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.
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.