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2021 Record: 61-101
Last Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 5.08 (28th in MLB)
Team OPS: .673 (28th in MLB)
What Went Right
When you lose more than 100 games and finish in last place in your division for the third season in a row, there’s not a whole lot you can hang your hat on. The Pirates weren’t completely devoid of bright spots, though. Bryan Reynolds was undoubtedly the biggest one. The 26-year-old bounced back from a poor showing during the shortened 2020 season with a monster 2021 campaign which saw him bat .302/.390/.522 with 24 home runs, 90 RBI and 92 runs scored. Adam Frazier also put together a great four months with a .324/.388/.448 batting line before being traded to the Padres. Yoshi Tsutsugo was a nice pickup off the scrap heap, posting a .883 OPS in limited time. On the pitching side of things, the Pirates got good work from a few relievers, namely David Bednar (2.23 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 77/19 K/BB over 60 2/3 innings) and Richard Rodriguez (2.82 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 14 saves before being dealt to the Braves). Tyler Anderson also pitched pretty well before being traded to the Mariners, and JT Brubaker was good for three months before struggling badly down the stretch when he appeared to run out of gas.
What Went Wrong
Well, you can see above that the Pirates were equally bad from both a hitting and pitching perspective. So, plenty. The biggest disappointment had to be Ke’Bryan Hayes, who was drafted fairly highly in fantasy leagues after a huge showing during the truncated 2020 season. He hurt his wrist in the second game of the season, missed two months of action and just never got on track after returning, finishing with a lowly .689 OPS. Kevin Newman had by far the lowest OPS of any qualifier at .574, as his nice rookie season looks like a distant memory at this point. The Pirates finally cut the cord on Gregory Polanco in late August after he had just a .637 OPS in 107 games. Expectations were so low from a pitching perspective that it’s difficult to classify many as being truly disappointing, but Mitch Keller would definitely qualify. The former top prospect continued to struggle mightily at the big league level, posting a 6.17 ERA and 1.79 WHIP over 23 starts while spending some time back in the minors.
** Trying to peg Ke’Bryan Hayes’ value figures to be an interesting debate in the fantasy community during draft season. While Hayes’ hard-hit rate was well above league average, it was still way below what it was in 2020 and he also hit the ball on the ground a lot. From a Statcast point of view, he pretty much earned his bad numbers. The question, then, is how big of a part Hayes’ wrist issues played. The guess here is probably a fairly big one, especially since he went back on the injured list in September and admitted it had been bothering him since the All-Star break. Doctors found a cyst in Hayes’ hand which they told him developed as a result of chronic injuries to that area. He’s yet to have surgery, but perhaps a clearer picture of his health will be available in the coming months.
** Will Oneil Cruz be on the Pirates’ Opening Day roster? Cruz made his major league debut late in the season, and I mean really late, as in the day before the season finale, going 3-for-9 with a home run. That’s after he put up a .310/.375/.594 batting line with 17 home runs and 19 stolen bases between Double- and Triple-A. Cruz is a 6-foot-7 shortstop – yes, you read that correctly – but what fantasy managers mostly care about is his raw power and speed which give him a chance to be a really useful fantasy piece. The penny-pinching Pirates will probably send Cruz back to the minors to start 2022, but he should spend most of the year with the big club.
** Up until the end of June, JT Brubaker was a perfectly suitable mixed league fantasy pitcher, putting up a 3.82 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 75/17 K/BB ratio over 77 2/3 innings covering 14 starts. Then he went on to post a 7.91 ERA over his final 10 outings, managing just one quality start over that stretch. Brubaker’s velocity was fine down the stretch, but his season ended in early September with a right shoulder inflammation. He resumed throwing before the end of the month and is expected to have a normal offseason. Brubaker has the stuff to be useful for fantasy managers, but coming off a bad finish and being on a bad team limits the appeal.
** A strained oblique interrupted his season half, but David Bednar took over closer duties for the Pirates following the Richard Rodriguez trade and pitched as well as he had all year over that stretch with a 0.92 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and 27/4 K/BB ratio over 19 2/3 frames, going 3-for-3 in save chances. The Pirates accumulated just 25 saves as a team in 2021 and might not get any more than that in 2021, but Bednar has put up the stats and looks the part of a good closer if he is given the job.
** Like Cruz, Roansy Contreras also got a late cup of coffee with the Pirates, striking out four over three shutout frames in his lone start. It came after the young right-hander held a 2.64 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 82/13 K/BB ratio across 58 frames between Double- and Triple-A in a season shortened by a forearm injury. Contreras has three legitimate pitches, misses bats and throws strikes. He’s probably major league-ready now even though he’ll turn just 22 in November and doesn’t have a ton of upper-level minors experience, but he’ll almost surely go back to Triple-A to begin 2022. Another prospect who could be ready at some point in 2022 is former No. 7 overall pick Nick Gonzales, a second baseman who had a monster finish at High-A and is viewed as a fast-mover.
Key Free Agent: The Pirates quite literally don’t have any free agents in the traditional sense, although they could non-tender some guys. No one that would really qualify as “key,” though.
Team Needs: Where do we begin? The Pirates have a really good farm system, which tends to happen when you’re always picking high. It’s going to be a while before they’re competitive, though, which means their payroll will likely stay embarrassingly low even though they need help everywhere.