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Hayes' surge ends Bucs' '20 on hopeful note

@adamdberry
September 27, 2020

This time a year ago, the Pirates were beginning a period of change. They dismissed manager Clint Hurdle about an hour before their 2019 season finale, and the next month would see the departure of president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington after a 93-loss season defined by disappointment

This time a year ago, the Pirates were beginning a period of change. They dismissed manager Clint Hurdle about an hour before their 2019 season finale, and the next month would see the departure of president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington after a 93-loss season defined by disappointment on the field and turmoil in the clubhouse.

A year later, the Pirates probably still have a long way to go on the field. While 16 teams will move on to play in October, including unexpected contenders like the Marlins, Pittsburgh will head home for the winter with a 19-41 record, the worst mark in the Majors, after losing to Cleveland, 8-6, in Sunday’s season finale at Progressive Field.

They believe things are changing for the better, however.

Box score

“I’m excited about the direction we’re going. I think with the timeline, no one knows,” manager Derek Shelton said. “I think we saw that this season, where there were a lot of teams where the timeline got sped up really quickly because of how players played. That’s exciting for organizations like the Pirates.”

Shelton's offseason plan? Deep-dive into '20

There’s bound to be more change in the coming weeks and months -- albeit nothing like the high-profile turnover they experienced early last offseason -- as president Travis Williams, GM Ben Cherington and Shelton continue to reshape the organization. One transformation second baseman Adam Frazier noticed this year, he said, is a “night-and-day difference” in the Pirates’ culture under Shelton.

“I know that things were not where we wanted to be in between the lines, but away from that, the feeling in the clubhouse -- the feeling of being a part of a brotherhood here in Pittsburgh -- it was definitely special,” first baseman Josh Bell said. “It was definitely something that can be built upon.”

That has been Cherington’s plan all along, to build on the foundation they have. Cherington has maintained that there are players on the current roster who will contribute to their next contending team. And one of them, obviously, is third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes.

The 23-year-old rookie finished an outstanding first month in the Majors by going 2-for-4 with a home run to dead center off Cal Quantrill in the third inning on Sunday afternoon. Hayes, who hit .376 with a 1.124 OPS in his first 24 games, was the Pirates’ September silver lining. Next year, he’ll be in Pittsburgh for a full season.

“I think there’s a lot of people that want to watch Ke’Bryan Hayes play 162,” Shelton said.

Added Hayes: “It’s a big confidence-booster for me to get out there, get in some games and have some success this year.”

But the Pirates need more young players like Hayes to build around. The organization has to get better, as Cherington and Shelton said all year. Having the No. 1 pick in next year’s Draft, if the selection order is determined by this season’s standings, would help. Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker is widely projected as the top player in the 2021 Draft class.

“We need to be dogged about continuing to build a deeper, more talented roster,” Cherington said Sunday on KDKA-FM. “We can be in a position where we feel good about some progress that’s been made, excited about that, but we have to remain disciplined on getting better.”

The Pirates were pleased to see their current pitchers’ progress down the stretch this season, particularly their starters. Their rotation finished the year with a 1.94 ERA over their final 13 games. Rookie right-hander JT Brubaker, one of the young arms afforded an opportunity by all the injuries Pittsburgh endured this season, gave up five runs in five-plus innings on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Pirates took a step back offensively this year despite bringing back most of last year’s lineup. Some of that regression will surely be chalked up to the unusual circumstances of this season: nearly four months off between Spring Training and Summer Camp, an abbreviated ramp-up to the regular season, the lack of access to in-game video and so on.

As a team, the Bucs hit .220 with a .641 OPS on the year. They scored 219 runs, fewest in the Majors. The results of this season leave them with questions nearly everywhere on the diamond.

Jacob Stallings established himself as a capable catcher, but the Pirates still need a long-term answer behind the plate like the one they’ve apparently found at third base. The rest of their infield includes plenty of options but few sure things. Can they move forward with right fielder Gregory Polanco after a season full of strikeouts? Who will play center field, and how will that affect the rest of their outfield?

It’s also difficult to figure out what the Pirates’ bullpen will look like next spring, but that’s a byproduct of injuries more so than performance. Key controllable relievers Kyle Crick, Clay Holmes, Michael Feliz and Nick Burdi barely pitched this season, thrusting less experienced arms like Geoff Hartlieb, Sam Howard and Nik Turley to step into higher-leverage roles.

The Pirates couldn’t hang on to a four-run lead Sunday in Cleveland, as the Indians scored three runs in the sixth and three more in the seventh. Fifteen of Pittsburgh’s 41 losses were by one run and four were by two runs. With more pitching depth from the jump, a handful of timely hits or even simply better luck on the injury front, maybe this season would have turned out differently.

“I think all the guys in the clubhouse are in a good spot right now. As much as it sucked to lose, we’ve had a lot of fun as a team growing together,” starter Joe Musgrove said. “Sometimes, you go through stuff like this as a team and it makes you come out better on the other side.”

It remains to be seen, however, just how long the Pirates will take to reach the other side.

“Good group of guys that I enjoy playing with,” outfielder Bryan Reynolds said recently. “One day we’ll start winning, and it’ll be a lot of fun.”

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