Pittsburgh Pirates: Current MLB Players to Build Around
By Noah Wright
Most of the Pittsburgh Pirates top talents are still prospects, but what current MLB players could they build around?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a ton of young players coming up through the minors. Most of their core pieces are still prospects, but one’s that we should slowly start to see come up across this year and next year. But just because many of their potential core players are still in the minors doesn’t mean they are without any pieces in the Major Leagues they should consider building blocks.
Today, I want to take at some potential building blocks who could be part of the foundation of the Pirate future. Starting with the lineup, we’ll also be taking a look at starting pitching and the bullpen.
Very clearly, young and exciting third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes will be one of, if not the main building block for this Pirate lineup. Hayes has appeared in 31 MLB games with the Pittsburgh Pirates and has stepped to the plate a total of 125 times between 2020 and 2021. Hayes has been hitting .362/.431/.664 with a .455 wOBA, and 189 wRC+. He’s ripped the cover off the ball, having a 92.9 MPH exit velocity and 60% hard hit rate in the Majors.
However, his calling card coming up through the minors was his defense. Hayes is still considered a defender on the level of Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado and Matt Chapman. He already has +6 DRS, a +12.2 UZR/150 and 0.7 range runs above average through just 266.1 innings at third. Now while he might not keep up a wRC+ approaching 200, or be on pace for just over 10 fWAR a season all the time, he’s a potential multi-year All-Star and should get MVP votes more than just a few times.
One other major player the Pittsburgh Pirates should build around is Bryan Reynolds. The outfielder is making his 2020 season look more like a short-season fluke by the game rather than what he’s actually capable of. So far this season, Reynolds has hit .284/.389/.507 with 10 home runs, 17 doubles, a .386 wOBA and 147 wRC+.
Reynolds has been the second best offensive center fielder. He ranks 2nd in wRC+, wOBA, OPS, and is tied with Oakland A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano for 2nd in fWAR. Only Cedric Mullins surpasses him in these stats.
His defense this season hasn’t been on par with his 2020 numbers, but he’s still about average. He has 0 DRS, -0.3 range runs above average, a -3.9 UZR/150, but +2 outs above average. He’s mainly played center field this season but has played a decent amount in left field. Though he hasn’t played it since 2019, he was considered a plus defender in right field as well.
Although they aren’t nearly as prominent as Hayes or Reynolds, the Pittsburgh Pirates could also see Colin Moran and Jacob Stallings stick around long term as well. Moran has been on the upward trend the last two seasons. Currently, he has a strong .350 wOBA and 123 wRC+ on the season. He’s also been more than useable as a defender at first base. Stallings on the other hand has put up a .318 wOBA and 102 wRC+. Pretty good numbers for a catcher, but he’s known for his defense. He already has +7 DRS on the season, and +1.6 framing runs.
Most of the organization’s long-term pitching talent is in the minors. Quinn Priester, Roansy Contreras, Brennan Malone, Tahnaj Thomas, Carmen Mlodzinski, Miguel Yajure (who is currently injured), and many more are all still prospects. But there are two starting pitchers the Pittsburgh Pirates may see as long term pieces of the team.
Right now, JT Brubaker looks like the team’s best long term option for a starter. He currently has a solid 3.90 ERA, 4.25 FIP and 1.18 WHIP. His 24.2% strikeout rate is a slight uptick from last season. But his 5.1% walk rate is a 3.2% decrease from his rookie campaign. Home runs have been a bit of an issue for Brubaker with a 1.50 HR/9 rate. However, he’s still getting ground balls 50% of the time, has a 3.50 xFIP, 3.25 xERA, 3.53 SIERA and 3.67 DRA.
Brubaker has changed up his pitch arsenal some this year. His primary pitch this year has been his slider, an offering he’s used 37.1% of the time. He’s using his four-seamer a lot more compared to 2020. He was throwing his fastball just 13.9% of the time in his rookie campaign, but now is using it about a quarter of the time (25.1%). Brubaker has also had a huge decrease in sinker usage (35.1% to 24.5%), and curveball rate (13.7% to 7.4%).
Now we have to talk about Mitch Keller. Keller was a former consensus top 20 prospect. The right-hander has yet to live up to that potential. So far, he has a 7.04 ERA, 4.94 FIP, and 1.80 WHIP on the season. Keller has walked 12.7% of all the batters he has faced while only having a 22.4% strikeout rate. Plus he has a less than inspiring 1.33 HR/9.
But to say that Keller hasn’t flashed potential in the Major Leagues would be lying. Keller has done it multiple times this year. He’s gone at least 5 innings with 5 strikeouts, and less than 2 ER in about half of his starts. He’s also only walked more than two batters in these good starts just once. But when he struggles, he struggles hard. He’s given up as many earned runs, if not more, than innings pitched in his other half of starts. His velocity will also fluxuate between games as well. Sometimes he’ll average around 93.5 MPH, but other times he can average out just below 95 MPH.
Now which Keller is the real Keller is still up in the air. But the book isn’t completely out on him. He’s only 25 and 2022 will only be his age-26 season. Some players are simply just late bloomers. He could still be part of the Pirates future rotation plans.
Pittsburgh native David Bednar has been the team’s top rookie pitcher this year. He’s pitched 21.2 innings, putting up a 2.74 ERA, 3.27 FIP and 1.09 WHIP. Bednar has gotten a ton of strikeouts. His 31.9% strikeout rate put him at the 31st highest strikeout rate in baseball. He’s only allowed walks at an 8.6% rate, but has a 1.17 HR/9 rate.
Bednar is a potential future closer candidate. He’s been good in high leverage situations. Opponents only have a .147 wOBA in these moments, and has a 2.70 ERA. He has an identical ERA with runners in scoring position, and an equally strong .154 opponent wOBA.
He’s been well above average in terms of exit velocity (87.6 MPH, top 72nd percentile) and hard hit rate (31.9%, top 89th percentile). Plus he’s in the 91st percentile in whiff rate. Bednar has a fantastic 2.86 xERA, 3.10 xFIP, 2.96 SIERA, and solid 3.78 DRA.
Clay Holmes has become a potential long term high-leverage arm as he’s in the midist of a breakout season. The 9th round pick from 2011 is pitching to the tune of a 2.63 ERA, 3.11 FIP, and 1.13 WHIP in 27.1 innings. Holmes has induced ground balls at a 70.1% rate. He’s on pace to have the 15th highest ground ball rate in a single season since 2015 (min. 20 IP). That mixes well with his outstanding exit velocity, which sits at 85.8 MPH and in the top 90th percentile, and hard hit rate, which is in the top 82nd percentile at 33.3%.
Holmes has completely dropped his four seam fastball, opting to use his sinker as a primary pitch. Along with that, he uses a slider and curveball, all of which have an above average run value on Baseball Savant. Though Holmes hasn’t gotten many strikeouts, with a K% of just 22.5%, he’s only allowed free passes at a 7.2% rate. Still, both of his breaking balls have a whiff rate above 30%. Plus he’s averaging at 95.4 MPH with his sinker, just over 1 MPH faster than his 2019 average.
This has led to an increase in his sinker spin rate. In 2019, he sat with 2013 RPM. However this year, he’s at 2231 RPM. The increase in RPM is likely because of his increase in velocity, rather than because of the use of a sticky foreign substance. In terms of Bauer Units (which is just RPM/MPH), he’s only seen a 2.1 increase.
Luis Oviedo could be another long term bullpen arms. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Ovideo in a trade with the New York Mets during the Rule 5 Draft. He’s only 22 and still a very raw talent. He hasn’t gotten the results he would want, but his stuff is outstanding and if the Pirates keep him on the 26-man roster all year, they’ll gain his full contract rights.