How the Pittsburgh Pirates Should Approach the 2020 Season
By Noah Wright
The Pittsburgh Pirates will enter 2020 in an unusual fashion, but this shouldn’t change their original plan for the regular season.
If there is a 2020 MLB regular season, it will be the most unusual and most interesting season in baseball history. This can change a lot of plans for teams as a shortened season could mean multiple different things. Teams that are thinking about going for it might go all in. Teams looking to give it one last shot before tearing it down might also go all in one more time.
For example, the Arizona Diamondbacks could be in a Los Angeles Dodger-less division, and instead face clubs that struggled in 2019 like the San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies, and the Chicago Cubs who suffered a September fallout. The Milwaukee Brewers would be the only team in their division who had a record above .500 in 2019, and two of their four opponents finished last in their respective division. So, the loss of Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas might not make as large of an impact in 2020 than it would normally losing two All-Stars.
For the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team should not deviate from their original plan. Sure, the weird divisions might mix things up, but the Pirates are not in much better of a situation than if the divisions were normal. Depending on which plan MLB would go with, the Pirates could be placed in a division that includes the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, and Detroit Tigers. This would be if they go with the proposed plan where teams play all of their games in the Cactus and Grapefruit League.
The Yankees need no explanation on why they’re good, but I’ll give one anyway. In 2019, they won 103 games. Really impressive, but consider this they won that many games with almost no contributions from Dellin Betances, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andujar, Luis Severino and Giancarlo Stanton. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luke Voit, Didi Gregorious, and Edwin Encarnacion all spent a fair amount of time on the injured list.
Now, they’ll enter 2020 with James Paxton, and Judge who should start the year on the active roster, and possibly Stanton too. They also added Gerrit Cole to the mix to further bolster the rotation. Let’s not forget they have the best bullpen in baseball that includes Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, and Chad Green.
The Phillies also got better over the off-season. In 2019, Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco combined for 567 plate appearances, and a -1.1 bWAR. Both players are no longer on the Phillies roster. Franco was replaced by Gregorious. The Phils added another top free agent from last year’s class in right-hander Zack Wheeler. They’ll accompany Rhys Hoskins, Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Scott Kingery, Aaron Nola, and former Pittsburgh Pirates fan favorite and 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen.
Cutch tore his ACL in an unfortunate situation in 2019 and will return healthy in 2020. He got off to a hot start in ‘19 blasting 10 home runs in 262 plate appearances, and walked 43 times to oppose just 55 strikeouts. He also saw much better defensive numbers in left field (+4 DRS, 2.3 UZR, 1.0 range runs, 1.2 arm runs). They won 81 games last year, and are an even better team going into 2020.
The Jays are looking to finally breakout in the next year or two. They have an extremely young and talented core looking to carry their team for years. Vlad Guerrero Jr. put up solid numbers as a 20 year old. On base machine Cavan Biggio is set for regular playing time at second base, and Bo Bichette looks to join him up the middle at shortstop. They’ll also have left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. on hand, who put up a strong .869 OPS and 127 OPS+ last year in 343 plate appearances. On the pitching side of things, the Jays are also strong in that department as well. They added 3rd place NL Cy Young finisher and ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu from free agency. Eventually, he will be joined by the 8th best prospect in the MLB per MLB Pipeline, Nate Pearson.
The Tigers are the only ones who are really worse than the Pittsburgh Pirates. They are in the process of a rebuild, and aren’t going to be looking to compete anytime soon. They’ll probably get contributions from prospects such as Matt Manning and Case Mize sometime throughout 2020, but that’s no guarantee. If anything, they might get worse throughout 2020 as guys like Joe Jimenez, Jonathan Schoop, Ivan Nova, Michael Fulmer, Cameron Maybin, and C.J. Cron will probably attract buyers throughout the year, and the Tigers will probably be willing to sell high on said players, more so with Fulmer and Jimenez.
The Pittsburgh Pirates should not deviate from the original plan they had entering the 2020 season when things were going according to schedule. Their chances, even in this division, aren’t much better than in the NL Central. In the NL Central, they were the worst team with the Reds improving, along with the still strong rosters of the Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers. The Pirates should still be looking to trade rental relief pitcher Keone Kela, and other such pieces like Adam Frazier and Chris Archer.
Sure, we know the Pirates can do weird stuff, like when they go on runs where they seem unstoppable for a while, but with the current team structure, being a buyer, even with a shortened season, is extremely shortsighted. At the very least if they do go on one of their hot streaks, their best option is to either stay put, or not trade anyone from their top 50-60 prospects. But their best option is to continue what was the original 2020 blueprint; continue to rebuild, let the prospects continue to develop, and look to trade assets with value.