Bucs finalize 2021 Opening Day roster

April 1st, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates had a lot of spots with competition in camp, and though the decisions came down to the final days in some cases, the team reached its first 26-man roster on Thursday ahead of its 5-3 Opening Day win over the Cubs.

Manager Derek Shelton said the battle for pitching spots was exceptionally tight, and it will stay that way due to one unexpected move announced Thursday. Kyle Crick went on paternity leave before being placed on the COVID-19 IL while he does intake testing.

“We had good competition,” Shelton said. “We had people who could have probably made our team that pitched well in Spring Training. Sometimes, you have to make challenging decisions on that.”

Shelton will helm a very young squad this season. But with youth comes opportunity, as Ke’Bryan Hayes showed when he burst onto the scene in 2020 and took the baseball world by storm. Who else could be in line to do the same? And which veterans could step up to win ballgames for the Pirates?

Here’s how the Opening Day roster shook out as the Pirates try to surprise the competition.

Catcher (2): Jacob Stallings, Michael Perez
Neither Perez nor Tony Wolters, who signed a one-year deal with the Cubs on Wednesday, were able to overtake Stallings for the starting job at catcher, but that was expected. Stallings has shown more consistent offense than the others, to add to his defensive capabilities and understanding of the returning Pirates pitchers.

First base (1): Colin Moran
The Pirates brought in Todd Frazier on a Minor League deal as a potential backup here, but he’s at the alternate site to start the year. Moran will draw the bulk of the starts after being moved from third for Hayes, but the Bucs mixed in not just utility man Phillip Evans, but also Dustin Fowler and Erik González in camp.

Second base (1): Adam Frazier
Frazier was a leading trade candidate this offseason, but he remains in Pittsburgh to begin the year. The contact-heavy hitter performed well in Spring Training, hitting .488 with six doubles, two triples and two homers.

Shortstop (2): Kevin Newman, Erik González
Newman was a force this spring. After reaching the .700s in batting average late in camp, he finished with a .606 mark -- the best since 2006, when Spring Training stats became official. Despite that, Newman will still split time with González, who was signed to a one-year contract after being considered a non-tender candidate.

Third base (1): Ke’Bryan Hayes
Any surprise? Hayes is the far-and-away favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award, and he’s gotten some preseason Gold Glove Award and All-Star hype, too. He showed no signs of slowing down in Spring Training, spraying balls to the opposite field and center with ease, plus exit velocities of 100-plus mph.

Outfield (3): Bryan Reynolds, Anthony Alford, Gregory Polanco
Reynolds is ready for a fresh, full season after batting under .300, much less .200, for the first time in his professional career last season. Polanco had the worst mark on the team, but he hopes that exiting Spring Training fully healthy will help him bounce back. Alford was the Opening Day starter in center field for Pittsburgh, as Shelton said he wanted to give him an opportunity after impressing before fracturing his right elbow last season.

Utility (2): Phillip Evans, Dustin Fowler
The Pirates opted for Evans, who played all four infield positions and some corner outfield, over Todd Frazier, who opted out of his Minor League deal and then returned on another one. Fowler can play all three outfield positions, and he even got a taste at first base this spring.

Rotation (5): Mitch Keller, Tyler Anderson, Chad Kuhl, JT Brubaker, Trevor Cahill
The season begins with Kuhl, Anderson and Keller in order. Steven Brault would have made the mix had it not been for left arm tightness that sent him to the 60-day injured list to begin the season. Keller will be a key guy this season; the former No. 1 prospect for the club has had an up-and-down performance the past two years, but he’s entering his first full season looking to prove he can be a top-of-the-rotation arm. This order will likely shift throughout the season, as the Pirates have built up and plan to continue building up more guys than those listed here to handle a starting job.

Bullpen (9): Richard Rodríguez, David Bednar, Chris Stratton, Michael Feliz, Duane Underwood Jr., Clay Holmes, Sam Howard, Wil Crowe, Luis Oviedo
The looming next-man-out bullpen decision has been delayed by Crick's aforementioned paternity leave and COVID-19 IL stint. It will likely be a decision between Crowe, Underwood and Holmes, who was added to the Major League roster after entering spring camp as a non-roster invite. Oviedo could also be a candidate for the chopping block, but as a Rule 5 Draft pick, it seems more likely he’ll get a shot to prove himself.

Any one of Rodríguez, Bednar, Stratton or Crick (when he returns) could close out games to begin the season. Howard will serve as the lone lefty for the time being, with Chasen Shreve on the taxi squad. Crowe is a candidate for both the bullpen and the starting rotation, but he will more than likely begin as a long-relief option while experienced starters, including Kuhl and Cahill, continue to build up. Cody Ponce, who made five appearances (three starts) last season, did not make the roster, as he was placed on the 10-day IL with right arm tightness.