PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have said they are trying to build a winner at every level.
After bearing the brunt of a 101-loss season, are things looking up? How will they get where they want to go in 2022, which figures to be a crucial middle-ground year for the Pirates from toil to (hopefully) triumph?
Here are five of the many questions facing the Pirates this offseason.
1. Where do the Pirates need to balance adding experience vs. giving prospects opportunities?
When general manager Ben Cherington spoke with reporters two days after the 2021 season concluded, he made it clear that the club would add to the roster and make it stronger heading into 2022.
The question remains, though: How much does he add vs. giving young players already on the roster reps and time to grow at the Major League level?
It sounds like the Pirates will seek outside help this offseason, though it’s doubtful it will be any of the top free agents looking for big money and multiple years. However, Cherington sounds committed to letting the group in the organization set the tone for what the team is.
“As we build that winning team, most of the improvement that we need to have happen will come internally,” Cherington said, “either through improvement from players who are already here, who are already on our Major League team, or from continued improvement from Minor League players who eventually will be on our Major League team.”
2. Is the rotation deep enough?
One of the areas Cherington could add to is the rotation. The Pirates ended the season with a rotation featuring only two starters who had made more than 10 starts in 2021: Wil Crowe, the Pirates’ leader in games started (25), and Mitch Keller, who spent more than a month at Triple-A working to get his stuff and confidence back.
A lot of the late state of the rotation was due to injuries: JT Brubaker, Steven Brault, Bryse Wilson and Dillon Peters all ended the season on the injured list. Maybe all of those players will come back healthy in 2022, but contingency plans are always required to be in place. As pitching coach Oscar Marin told reporters in Spring Training, the Pirates aren’t preparing five or six starters -- they’re preparing 10-12.
The question is, do those 10-12 exist in terms of those who can give meaningful innings and not tax the bullpen? On the younger side, of the 13 pitchers on the Pirates’ Top 30 Prospects list, only four have pitched above High-A, and only two of those have made a Major League start (Roansy Contreras and Miguel Yajure).
Expect a veteran a la Tyler Anderson in 2021 to be added to the mix. Beyond that, time will tell.
3. Who takes over as hitting coach?
When the Pirates parted ways with hitting coach Rick Eckstein at the end of August and transitioned into a collaborative approach for the final month-plus of the season, they emphasized an approach-based method in their hitting philosophy and practice work. For the most part, it worked out: A team that had an on-base percentage of .306 (T-21st in MLB) saw that mark grow to .322 (T-12) in September, which matched the 106-win Dodgers for the month.
The Pirates’ new hitting coach will have to try to continue that trend of improvement for a team that finished the regular season with the third-lowest OPS (.673). Unlike the pitching prospects, many of the top hitting prospects are approaching the Majors, including Oneil Cruz, Travis Swaggerty, Mason Martin and Cal Mitchell, among others.
Part of the job will also be helping these burgeoning bats succeed. It’s a tall task, and the Pirates are looking for the “right fit,” per Cherington. Therefore, they aren’t rushing the process.
“I would expect we'll start interviewing some time in October,” Cherington said. “Haven't started yet, and not in a particular rush. It's an important hire.”
4. Who fits for middle relief?
The most turnover Pittsburgh saw, as is the case for many teams, was in the bullpen. The Pirates traded away Richard Rodríguez, Clay Holmes and Austin Davis. They lost Michael Feliz on waivers, and they released setup man Kyle Crick.
A few guys like David Bednar and Chris Stratton proved themselves through the turnover. But what about the rest? Chasen Shreve, Anthony Banda, Nick Mears, Kyle Keller, Duane Underwood Jr., Cody Ponce … the list goes on and on.
Who does the club believe is here to stay? Who is expendable? Those decisions won’t only happen in the new season, especially with the club facing a Rule 5 Draft protection crunch. Expect some movement here.
5. Who plays right field?
Gregory Polanco held down right field until he was released by the Pirates at the end of August. After that, the leader for games played as right fielder for Pittsburgh was Yoshi Tsutsugo. That is not a good sign, both because he struggled mightily to look like an everyday right fielder and he’s now a free agent.
Four other Pirates spent 10 or more games in right field. Two finished the season at Triple-A (Phillip Evans and Jared Oliva). One is a natural middle infielder (Cole Tucker). The fourth is Ben Gamel, who arguably is the strongest candidate for the position currently on the active roster, though he played four times as many games in left field.
A wild card in the organization is Travis Swaggerty, who missed the majority of the Minor League season due to shoulder surgery.
For now, it’s an open competition.
“It’s certainly possible ... that there would be a player out there who would be more of a defined corner outfielder that we think would be a really good fit and that could line up with an opportunity we have,” Cherington said. “It also could be that continued growth from players who are already here, guys who can play multiple spots could factor into that.”