For a team like the Pirates who rarely hand out lucrative free agent contracts or acquire high-profile players in trades – especially while rebuilding, player improvement from year to year is crucial to the team improving. Now, we did see a few players get better in 2021. Bryan Reynolds bounced back from a disastrous 2020 to have one of the best seasons of any Major Leaguer this past season. Adam Frazier (before he was traded) earned an All-Star star at second base, along with Reynolds who was also an All-Star for the first time, and David Bednar broke out in his first full season as a Major Leaguer.
The problem for the Pirates? Too many players took a step back and performed below expectations leading to another disappointing season for the Bucs. Some of this is due to injuries – guys like Ke’Bryan Hayes and Colin Moran both struggled to stay on the field and their offensive output was limited because of it. If both Hayes and Moran can stay healthy in 2022, that alone would provide a boost to Pittsburgh’s lineup that desperately needs reinforcements. On the pitching side, Steven Brault struggled with a couple injuries that limited him to seven starts.
Though Hayes, Moran and Brault arethe more “marquee guys” for the Pirates, the main issue was role players who were being counted on as crucial pieces of the team not having the success that was seen in 2020. Though the sample size was small from a year ago, Phillip Evans’ performance and upside led the team to use him as the main player replacing the injured Hayes in the lineup. Though he got off to a hot start, Evans finished the year with a .206 batting average and an OPS of .611 (68 OPS+). The poor performance led to Evans being optioned to Triple-A where he finished the year.
In the bullpen, Sam Howard was used as a primary option for the Pirates in 2020, but his peripherals indicated that luck was involved in his solid showing (3.86 ERA/4.81 FIP). The indicators proved true as Howard struggled to a 5.60 ERA/4.86 FIP in 45 innings out of the bullpen in 2021. The left-hander struggled with his command for most of the year, issuing 32 walks.
At the plate, Kevin Newman showed he is more who he was in 2018 and 2020 than his impressive 2019 season. That year, Newman slashed .308/.353/.446 (110 OPS+) with 12 home runs and 16 steals in 130 games. Since then, the former first-rounder has managed just a .226/.268/.302 slash line (55 OPS+) in 192 games between 2020 and 2021 combined.
No matter what role a player is in – whether everyday, bench piece, bullpen, etc., having a good bulk of players underperform spells disaster for the Pirates. The Pirates again will likely have a relatively quiet offseason in terms of adding to the Major League team, so if they want to be better in 2022, guys will have to play at or ideally above expectations moving forward.