St. Louis Cardinals
2019 Record: 91-71 (.561 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
- Additions: SP Kwang Hyun Kim, 2B Brad Miller, OF Austin Dean
- Subtractions: OF Marcell Ozuna, SP Michael Wacha, 2B Yairo Munoz
The Cardinals came on with a strong final three months, finishing the year out 50-30 to secure their first division title since 2015. The club was led at the plate by a break-out season from Paul DeJong (30HR/78RBI/.762OPS) to go with strong all-around campaigns from stalwarts Paul Goldschmidt (34HR/97RBI/.260BA/.821OPS) and Marcel Ozuna (29HR/89RBI/.241BA/.800OPS). But with Ozuna leaving in the off-season, and no significant additions to the starting lineup, the Cardinals will be hard-pressed to match last season’s marks, which were already lower-than-expected for a division winner (24th in HR, 23rd in AVG, 21st in OPS). Goldschmidt’s .260 average was the lowest mark of his career by a considerable margin, but there’s ample reason to believe the 6-time All-Star can bounce back to hover around the .300 mark.
Elsewhere, the Cards will look to a combination of emerging young starters and veterans seeking bounce-back years to solidify the lineup. Matt Carpenter saw a steep decline last season (.226BA/15HR/46RBI/.726OPS), and the Cards will need him to recapture the form that saw him light the Bigs on fire in the second half of 2018. One intriguing option is utility-man Tommy Edman, whose numbers after a June call-up (.304BA/11HR/36RBI/15SB/.850OPS) are tantalizing. At second base Kolten Wong (.285BA/11HR/59RBI/24SB/.784OPS) is still a solid option at the top of the order.
Tyler O’Neill and his ever-tempting power potential will battle for a spot in the outfield with veteran Dexter Fowler and speedster Harrison Bader, while the the not-so-subtle push continues amongst Cards fans to see 21-year old top prospect Dylan Carlson (.292BA/26HR/.914OPS in 562PA between AA and AAA) get an opportunity come Opening Day. Yadier Molina (.270BA/10HR/57RBI/.711OPS) continues to build his Hall-of-Fame resume, but is more of a complimentary hitter at this point.
The Cardinals team philosophy last year heavily emphasized speed – they had the 4th-most stolen bases per game at 0.70 – and there’s no reason to believe that’ll change with full seasons from Edman and Wong. Ultimately, they will need to find someone – Edman, O’Neill, Carpenter, or even Carlson – to replace Ozuna’s bat, and hope that Goldschmidt and DeJong are able to emulate or improve upon their 2019 marks.
Projected Starting Rotation
|5||Kwang Hyun Kim||L|
The Cards had the 5th-best staff ERA in the Majors last season (3.80), and for the most part brings that rotation back in 2020. Ace Jack Flaherty has elevated himself into the upper-echelon of arms in the league, and will look to carry over an excellent 2019 (11-8/2.75ERA/231K/0.96WHIP in 196.1IP) into a campaign in which expectations are sky-high. Flaherty was the best pitcher in baseball post-All Star break last season, with a shining 0.91 ERA and opponent OPS of just .424.
Behind Flaherty, there’s some murkiness, but also the potential for a top-shelf rotation. Carlos Martinez is expected to return to a starting role after spending 2019 as the club’s closer. The Cards are likely to watch Martinez’s innings, as oblique strains have a nasty tendency to linger, but if he is able to recapture his All-Star form of the mid 2010’s, the Cards will have a formative 1-2 punch. Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas make a strong middle-rotation, with Hudson coming off a breakthrough season that was aided by frequently inducing soft-contact, and Mikolas seeing his batted ball data falling back down to earth after what some called a particularly lucky 2018.
The fifth spot in the rotation will be contested between stalwart veteran Adam Wainwright, who at 37 proved to still have some gas in the tank last season; and Kwang Hyun Kim, a 31-year old leftie who has been a standout in the Korean League for the last half-decade. The edge likely goes to Kim on the basis of being a southpaw, but we shouldn’t expect Wainwright to be content if forced into a long relief role out of the gate.
|Mid||Daniel Ponce de Leon||R|
With Jordan Hicks out until late-summer, Giovanny Gallegos will enter the year as the incumbent to close. It should be noted that last season was the first time that the now-28 year old has stuck in a Major League lineup, and he really only has two pitches in his arsenal. If he can add a third – and he has been working on a Changeup – his profile will benefit enormously.
Should Gallegos falter, there isn’t a particularly stand-out to fill the void until the flamethrowing Hicks returns. John Brebbia and John Gant are respectable middle relievers who will likely serve as set-up men, but neither has the profile of an effective closer. There is a possibility that, without a rotation spot in the offing, Daniel Poncedeleon could transition to the closer role if the club is desperate – but that would be a tall ask for a guy who is used to low-leverage situations.
91 wins last year seemed like an earned number for the Cards, who were one of the best teams in baseball in the second half of the season. Matching the same mark in what should be an uber-competitive NL Central would go a long way to assuring them a playoff spot for a second consecutive season. A bitter taste still lingers on the palate from their sweep at the hands of the Nationals in the NLCS, and it would be foolish to doubt that the Cardinals – returning a largely-intact roster – wouldn’t be a safe bet to do the same.
Storylines To Follow
The return of Carlos Martinez to the rotation is perhaps the biggest catalyst for the Cardinals season, and could well be the fulcrum on which their fortunes turn in 2020. If he is able to recapture the All-Star form that most are confident still resides within, he and Flaherty will give the Cards a potent 1-2. Another injury or any sign that an extended work-load is too much would expose the lack of top-end options in the Redbirds rotation.
There are a few options in the outfield who could conceivably replace Ozuna, but I have my eye on Dylan Carlson. With a shortened season, it is likely that competitive teams will need to give shorter leashes to unproven players. But without any other viable hard hitting option – save the unproven Tyler O’Neill – we could see one of the best prospects in baseball get his shot down the stretch and into October.
2019 Record: 75-87 (.463 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
The Reds offense will get a massive injection of power in 2020, with the addition of three new bodies to a lineup that was already power-heavy in 2019. The signings of Nicholas Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, and Shogo Akiyama give the club three new bodies in the top-half of the lineup, and instantly make the team a force in the Central, as well as a playoff contender.
Castellanos (.289BA/29HR/73RBI/.863OPS) is the prize of the bunch, and will enter his prime years hitting in the friendly confines of G.A.B. A reliable 25 homer, upper-200’s average source, he will slot nicely into a lineup that was far too reliant on Eugenio Suarez’s career year last season to produce runs. The same can be said of the perennially-underrated Moustakas (.254BA/35HR/87RBI/.845OPS), who has seen a renaissance in the years since his departure from Kansas City. Akiyama comes over after 5 stellar seasons with Siebu of the JPPL, and is a reliable source of high-200’s average, near .400 OBP, and between 15-20 steals at the top of the lineup.
The bellwether of the flock in 2019 was Eugenio Suarez, who will be hard pressed to emulate a career season (.271BA/49HR/103RBI/.930OPS) that somehow failed to garner him top-10 MVP voting in the NL (he finished 15th). The club will ask the 28-year old slugger to stick as close to 50 dingers as he can, but some fortunate batted ball data from 2019 suggests that flirting with that again is likely a pipe-dream.
The club will ask for more from future Hall-of-Famer Joey Votto, whose resume has earned him a reprieve, but whose .261 average last year was the lowest full-season mark of his career. Former top-prospect Nick Senzel fell off in August of last season (.184BA/3HR/11RBI in 108PA), but he has the pedigree and the pop to pull through; it just remains to be seen whether he’ll be given rope in a crowded outfield. Few think that August superstar Aristedes Aquino is destined for anything but the minors to open the season – largely owing to his two-way contract status. Jesse Winker will fight with Senzel for that last outfield lineup spot, and young Josh VanMeter represents an intriguing speed option in the event Akiyama falters or there is an injury.
Thanks to some trades made in 2019 and the continued improvement of a couple home-grown talents, the Reds also boast one of the deepest rotations, not just in the NL Central – but in the game of baseball. It is a rotation that we have talked about in the past, and that will have a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to its billing in the 2020 season.
The ace of the staff is arguable, but it’s hard not to like 30-year old Sonny Gray, who in 2019 recaptured some of the form that made him so coveted in the early years of his career. Adjustments made in the cages – including being reunited with his pitching coach from Vanderbilt – saw him register the best numbers (11-8/2.87ERA/1.08 WHIP) he’s shown since his breakout 2015 campaign. A 29.0% K rate and a <1.0 HR/9 rate, combined with solid back-end metrics, suggest that there’s no mirage here, and retention is likely.
Luis Castillo continued his ascension into the elite tier in 2019, with increased velocity, devastating breaking activity, and prodigious ground-ball rates buffeting a handsome profile. He was a 4+ WAR pitcher on a sub-80 win team, and with his first-career All-Star appearance he made it known that he is one of the game’s up and coming studs.
Trevor Bauer battled through ankle and back injuries in 2019, and saw some of his upper-echelon stuff affected; a return to health may not see him return to his otherworldly 2018 numbers, but a high-3’s/low-4’s ERA and 190 solid innings is a more-than-fair expectation for a guy who still has some strong years ahead of him.
On the back-end of the staff, it was great to see a healthy Anthony DeSclafani (9-9/3.89ERA/1.20WHIP/9.02Kper9) emerge as a legitimate rotation stalwart in 2019, as he has earned his way back from some hellish injury troubles. He has diversified his arsenal substantially, and should give the club a reliable 170 IP in 2020. Round it out with Wade Miley, whose elite July-and-August numbers helped prop up what was an otherwise-mediocre 2019, and you have five solid, respectable arms, and one of the most intriguing staffs in the game.
The Reds bullpen isn’t particularly exciting – but that can sometimes be a good thing. Raisel Iglesias returns for another season as the largely-uncontested closer, where he projects to give the club similar-to-better numbers from 2019 (STEAMER projection: 32SV/3.85ERA/1.21WHIP), and is a borderline top-10 closer.
Behind Iglesias, Amir Garrett and Michael Lorenzen – he of the 7 career home runs in 145 plate appearances – are a pair of hard-throwers who should carry water for the rotation. The signing of Pedro Strop gives the club a reliable veteran who saw his numbers fall off a cliff for the rival Cubs in 2019. There isn’t much to write home about after that, though it will be interesting to see how former rotation hopeful Tyler Mahle transitions into a bullpen role in 2020.
Storylines to Follow
The pressure is on the Reds to mount a true charge for their first playoff appearance since that infamous Wild Card loss to the Pirates in 2013. G.A.B hasn’t hosted a playoff game since 2012, and expectations are high. Can the new bodies mix in well with the established veterans and the long-standing core in the clubhouse? If they can, the Reds have a borderline top-8 lineup in the bigs, and will tear strips off the balls.
There is much reason to be hopeful about the starting rotation, as it boasts 2 ace-quality starters, and three highly-respected middle rotation options. Many of these guys are coming off of career years, and so asking for the same might be a tall order – but the support of an improved lineup and a maturing bullpen should give them the confidence to stretch out into games, particularly in a shortened season.
For all of the excitement surrounding the new additions, I am intrigued to see how Votto works in what is a make-or-break season. He will turn 37 this year, and though he is a future Hall-of-Famer, many are considering whether it is time for Votto-matic to ride off into the sunset. Don’t count out the possibility of a return to .300 from a guy who has earned the benefit of the doubt, though.
2019 Record: 84-78 (.519 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
|Albert Almora Jr.||OF||R|
|Steven Souza Jr.||OF||R|
The Cubs suffered one of the worst collapses in baseball down the stretch in 2019, with an 11-16 September compounded by a disastrous 9-game losing streak mid-month that sunk their playoff hopes. The club missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014 as a result, and will look to bounce back with much the same core entering the 2020 campaign.
At the top of the lineup, it’s hard not to like the options the Cubs present from 1-5. Javier Baez (.281BA/29HR/85RBI) has continued his ascension into baseball’s elite, and has become a clubhouse leader for the team. His consistently-high BABIP suggests that he is a player who knows how to hit it to the right spots, and there is plenty of talk about situating him at the top of the order, where his speed can be better showcased.
Behind Baez, the core of the World Series-winning club of 2016 – Bryant and Rizzo – is still intact. Some believe that there may be bad blood between Bryant and the club, owing to his service time dispute – but KB did much to dispel that at Spring Training, and he’ll look to improve on what was a solid return to form in 2019 (.282BA/31HR/77RBI/.903OPS). Rizzo hit for the best average of his career in 2019 (.293), and there’s no reason to believe that he is on the down-swing at 30.
Behind the big boys, much is still expected of Wilson Contreras, and though 2019 was a career year (.272BA/24HR/64RBI/.888OPS), he hasn’t become the game’s best catcher, as many expected when he was elevated to the Bigs. Kyle Schwarber (.250BA/38HR/92RBI/.871OPS) continued to crush baseballs in 2019, and is one of the game’s premier power threats, though his numbers against lefties (.229BA/6HR in 124 PA) leave much to be desired.
Beyond the big-5, there are still concerns about the Cubs depth, particularly with no real push coming from elite prospects in the near future. The club would love to see Ian Happ become the player he profiled to be coming out of the minors, and he seemed to recover from a disastrous 2018 last season (.264BA/11HR/30RBI in 156PA).
Jason Heyward had his best power season since 2012 last season (21HR/62RBI), but he continues to languish under the heavy weight of his mammoth contract. There is some hope that young Nico Hoerner, who showed well in limited action at the end of 2019 (.282BA/3HR/17RBI in 82PA), can step into the second base hole, though the club signed veteran Jason Kipnis to start the season there. Steven Souza and Albert Almora Jr. provide some reliable bats off of the bench, though neither figures to be an upper-echelon starting option in the event of injury.
The Cubbies rotation is one of the oldest in baseball, and will rely on some injury-tested arms again in 2020. At the front of that is Yu Darvish, who showed extremely well in his 14 starts from July-September of 2019. Though his overall metrics (6-8/3.98ERA/1.09WHIP) might leave much to be desired, a great deal of that is about bad luck on the decision side. His Steamer projections (12-9/3.85ERA/10.8Kper9) suggest that there is still plenty in the tank for the 33-year old, and that a bounce-back season – at least in terms of the metrics – is in the offing.
Beyond Darvish, Kyle Hendricks (who is somehow already 30 years old) continues to stymie hitters with his sub-90’s stuff, and there’s no reason to believe 2020 will be any different. He continues to benefit from elite Ground Ball, HR/9 and HR/FB rates. He is every bit the whiffle-ball pitcher he was when he came into the league, and without a reliance on high-velocity stuff, he can continue to frustrate hitters for years to come.
Jon Lester, on the other hand, is hanging on by a thread, after a mediocre 2019 (13-10/4.46ERA/1.50WHIP). At 36, he has started to move away from his fastball (38.4% in 2019, down from 50.3% in 2018), which portends a velocity drop across the board. If that continues in 2020, the bottom may fall out for a man who has been a reliable source of top-end stuff since joining the Cubs in 2015. With a vesting option for 2021, it is possible that 2020 is the last year we see Lester throw for the Cubs.
It’s fair to say that the Cubs expected a lot more from Jose Quintana when they snagged him from their cross-town rivals in 2017, but he continued with relative mediocrity in 2019. Quintana is a good pitcher whose advanced metrics (xFIP, BABIP, HR/9) suggest that he should’ve had a better year in 2019 – but a steep drop off in pVAL for his fastball (down to 0.9 from numbers above 10 for most of his career) saw steep drops in results for the pitch.
Tyler Chatwood is currently penciled in at number 5, and his unorthodox pitch mechanics and eclectic breaking mix saw a relatively effective 2019 (5-3/3.76ERA/1.33WHIP in 76IP), but he has never proven to be a reliable source of consistent wins and quality starts, so asking for an improvement on 2019 is a stretch. They’ll need him to be competent, though, as the club lacks any real options elsewhere in the system
Craig Kimbrel was supposed to be a solidifying force for the Cubs in their weakest spot. Instead, a bizarre spate of injuries was compounded by poor performance when he was on the mound, leading to disastrous numbers (0-4/13SV/6.53ERA/1.60WHIP) that are nowhere near in line with his stellar career metrics. The club will fairly expect a return to form from Kimbrel, who earned himself a 3 year deal last season, though that isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Steamer has him projected for 35 saves and a 3.55ERA in what should be a bounce-back season.
Beyond Kimbrel, the Cubs have a few respectable bullpen options – Rowan Wick throws well out of a set-up spot (2-0/2.43ERA/1.14WHIP/9.45Kper9), though he has only done it for one season. Veteran Jeremy Jeffress fell off in 2019 after a career best 2018, but he still has the pedigree to make a difference. Beyond that, it’s slim pickings – a worrisome prospect for a club that is relying on older and more injury-prone arms in the rotation.
Storylines to Follow
There were many who thought that Bryant and the clubs may generate some bad blood after a difficult off-season service time negotiation. Both sides did well to dispel these worries around Spring Training, but KB is just two years away from being a free agent, and there are some who think that another failed season could see the Cubs move on from the one-time MVP.
What will the rotation look like come mid-season? There has been some stagnation in the group over the past few seasons (with the exception of the effective Hamels add in 2018), and there are concerns that Quintana and Lester may be reaching the end of their life-cycle as top-end rotation options. The Cubs are plum out of elite prospects coming through the system, and any injuries or further fall-off from the veterans will be catastrophic for their playoff hopes.
2019 Record: 89-73 (.549 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
The Brewers have turned over a ton of parts in an effort to maintain the competitive balance of a lineup that was mid-pack in terms of production in 2019, and which relied heavily on the MVP-like efforts of Christian Yelich. In re-upping with the Brew Crew for nine years, Yelich showed his commitment to bringing the club its first World Series title. Building on 2019’s solid foundation is the next step in the evolution of the team into perennial contender status.
Yelich (.329BA/44HR/97RBI/30SB/1.100OPS) was on his way to back-to-back MVP seasons in 2019 before fracturing his kneecap on a foul ball in mid-September. The injury didn’t just rob him of the MVP; it prevented him from taking part in Milwaukee’s Wild Card match-up with Nationals, which may well have been the determining factor in tipping the scales in Washington’s favor. There is no reason to believe that the injury will linger into this season. Yelich’s ages 24-27 season were comparable – in terms of WAR, cumulative HR, and wRC+ – to the likes of Andrew McCutchen, or Barry Bonds with slightly less mean power: which is to say that he is trending towards generational status. At 28, he enters the prime of his career with the possibility of establishing himself as one of the era’s truly elite players.
Beyond Yelich, one of the spring’s most intriguing names is 23-year old Keston Hiura, who proved to be deserving of every bit of his hype in his first half-season. By posting elite numbers (.303BA/19HR/49RBI/.570SLG/.938OPS/9SB in 348PA) at just 22, Hiura solidified himself within the next generation of elite middle infielders. He does strike out too much (30.7% K rate in 2019), but some minor adjustments at the plate could see his average reach .320, with comparable power growth.
Outside of the elite twosome of Yelich and Hiura, the Brewers have the potential to start 5 new bats in their Opening Day lineup, which is remarkable turnover for a playoff team. Gone is Yasmani Grandal, who gave the club All-Star numbers from the backstop in 2019, replaced by Omar Narvaez. From a pure stats standpoint, the change might seem minor (Narvaez hit well, with .278BA/22HR/55RBI/63R in 2019), but his hard-hitting stats are below league-average, and he’s never been relied on as an everyday catcher.
Avisail Garcia (.282BA/20HR/72RBI) joins a crowded outfield, but is a reliable source of mid-range pop. Justin Smoak had five solid seasons with the Blue Jays, including 38 home runs in 2017, and an unlucky 2019 (.274 BABIP against a .327 league average), so a bounce-back in the heart of the lineup is a possibility. Lorenzo Cain had a down-year in 2019 (.260BA against a .288 career average), but is still a reliable bat at the top of the order.
In one season, Brandon Woodruff went from mid-range prospect with long relief profile, to an ace, All-Star, and Wild Card game starter. He had some of the softest contact rates in the Majors, and a stellar 22.9 K-BB% en route to establishing himself as an upper-end starter. Take his nearly identical four-seam and sinker velocities (96.7 to 96.3), and you have a deceptive arsenal that should only get better with a few adjustments to induced ground balls.\
Beyond Woodruff, little in the rotation is guaranteed, but there is reason for optimism. Adrian Houser is an elite ground-ball inducer, with an equivalent four-seam/sinker combination to Woodruff, though his arsenal isn’t quite as diverse outside of that. He needs to rein in his home run rate, though some of that was attributable to a higher HR/FB rate (18.4%) on the year.
Veteran Brett Anderson had a renaissance year for Oakland in 2019, going 13-9 with a 3.89ERA, though his traditionally-low K rates and velocity in the low-90’s begs questioning. Josh Lindblom has been in-and-out of the Majors since reaching the league in 2011, but he was outstanding for Doosan of the KBO in 2019, winning the League MVP after going 20-3 with a 2.50 ERA and 189 K’s. His five-pitch mix will fit in well with the Brewers deceptive bunch. The fifth spot figures to go to Eric Lauer, who came over in the Trent Grisham deal, and who still has plenty of potential at just 24 years of age with two complete seasons under his belt.
Josh Hader is the best closer in the league, full stop. His 2019 season established him amongst the elite, and his continued ascension – a career 2.42 ERA and 6.6 WAR since debuting in 2017 are among the best at his position – gives the Brewers a reliable weapon and a near-guaranteed W. Add to that a career 15.4 K/9 rate – which is the highest of any pitcher to ever log 200 innings – and Milwaukee should brace for a big arbitration pay-day this summer.
Beyond Hader, there’s a lot to like in Milwaukee’s pen, including what many think will be a transition to set-up role of hard-throwing 23 year old Freddy Peralta, who needs improved home run rates (1.59 HR/9 and 15.5 HR/FB& in 2019) in order to establish himself as a weapon, but he has the stuff to do it. Lefties Brent Suter and Alex Claudio give the club reliable outs from the left-side, helping establish the pen as one of the most southpaw-strong in the Bigs. Former closer Corey Knebel will return from Tommy John surgery near the start of a shortened season, and it’ll be interesting to see how he re-establishes himself now that his role has been usurped. There are many who think that hard-throwing Corbin Burnes is destined for a rotation spot, but he’ll have to put a disastrous 2019 behind him (1-5 in 49.0IP/8.82ERA/1.84WHIP) to do so.
Storylines to Follow
There shouldn’t be any lingering injury issues for Yelich, so watching how he and Hiura grow as an elite duo in the heart of the order will be the fun part of following the Brew-Crew this season. Obviously, the enormous amount of turnover in the lineup leaves a little bit of uncertainty, but numbers and expectations are comparable, and things should become clearer once everyone’s role is crystallized.
The big question mark for the Brewers is their rotation. Outside of Woodruff – who looks to be every bit the ace the club could’ve hoped for – there are a handful of question marks. Will Adrian Houser continue his ascension to upper-tier option? Can Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom soft-toss their way to sub-4 ERA’s? Is there anyone else from the mix who can emerge as an elite number 3? In a division that should be hotly contested – and particularly in a shortened season – the Brewers can’t afford to wait. They’ll need to fish or cut bait early on.
2019 Record: 69-93 (.426 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
The Pirates are at the nadir of their standings cycle, and 2020 will not be a competitive year for them. The off-season saw them trade away franchise stalwart – and in many ways, the face of the franchise – Starling Marte, in exchange for a prospect package that included 2019 first rounder Brennan Malone. The club does still have some exciting options in the batting order, and some reliable arms – but with competition in the NL Central at a fever pitch, betting the Pirates to finish 5th is as safe as betting Mike Trout to hit above .270 this year.
The heart of the Pirates batting order is actually respectable. Josh Bell emerged as a force in 2019, hitting 37 home runs with 116 RBI’s across 613 plate appearances. At 27 years old, the slugger is coming into his prime years, and is likely to be a hot trade commodity over the next year or two. He isn’t eligible for free agency until 2023.
Bryan Reynolds is a name that a lot of people in baseball are high on, and it’s easy to see why: he hit .314 with 16 home runs, 68 RBI, and manageable contact numbers. His 4.1 WAR topped the team, and at 25 years old, he provides some hope for the club over the next few years. The same can be said of Kevin Newman, another 25 year old with solid contact metrics and a robust stat line (.308BA/12HR/64RBI/16SB) at the top of the order. These three are a solid and productive core, and with an average age of 26, there’s reason to believe they could still be around when the Pirates re-enter their competitive cycle.
Outside of the big three, there are a few other bats that intrigue. Adam Frazier and Colin Moran both put up respectable slash lines in the 6/7 spots, and if they can bump their averages up into the .280’s and hover around 20 home runs each, the Pirates lineup will actually have some juice. There’s still hope that Gregory Polanco can become what prospect hawks were touting him to be in his early 20’s, though injuries have largely hampered his last three years of productivity.
There is some hope that the club’s best positional prospect – third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes – could make the jump after a respectable year in AAA last season, but otherwise, there isn’t a ton of push from below. The Pirates will have to make do with what they have.
Joe Musgrove was never going to live up to the billing as the main pitching piece returned in the Gerrit Cole trade, and his 2019 was decidedly average. A 11-12 record with a 4.44 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 8.30 K/9 is hardly ace stuff, and Steamer doesn’t project much better for him. He’ll throw plenty of innings at the top of the rotation, but he is better utilized as a mid-to-fourth spot guy on a competitive team.
Chris Archer looks eminently out of place on a rebuilding squad, and suffered through a disastrous 2019 campaign, his first full one with the Bucs. At 3-9 with a 5.19 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, his show metrics were the worst of his career. His hard hit numbers were easily the worst of his career, including 1.88 HR/9, 20.2 HR/FB%, and 40.1 Hard Contact percentage. He is still striking guys out at a solid pace (10.75 K/9), but his velocity dropped off across the board in 2019, and that is a worrisome trend for a guy who needs to strike hitters out to be effective.
Top prospect Mitch Keller figures to make the full-time transition into the rotation this year, and it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts. He looked a bit overmatched in his first 11 starts in 2019, but he throws pretty hard, and has some excellent breaking stuff. He should also benefit from a rebound in batted ball luck: his .475 BABIP against was the third worst in MLB history, and he had a strong 3.19 FIP to go along with an elite 7.0% walk rate. There is reason to be bullish on Keller in the event he gets into the rotation from Opening Day, and we’ll be watching him closely.
Trevor Williams, who will turn 28 this year, wasn’t able to emulate a stellar 2018 season, and profiles as a fastball-dependent bottom-of-the-rotation guy. Steven Brault is pencilled in as the 5th starter, but he’ll be pushed by free agent signee Derek Holland and recent Tommy John recoveree, Chad Kuhl
Keone Kela slid into the closer role after Felipe Vazquez’s suspension last season, and didn’t look out of place in the least. He is a high velocity thrower with a reliance on a four seamer and a cutter, but he’ll need to develop something off-speed if he wants to truly enter the elite. He doesn’t really have anyone pushing from below; Kyle Crick strikes batters out, but also gives up too many home runs. Michael Feliz might be a decent in-house option if Kela falters, but there isn’t really a baked-in solution.
Storylines to Follow
The Pirates are well aware that they are unlikely to compete for anything other than 4th in the division this season, so look for them to make the most out of the scant positives they have. They have some solid young bats – led by Bell, Reynolds, and Newman – and major league quality arms, but all that means at this point in their rebuilding cycle is that they have some decent trade chips come the deadline. There won’t be much in the way of top-prospect elevation this year, either, as Keller and Hayes figure to be the only ones to get any real shot at the Bigs.
If they do decide to sell come the deadline, they’ll need Archer, Williams, Bell, and Musgrove – their most likely trade chips – to be performing well in the first half of the season. They’ll also want to see that Keller is every bit the blue chipper they had him pegged as for the past few seasons in the minors. On the whole, a mid-60’s win season is likely, with 70 wins not entirely impossible, but unlikely in such a competitive division.