the starting shortstop job. He struggled out of the gate, went on the injured list, and then finished strong in September, but the emergence of Kevin Newman essentially relegated him to an uncertain bench role entering the offseason.
With the Pirates’ clear focus on improving their team defense, however, we’ll say that the slick-fielding González will receive more playing time than expected -- with a lot of it potentially coming at third base even as he bounces around the field.
Maybe González will earn an Opening Day roster spot as an occasional starter, a late-game defensive replacement or a true super-utility man. Or maybe he’ll struggle this spring and fall behind the club’s other utility options. But for now, it seems like the Pirates are planning on giving the out-of-options González another shot this year.
4. Man of mystery
Josh Bell is bound to draw a crowd wherever he goes, given his penchant for launching tape-measure home runs and the interest in how he’ll improve his defense at first base. Everybody’s going to have an eye on third-base prospect Ke'Bryan Hayes, who could bring his Gold Glove Award-caliber defense to Pittsburgh later this year.
But the most intriguing position player in Pirates camp this year will probably be Oneil Cruz, the 6-foot-6 shortstop prospect who finished last season with Double-A Altoona. It’s hard to imagine Cruz cracking the Major League roster at any point this year, but he has the raw talent to be a game-changer whenever he makes it and wherever he plays.
There are plenty of questions. Will Cruz stick at shortstop? If not, where will he fit? How will he harness his long limbs and immense power potential at the plate? How long until he’s ready? Whether he impresses or not, you can bet on Cruz being one of the most closely watched players during his first Major League Spring Training.