Question marks abound for Bucs, MLB as a whole
The 2020 Major League Baseball season will be like no other.
After an offseason of unprecedented turbulence in which the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic and an extended, ugly contract dispute between the Major League Players Association and the league’s owners wiped out over half of the regular-season schedule, the season will finally get underway this week with no fans permitted in stadiums all across this virus-ravaged country.
A truncated 60-game schedule for all teams that was put together by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will have every team playing games only against teams from its own division, and against teams from the corresponding division in the other league.
The Pittsburgh Pirates will play 40 games against National League Central Division foes St. Louis, Milwaukee, the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati, and 20 against American League Central opponents Cleveland, Minnesota, the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City and Detroit.
The Pirates will be opening the season Friday night in St. Louis under the direction of a new manager, a new general manager and a new team president, and adhering to the extensive list of COVID-19 restrictions to maintain personal safety may become more important to every team than scoring or preventing runs.
Whether this season can be played to its completion is anybody’s guess, but after a wretched 2019 season, the Pirates have their work cut out for them.
The Pirates ownership did some extensive housecleaning last fall after the Bucs won just 25 of 73 games following the All-Star break, finished with a 69-93 record and plummeted into last place in the NL Central for the first time since 2010.
The Pirates’ second-half free-fall last summer, coupled with numerous in-house altercations between players and/or coaches and topped off by the arrest of two-time all-star closer Felipe Vazquez on multiple felony sex charges involving a young teenage girl, pointed to a capsized ship on which drastic changes needed to be made.
The changes began with the dismissal of Clint Hurdle as manager on the final day of the regular season. Hurdle had helped to reconnect the Pirates with their fan base after taking the management reins of the club in 2011, following the franchise’s 20 straight losing seasons. The Pirates made the NL playoffs as a wild-card entry in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and got people excited about baseball again in Pittsburgh.
But it became apparent that Hurdle’s shelf life had expired last season, with the clubhouse in disarray.
The new manager is 50-year-old Derek Shelton, who was hired by the Pirates in late November after serving as the Minnesota Twins bench coach for the past two seasons. Shelton had previously served as hitting coach with the Tampa Bay Rays for seven seasons and the Cleveland Indians for five seasons. He was also the quality control coach of the Toronto Blue Jays for one season.
The forward-looking Twins helped Shelton to prepare for his first big-league managerial job by assigning him several managerial-type duties during his tenure as their bench coach, including conducting interviews with the media.
Also gone are long-time Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly, both of whom had 12-year tenures in their respective positions.
Coonelly and the Pirates had a mutual parting of the ways last October, which paved the way for the hiring of former Pittsburgh Penguins Chief Operating Officer Travis Williams as the Pirates’ new team president last Oct. 28.
That same day, Williams fired Huntington, and three weeks later, Ben Cherington was hired as the Pirates’ new GM. Cherington comes to the Pirates with a lofty pedigree, having served as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox when Boston won the World Championship in 2013.
Known throughout baseball as a very astute executive who places an extensive emphasis on scouting and player development, the 46-year-old Cherington served as the Toronto Blue Jays’ vice president of baseball operations for the past three seasons.
But aside from the management upheaval, there’s a lot of work to be done with the on-the-field product in Pittsburgh, and everybody associated with the Pirates knows it.
The Pirates’ pitching staff, with a 5.18 earned run average, finished second-to-last in the National League a year ago, ahead of only the Colorado Rockies.
Right-handed starting pitcher Jameson Taillon, who missed most of the 2019 season and underwent his second Tommy John elbow surgery last August, will sit out this entire season, leaving the Pirates with no identifiable staff ace.
Vazquez’s absence will considerably weaken a bullpen that was generally ineffective last season.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to get done and frankly, we don’t have enough talent in the organization right now,” Pirates chairman Bob Nutting told the media on the day that Cherington was introduced as the team’s new general manager. “We need to be better at all those fundamentals. We need to be better at bringing in talent in every opportunity that we can.”
Part of that will lie in scouting and player development, and part of it will lie in Cherington making smart trades and prudent, effective free-agent signings with a budget that is much more limited than the one that he enjoyed in Boston.
The Pirates traded veteran center fielder Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks in late January in exchange for two minor-league prospects, but the Bucs still have some good young building blocks in outfielder Bryan Reynolds, shortstop Kevin Newman and first baseman Josh Bell.
Reynolds and Newman had outstanding rookie seasons a year ago, and Bell made the NL All-Star Team with a dynamic first half last season.
The switch-hitting Reynolds carded a .314 batting average, 16 home runs and 68 RBIs, and Newman finished with a .308 average, 12 homers and 64 RBIs. The two became the first Pirates rookies to bat .300 in a single season since 1969, when Manny Sanguillen and Richie Hebner accomplished the feat.
The switch-hitting Bell finished last year with 37 home runs, 116 RBIs, 37 doubles and a .277 batting average, but 27 of those homers and 84 of the RBIs came prior to the All-Star break. Until a groin injury sidelined Bell for the second half of September, he had a legitimate chance to surpass the most recent single-season club records of 119 RBIs and 44 homers that were established by the late Hall of Famer Willie Stargell in 1973.
As always, pitching will play an important part in whatever success the Pirates can achieve in 2020.
The absence of Taillon — who won 14 games and carded a 3.02 earned run average before elbow problems sidelined him in early May last season — leaves a huge void. Also lost for this season will be veteran right-hander Chris Archer, who underwent surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome this June. Archer, a huge disappointment since his acquisition from Tampa Bay in 2018, won just three games last year before elbow inflammation ended his season in August.
Three pitching spots in the rotation will be filled by right-handers Joe Musgrove (11-12, 4.44 ERA in 32 starts last year), righty Trevor Williams (7-9, 5.19 in 26 starts) and Mitch Keller, a highly-touted prospect who won just one of six decisions a year ago. The fourth rotation spot will be occupied by left-hander Derek Holland, a veteran who was just 2-5 last year in combined starting-relief roles with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs. The other spot in the rotation will likely be up for grabs between lefty Steven Brault (4-6, 5.16 in 19 starts last year) and righty Chad Kuhl, who missed the entire 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
In a game that stresses starting pitching, the Pirates enter this season with plenty of uncertainty surrounding their rotation.
Third baseman Colin Moran quietly drove in 80 runs a year ago for a Pirates team that finished 11th in the NL in runs scored (758) and next-to-last in home runs (163). Highly-touted prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes has been added to the 40-man roster and could supplant Moran at third.
Right fielder Gregory Polanco appeared in only 42 games last year, experiencing recurring problems with his left shoulder after tearing the labrum late in the 2018 season and undergoing surgery.
With both leagues using the designated hitter in 2020, Bell and Polanco will be candidates for that spot in various games, possibly leaving the door open for solid-hitting Jose Ozuna to get additional playing time.
With too many question marks in too many vital areas after a season to forget in 2019, all signs point to a rebuilding year for the Pirates in 2020.
John Hartsock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.