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Inbox: Which Pirates are ready to break out?

Beat reporter Adam Berry answers Bucs fans' questions
February 1, 2019

So the Bucs are just hoping their hitters will get better for "internal improvement." Who do you think can break out and get the lineup to score some runs? We need more runs. -- Jerry V., Harrisburg, Pa.The Pirates are indeed betting heavily on improvement from within. They added two

So the Bucs are just hoping their hitters will get better for "internal improvement." Who do you think can break out and get the lineup to score some runs? We need more runs.
-- Jerry V., Harrisburg, Pa.

The Pirates are indeed betting heavily on improvement from within. They added two high-ceiling/high-risk hitters in Jung Ho Kang (if he returns to form) and Lonnie Chisenhall (if he's healthy), but the core of their lineup will be mostly the same as last year.
That's not a bad thing across the board. They were above average offensively last season at catcher and all three outfield spots, and those guys (Francisco Cervelli, Elias Díaz, Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco) will be back. They should get above-average offensive production at second base, too, with Adam Frazier taking over.
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Realistically, the "internal improvement" is going to have to come from everywhere if they want to be competitive in such a tough division. This answer might change during Spring Training, when we'll get a long look at everyone, but I'll say Josh Bell can take the biggest step forward this season.
Bell seems pretty intent on sticking with the mindset that worked well for him last September, which is a good start. He spent a lot of time with a hitting consultant in California this offseason, and now he'll get to work with two new hitting coaches in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are going to emphasize a consistent approach and remind the 26-year-old switch-hitter of the difference between the pitches he can hit and what he should hit to get the best results.
I'm not saying Bell will suddenly come out and mash 40 home runs with a .900 OPS or anything like that. But I still think Bell has more in the tank, and the Pirates clearly believe that as well. At some point, you have to think he'll combine the contact and patience he showed in the Minors with the power he displayed in 2017. Why not this year?

I'd love some more Oneil Cruz talk. Pure speculation, if you will. Such as season projections, how high could he advance this season? Double-A? Big league Spring Training next year? How high could he climb prospect boards with another season like last year or better? What are the odds of him staying at shortstop?
-- Pete K. (@mongoose_4 on Twitter)

Pete delivered a lot of great questions about Cruz, who recently joined MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list at No. 96. I am also fascinated by the 20-year-old, 6-foot-6 shortstop who should break camp with Class A Advanced Bradenton.
It's possible that Cruz could earn a late-season promotion to Double-A Altoona. I wouldn't worry if that doesn't happen, though. The Pirates have pushed some of their top prospects over the past few years, especially their shortstops, but it wouldn't be the worst thing for Cruz to settle in and try to prove himself in a tough league for hitters. And again, he's only 20 years old.
Cruz should be in big league camp in 2020 because the Pirates will have to put him on their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. The Dodgers signed Cruz on July 2, 2015, so this offseason will be his first time as a Rule 5-eligible prospect. When you're on the 40-man roster, you're in big league camp.
I'll let the experts handle the rankings, but another season like last year -- when he hit .286/.343/.488 in Class A -- certainly wouldn't knock him down any prospect boards. We'll get a better feel this summer, when MLB Pipeline does its annual midseason overhaul of the Top 100.
As Pete mentioned, Cruz's future position might be affected by the development of shortstop prospect Cole Tucker. Cruz's size alone leads most evaluators to believe he'll eventually move off shortstop, and if Tucker sticks at shortstop while Ke'Bryan Hayes locks down third base, Cruz would probably be best suited for an outfield corner.
But Cruz has been better defensively than the Pirates expected when they acquired him for Tony Watson, and there are currently no plans to move him. Think of it this way: He's a shortstop until he proves he's not.

Are the Pirates going to trade Starling Marte?
-- Riley S., Phoenix

I'm sure teams looking for an outfielder reached out regarding Marte, because he's a good player on a reasonable contract. And I'm sure there will be a point in a year or two when the Pirates consider offers for him -- just like they've openly said they'll consider offers for every player nearing the end of his contract. Not yet, though.
Marte has three years of control remaining, with affordable club options in 2020 and '21. He's not at a point where his salary has outpaced his projected production. He remains a valuable player at a key position, $10 million is still a bargain for what he can do on the field, and the Pirates have no replacement for him in center field.
As I said in a previous Inbox, the Pirates essentially created a window through 2021 when they acquired Chris Archer last July. Marte's contract fits perfectly within that window. He's one of the players they should build around. It wouldn't make sense to trade him now, and there's no reason to believe they are even considering the idea.
Why wasn't Bob Nutting at PiratesFest to answer questions about the payroll going down? It was hard to hear Neal Huntington defend the budget when he's not the one who makes it.
-- Erik P., Pittsburgh

Nutting had a prior commitment on the West Coast, according to the team, so he was not in attendance. The Pirates' chairman wouldn't have been a part of those "Ask Pirates Management" Q&A sessions if he was there, but he did chat with fans during last year's PiratesFest at PNC Park. He typically sits down for an interview with all the beat reporters at the start of Spring Training. So hopefully we'll get some answers in a few weeks about the club's payroll, direction and so on.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.