Predicting Pirates' 2021 Opening Day roster

March 28th, 2021

With Opening Day arriving on Thursday, the hard decisions the Pirates have faced at a few key spots are going to need to reach finality.

The shortstop competition has shaped up quickly, but in center field and the bullpen, there are still lingering question marks. Let’s take a swing at predicting who makes the cut at those spots as well as the rest of the roster.

Here's the projected Opening Day roster that manager Derek Shelton will work with in his second year as skipper.

Catcher (2): Jacob Stallings, Michael Perez

Stallings will undoubtedly be the starter, with better potential on offense, great receiving skills and a handle on the returning pitching staff. He’s largely a singles hitter at the plate, but he upped his walk rate last season to help him get on base at a .326 mark. The backup spot has been a close competition between Tony Wolters and Perez. Neither has hit well in Spring Training, so we’ll give Perez the slight edge due to his ability to throw out runners consistently this spring.

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, the veteran shifted his focus to first. 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. But Frazier has had nothing but success this spring, going 19-for-34 (.559 average) with five doubles, two triples and two homers in his first 11 spring games.

Shortstop (2): Erik González, Kevin Newman

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. He also has shown his incredible bat-to-ball skills this spring, going 20-for-28 (.714) with six doubles and no strikeouts in his first 34 plate appearances. González and the Pirates avoided arbitration with a $1.225 million contract in December, and with that guarantee, the club expects him to handle a decent load of reps at shortstop.

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 NL 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 batted .300 or better at every full-season stop since his freshman year at Vanderbilt University until he hit .189 in the shortened 2020 season. Do not expect this to become the norm for the everyday left fielder. In right, 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, and he's posting triple-digit exit velocities in Spring Training.

Center field is the position with more internal competition. 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, but he may get that chance with the Bucs. After being held back from the field during his rehab at the start of Grapefruit League action, he’s consistently seen reps and made great plays in the field. Alford was hit by a pitch on March 13, and he exited the game with right wrist discomfort. However, he was back in the lineup four days later.

Utility (2): Phillip Evans, Dustin Fowler

The Pirates decided not to offer Todd Frazier a spot on the Opening Day roster, leading to him to opt out of his Minor League contract. The reasoning: The need for a more versatile player like Evans, who can play all four infield positions as well as getting time this spring in the outfield. Fowler, who was acquired from the A's for cash, is out of options and, unlike Brian Goodwin, is on the 40-man roster. Fowler can played all three outfield positions and has even seen innings at first base.

Rotation (6): Mitch Keller, Tyler Anderson, Chad Kuhl, JT Brubaker, Trevor Cahill, Wil Crowe

The acquisition of Cahill on March 12 solidified the Pirates’ starting pitching depth, but it also raised questions about a potential six-man rotation.

“We'd like to have six guys on the team who can start,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “We'll leave it to [Shelton and pitching coach Oscar Marin] on how that gets mapped out. Doesn’t necessarily mean we have a six-man rotation, per se. Maybe there [will be] times we want to use six. I'll leave that to Derek and Oscar.”

The Pirates may need to be even more creative than just that to begin the season, as Steven Brault will start 2021 on the injured list with a left lat muscle injury. He’s scheduled to resume throwing in a little over three weeks, and he’s unlikely to pitch in the first two months of the season. Crowe has emerged as someone who can help fill a large portion of the innings lost with Brault’s injury in a starting role, but the Bucs may also need to mix in a few piggyback starts as the club did early on in 2020 with Brault and Kuhl.

Bullpen (8): Richard Rodríguez, Kyle Crick, Chris Stratton, Michael Feliz, Duane Underwood Jr., David Bednar, Chasen Shreve, Geoff Hartlieb

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 better equipped to be a setup man. That could push Crick into the spot, or the Bucs could brush aside the idea of a closer in favor of a group of high-leverage options on any given day. A strong young candidate for that role, Blake Cederlind, underwent Tommy John surgery in Spring Training and will not pitch this year.

Shreve, the lone lefty in the bullpen in this exercise, came to Pittsburgh on a Minor League deal, and Underwood was acquired in a trade with the Cubs on March 7. There are some intriguing long options like Miguel Yajure and Cody Ponce, but they may start the season at Triple-A due to their available options.

Arguably the strongest reliever this spring has been Pittsburgh native Bednar, who has struck out 17 batters in 8 1/3 innings through Sunday with only three hits allowed. He was acquired from the Padres for Joe Musgrove in the offseason, and he may be a sleeper candidate for closer as the season progresses.