Baseball is back! We think. Each day, SportsIntel’s Matt DeSaro will take a look at two of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball as we head toward MLB Opening Day in late July and we continue today in the NL Central with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The owners and players agreed in late June to stage a 60-game season, beginning July 24. There are still many hurdles to overcome in this COVID-19 landscape, but for now, the teams are gathering for “Summer Camp,” a Spring Training reboot crammed into three weeks.

MLB Opening Day – Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates | O/U 25 Wins | +30000 to win World Series

The Pittsburgh Pirates scraped their way to just 69 wins last year and finished in the basement in the National League Central.  It was their worst season in the last decade and caused the Pirates front office to engineer a complete overhaul in the off-season, ahead of MLB opening day. Problem is, the overhaul included very little in the way of players and instead focused on coaching acquisitions.

Clint Hurdle got the ax as manager while president Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington were also shown the door.  Enter new president, Travis Williams, who has the tall task of bringing this team back from the depths of the MLB Standings and hope to compete in 2020.  Williams has Ben Cherington’s eye for talent at the GM position and new manager Derek Shelton to back him up.

Cherington has a World Series title under his belt from 2013 but has a lot of work ahead of him to turn this sinking ship around.  Shelton gets his first manager job after spending the last 15 years working his way up the ladder, including 2018 & 2019 as the Twins bench coach.

The big problem is the Pirates seem to have made more moves in the back office and left their roster even worse off than they were last season. They have brought in a number of minor leaguers and invited a lot of fresh faces to training camp.  But the core of this awful team remains the same.  While there could be a lot of changes between now and March 26th, there is only so much that can be done with the tools at hand.  As of now, it’s hard to say exactly how this team will look when the Grapefruit League season ends.  But one thing is for certain as we countdown to MLB opening day, the Pittsburgh Pirates won’t be knocking anybody’s socks off this year.

Offseason Acquisitions: C Luke Maile, 1B Will Craig, SS Oneil Cruz, 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes, OF Soloman Maguire, OF Guillermo Heredia, LHP Sam Howard.

Offseason Losses: C Elias Diaz, OF Starling Marte, OF Melky Cabrera, OF Lonnie Chisenhall, RHP Parker Markel, RHP Francisco Liriano.

What Do The Pirates Do Well?

What do the Pittsburgh Pirates do well?  Boy, that is a tough nut to crack.  Does fresh leadership count?  Because truth be told, that is about all they have improved upon coming into this year.  Along with the additions mentioned above, Pitt also brought on Don Kelly as bench coach and Oscar Marin to handle the pitching staff.  The Pirates rounded out their off-season coaching acquisitions with Glenn Sherlock, Tarrik Brock, and Mike Rabelo.  Not the most exciting moves but they are necessary when starting a ground up rebuild.  Hopefully, the Pirates 2020 off-season will offer me a bit more to write about.

A few other small positives that came out of last year.  The Bucs have phenomenal plate discipline and struck out less than any other team than the Astros.  So, in my mind, they led the league in this category.  Unless of course there were some trash can musicians in the Pittsburgh dugout that nobody noticed.  Their plate discipline also helped them hit .265 as a team, which actually ranked them third-best in the National League.  However, they were let down by a lack of power to drive those runners in.

Where Can They Improve?

The Bucs only really need to address two key shortcomings in their roster.  Hitting and pitching. Granted they are kind of big holes to exist on a professional baseball team.

First off, the arms, or lack thereof.  The Pirates teams who made playoff runs in the early 2010s were built around pitching and defense.  While their fielding defense is improved slightly, their pitching staff makes up for it with a lack of quality options.  They finished 2019 with a team ERA of 5.18, fifth-worst in the majors, and their .672 defensive efficiency ratio was second-worst in the league.

They have some talent under contract — Trevor Wiliams, Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer, Steven Bradly, and Mitch Keller — but this is pretty much the same crew that ranked in the bottom third of pitching last year.  The Pirates also added some bullpen skill, including likely opening day closer Keone Kela, but their options for the middle of games are bleak.  It was their biggest weakness in 2019 and nothing they have done since gives me any confidence that things can be different this season.  Especially with the lack of any left-handed talent in the bullpen to speak of.

As far as their offensive skill, the nicest thing I can say is that they look better than the pitchers.  The sad season Pittsburgh put together last year was just as much about their bullpen as it was their lack of power at the plate.  Home run totals league-wide have been on the rise for years now with teams breaking franchise records left and right.  Enter the Pirates, who finished with just 163 long balls last season.  Good for fourth-worst in the Majors. Their .420 slugging percentage was 19th best and again, nothing has changed in the offseason.  Unless of course, you count the loss of a few decent sources of power with Marte and Cabrera hitting the bricks.  Marte, in fact, was coming off his best season at the plate, hitting .295 with 23 home runs and 82 RBIs. Their only hope at this junction is that some of their young prospects can swing a hot bat in 2020.

The Pirates are also short on catchers, with just two true options on the roster.  Neither is particularly exciting to boot.  But, let’s be honest.  The Bucs have much more to worry about than who is making the calls behind the play.

Season Prediction

This one feels pretty easy at first glance. This Pirates team won 69 games last year and I feel that, despite their shiny new coaching staff ahead of MLB opening day this year, this looks like a worse version of that team.  This is a team in full rebuilding more and therefore will also be likely sellers at the trade deadline to try and shed cap space or maybe snipe an actual star player.  Their rotation shouldn’t be as bad as they were last year, but the bullpen is still going to be sketchy at best.

In fact, this team is so similar to last year I expect an equally similar season.

I see them not having the talent to make it to 25 wins, again being let down by their lack of any offensive power along with a bad situation in the middle of the bullpen.  Either one of those two issues would be enough to sink most teams, let alone a team like Pitt who has so little going on elsewhere.  The Pirates are still at least a season removed from being competitive within their own Division and who knows how far off from being a playoff team.  I expect the Pirates to outdo themselves by actually having a worse season in 2020 and will be happily betting the under.

Projected Starters:

C – Jacob Stallings

1B – Josh Bell

2B – Adam Frazier

3B – Colin Moran

SS – Kevin Newman

LF – Bryan Reynolds

CF – Jarrod Dyson

RF – Gregory Polanco

Projected Rotation:

Joe Musgrove

Mitch Keller

Chris Archer

Trevor Williams

Steven Brault

Closer:

Keone Kela