Who Will be the Pittsburgh Pirates Key Players in 2020?

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PITTSBURGH, PA – MAY 23: Gregory Polanco #25 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after hitting a two run home run in the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park on May 23, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA – MAY 23: Gregory Polanco #25 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after hitting a two run home run in the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park on May 23, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

Position players

First baseman Josh Bell

Projection: .270/.370/.500, 30 home runs, 130 wRC+

Josh Bell had a great 2019 breakout season. He batted for a 277/.367/.569 line, including 37 home runs. Bell posted an impressive 135 wRC+. That is comparable to Mookie Betts (135), and J.D. Martinez (136) last season. Only three other first basemen posted a better wRC+ than Bell: National League Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso, Cubs’ perennial All-Star Anthony Rizzo, and top-10 MVP finisher the past two seasons Freddie Freeman. Pretty good company. Josh has extremely good plate discipline as well. His 12.1% walk percentage ranked top 30 in the league, while he struck out just 19.2% of the time.

Bell’s projection is based on his monthly splits. Bell started the season off blazing hot with a .343/.405/.704, faltered in June and July, but came back to hit for a strong .258/.377/.516 line from August onward. Bell is going to fall into a median of his two most productive parts of 2019, but with more consistency throughout the season. A consistent .870+ OPS throughout the season is All-Star level. Hopefully, his defense can improve, as he was one of the worst defensive first baseman last season. So, you could say the only direction is up for his fielding.

Outfielder Bryan Reynolds

Projection: .290/.360/.450, 15 home runs, 125 wRC+

Bryan Reynolds was one of the top rookies in all of baseball in 2019. He batted .314/.377/.503 with 16 long balls and a Pirate rookie record 37 doubles. In total, he had 57 extra base hits. His rookie season was one of the best in Pirate history. His 131 wRC+ ranked 4th among rookies with at least 300 plate appearances. Some of the names that passed him included Fernando Tatis Jr., and Rookie of the Year winners Yordan Alvarez and the aforementioned Alonso. Among rookie seasons in Pirates’ history, his 3.2 fWAR ranked 22nd, and his wRC+ ranked 16th (min. 300 plate appearances).

Reynolds’ .387 batting average on balls in play was the third highest in the MLB, which can point toward regression. But don’t expect too much regression. He has always had a .360+ BAbip throughout all the minors, yet his lowest wRC+ at one level was 122 in 2018. Reynolds hits to all fields, although he pulls the ball most often, he only pulled the ball 38.8%. League average was 41%. But I wouldn’t expect his home runs to go above 15, or 16. The ball becoming un-juiced is going to affect players throughout the league, but Reynolds should still be a good bet for 35 doubles.

Infielder Kevin Newman

Projection: .290/.330/.420, 10 home runs, 105 wRC+

Newman was another breakout rookie the Pirates got to watch in 2019. But I wouldn’t expect him to produce the same in 2020 as to ‘19. Last year, Newman batted .308/.353/.446., which on paper is a solid line. Good for an .800 OPS and 111 OPS+/110 wRC+. He showed good prowess on the base paths, swiping 16 bags while driving 12 balls out of the park.

Newman doesn’t strikeout often. His 11.7% strikeout rate sits well below the league average of 23%, and he had the 5th lowest K% in the Majors last season. However, Newman doesn’t walk much either. He carried just a 5% walk rate in 2019. Plus, he doesn’t make much loud contact either. Both his exit velocity and hard hit rate rank in the bottom 5th percentile of baseball. Newman does have the speed to make long singles into doubles, but he needs to start driving the gap more. However, until then, I don’t see him being much better than 5-8% above league average.

If he transitions to the easier infield position of second base after mainly playing shortstop last season, it’s 100% plausible his offense improves as he already graded as an above average fielder at second base (1.9 UZR, +2 DRS), and could put more focus into improving his bat. If the team is committed to giving Cole Tucker a look at shortstop or Adam Frazier is eventually traded, this move could come for Newman.

Outfielder Gregory Polanco

Projection: .260/.350/.500, 30 home runs, 115 wRC+

Gregory Polanco missed most of the 2019 season recovering from surgery, but his 2018 gave many fans hope for a breakout. From June to the end of 2018, Polanco batted for a strong .281/.354/.547 line and blasted 15 home runs. Polanco has always shown the ability to be a great ballplayer. After all, his 6’5, 235 pound frame should generate a good amount of power. But so far, it just hasn’t.

This year could be the season Polanco finally gets to see that boost in power. His 2018 output shows he can do it, all he needs to do is start doing it more consistently, which has always been one of Polanco’s biggest downfalls throughout his career. You should also see him rack up a good amount of doubles as well. His 162 game average is 34, and I don’t see why he couldn’t reach that if he stays healthy.