Fantasy Breakdown: Pittsburgh Pirates for 2021

A preview of Pittsburgh's lineup, rotation, and bullpen for 2021.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2021 hub here.

 

At A Glance

 

The Pittsburgh Pirates (19-41) were the worst team in baseball in 2020. In their case, they’ll quietly be happy ‘Trusting the Process’ and subsequently being rewarded with Kumar Rocker as the first pick in the 2021 Amateur Draft. And while the Pirates were terrible in 2020, GM Ben Cherington has traded underperforming franchise player Josh Bell and more recently aces Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon, so being bad and ending up with a high pick again in 2022’s Amateur Draft is highly likely.

Pittsburgh’s lone bright spot on offense will be Ke’Bryan Hayes, who was outstanding as a rookie. If everyone’s healthy in the rotation, the Pirates might not have the number one pick in 2022’s draft. Might.

 

Hitters

 

Projected Lineup

 

Infielders

 

Adam Frazier (2B/OF)

2020: 22 R, 7 HR, 23 RBI, 1 SB, .230/.297/.364 | 2B #36

2021 ADP: 488.9 (2B #48)

 

Adam Frazier is like a player the Pirates once had: Brock Holt. Both players are known for controlling the strike zone, hitting for a fairly high average, decent speed with hardly any steals, and positional utility. In Frazier’s case, the positional utility resulted in a plus defensive effort from both second base (+4 DRS) and left field (+2 DRS). Unfortunately, fielding has no value in fantasy leagues. Frazier’s poor .230 average can be derived from a combination of an unsightly .246 BABIP and appalling 85.5 mph average exit velocity. If that BABIP shoots up again next season to the .300 mark — like he normally does — you will probably see a ~.270 average like he’s put up in the past. Of course, average is the only category Frazier currently offers, since his runs scored will be down if he sticks in the predicted platoon in 2021. 

 

Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B)

2020: 17 R, 5 HR, 11 RBI, 1 SB, .376/.442/.682 | 3B #42

2021 ADP: 136.2 (3B #16)

 

Ke’Bryan Hayes‘ foray into the big leagues was a huge success. The Pirates’ top prospect hit the ball hard, and with consistency, while playing a superb hot corner (+4 DRS, 3 OAA). What makes Hayes even more attractive is that he stole at least 10 bases from 2017 to 2019 in the minor leagues, including a whopping 27 in 2017. As a reference point, only José Ramírez and Yoán Moncada reached double-digit steals in 2019. If he can improve on his launch angle and hit more home runs — say 20-25 — Hayes can become a fantasy star with his five-tool talent. That’s something you buy over and over again as the 16th third baseman currently coming off the board. 

 

Colin Moran (1B)

2020: 28 R, 10 HR, 23 RBI, 0 SB, .247/.325/.472 | 1B #29

2021 ADP: 461.6 (1B #44)

 

Moran did a lot of things right in 2020, none more important than hitting the ball harder than ever. With a 91.9 mph average exit velocity and 13.9% barrel percentage, Moran hit 10 home runs with a .255 xBA and .480 xSLG — higher marks than he posted with his real stat line. However, despite his successes, Moran lacks the track record of high productivity and can end up a platoon bat (.686 OPS v LHP), so I would keep him on waivers unless in the deepest of leagues. 

 

Jacob Stallings (C)

2020: 13 R, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 0 SB, .248/.326/.376 | C #21

2021 ADP: 379.7 (C #30)

 

Stallings had a .305 wOBA (.271 xwOBA) last season, and his past production doesn’t suggest he’s a hitter worth considering in a fantasy lineup — the Pirates’ catcher has never hit more than 10 home runs in a professional season. This is an easy pass. 

 

Erik Gonzalez (SS)

2020: 14 R, 3 HR, 20 RBI, 2 SB, .227/.255/.359 | SS #46

2021 ADP: Undrafted

 

It was a tale of two seasons for Erik Gonzalez. In July and August, Gonzalez hit .266/.296/.457 with a .191 ISO — which would have been a career-high if it continued. September was a different story, however, as the Pirates shortstop hit .184/.213/.253 with a .069 ISO. While Gonzalez was a nice story to start the 2020 season, his career has reflected a light-hitting player who isn’t particularly useful for fantasy. 

 

Outfielders

 

Bryan Reynolds (OF)

2020: 24 R, 7 HR, 19 RBI, 1 SB, .189/.275/.357 | OF #101

2021 ADP: 283.2 (OF #77)

 

Reynolds had his sophomore slump in 2020, his first season posting a sub .300 average in his professional career. The switch hitter’s troubles came from not hitting the ball hard enough, as his average exit velocity dropped from 89.5 mph to 87.5 mph, resulting in a decreased xBA from .300 to .228. Looking deeper, there weren’t any glaring signs to explain the drop-off, as Reynolds increased the number of balls he hit in the air (fly balls and line drives), wasn’t swinging and missing more than last year, and had reasonably good plate discipline. Given his prior track record, I’d bet on Reynolds becoming a relevant fantasy asset in 2021.  

 

Gregory Polanco (OF)

2020: 12 R, 7 HR, 22 RBI, 3 SB, .153/.214/.325 | OF #121

2021 ADP: 417.0 (OF #103)

 

Gregory Polanco had a poor season in 2020, but it was still stood out for his career as he mashed the ball at a level that didn’t seem possible looking at his prior numbers. Polanco’s hard-hit percentage was generally in the high 30’s though plummeted to 30.4% in 2019. The sweet-swinging left-hander posted a 51.6% hard-hit rate in 2020 with an increase of 3.5 mph on his average exit velocity too. Additionally, Polanco hit more balls in the air last season (49.5% to 57.9% FB+LD), so the question is: Why did he struggle so much in 2020? ‘El Coffee’ struggled to make consistent contract accompanied by a ghastly 20.9% swinging strike percentage and only making contact on 58.9% of swings —yikes! What might Polanco be if he starts trying to make more contact? Does he stop hitting the ball hard entirely? Disregarding his valid injury concerns, Polanco might be better thought of as a watch list candidate until we see signs that he can balance his new batted ball profile with better plate discipline.

 

Anthony Alford (OF)

2020: 5 R, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 3 SB, .214/.241/.500 | OF #147

2021 ADP: Undrafted

 

Longtime Toronto Blue Jays top prospect Anthony Alford got picked up off waivers from the Pirates late in 2020, hitting a home run and a triple in five games before succumbing to a season-ending elbow injury. Of course, injuries are not new for Alford, who’s suffered plenty of ailments over his professional career and unfortunately has not been able to play enough games at the major league level to credibly judge his ability. From what he’s done, we can expect Alford to use his 70-grade speed to steal plenty of bases if he’s able to play every day in center field while producing below average results at the plate. The best course of action is to watch distantly and hoping he’s healthy enough to show his true talent.   

 

Watch List Considerations

 

Kevin Newman hit .308 in 2019, so there was some excitement that he could repeat it in 2020 — he did not. Newman does not hit the ball hard but his minor league career suggests he’s a good bet to hit for a high average and not offer much else. Other Pirates regulars in 2020 were Phillip Evans and Cole Tucker. Evans had a .938 OPS in 11 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury after colliding with Gregory Polanco on a popup. Evans profiles more as a platoon option against left-handed pitching but could take over first base duties should Colin Moran struggle. Meanwhile, Tucker was poor with the bat and defensively in the outfield again in 2020, though Cherington mentioned that Tucker would go back to his natural shortstop in 2021 — maybe we see something better than we have to date. 

On the prospect side, Oneil Cruz is the flashy name being a top prospect. The 6-foot-7 Cruz will one day become a force in the Pirates’ lineup — whether that be at shortstop or in the outfield — but that probably won’t be in 2021. Jared Oliva played sparingly for Pittsburgh last season, but showed great potential as a contact-oriented speedster with roughly a .275 average and over 30 stolen bases in both 2018 and 2019. I’d expect Oliva to be the main competition for Alford in center field in spring training. Finally, we reach recent minor league addition Troy Stokes Jr. Stokes did not play in 2020 but has shown flashes of 20/20 potential throughout the minors. Since he has two minor league options remaining, Stokes would need to have a monster spring training to leapfrog Alford and Oliva in the outfield competition.

 

Starting Pitchers

 

Steven Brault (Likely Starter)

2020: 1-3, 42.2 IP, 38 K, 3.38 ERA, 1.20 WHIP | SP #110

2021 ADP: Undrafted

Repertoire: 38.9% Four-Seam, 24.3% Changeup, 22.5% Slider, 11.8% Sinker, 2.5% Curveball

 

Steven Brault isn’t someone you should get overly excited about. He doesn’t throw hard and doesn’t strikeout out too many batters. However, Brault did put together an impressive 2020 — on the surface — with a 3.38 ERA (3.92 FIP) and an 85.8 mph average exit velocity. Under the surface, there are notable red flags — a 4.85 xFIP, 5.07 SIERA, walked 12.8% of batters faced, a 9% swinging-strike rate, and the king of them all, a .243 BABIP. For what it’s worth, Brault’s slider in 2019 yielded a 22% swinging-strike rate, according to Fangraphs. On the other hand, Baseball Savant had Brault throwing a cutter and slider, where the former generated whiffs on 49% of swings which was more than the 32.8% figure on the latter. In 2020, Baseball Savant only registered a slider and the results were fairly poor with a 20.5% whiff rate. If Brault is able to regain his cutter/slider from 2019, whatever it might be, and pairs it with his dynamite changeup (.138 wOBA/.196 xwOBA) from this past season, then he could be worth monitoring. For the time being, you should look elsewhere for fantasy starters.

 

Chad Kuhl (Locked In Starter)

2020: 2-3, 46.1 IP, 44 K, 4.27 ERA, 1.36 WHIP | SP #130

2021 ADP: Undrafted

Repertoire: 42.1% Sinker, 34.5% Slider, 17.6% Curveball, 4.2% Changeup, 1.6% Four-Seam

 

Chad Kuhl made his return to the mound in 2020 after missing all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery. And supporting the trend of the post-Ray Searage era in Pittsburgh, Kuhl threw fewer than 50% fastballs and upped his slider and curveball usages. The results were mixed, however. His sinker was hammered to a .469 wOBA (.511 xwOBA) — a problem when thrown 42% of the time — despite holding nice results with his slider (.289 xwOBA) and curveball (.157 xwOBA). The biggest problem for the right-hander was a walk rate that nearly doubled from 8.8% to 14.2%. With a great number of breaking balls, you’ll probably be expecting that to be the cause of his inability to throw pitches in the zone, a paltry 39.5% of the time in 2020 for Kuhl. The good news is that his slider and curveball registered 51.3% and 48.5% zone rates, respectively, right in line with his career norms. The issue was with his sinker, as the zone rate dropped precipitously from roughly 52% to near 41%. I would expect with another year, the 28-year-old will be able to regain his control of the sinker and potentially become a nice starter at the back end of fantasy rosters.

 

Mitch Keller (Locked In Starter)

2020: 1-1, 21.2 IP, 16 K, 2.91 ERA, 1.25 WHIP | SP #132

2021 ADP: 308.6 (P #116)

Repertoire: 55.6% Four-Seam, 21.8% Slider, 19.5% Curveball, 3.1% Changeup, 

 

While Keller suffered bad luck in 2019, he had tons of it in the innings he pitched in 2020 outside of time missed due to injury. The young right-hander recorded a 2.91 ERA but that’s attached to a 6.75 FIP/6.57 xFIP. Additionally, Keller had the lowest strikeout to walk differential amongst pitchers with at least 20 innings thrown last season at -2.3%. Yes, negative, meaning he walked more than he struck out. While his underlying traits in 2019 made Keller a popular sleeper in fantasy drafts, his 2020 performance makes him hard to desire more than a watch list consideration. Though given his production in the minor leagues, you should probably expect better results as a high strikeout pitcher with a fairly low walk total, but it’s just hard to predict given the lack of major league innings at this point.

 

JT Brubaker (Likely Starter)

2020: 1-3, 47.1 IP, 48 K, 4.94 ERA, 1.37 WHIP | SP #168

2021 ADP: Undrafted

Repertoire: 35.1% Sinker, 32.3% Slider, 13.9% Four-Seam, 13.7% Curveball, 5.0% Changeup,

 

JT Brubaker should be the fifth starter now that Joe Musgrove is in sunny San Diego. The Pirates’ rookie pitched decently well to a 4.94 ERA (4.08 FIP), mostly in the rotation though had a couple of relief appearances. Brubaker mostly attacks with his sinker and slider but also uses another traditional combination of the four-seam fastball and curveball. Despite using the sinker the most, the right-hander’s ground ball rate was 46.7% — it’s under 50%, so not elite, but still at a solid clip. That’s a trend for Brubaker, as he strikes out 23.4% of batters and walked 8.3% of those he faced — again, mediocre. Though given his tools, Brubaker could be able to add more strikeouts through his changeup. The offspeed pitch (-7.8 inches horizontal, 2.9 inches vertical) moves similarly to his sinker (-9.1 inches horizontal, 4.6 inches vertical), and while only at a 5 mph differential, Brubaker still got a whiff on 31.3% of swings against it. Increasing the change’s usage from five percent — think a more egalitarian approach between the sinker and change to add deception — and adding that with fewer four-seamers (.510 wOBA/.393 xwOBA) and more curveballs (.207 wOBA, 38.1% Whiff), Brubaker has strikeout potential going into his sophomore campaign.

 

Wil Crowe (Fringe Starter)

2020: 0-2, 8.1 IP, 8 K, 11.88 ERA, 2.64 WHIP | Unranked

2021 ADP: Undrafted

Repertoire: 35.7% Four-Seam, 29.4% Slider,  23.8% Sinker, 8.7% Curveball, 2.4% Changeup

 

Wil Crowe was acquired from the Nationals in the Josh Bell trade, and with Musgrove and Taillon now on different teams, the right-hander has a shot to get the Pirates’ final spot in the rotation. Pittsburgh’s new addition has a deep arsenal of five pitches and did decently well in Double-A in 2019 (3.87 ERA, 95.1 IP) before struggling in Triple-A later that year (6.17 ERA, 54 IP). In addition to the poor performance late in 2019, Crowe also made three abysmal starts for Washington last season, so it doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence going into 2021.

 

Watch List Considerations

 

There is a dearth of options for Pittsburgh’s rotation and there’s seemingly only one ready in Sean Poppen. Poppen was effective in his 7.1 innings during the 2020 season (4.70 ERA/2.15 FIP), relying on a sinker and slider. Despite never starting at the major league level, he has experience doing it in the minors — think of him as a potential swingman. 

 

Relief Pitchers

 

Bullpen Roles

 

Richard Rodriguez (Closer)

2020: 4 SV, 2 HLD, 23.1 IP, 34 K, 2.70 ERA, 0.86 WHIP | RP #13

2021 ADP: 218.1 (P #78)

 

The year started with Keone Kela as the closer but ended with Richard Rodriguez locking up that role. Rodriguez was dynamite in 2020 in large part to nearly doubling his slider usage from 14.3% to 27.6%. Considering hitters whiffed on 63.6% of swings against the breaker, it’s rather shocking Rodriguez still used the pitch less than a third of the time. If he throws it more in 2021, as he should — maybe ~40% —Rodriguez could be an even better reliever.

 

Chris Stratton (Next In Line)

2020: 0 SV, 5 HLD, 30.0 IP, 39 K, 3.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP | RP (Unranked)/SP #101

2021 ADP: Undrafted

 

After having lackluster seasons with the Giants and Angels, Chris Stratton has hit his stride as a reliever with Pittsburgh for the past year and a half. The high-spin hurler increased his strikeout rate to the precipice of the elite 30% mark and increased his strikeout to walk differential to roughly 20%. Stratton’s new high, like most Pirates pitchers in 2020, was reached from throwing fewer fastballs and tossing more breaking balls. While Stratton has certainly entrenched himself towards the backend of the Pirates’ bullpen, there are relievers of similar stature lurking for the opportunity should the 30-year-old struggle.

 

Kyle Crick (Other Holds Options)

2020: 0 SV, 0 HLD, 5.2 IP, 7 K, 1.59 ERA, 1.94 WHIP | RP #234

2021 ADP: Undrafted

 

Kyle Crick was unfortunately not able to put behind a disastrous 2019 campaign this past season due to a myriad of injuries. In Crick’s short stint in 2020, the right-hander threw sliders over 50% of the time, a stark change from the season prior where he threw more fastballs — I know, shocker. But the one thing we should monitor is Crick’s walks. His best season was in 2018, walking 9% of batters en route to a sparkling 2.39 ERA/3.14 FIP. However, in 54.2 innings since the start of 2019, that figure has crept up to a startling 15.3%. Despite being on the Pirates, Crick needs to walk far fewer batters in 2021 to keep himself in the bullpen.

 

Michael Feliz (Other Holds Options)

2020: 0 SV, 0 HLD, 1.2 IP, 2 K, 32.40 ERA, 3.60 WHIP | RP #353

2021 ADP: Undrafted

 

Michael Feliz, like his teammate Kyle Crick, missed virtually all of 2020 due to injury. Feliz has not had the same success in Pittsburgh as he did in Houston and that can probably be attributed to his reduced slider usage. From each season from 2016 to 2019, the slider usage is as follows: 31.2%, 26.7%, 22.2%, and 20.2%. Bearing in mind that the pitch is his best whiff option, it was encouraging to see Feliz throw his slider more often in his short time in 2020 — seeing more of it could vault him to at least being the set-up man quickly with his mid-90s fastball.

 

Watch List Considerations

 

The Pirates are taking a flier on Carson Fulmer to be in their bullpen. Despite boasting a top prospect pedigree and boosting his strikeout rate last season, there is probably still a lot of work that needs to be done before Fulmer becomes a trustworthy asset. With Nik Turley now in Oakland, Sam Howard is now the only left-hander projected to be in the Pirates’ bullpen. While Howard was actually better against right-handed batters last season, his overwhelming employment of the slider should help him revert back to his career norms as more of a ‘LOOGY’ type. The final man on our list is David Bednar, coming over from San Diego in the Musgrove trade, who should spend most of his season with the big league club. Bednar boasts a mid-90s fastball, a big curveball, and a new splitter that he learned with Padres advisor Hideo Nomo, that has helped him generally be a high strikeout reliever through his time in the minor leagues.

 

ADP data taken from FantasyPros composite ADPs [hyperlink to be added once 2021 data is available].

2020 Positional Rankings from Razzball’s 12-team Player Rater (ESPN).

Photo by: Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Jai Correa

Jai Correa is an alumnus of UMass Amherst. He is incredibly passionate about the Red Sox, Indian cricket and economics.

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