The NL Central division this year is anticipated to be an absolutely thrilling, competitive race between several ball clubs that are high on both talent and expectations.
You can eliminate the Pittsburgh Pirates from that competitive talk, effective immediately.
Pittsburgh’s new skipper, 49 year-old Derek Shelton, has never been a manager in the big leagues before. He has just been handed the keys to one of the tallest tasks in baseball – turn around a young Pirates team that last year experienced a plethora of injuries, lack of production, multiple scandals, and overall genuine disappointment among players and fans alike.
Looking backwards, Pittsburgh’s 2019 campaign under former manager Clint Hurdle gradually disintegrated from the get go. Having opened the year with reasonably high performance expectations, the Pirates’ starting rotation looked foolishly bad for most of the year- most notably, 2018 free agent acquisition Chris Archer had himself a dreadful year, finishing with 3 wins and a 5.19 ERA across 23 starts in 2019.
Additionally, Pittsburgh’s bullpen last year endured both injuries and multiple scandals, ranging from unnecessary to entirely grotesque. Keone Kela had himself a rough year, both with long-term injuries, but also suspensions due to multiple poor behavior choices. Not to mention we will probably (hopefully) never see Felipe Vazquez on a baseball field again.
With that said, as much as I’d love to take early spring training games with a grain of salt, I can’t help but see the first eight lackluster performances in Florida as a sign of things to come, especially given that virtually every baseball expert already has Pittsburgh finishing in the cellar of NL Central already. The Pirates have opened their spring training 1-7-1, with one tie coming against the Yankees on February 24th, collecting a horrifying run differential of -31 to open things up. Pittsburgh was ranked dead last in numerous categories for the month of February, including compiling only one win, which came against the Twins on leap day.
The news doesn’t get much better from a farm system perspective:- Jim Callis (MLB.com) has ranked Pittsburgh’s farm system at a very average 15th best in the MLB – a far cry from the top notch Pirates farm system of recent years.
On the (somewhat) bright side of things, highly touted RHP Mitch Keller has a real opportunity to get more big league experience and make some serious significant strides on the mound. We all know Josh Bell holds real offensive firepower, and all signs point to RHP Trevor Williams having himself a better season than last year’s 5.38 ERA across 26 starts dud.
As of February 24th, Caesars Entertainment has brought the Pirates 2020 regular season odds all the way down to 68 wins. I have Pittsburgh repeating a 69-93 season; new management, same result, and a tougher division, given the Cincinnati Reds’ sudden surge in talent acquisition and expectations.
All in all, to Pittsburgh fans, best case scenario, an entirely healthy Pirates ball club could reach the mid 70’s wins mark. But I feel safe in saying, barring a miracle, 2020 is not the year of the buccaneer.