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Saunders: Ten Predictions for the 2022 Pittsburgh Pirates

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We’ve been going around the Pittsburgh Baseball Now shop making predictions for the 2022 season. (You can check out Mike Vukovcan’s and Danny Demilio’s, which have already come out.)

But I’ll be honest, it was tough for me to follow their format and come up with 10 things to say about the 2022 Pittsburgh Pirates.

One was easy: They’re going to be really, truly, hopelessly bad. And, of course, that’s what a team gets when it’s trying to be bad, as the Pirates are. And Pirates fans are no strangers to bad baseball.

It hasn’t helped the mood that an offseason dominated by discussions about things that might have changed the game in ways to allow teams like the Pirates to more regularly be competitive ended with almost none of those things coming to pass.

So you’ll have to excuse me if these predictions seem unduly dour, but I don’t see a lot of reasons for optimism at this juncture. 

That doesn’t mean I think Pirates general manager Ben Cherington is wrong in his approach, either. Too many people seem to have too quickly forgotten how the waning years of the Neal Huntington era went, when the team spent what it could and got no farther than to a roughly .500 talent level, and tried unsuccessfully to turn that and some luck into a playoff spot.

The crowd then loudly demanded action, for the Pirates to get out of the middle, take a step back in order to take a step forward and undertake a real, true, rebuilding process.

Here we are. The bottom.

The future has reasons for optimism. Players like Ke’Bryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz, Henry Davis, Roansy Contreras and Quinn Priester should form the nucleus of a solid team sometime in the future.

But there aren’t enough prospects in the cupboard to move forward yet. Of the team’s top 10 prospects, just three are pitchers and only one, Contreras, will start the 2022 season above Class-A.

This year’s Major League rotation has the potential to be the worst in baseball. In fact, let’s just go ahead and say 1) The Pirates will finish in the bottom five in team ERA. I have seen and covered some bad starting rotations in my days, but this one is really almost completely devoid of hope.

Mitch Keller now throws hard. Throwing hard, of course, was never his issue. It was fooling anyone with any of his pitches. We’ll see if he worked on that over the offseason at all. He has talent, but a 6.02 career ERA suggests that even if he’s unlocked some more of it, he has a ways to go before he could be considered a top of the rotation starter.

Bryse Wilson (5.55), JT Brubaker (5.24) and a worn out José Quintana (6.16 ERA since 2020) should not provide any confidence, either. 2) Zach Thompson, who you’re lying about if you say you could pick his face out of a police lineup, will be the team’s best starting pitcher. A part of the Jacob Stallings trade, Thompson was good with Miami last year, which was not an easy feat.

Contreras should be up sooner rather than later, but until that happens, this will continue to be an uninspiring unit.

Around the diamond, it’s clear that this will also be another wasted year. The only members of the likely eight-man opening day defense that anyone reasonable would want to be a part of the future Pirates when this rebuild is complete are Hayes and Bryan Reynolds.

On that note, 3) This will be Reynolds’ last season in Pittsburgh. He will be traded before the start of the 2023 season, whether that’s in the middle of this season or next offseason. The Goldilocks time period for the team to hope to sign him to a club-friendly extension is long over. The Pirates are not going to sign a player to a $30 million a year market-value deal, and unless something drastic happens in the next two seasons, that’s what Reynolds will earn.

This team’s window of contention will just be opening by the time Reynolds runs out of team control, and as it sits right now, still does not have enough talented prospects to even be able to rightfully said to have a coming window of contention. Their minor league system actually dropped in the MLB rankings this offseason, in the midst of a painful rebuild meant to do nothing other than restock the farm.

The team needs to trade Reynolds, probably for pitching, though I see few future MLB options at first base and corner outfield in their system, either. With the DH now permanently in play, that could be an option, as well.

Many of those top prospects will make their way to Pittsburgh this season. Diego Castillo made the opening day 25-man roster. Cruz should be with the big club by June, as the team gets done manipulating this service time to their benefit. 

4) This should be the year we finally get to see the future of the Pirates. Castillo, Cruz, Contreras (The Killer Cs?), Travis Swaggerty, Miguel Yajure, Carmen Mlodzinski, Tucupita Marcano, Jack Suwinski, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njibga, Rodolfo Castro, Mason Martin and Ji-hwan Bae could all see extended playing time with Pittsburgh this season, depending on how their seasons go. 

It’s also important to remember that 5) Not all of the team’s young players will have success at the MLB level. So much of the discussion around the team sending Cruz down was that the team sacrificed a bonus draft pick if Cruz finishes in the top two for rookie of the year voting. I think Cruz is a fine prospect, but he’s probably just as likely to hit under .200 as he is to be rookie of the year.

The gap between the minors and majors has never been larger, and many of the names I listed above, that Pirates fans have been penciling into future lineups, will not be able to make that leap.

That’s why this year’s MLB team is full of filler. Many of them will end up being better than the prospects people would rather replace them with. Some of those guys might play well enough to force their way into future plans, but probably not. In fact, I think it’s possible that 6) Hayes will be the only player to start for the Pirates in the same position on opening day 2023 that he will 2022. 

There’s a lot riding on Hayes’ 2022 season. After looking promising in 24 games in 2020, he battled through injuries to an above-average but hardly inspiring 2021 campaign. If he’s going to be a stalwart at a corner infield position, he needs to add power to his game, and it’s easy to see how his injury impacted him last year.

In 2020, Hayes had a .306 ISO power. In 2021, that number plummeted to .116. As players get bigger, older and stronger, that number should go up, not down. 7) Hayes will get his power back and hit 20 home runs for the first time in a season in 2022.

I’m not sure how much interest he has in signing a contract extension, but between another season of tremendous struggles on the field, and a likely pending trade of Reynolds, Hayes will become the mantle-bearer for the Pirates future hopes. But he has only one more season of service time than Reynolds does, and is still not a perfect match for the group coming up this season.

It makes a lot of sense for the 8) Pirates to sign Hayes to a contract extension. Unlike Reynolds, he hasn’t had so much MLB success that signing a team-friendly deal would be unreasonable, and he can become the piece that the Pirates promise to build around.

That should give some hope for the future, but it’s hard to really quantify just how bleak things are. Once again, the Pirates will be one of the worst teams in baseball and once again, 9) They should lose 100 games.

PECOTA, which is to me the most accurate preseason projection system, has them at 66-96. But of course, that’s with a full season of Reynolds. That trade, when it happens, will take any and all momentum away from a young, inexperienced, and not all that good in the first place ball club. Something closer to 59-103 seems more reasonable.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more to get you excited for opening day, but that is the state of the team as I see it. I can leave you with one somewhat hopeful note. 10) 2023 will be better.

 

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