First Pitch: What to Watch For in 2020

Real, live baseball has returned!

It’s easy to make a lot about the first game of Spring Training, and the early results. You go almost four months without baseball. Pirates fans can probably add a few months to that total. Then you finally get a game with your first look at the upcoming season, and it’s hard not to put too much weight on that game for one day.

Fortunately, things don’t really matter for the Pirates as far as contending in 2020. They’re a team that is building, or rebuilding, or whatever you want to call the fact that they aren’t a contending team now, and we don’t know when they will be again.

For me, today’s game is just the start of a long season of looks to the future. I wrote yesterday about how the Pirates could contend with their current roster and the prospects coming through the pipeline. Ben Cherington has a growing group of talented prospects in the lower levels, and this looks good for the long-term future.

That isn’t to say that Cherington can’t get the Pirates to winning before all of those 20-and-under guys reach the majors. The Pirates still have prospects in their system who can help in the next year or two, in an attempt to get the Pirates back to contending as soon as possible. Cherington is going to need more help from outside the farm system to contend with those guys.

But where is that help needed? There are a lot of obvious areas on this team where upgrades are needed, and by the end of the season those projections could look totally different.

My focus this season will be on the guys who might be able to close some holes on the roster, and narrow Cherington’s outside search in future years.

Today’s lineup provides a nice group of players who might be able to help:

Mitch Keller is obviously the big name here. He could emerge as the future leader of the Pirates’ rotation. They will need starting pitching help behind him, but having a top of the rotation guy is a massive first step toward contending. This season will give an indication of whether Keller could reach that upside.

There are some obvious questions with players who have been on the roster in the past. Can Josh Bell find more offense and improve his defense? Is Adam Frazier’s performance over the last year and a half, on both sides of the ball, the real deal?

The biggest question in this category would be whether Bryan Reynolds can repeat and/or improve on his rookie campaign. Reynolds could be a huge part of the Pirates’ future if he shows that the 2019 performance was legit.

Jared Oliva could be an outfield option in the near future, with two spots up in the air right now. Center field is one of those spots, and he can play the position well. I’d be surprised if he gets a lot of time in center field in this big league camp, since he’s not an Opening Day option.

Cole Tucker needs to figure out how to hit with consistency in order to stick in the majors. A successful combo of Tucker and Kevin Newman in the majors would allow the Pirates to move Fraizer to give an additional boost the farm system.

There are some hard throwing relievers going today who might be a boost to the bullpen at some point in the next year. I think Clay Holmes stands out as a guy who still might be able to convert to the rotation.

The Pirates need help all over the field if they want to contend in the future. They seem intent on finding out what they’ve got internally before adding from the outside. The 2020 season won’t matter as far as contending, but it will matter in terms of watching to see which younger players will emerge as future options.

**We’ll have a live discussion post up later today for the game. We will have a live discussion for every Spring Training and regular season game this year.

**Wlbur had his guide to Pirate City yesterday. I’ll be posting my annual “Things to Do in Bradenton During Spring Training” guide tomorrow.

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THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

By John Dreker

Four former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date including a catcher for two World Series teams and one of the most unlikely all-stars ever. We start with a transaction of note.

On this date in 1985, the Pirates signed 18-year-old Orlando Merced as an amateur free agent out of Puerto Rico. He was a mid-season call-up during the 1990 season, then was an everyday starter over the next six seasons. In seven seasons with the Pirates, he hit .283 with 65 homers, 394 RBIs and 396 runs scored in 776 games. He split his playing time fairly evenly between first base and right field during his time with the Pirates.

Roy Spencer, catcher for the Pirates from 1925-27. He was the third-string catcher during all three seasons in Pittsburgh, getting just 31 starts over those three years with 22 of them coming during the 1927 season. The Pirates had Earl Smith and Johnny Gooch ahead of him during his time in Pittsburgh. Both were strong hitters who could throw out runners at a decent clip, although by 1927 Smith was beginning the downside of his career. Despite not playing much, Spencer still managed to hit .301 in his 80 games with the Pirates, including a .395 average over 43 ABs in 1926. The Pirates made the World Series in both 1925 and 1927, winning it all the first year. Spencer had one postseason at-bat, a ground out in game three in 1927. Following that World Series, the Pirates traded him and pitcher Emil Yde to Indianapolis of the American Association. After spending all of 1928 in the minors, Spencer made in back to the majors in 1929 with the Washington Senators and played nine more seasons in the big leagues. In 636 major league games he was a .247 hitter with 203 RBIs.

Frankie Zak, shortstop for the 1944-46 Pirates. He began in the minors as a teenager in 1941, and by 1943 he was in the International League, where he hit .246 with 22 stolen bases, 101 runs scored and 104 walks. He made the Pirates Opening Day roster in 1944, but didn’t get his first at-bat of the season until the team’s 36th game. Up to that point he had either pinch-run or finished the game defensively at shortstop. In his first start he went 2-for-2 at the plate, then followed that up with four hits in six at-bats over the next two days. In fact, the first seven games he started he had at least one hit in each game. After his first hitless game, he went 4-for-4, giving him a .538 average nine starts into his career. Zak’s bat cooled off, and by August 9th he was back on the bench in his defensive replacement/pinch-runner role. In the last 50 games of the season he played 16 times and batted just twice. Luckily for Zak, the All-Star game was in early July in Pittsburgh and he was still batting .350 as late as July 2nd. He made the team as an injury replacement, although he didn’t play. By June of 1945 he was back in the minors, getting a September call-up that year, followed by 21 more games with the Pirates in 1946, before returning to the minors for good. He retired after the 1949 season. Zak hit .269 in 123 games with the Pirates. He never homered in the majors and hit just two in 2,910 minor league at-bats.

Tom Griffin, pitcher for the 1982 Pirates. He already had 13 seasons in the majors when the Pirates acquired him from the Giants on December 11, 1981 in exchange for first baseman Doe Boyland. Griffin bounced between starter and relief his whole career, but in 1981 for the Giants he was a starter the entire year, going 8-8 3.76 in 22 games. With the Pirates he started the third game of the season and allowed five runs in six innings. He then pitched out of the pen twice, including a one inning outing in which he allowed eight hits and five runs. They moved him back to starter ten days later and got an eight inning performance out of him in a 10-4 win over the Braves. Griffin followed up his good start with back-to-back starts in which he pitched a total of seven innings, allowing 22 base runners and nine runs. Four days later the Pirates released him and his career was over. He was originally a first round pick in 1966, fourth overall and in his 14-year career he went 77-94 4.07 in 401 games, 191 as a starter.

Bill Baker, catcher for the 1941-43, and 1946 Pirates. He started his pro career in 1931 and despite the fact he was a catcher who hit over .290 in seven of those seasons, he didn’t make his major league debut until 1940 with the Reds. Baker played 27 games that rookie season and just two games off the bench in the first month of the 1941 season when the Pirates purchased his contract from Cincinnati. After starting the first three games while with the Pirates, he took over the backup role and finished with 80 plate appearances with a .224 batting average and zero strikeouts in 35 games. He struck out in his only official at-bat while with the Reds that season. In 1942 he was a seldom used third-string catcher behind future Hall of Famer Al Lopez and veteran Babe Phelps. Baker played just 18 games all year (one start) and went 2-for-17 with no strikeouts. With Phelps gone in 1943, Baker became the backup to Lopez and saw much more time, hitting .273 with 26 RBIs in 63 games. After the season he joined the military and spent two years serving during WWII. Baker returned to the Pirates in 1946 and hit .239 in 53 games. He signed with the Cardinals in 1947 and played parts of two more seasons in the majors before finishing his career in 1952 at the age of 41 in the minors.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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