If the expanded playoffs are back in 2022, the Pittsburgh Pirates might actually have a good enough core for a shot at a Wild Card spot.
This past season was like something we have never seen before for the Pittsburgh Pirates and all of MLB. All sorts of different rules were tried out in the 60-game sprint of a season, including starting a runner on second base in extra innings, the universal designated hitter and the big one, expanded playoffs. Although for now, many of these rules were originally planned for just 2020, they could return very soon, especially the universal DH and expanded playoffs.
Both the MLB Players Association and owners were originally in agreement that if the 2020 season was longer than 60 games, then the universal DH would be in 2021. Though there are constand rumors surrounding the universal DH, if the season were to start right now, there wouldn’t be one.
Expanded playoffs on the other hand, might be something that has to wait until CBA negotiations in the 2021-2022 off season, but something that could very likely come back in some form. Although it does give a handful of more players to get the chance to win a World Series, more spots means less of an incentive for teams to spend, which is something that would turn off the MLB PA. However, I feel that by the 2022 season, the two sides will be able to agree on some sort of expansion.
But any sort of an expanded playoff format could really help the Pittsburgh Pirates. With their current trajectory, many of their prospects will be ready during the 2021-2023 seasons. With the current playoff format, they probably wouldn’t be back in contention until 2023 or 2024. However, if the playoffs are expanded, I think the Bucs could be a team to watch in 2022.
Well first, we have to look at the rest of the division. Despite the Pittsburgh Pirates finishing last place, they are better set up for the next five seasons than either the Cubs and Brewers. The Cubs will see Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant all hit free agency at the same time next offseason. They already are likely going to see the departures of Jon Lester and Jeremy Jeffres this offseason. Plus with large contracts like Yu Darvish and Jason Heyward, it will be hard for them to retain their core. Their farm system also ranks at just 24 by FanGraphs, so they can’t simply replace pieces they are losing through prospects. By 2023, they’ll probably be in the beginning stages of a rebuild.
The Milwaukee Brewers could also be in a similar situation within the next few seasons. They only have two bats that could be impactful past 2022, that being Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura. Though they do have a handful of pitchers under control like Josh Hader, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Devin Williams, Brent Suter and Freddy Peralta, with a farm system that houses only one, 50 grade prospect, they’ll probably part with a few of their more talented pitchers to restock the farm.
The Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals currently pose the biggest threat to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the near future. The Reds’ have a few top prospects that will be ready by next year, that being Nick Lodolo and Tyler Stephenson. They’ll join the likes of Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker and Mike Moustakas in the line up. However, Nick Castellanos has a buyout after 2021, and if he performs anything like he did between 2016 and 2019, there’s a good chance he’ll opt out, looking for a more lucrative deal that pays him more than $14-$16 million million annually. Trevor Bauer is also a free agent, and the Cy Young finalist could sign elsewhere this off season. The Reds might also be bogged down by Joey Votto’s contract, giving them less breathing room in terms of spending.
The Cardinals have a few prospects as well that will be in the majors within the next two seasons, that being Nolan Gorman and Matthew Libretore. Dylan Carlson is another one of their top prospects that they’ll be looking to breakout within the next few years. But like with the Reds, they also might be hindered by a big contract, that being Paul Goldschmidt.
The Pittsburgh Pirates look like they could be a Wild Card contender in 2022 if the playoffs are expanded. Ke’Bryan Hayes will get a full look of the big leagues in 2021. We should also start seeing the arrival of the next wave of prospects in Oneil Cruz and Cody Bolton, who have an ETA of 2021. Both Travis Swaggerty and Tahnaj Thomas are prospects we could see early into the 2022 season. If Mitch Keller gets things going and Bryan Reynolds bounces back, their core of players might be in the talks of taking a Wild Card.
Seeing Reynolds, Hayes, Cruz, Bolton, Keller and Jacob Stallings, with potentially Joe Musgrove and Josh Bell if they’re not traded, and getting a longer look at Thomas and Swaggerty in 2022 isn’t out of the question. That core, if healthy, has the potential to be in the playoffs. It gives the Pirates three or four decent pitchers, two starting outfielders (potentially three if Cruz is in right field), and an extremely strong left side of the infield (even if Cruz is in right, a left side of Hayes and Cole Tucker isn’t bad either and very good defensively).
Their bullpen also could be decent with Geoff Hartlieb, Blake Cederlind, Nick Mears and Yerry De Los Santos all having potential to be strong backend arms. Within their division, the Cubs and Brewers will likely in a state closer to rebuilding. Though they might have a harder time overtaking the Cards or Reds without all of their prospects like Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Quinn Priester and Brennan Malone, I do believe that they could be good enough for a wild card in 2022 if the playoffs are expanded.