Predicting Pirates' 2021 Opening Day roster

February 20th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- Spring Training is an exciting time of year, and few things are more exciting than envisioning what’s in store for players in the coming regular season.

The Pirates could have a lot of moving pieces come September, with some near-MLB-ready prospects in the system. And with the limit on pitchers waived this season due to health and safety protocols, the Pirates see a different split of players and pitchers this season.

For the time being, though, here’s the projected Opening Day roster that manager Derek Shelton will work with in his second year as skipper.

Catcher (2): Jacob Stallings, Tony Wolters

Stallings will undoubtedly be the starter, with better potential on offense, great receiving skills and a handle on the returning Pirates pitching staff. He’s largely a singles hitter at the plate, but he upped his BB% last season to help him get on base at a .326 mark. The second spot will be a close competition between Wolters and Michael Perez, and Wolters gets the edge for now due to his starting experience in the National League and Perez’s remaining options.

First base (1): Colin Moran

With three-time Minor League Gold Glove Award winner Ke’Bryan Hayes earning Moran’s former position at third base, he shifted his focus to first base. The 28-year-old had only two errors in 169 defensive chances at first last season, and at the plate, he upped his OPS by nearly fifty points to .797.

Second base (1): Adam Frazier

Frazier took a step back on offense last season, which may have hurt his trade value in discussions this offseason. The leadoff threat recorded a sub-.300 on-base percentage for the first time in his career, but he also had a 12-game hitting streak at the turn of September. With a full slate of games, the ebb and flow of outcomes may even out if he’s here on Opening Day.

Shortstop (2): Erik González, Kevin Newman

González and the Pirates avoided arbitration with a $1.225 million contract in December, and with that guarantee, expect him to handle a good load of the reps at the crowded shortstop position. Newman showed what he’s capable of doing in a full season in 2019, when he had 38 extra-base hits to help power an .800 OPS in 130 games.

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Third base (1): Ke’Bryan Hayes

Hayes is the talk of Pittsburgh when it comes to the Pirates, and there’s no reason for it to stop this season. He had video-game numbers in his first 24 Major League games (.376/.442/.682), leading to a lot of preseason National League Rookie of the Year Award hype. But even if he were to cool off with the bat, his exceptional fielding ability will keep him at third base barring injury.

Outfield (3): Bryan Reynolds, Anthony Alford, Gregory Polanco

Reynolds has batted .300 or better at every full-season stop since his freshman year at Vanderbilt, until he hit .189 in the shortened 2020 season. Do not expect this to become the norm for the everyday left fielder. In right field, Polanco fared even more poorly on offense with a .153 average. After shoulder issues in ‘19, he’s looking to bounce back in his first full season in three years.

Center field is the position with more internal competition. Anthony Alford came to the Pirates and quickly recorded a triple and a homer in his first five games before fracturing his right elbow on Sept. 1. He has yet to see consistent MLB reps in a season, but he may get that chance with the Pirates.

Utility (2): Brian Goodwin, Phillip Evans

On the other hand, Goodwin could also vie for time in center field. However, Goodwin is listed at utility right now since he’ll have to compete for a spot on a Minor League deal and he has experience from his time with the Angels playing all three outfield positions. Evans looked like he couldn’t stop hitting until he was injured and ruled out for the season after a collision with Polanco. Cole Tucker could factor in here, but it may be worth getting him reps at Triple-A at the plate to build his confidence.

Rotation (5): Steven Brault, Mitch Keller, Tyler Anderson, Chad Kuhl, JT Brubaker

Brault made exceptional strides down the stretch in 2020, including his first career complete game. Keller also could be the ace by year’s end if he takes what he learned in his first two short seasons and puts together a strong full campaign. Anderson and Kuhl returned from injuries to pitch the full season in 2020, and JT Brubaker will battle with other starting candidates like Cody Ponce and Wil Crowe for the fifth spot.

Bullpen (9): Richard Rodríguez, Kyle Crick, Chris Stratton, Sam Howard, Michael Feliz, Geoff Hartlieb, Chasen Shreve, Luis Oveido, Cody Ponce

Shelton said the Pirates do not have a closer at this point. Rodríguez fared well closing out games last season, but Shelton sees him as a better fit as a setup man. That could push Crick into the spot, or the Pirates could brush aside the idea of a closer in favor of a group of high-leverage options on any given day.

Shreve came to the Pirates on a Minor League deal, and he may get the edge over a guy like Blake Cederlind due to MLB experience. Ponce should be a reliable option as a swingman or another starter if things come to that, though Shelton said at this point Pittsburgh will have a five-man rotation. Oviedo, a Rule 5 Draft selection, is slated to make the early roster as the club looks to see what he has to offer.