I didn’t expect it to be this way, but here we are in 2020 playing baseball! As is tradition, Pirates fans are looking to the future (again), but, unlike a normal year, we won’t have to endure 162 games of a historically bad baseball team. Frankly, I would rather watch 162 games of this team than deal with a pandemic, but we all have to cling to whatever silver linings are available this summer.
Mitch Keller‘s lackluster start and subsequent injury diagnosis sunk the ship before the sails were even hoisted. We will raise fewer Jolly Rogers this year than ever before. And yet, there is still hope. There are still reasons to watch the Pirates in 2020. These are my Pirates 10 Names You Need To Know right now, and I went a little off course here and not all of them are prospects.
Nick Gonzales, 2B
The 7th overall pick in the 2020 draft was a huge get for the Buccos. Regarded as one of the top bats in the class, Gonzales hit a preposterous .392/.484/.690 for New Mexico State over his 112-game college career. In the first 16 games of the COVID-shortened 2020 college campaign, Gonzales managed to hit TWELVE home runs. Sixteen games, TWELVE home runs. Add those numbers to the indefatigable work ethic he has shown throughout his life, the constant doubters he has endured on his way to becoming a top-10 pick, and a chance to be the next player to put the city of Pittsburgh on his back and usher in a new age for the North Side Swashbucklers, and, well, I am in love already. Hard to say what the state of the minor leagues will be next season, but I think we might be due for a Gonzales cup-o-coffee in 2021 with a blistering debut in 2022. That 2022 debut should line up nicely with the debut of Kumar Rocker, who the Pirates are sure to take in the 2021 Draft after the tragedy of 2020 is behind us all. Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Oneil Cruz, and Ke’Bryan Hayes should make for a great core. A hitting core that is capable of leading a team back to the playoffs if the Bucs can just find some pitching along the way.
Cole Tucker, SS-OF
Tucker is the type of player you really want to see succeed. Those flowing locks are hard to ignore when they are running down fly balls in the outfield. I don’t know if Tucker will be an impact player long-term, but he could be the type of player that hangs around in Pittsburgh as a fan favorite for several years to come. Tucker learned the outfield on the job this spring/summer and has handled himself well no matter where Shelton has planted him each game. We are still waiting for Cole to exhibit the patience (10+ BB%) at the plate that he showed in the minor leagues, but if he can find a way to hit .250 in the big leagues and play nearly every position on the field, the Pirates are going to find a way keep him around. I see a lot of Josh Harrison in Cole Tucker, and as any good Pirates faithful knows, that is high praise.
JT Brubaker, P
Brubaker is a pitcher who has always been able to keep runs off the board. He excelled in four starts at AAA at the end of 2019, and with the current state of the Pirates pitching staff was given a chance to pitch out of the bullpen at the big league level in 2020. After five innings of dominant relief pitching, Keller’s injury opened up a pathway for Brubaker to pitch for the Pirates as a starter. In his first start this season Brubaker got tagged by Miguel Sano for a mammoth bomb (join the club, meat), but showed the confidence and ability to throw his offspeed pitches in hitters counts, good velocity, and decent command. In Sano’s next at bat, Brubaker struck him out looking with a great curveball low and away. The Pirates might just have a nice 3-4 type starter on their hands.
Cody Bolton, P
In a normal 2020, I wouldn’t expect Bolton to sniff the big club. But with more and more Pirate pitchers absolutely imploding, there is an outside chance that Bolton gets a short start or two at the end of the year. His fastball/slider combo might also work well out of the pen at the end of the year, if only to get him a few reps against some advanced competition. Bolton was given a pretty loud vote of confidence by the organization when he was put on to the taxi squad for this year. If enough goes wrong, and it certainly appears to be headed in the direction, Cherington and Co. might just want to give the youngster a big-league test.
Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B
The Pirates caught a few cases of COVID-19 in summer camp, and unfortunately, Hayes was one of them. Until he went down with the virus, Hayes had an outside shot of starting the year in the majors. He is back working out with the team, and given the revolving door of third basemen the Pirates are running out there each day, I think there is a good chance we see Hayes this season. Still considered a glove-first prospect, I am chomping at the bit to see Hayes take some at-bats versus major league pitching because I think he is going to surprise a few folks with his knack for finding the barrel.
Will Craig, 1B
What can I say, I still want to be done talking about Will Craig. However, I also want the front office to learn everything they can about the cast of characters they now control. If one of those lessons is that we need to trade Craig for a case of beer, I am ready to accept that reality. Conversely, if Craig can show that he can send a few balls over the fence against legitimate pitchers, I wouldn’t mind seeing his elite glove at first base for an extended look.
Carmen Mlodzinski, P
The Pirates took Mlodzinski with the 31st pick in the 2020 draft. The college stats are not eye-popping, but the numbers from the 2019 Cape Cod League are incredible. Carmen did an excellent job of keeping runners off the bases in the Cape, walking one batter or less is every single appearance. On top of that, he punched out 40 batters in just 29.1 innings. His fastball can touch 99MPH (sits more comfortably in the mid-90s), and he sports a power curveball to go along with a developing changeup. You won’t see him this season (or next), but he is certainly a name to know, even if you can’t pronounce it.
Sam Howard, P
Howard came over to the Buccos this season from the Rockies. Shockingly, he was yet another pitcher who didn’t find much success pitching at high elevation. That said, the Pirates have one of the worst bullpens in the big leagues, and Howard recently came in for a high-leverage relief appearance versus the Cubs where he was able to keep the game tied by striking out three batters in two innings. Yes, he also walked two guys, but I really liked what I saw from Howard that day. With a few more appearances like that we could see Howard emerge as a legitimate late-inning option for the Pirates this season.
Colin Moran, 3B
Is Colin Moran a prospect? Far from it. But you know what? He is near the top of the National League in home runs and has already put a ball into the Allegheny this season. Moran is the reason that I am going to accept the DH in the National League going forward. Moran is sporting a career-best 92.9 exit velocity (as of 8/5/2020) and has a barrel percentage in the top 2% of the league. Of course, it is a small sample, but we are already 10% of the way through this season. Please don’t break my heart, Colin (even though I know you will).
Derek Shelton, Manager
What is the meaning of this! A manager?! Outrageous! Yeah, well, the Pirates have very few names on the 60-man to even be excited about, so I want to highlight Shelton. It is hard to say how much a manager can impact the outcomes on a game-to-game basis, but I think we might get a good idea of how Shelton will manage players going forward from what we see this season. In short, he is a name to know. Shelton’s ability to get on the same page with the front office, especially in such a weird year, is going to be an essential part of the next phase of the franchise. I am eager to see how he will manage the rotation and bullpen, how willing he will be to give youngsters an extended look, and how well he is able to keep the positivity flowing in what will undoubtedly be one of the more forgettable seasons in Pirate history.