PITTSBURGH (AP) — Derek Shelton believes the Pittsburgh Pirates are already winning in the clubhouse.
“I’m really proud of the culture we’ve created here,” Shelton said after his second year as manager ended the same as the first, with Pittsburgh a distant fifth place in the NL Central. “We're moving in the right direction.”
At least under the surface.
While the minor league system has been restocked thanks to the drafting of players like first overall pick Henry Davis and a series of trades in which general manager Ben Cherington flipped established players for prospects, the major league product remains very much in a state of flux.
The Pirates used 64 players in 2021, breaking the club record of 55 set in 2016. That number includes a record 38 pitchers, few of whom were particularly effective for a team that finished with the second-worst ERA (5.08) in the National League and third-worst in the majors.
While a couple of building blocks — namely All-Star center fielder Bryan Reynolds and third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes — are already in place, the majority of the rest of the roster felt like the Uber line at an airport with people coming and going at will.
For every success story like reliever David Bednar (who revitalized his career with a 3-1 record and a 2.23 ERA while pitching for his hometown team) there was a Trevor Cahill (1-5, 6.57).
The same went for the position players. John Nogowski achieved fleeting cult status after arriving in early July. By late September he was playing for San Francisco. Todd Frazier was signed in February to provide veteran leadership to a young club. He was gone by mid-May. Adam Frazier started at second base in the All-Star Game. A couple weeks later, while leading the majors in hits, he was traded to San Diego. Longtime outfielder Gregory Polanco slumped and was booed at PNC Park. He was released in August.
The Pirates stress they are building an identity while pointing toward the future. Maybe, but their self-imposed purgatory and three straight last-place finishes have also left the fan base without much to cling to in the present.
The Pirates drew 14 crowds of 10,000 fans or fewer once COVID-19 capacity restrictions were lifted on July 1, more than they did in the previous five years combined. Their record of 61-101, the franchise’s worst since 2010, didn't help.
There were moments of electricity, with 6-foot-7 shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz providing one last jolt in the season finale when the 23-year-old hit his first major league home run. Cruz knows he's one of the pieces the Pirates are counting when — or maybe more importantly, if — their window to contend reopens.
“I hope that players like myself do bring hope to this community, this city and organization,” he said. “But in all reality, I just want to win. I’m up here, and I want to help this organization win. I dream about being a champion, even if it’s just for one year, but I want to be a champion.”
The typically low-key Reynolds bristled during the early days of spring training when asked repeatedly about a forgettable 2020 in which he hit .189. Reynolds responded by putting together the best season of his still-young career, batting .302 with a team-high 24 home runs while playing solid defense after moving from left field to center field.
Reynolds is diplomatic about the possibility of signing a contract that buys out his arbitration years, though locking either Reynolds or Hayes — or both — semi-long term would provide an anchor for the rebuild much in the way Andrew McCutchen's did when he signed a six-year deal in 2012 that set the tone for a group that went on to three straight playoff berths from 2013-15.
KEYING ON KE'BRYAN
Hayes' first full season in the majors started with a home run. It was one of the few highlights during a year where he missed most of the first two months with a left wrist issue that flared up again in September. In between, he hit .257 with six home runs while playing the kind of defense that helped him earn three Gold Gloves in the minors.
The growing pains are difficult, though Hayes pointed to a recent chat with Cincinnati veteran first baseman Joey Votto as proof better days lie ahead.
“He was saying, ‘You guys are going to be really good. You’ve got some pieces. It’s just once y’all get some time under (your) belt,'” Hayes said, later adding, "I feel like it’s going to be really fun in a couple years.”
While the Pirates did have their share of forgettable plays in the field — former first baseman Will Craig's now-infamous rundown between first and home with Javy Baez chief among them — Pittsburgh's defense took a significant step forward in 2021. The Pirates committed just 70 errors, the fewest in the majors and the fewest in franchise history.
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