Despite losing 101 games in 2021, the Pittsburgh Pirates can be a better team than the divsion rival Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds in 2022.
The Pittsburgh Pirates finished a lowly 61-101 in 2021. They were the 4th worst team in baseball and were last in their division by ten games. The team wasn’t great, to say the least. But as we previously looked at plenty of times before, there is a lot to look forward to on the horizon. With the number of prospects coming up through the system, they’re conceivably a third-place team in their division. The two teams they could beat out are the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.
If you didn’t know, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cubs were very similar teams in the second half of the 2021 season. After the All-Str Break, the Pirates were 27-45, as were the Cubs. The Cubs actually had worse pitching than the Pirates down the stretch, with their staff combining for -.2 fWAR while the Pirates sat at +.6 fWAR. Position player-wise, the Cubs had the edge with a 98 wRC+ and +8.9 fWAR; meanwhile, the Pirates had an 84 wRC+ and +4.2 fWAR.
But the Cubs also faced their fair share of good luck. Frank Schwindel came out of nowhere and put up MVP-like numbers down the stretch. Rafel Ortega was a surprise contributor. Patrick Wisdom was another out of nowhere find. The question is if this is sustainable. Based on the batted ball results, it’s likely not. Cubs batters had a similar batted ball profile to the Pirates from August onward with a 20% LD% (Pirates: 20.1%), 43.4% GB% (Pirates: 45.3%), and 36.6% (Pirates: 34.6%). However, despite falling within 3% of each, the Cubs had a .328 batting average on balls in play while the Pirates sat at .293.
Now granted, the Cubs did improve their pitching. They claimed Wade Miley off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds and signed Marcus Stroman. But it’s not as if Zach Thompson or Miguel Yajure couldn’t replicate something similar to Wade Miley or Roansy Contreras performing the same or better than Stroman. Both the Pirates and Cubs had the same number of pitchers with an ERA+ of 100 (league average) with 12 games started: zero.
Wisdom started to see a decline in the second half of the campaign as his OPS fell from .951, going into the All-Star break and ending up over .100 points lower at .823 by the end of the season. Schwindel had a .348 batting average on balls in play despite having a batted ball profile that Baseball Savant compares to Eddie Rosario, Andrew Benintendi, Abraham Toro, and Elias Diaz in 2021.
So what about the Reds? They were better than the Cubs and the Pirates and even finished above .500. Well, the Reds are stuck between a rock and a hard place and trying to cut salary. The Reds gave away Wade Miley to the Cubs for free, putting him on waivers and letting him go for no prospects, just salary relief. They also traded away two-time Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart to the Detroit Tigers for Nick Quintana, who had a .645 OPS between Rookie-Ball and A-Ball in his age-23 season.
Eugenio Suarez’s contract is immovable, and the Reds can’t trade Joey Votto because of his full no-trade clause, which he has previously stated he will not waive. They’re almost certainly going to lose Silver Slugger Nick Castellanos to free agency as well, and they already lost Michael Lorenzen to the LA Angels. It’s also possible that the Reds trade all of Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Tyler Naquin, and Jesse Winker. Now they do have some talented prospects in Nick Lodolo, Hunter Greene, and Jose Barrero being MLB-ready for next year. However, their overall farm system only ranks 17th per FanGraphs.
It’s also worth noting that the Reds had the third-worst bullpen in the National League. They were nearly a half-run worse than the Pirates’ pen. They had more relievers with an ERA- of at least 130 (30% worse than average) than under 105 (5% worse than average) in at least 30 innings out of the pen.
So what do the Pittsburgh Pirates have that neither the Cubs nor Reds don’t that could make them that much better? It’s the sheer number of prospects that could come up next year and play a month or more in the majors. All of Roansy Contreras, Oneil Cruz, Travis Swaggerty, Miguel Yajure, Carmen Mlodzinski, Diego Castillo, Hoy Park, Ji-Hwan Bae, Mason Martin, Jack Suwinski, Matt Fraizer, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Tucupita Marcano, Max Kranick, Omar Cruz, Trey McGough, and Cody Bolton fall into that category of players. Almost no other team can say they have a dozen or more notable prospects nearly MLB ready.
The only significant loss the Pirates will be suffering is Jacob Stallings. While Stallings was a phenomenal defender, the Pirates did pick up Roberto Perez, who can match his defensive value. While his bat may not be on par with Stallings, the fact the Pirates will be replacing well below average hitters like Kevin Newman, Anthony Alford, and Gregory Polanco with the likes of Cruz, Swaggerty, Bae, and Fraizer, the team will more than make-up for the difference in offensive value lost from Stallings to Perez.
Based on what the Pittsburgh Pirates have coming up through the farm system and the Reds’ and Cubs’ current situation, I think it’s very plausible that the Pirates overtake both NL Central rivals in the standings. They have more going for them with the Cub offense, which is a significant question in the post-Bryant-Rizzo-Baez era, and the Reds are looking more like the Pirates of 2019-2020 as they are likely to enter a rebuild.