Back on Aug. 30, the Pirates announced that Rick Eckstein had been relieved of his duties as the team’s hitting coach. It was a rough year for the Pirate offense who ranked at or near the bottom in most offensive categories including 30th in both OPS and home runs. Eckstein had held the position of hitting coach since he was hired prior to the 2019 season.
No interim hitting coach was named, and the responsibilities of hitting coach were divvied up between a few on the staff, presumably led by assistant hitting coach Christian Marrero. Though no interim was named, general manager Ben Cherington said that the search for a replacement would begin right away, and Cherington said on Tuesday that the club has a “very long list of names” that they plan to speak with in the coming days and weeks.
The list of four candidates include a pair of internal options, a former Pirate coach and someone with ties to manager Derek Shelton.
Christian Marrero – Pittsburgh Pirates Assistant Hitting Coach
Marrero is in his first year on the Pirates’ staff after the team hired him in January. Prior to joining the Pirates, Marrero was a minor league hitting coach in the Phillies’ organization. Marrero, 35, spent 12 years as a player in the minor leagues for four different organizations, including the Pirates in 2012.
After Marrero and co. took over for Eckstein, the offense saw at least marginal improvements in most categories in the final month-plus of the regular season. In the final month of the season, the Bucs ranked 20th in batting average and OPS and eight in on-base percentage.
Though Marrero is young and relatively unexperienced, the Pirates may have liked what they saw from him down the stretch as the club’s de facto hitting coach. If Pittsburgh decides to hire internally, Marrero is in play.
Jon Nunnally – Indianapolis Indians Hitting Coach
Nunnally just completed his third season as a coach in the Pirates’ minor league system, and his first as the hitting coach for Triple-A Indianapolis. He was the hitting coach for Double-A Altoona before spending 2020 at the Pirates’ alternate training site during the pandemic year. Prior to joining the Pirates’ organization, Nunnally was the hitting coach for the Cleveland Indians in 2010 and 2011, replacing Shelton, who served as the hitting coach for Cleveland from 2006-2009. He spent parts of six seasons in the big leagues with four teams, and compiled an OPS of .823 for his career.
The soon-to-be 50 year old has worked with many of the Pirates current prospects and has developed relationships with a lot of the young players who are currently at the Major League level or right on the cusp. He could make the transition from the minor leagues to the majors a smoother process.
Jacob Cruz – Milwaukee Brewers Assistant Hitting Coach
The Brewers hired Cruz as their assistant hitting coach for the 2020 season and he has served in that role since. Before he joined the Brewers, Cruz was the Pirates’ assistant hitting coach during the 2019 season and still has connections with some within the Pirates staff and front office – notably third base coach Joey Cora. The Pirates hired Cruz from the Chicago Cubs, where he served as their minor league hitting coordinator. He spent nine seasons in the big leagues as an outfielder and first baseman.
Cruz has helped the Brewers make back-to-back trips to the postseason, including winning the National League Central this season.
Jamie Nelson – Montgomery Biscuits Hitting Coach
The lone candidate who does not have direct ties to the Pirates is the 62-year-old Nelson. Though he never coached or played for the Pirates, he served as the Rays’ assistant hitting coach for four seasons under Shelton, who was hitting coach for Tampa Bay from 2014-2017.
Montgomery has been in his position as hitting coach of the Rays’ Double-A affiliate since 2018, and has helped to develop the likes of Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe and more.
The Rays have become a model for small-market teams in the way that they operate and are able to sustain success, and poaching one of their coaches could be a win for the Pirates. Though Nelson is older than the other candidates, he is able to connect with the young players he works with in the minor leagues with fresh ideas and philosophies.