While the lockout marches on past the two-month mark with no clear end in sight, there will eventually be baseball at some point — right? As snow covers the grass at PNC Park, pitchers and catchers would be set to head to sunny Bradenton for the start of spring training in about a week or so. Until the CBA gets resolved, all we can do is wait.
In the mean time, it’s never too early to look ahead for the eventual start of the Major League season and what the Pirates need to happen to improve upon their 61-101 record in 2021.
No, it does not seem at all likely that the Pirates will be competing for a playoff spot or anything in 2022, but that doesn’t mean that team can’t take a step in the right direction. 2022 appears to be the tail end of the rebuild, and it’s reasonable to expect some signs of improvement. In order for that to happen, these five things need to take place.
Mitch Keller Finally Emerges
It really was not all that long ago that Keller was considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. While it’s been a struggle for Keller in his first taste of the big leagues, the potential is still there and the Pirates will need him to show he’s capable of pitching out of a big league rotation effectively.
Keller’s numbers on the surface are bad, but a career FIP of 4.30 indicates that maybe Keller hasn’t been as bad as the numbers have shown. Recent footage was posted on social media of Keller touching triple digits with his fastball as he has worked on different aspects of pitching this offseason. Keller doesn’t even need to be an “ace” for the Pirates this year. He just needs to consistently get better results and help anchor a mostly young and inexperienced staff.
Young Guys Make an Impact
Unlike previous seasons where most of the Pirates’ higher-regarded prospects were still a ways away from the Major Leagues, 2022 should be the start of the “new wave” of the Pirates, with a number of young players having an impact on the season.
We already got a taste last season with the late-season debuts of Oneil Cruz and Roansy Contreras, and while neither may start the year with the Pirates, they will have an increased role down the stretch. Additionally, the expectation is that 2018 first rounder Travis Swaggerty will make his Major League debut at some point this season. Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski and Diego Castillo were all added the the Bucs’ 40-man roster this offseason, and the trio as well as some others could work their way to Pittsburgh at some point this season.
Ke’Bryan Hayes bounces back offensively
Hayes burst onto the scene the final month of the 2020 season showing elite skills on both sides of the ball. While Hayes again proved to be a Gold Glove-caliber defender at the hot corner in 2021, the offensive production took a step back.
Hayes missed time with a lingering injury to his hand/wrist area, and never looked quite comfortable at the plate as the season marched on. With a full offseason (and maybe even longer) to get healthy again, it’s reasonable to expect that Hayes will have better numbers at the plate in 2022. If that’s the case, paired with his elite defensive abilities, Hayes gives the Pirates a big boost.
Power Numbers Improve
Last year, the Bucs ranked at or near the bottom in more than a few offensive categories including having the fewest home runs (124) and lowest slugging percentage (.364). Looking ahead, the Pirates need to improve on those power numbers if they want to give the lineup a boost.
If Yoshi Tsutsugo is able to replicate his stint with the Pirates over the course of a whole season, that provides immediate help. With guys like Cruz, Michael Chavis, etc. expected to see increased roles in 2022, there is reason to believe that that power numbers will improve. New hitting coach Andy Haines will be tasked with ensuring that this is indeed the case.
David Bednar Anchors the Pen Again
Bednar impressed in his first season in the black and gold, pitching to a 2.23 ERA in 61 appearances out of the bullpen. With the inside track to the closer job next season, Bednar will need to prove that 2021 was no fluke with a bullpen that consists of a few question marks. The right-hander has all the capabilities of becoming one of the better relievers in baseball.