Pittsburgh Pirates: 2022 Could be Light at the End of the Tunnel

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 23: A general view of the field during the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park on August 23, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 23: A general view of the field during the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park on August 23, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** /

The Pittsburgh Pirates have built up one of the best farm systems in all of baseball. Not only have prospects such as Ke’Bryan Hayes, Quinn Priester and Oneil Cruz have developed into some of the best prospects at their positions, but since becoming generla manager Ben Cherington has brought in a boat load of talent.

First he acquired two notable prospects in Liover Peguero and Brennan Malone in the Starling Marte trade last February. Then he had a great draft, headlined by Nick Gonzales who was viewed as one of the best pure hitters in the draft.

At the end of the 2020 season four of Cherington’s draft picks were ranked among the Pirates’ top 25 organizational prospects by FanGraphs. Cherington’s first big trade of this offseason saw him send Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals for Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe. His latest trades saw him acquire five prospects in the Joe Musgrove trade, those four being outfielder Hudson Head, pitchers David Bednar, Omar Cruz and Drake Fellows from the San Diego Padres and catching prospect Endy Rodriguez from the New York Mets.

His most recent trade involved Jameson Taillon, where he acquired pitching prospects Miguel Yajure, Roasny Conteras, infielder Maikol Escotto and outfielder Canaan Smith-Nijgba from the New York Yankees. Both the Musgrove and Taillon trades were met with praise throughout baseball circles.

The Pittsburgh Pirates likely have a good shot to compete in 2023, but they could start seeing the fruits of their rebuild much sooner. The question I want to pose is could the team be around .500 by 2022?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have many notable prospects who have ETAs from 2021 all the way through 2024 by both MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs. However, a good chunk of the talent they may rely on for years to come will likely see playing time in the next two years.

In 2021, the Pittsburgh Pirates will get a full year of Hayes and Mitch Keller. The former put up outstanding numbers in his sample size of plate appearances in 2020. While he may not replicate the same numbers he had in just those 95 plate appearances, he demolished the baseball in terms of exit velo and hard hit rate and is seen as a very good batter by many of the predictive measurements.

The latter hasn’t put up super great numbers, but showed a ton of talent in 2019 while getting super unlucky. His 2020 was super lucky, but he also battled the injury bug. However, in total, he’s pitched less than 80 innings for a pitcher who was once considered a premier starting pitching prospects in all of baseball just a few years ago.

A prospect the Pittsburgh Pirates will likely see sometime during the 2021 season is right-handed starting pitcher Cody Bolton. Bolton, 22, has reached the Double-A level and while he struggled, it was only in 40 innings, he’s done outstanding in the lower minors and he’s seen as one of their top 15 prospects by MLB Pipeline and ended 2020 as their 10th best prospect by FanGraphs.

One of the Pirates’ best position player prospects, Oneil Cruz, will likely make his debut sometime in 2021 or 2022 as well. Cruz has the ability to absolutely rip the cover off the ball with an 80-future raw power grade on FanGraphs. With a 91 MPH average exit velo in 2019 and max exit velo of 112 MPH, Cruz can generate light tower power from his 6’7″, 210 pound frame. He’s put up a .201 and .177 isolated slugging percentage mark in the past two seasons and has seen his plate discipline improve as well. His final defensive home may be a bit up in the air. He’s a shortstop by trade but may move to the outfield long term. However there’s no question about his hitting ability.

Some of the prospects Cherington brought in through his big trades will also see some playing time in 2021. Yajure made his MLB debut in 2020. While he hasn’t seen much time above Double-A, it’s safe to assume that if he pitches well to start the year at Triple-A, he could be a mid-season reinforcement. Hell, it would not be a stunner to see him start the season wit the Pittsburgh Pirates. Crowe has a chance to lock down a rotation spot as well. While not as highly touted as Yajure, he was still one of the Nationals’ better pitching prospects before the trade to Pittsburgh.

Another potential mid-season reinforcement, or Opening Day contributor, could be outfielder Jared Oliva. Oliva has been kind of forgotten this off season. He hit well above the league average in 2018 and 2019 at High-A and Double-A and swiped 69 bases between the two seasons as well. Plus, he’s considered a plus defender in center field. A hot start at Triple-A could lead to regular plate appearances at the major league level sometime in 2021.

Among some of the relievers who will get a chance to prove themselves in 2021 are hard throwing right-handers Nick Mears, Blake Cederlind and Luis Oviedo. Mears and Cederlind are both home grown products by the Pittsburgh Pirates and ranked as two of their top 30 prospects by FanGraphs at the end of 2020.

Oviedo was acquired by the Bucs during the Rule 5 Draft through a trade with the Mets, who selected him. He retains Rule 5 draft status. While he was a starting pitcher during his time with the Cleveland Indians, he’ll likely find a role in the bullpen. FanGraphs had him as Cleveland’s 11th best prospect following the conclusion of 2020. Pretty good for a farm system that was ranked 6th.

That’s already a handful of prospects who could make an impact going into 2022. Hayes, Keller, Cruz, Oliva, Bolton, Yajure, Crowe and three bullpen reinforcements will join Bryan Reynolds, Colin Moran, Jacob Stallings, JT Brubaker and potentially Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker to create a pretty solid core going into 2022.

During 2022, the Pittsburgh Pirates will see more prospects eventually make their debut. 2018 first-round pick Travis Swaggerty is a prospect to keep an eye on as a player who could make an impact on the 2022 season. Shortstop prospect Liover Peguero also has an ETA of 2022. Hard throwing right-hander Tahnaj Thomas is another pitcher who could be one of the team’s better starters. Roansy Contreras, who was part of the Taillon trade, may make his debut late in 2021, but should get a long look in the majors in 2022.

Next. 2021 NL Central = 2020 NFC East. dark

Now sure, this is an optimistic outlook. But is it unrealistic? Not necessarily. While not every prospect is going to come up and set the world on fire like Hayes did or Reynolds did, they’re not all going to fall flat on their faces.

Even if most of the pieces give the Pittsburgh Pirates semi-productive results to start their careers’, it’s not out of the question that their prospects could help them get to 75-82 wins in 2022. Plus they’ll have an easier time reaching that total if their division rivals like the Reds, Cubs and Brewers are rebuilding themselves. This would also give the Bucs a bright future as their window of competition could open sooner than some expect.