2021 Pittsburgh Pirates
2021 Pittsburgh Pirates / Franchise: Pittsburgh Pirates / BR Team Page
Managed by Derek Shelton
History, Comments, Contributions
Expectations were very low for the 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates. The team had been last in the majors in 2020, then went into full-rebuild mode, trading away two of their top starting pitchers (Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon) and their top power threat (Josh Bell) with the return coming in the form of young players some distance away from making the majors yet. The team also did not pick up an option on Chris Archer, released Trevor Williams and let Keone Kela go via free agency.
Despite losing four starting pitchers, the team returned several players who had been in the rotation over the past few years. Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault were the two most-experienced starters returning. They were joined by Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker and free agent signee Tyler Anderson. The bullpen returned Michael Feliz, Chris Stratton, Richard Rodriguez and Geoff Hartlieb among others.
The offense was much more a source of concern, having been the big problem spot in 2020, and losing Bell's bat was unlikely to help. One acquisition was veteran free agent Todd Frazier, who was expected to platoon with Colin Moran at first base. Ke'Bryan Hayes, the team's top prospect, had excelled in a month of play in 2020 and was now the incumbent at third base, but he had not hit much in the high minors so there was concern about 2020's offensive outburst being a fluke; his defense had been his primary calling card in the minors. Adam Frazier returned as the starting second baseman after two straight years as a Gold Glove finalist. Kevin Newman was back at short, having hit over .300 as a rookie in 2019, then plummeting hard in offense, defense and baserunning in the shortened 2020 season.
Catcher Jacob Stallings was the team MVP in 2020 but there were still questions about his offensive capability. The Bucs picked up Tony Wolters and Michael Perez as other options there. The outfield had even more questions than other spots. Bryan Reynolds had been a batting title contender in 2019 and one of the league's top rookies, then fell under the Mendoza line in 2020. Gregory Polanco, once a strong power threat, had also been under the Mendoza Line and had battled injuries for years. In center, free agent signee Brian Goodwin was expected to battle for time with Anthony Alford, a perennial prospect with the Toronto Blue Jays who had yet to turn his outstanding athleticism into actual production.
The team was solid in spring training, going 13-14 after 3-18 the prior season. Among the surprises were Todd Frazier's not making the team given his past performance and strong spring; they went with the more versatile Phillip Evans as the backup at 1B. Goodwin lost out the center field spot to Alford, while Perez made the team as the backup catcher. They did suffer an injury to Brault, one of their most experienced hurlers, hurting the team given the apparent lack of depth there. While the offense had been surprisingly good in spring training, a major concern was that the starting pitchers had been awful, with Keller especially struggling. Most projections had the Pirates losing 95-110 games.
Pittsburgh won on Opening Day, April 1st, as Hayes hit a two-run homer and the bullpen turned in a strong performance, fanning 11. They dropped the next five, with Hayes injured in the second game of the season. On April 13th, they won ugly in defeating the San Diego Padres, 8-4 - despite 13 walks and 3 hit batsmen. No team had ever won a game in regulation with that combination, and the closest were the 1907 St. Louis Cardinals who had won a game in spite of 12 walks and 2 hit batsmen. Counting extra-inning games, the 2003 Cardinals had once won despite 16 walks and 2 hit batsmen - but spread over 20 innings! The Pirates and Padres combined for 17 walks, 4 errors, 7 hit batsmen and 3 wild pitches.
Pittsburgh was surprisingly competitive (12-12) in April, thanks to an excellent bullpen and production from Reynolds, Adam Frazier and Moran at the plate. May was more what was expected, as the team lost over two-thirds of its games, with a blooper-reel play by 1B Will Craig (playing in place of the injured Moran and Evans) for the ages. The team finished May with a 81 OPS+, last in the NL in OPS and next-to-last in runs. Reynolds (.286/.387/.489, 30 2B in 51 G, 143 OPS+), Adam Frazier (.332/.391/.471, 17 2B in 52 G, 140 OPS+) and Moran (.297/.352/.468, 127 OPS+, 19 RBI in 32 G) had hit well, but Newman was at only .209/.237/.264 (40 OPS+) and Erik González (filling in for the injured Hayes) was little better - .213/.250/.287, 50 OPS+). Other than Reynolds, no Pirate outfielder had an OPS+ of even 90. The pitching was not great but was not nearly as bad, thanks in part to the bullpen. They had a 4.72 team ERA, 12th in the NL, and a 86 ERA+. Brubaker (4-4, 3.74, 107 ERA+) was the only starter with an ERA+ better than 90, while relievers Rodriguez (3-1, 6 Sv, 1.61, 250 ERA+), Kyle Crick (1.93 ERA, 211 ERA+), David Bednar (2.70, 149 ERA+), Sam Howard (2-2, 2.95, 137 ERA+), Clay Holmes (1-0, 2.96, 136 ERA+) and Stratton (1-0, 3.55, 113 ERA+) all were doing well. Among those starters getting roughed up were the erratic Keller (3-6, 6.54, 61 ERA+) and late pick-up Trevor Cahill (1-5, 6.81, 59 ERA+).
June continued the struggles, as Pittsburgh finished the month 29-50; while two teams still had worse records, none had a worse OPS. This was despite continued stardom from Reynolds and Frazier, both of whom easily made the All-Star team. They were 11-14 in July, moving ahead of the Texas Rangers so that they were 27th in all of baseball. They were last in the NL in OPS and next-to-last in ERA. As expected since spring training, Pittsburgh dealt Frazier, Rodriguez and Anderson for prospects (and also sent away bullpen arms Holmes and Austin Davis) at the trading deadline). Frazier (.324/.388/.448, 173 OPS+, 28 2B) and Reynolds (.309/.388/.525, 18 HR, 59 R, 45 BB) were their top hitters to that point, with the only other starters over 100 in OPS+ being LF Ben Gamel (.273/.344/.443) and Moran (.280/.345/.414), who had missed significant time with injuries. Stallings (.235/.323/.396, 95 OPS+) and Hayes (.257/.330/.396, 97 OPS+) were providing okay offense while playing superb defense; another strong defender, Newman, was hitting terribly (.216/.254/.280, 46 OPS+). Polanco had picked it up a bit (11 HR, 11-11 in SB< .205/.289/.378, 80 OPS+) but was likely nearing the end of his Pirates tenure as no team would want his contract at the trading deadline. The top backups had been 1B John Nogowski (.329/.404/.443, 132 OPS+), filling in for Moran and UT Wilmer Difo (.266/.326/.414). No starting pitcher had an ERA+ over 100, with Anderson (5-8, 4.35, 96 ERA+) having been the closest, just ahead of Kuhl (3-6, 4.43, 94 ERA+) and Brubaker (4-10, 4.49, 93 ERA+). While the bullpen had struggled of late, three of their four most-used relievers had an ERA+ of 130 or better in Rodriguez (4-2, 14 Sv, 2.82, 145 ERA+), Stratton (4-0, Sv, 3.13, 133 ERA+) and Bednar (2-1, 2.85, 147 ERA+).
The team remained steady over August (8-20) and September (11-16) then were 2-1 in October to finish with just over 100 losses, the first time Pittsburgh had fallen so low since 2010, though their winning percentage was better than in 2020 and they exceeded projections that had many expecting an even worse campaign. Despite the poor record, they did not repeat as the worst team in MLB; three teams had even worse marks! The team finally cut ties with Polanco, their highest-paid player, after years of injuries and declining production. Offense was clearly a problem, as no team scored fewer runs in all of baseball. Late in the year, the team gave brief glances to two of their top prospects, Oneil Cruz and Roansy Contreras.
Catcher was generally a bright spot; Stallings hit .246/.335/.369 with 53 RBI and 49 walks, producing a 92 OPS+ while being ranked as one of the game's elite defenders, regardless of position. He won his first Gold Glove, which was widely anticipated. Backup catcher Perez hit 7 homers in 210 at-bats but did little else at .143/.221/.290 (38 OPS+), with only 14 singles. At first base, Moran struggled in recuperating from his multiple injuries, with a 97 OPS+, much lower than one would want from the position. He batted .258/.334/.390 with 10 homers in 99 games, the #3 home run hitter in a weak lineup. Frazier had hit .324/.388/.448 before being traded, but the team did not find a reliable fill-in after the trade with Difo (a solid .269/.329/.384, 94 OPS+), Hoy Park (.197/.299/.339, 74 OPS+) and 22-year-old Rodolfo Castro (.198/.258/.395, 75 OPS+) all getting opportunities. At short, Newman never lived up to his spring training performance, with a .574 OPS (.226/.265/.309, 65 OPS+) though he did lead NL shortstops in fielding percentage (.993) and was a Gold Glove finalist. While Hayes was splendid with the glove at the hot corner, he did not play enough to be a Gold Glove finalist like Newman, Reynolds and winner Stallings (he did tie for 4th in Defensive Wins Above Replacement despite his limited time). He hit .257/.316/.373 for a 87 OPS+, not nearly the numbers of his 2020 cup of coffee but better than some of his minor league numbers would have led one to expect. In fact, they seemed very much in line with his father, who had a 89 OPS+ over his long career.
Reynolds was obviously the outfield bright spot. He batted .302/.390/.522 with 35 doubles, 8 triples, 24 home runs, 75 walks, 93 runs and 90 RBI while being a Gold Glove finalist his first year in center. He tied Bryce Harper for the 3rd-best Offensive Wins Above Replacement in the NL, 4th in OBP, 7th in OPS and tied for first in triples. Otherwise, the outfield was a gaping hole of offense. Gamel was okay (.255/.352/.399) with the team's second-best OPS+ (104) despite being a waiver pick-up. Polanco finished his Bucs tenure with a .208/.283/.354 line (72 OPS+) though he led the team with 14 steals (caught once) and was second to Reynolds with 11 home runs. Other position players to see regular action for the 2021 Pirates were Evans (.206/.312/.299, 68 OPS+), González (.232/.258/.300, 52 OPS+), Alford (.233/.311/.406, 94 OPS+, much better after a stint in AAA), Yoshi Tsutsugo (.268/.347/.535, 136 OPS+, 8 HR in 127 AB after a late-season waiver claim), Cole Tucker (.222/.298/.342, 74 OPS+), Nogowski (.261/.325/.351, 85 OPS+) and Ka'ai Tom (.152/.308/.261, 58 OPS+).
The pitching was not much better, allowing 833 runs (only two NL teams gave up more) with a 5.08 ERA. Anderson (5-8, 4.35), who was traded at the deadline, had been their top starter (97 ERA+), with lackluster or inconsistent turns from Brubaker (5-13, 5.36, 79 ERA+), Wil Crowe (4-8, 5.48, 77 ERA+), Keller (5-11, 6.17, 68 ERA+), Kuhl (5-7, 4.82, 88 ERA+) and Chase De Jong (1-4, 5.77, 73 ERA+). Due to injuries, Brault was limited to seven games (0-3, 5.86, 73 ERA+). The bullpen was somewhat better. Rodriguez (4-2, 14 Sv, 2.82, 151 ERA+) had done very well before being traded and Bednar (3-1, 3 Sv, 2.23, 190 ERA+) and Stratton (7-1, 8 Sv, 3.63, 116 ERA+) were strong relievers in 60+ games of work. Other regularly used relievers were Chasen Shreve (3-3, 3.20, 132 ERA+), Howard (3-4, 5.60, 76 ERA+), Duane Underwood Jr. (2-3, 4.33, 98 ERA+) and Holmes (3-2, 4.93, 86 ERA+ before being traded).
They failed to sweep a series, blowing 16 attempts to do so, becoming the 7th MLB team to not pull off a sweep.
Awards and Honors
- Jake Crouse: "Trade talks start to heat up for coveted Bucs", mlb.com, June 19, 2021. 
- Jack Crouse: "GM on No. 1 pick: 'We need to get this right': Pirates narrow down choices 2 weeks out from 2021 MLB Draft", mlb.com, June 27, 2021.