PITTSBURGH (AP) - The centerpiece of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ future likes what he sees, down the road at least.
“Once we add guys and we have younger guys in the system that are really good, and once we get all that together and the chemistry is good I think we’re going to be really good,” third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes said.
At some point. At least in theory. When, exactly, no one knows. Including the brain trust still in the early stages of a top-to-bottom remodel.
While general manager Ben Cherington and second-year manager Derek Shelton stress they are intent on taking the field each day with a roster capable of competing, the team’s offseason moves suggest they’re more focused on some blurry spot down the road when the day-in, day-out struggle at the major-league level is more of a fair fight.
First baseman Josh Bell and four major league starters - including Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove - are gone. Most of them flipped over the winter for prospects whose arrival time in Pittsburgh is still very much up in the air.
“We made some trades this offseason,” Cherington said. “Whatever improvement we’ve seen in our overall organizational talent, and I think we have seen some in the last year, it’s not enough. We’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to be one of the stronger organizations just in terms of overall talent to give ourselves the best chance to win.”
Where that leaves the Pirates heading into 2021 is basically a self-induced purgatory. There are players like Hayes - a revelation when he hit .376 in 24 games after being called up last September - left fielder Bryan Reynolds and pitcher Mitch Keller who figure to be part of the long-term plans.
Then there are veteran vagabonds like first baseman Todd Frazier and outfielder Brian Goodwin who signed one-year deals in hopes of keeping their careers alive and providing an example to the younger players on what it takes to become a long-tenured major leaguer.
“It’s a good core group of fun-loving guys,” Frazier said. “They like to joke around. But when it’s go time they click it on. So, so far so good. We’ve been working hard. Now we’re at the time of trying to get acclimated again with the new parts of it and figuring out where to go.”
There’s nowhere to go but up for a team that finished with the worst record (19-41) in the majors during the truncated 2020 season. The Pirates welcome back fans to PNC Park this summer. How far the team climbs this summer will likely depend on if Hayes can build upon his promising debut and whether a patched-together pitching staff will find a little bit of momentum in pitching coach Oscar Marin’s second season.
Frazier’s prime - when he was a two-time All-Star third baseman in Cincinnati - is long gone. Still, “The Toddfather” has developed a reputation as a vibrant clubhouse presence. Goodwin is on his fifth team in six years but is hoping to stabilize a wide-open race in center field.
Left-handed starter Tyler Anderson went 4-3 with a 4.37 ERA in San Francisco last season and gives the Pirates a second lefty option after Steven Brault. Relievers Trevor Cahill and Duane Underwood join a bullpen that is likely to get plenty of work considering the starting rotation figures to be treated with kid gloves, particularly early in the season.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
The Pirates are still so early in the build-up stage that the high-impact prospects figure to still be a year or more away from playing in the majors, save for Hayes.
The son of longtime major leaguer Charlie Hayes finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2020 and is eligible for the award again in 2021. The 23-year-old is the closest thing Pittsburgh has to a “face of the franchise.”
“(I plan on) just helping being a leader and just each day just making sure just kind of checking in on like everyone in the clubhouse and being able to build chemistry,” Hayes said. “I feel like chemistry within your clubhouse is one of the bigger things with winning teams.”
Right fielder Gregory Polanco is the last link to the group that reached the playoffs each year from 2013-15. The 29-year-old is also making $11.5 million this season, nearly a quarter of the payroll. That’s a lot for any player, let alone one who hit just .153 in 2020.
His eighth season in Pittsburgh figures to be his last with the club holding the option for both 2022 and 2023. The best-case scenario for all involved is hope Polanco returns to his 2018 form when he hit a career-high 23 home runs, which would let the Pirates flip him at the trade deadline and allow the relentlessly optimistic Polanco kick start his career elsewhere.
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