When the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Kevin Newman last week, they traded away a unique piece of experience. Newman was the last player on this roster who knew what it was like to play for a winning team in Pittsburgh.
Newman, drafted in the first round in 2015, made his MLB debut in 2018, in a year when the Pirates went 82-79. He was called up on August 16, 2018, and made 97 plate appearances the remainder of the season. It’s hardly much of a winning season, but it was a winning season.
The Pirates have players with winning experience on their roster. Newly added first baseman Ji-Man Choi, for example, spent the last few years with the Rays. You could argue that the contending experience on this team isn’t coming from the key contributors.
Ke’Bryan Hayes (3.0 fWAR) and Bryan Reynolds (2.9) were the leaders on the Pirates last year. If the Pirates have a winning core in the next few years, it will likely be built around these two players. Neither of these players has experience on a winning team. Hayes made his MLB debut in 2020, and Reynolds in 2019. For the most part, their experience has been playing for the worst team in baseball.
This is important, because the Pirates are trying to build a winner, and the help right now looks to be coming largely from within. And yet, none of their internal options know how to win in Pittsburgh, because the Pirates clearly have had an issue with that mentality and process for a long time.
We dream about Mitch Keller and Roansy Contreras leading the rotation, with Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows on the way. Which one of those pitchers knows how to handle the pressure of an MLB playoff race in September, or a one-game playoff in October?
Right now, the guy they would turn to would be Keller. There is legitimate reason to be excited about Keller’s improvements during the 2022 season. He posted a 3.91 ERA and a 3.88 FIP, with a lot of his success coming after the addition of his new sinker.
Those numbers are good enough to pitch in a contending rotation. They aren’t enough to lead a contending rotation. Even if Keller could take the next step forward in 2023, it would be a lot to ask him to also take the step of leading a playoff rotation.
Reynolds, Hayes, Oneil Cruz, Jack Suwinski, and Rodolfo Castro might all be starters on offense next year. They may be joined eventually by Endy Rodriguez and others in the upper levels. None of these players are established to the point where you can comfortably build a contender around them. Very few of those players could start for another contender right now.
In order for one of those players to develop into one of the best players in the league, they will need to figure out how to maintain consistent performance through the pressure of a 162 game season. The real pressure of a 162 game season. Not just the grind of playing 162 games when the season was over after game 81.
The paradox is that the Pirates will need one of these players to step forward as one of the best in the league, in order to get to a point where game 162 matters.
The Pirates can assist their young players by bringing in experience. The type of experience that knows how to handle the day-to-day in September when you’re fatigued, but games still matter. The type of experience that knows how to constantly break out of slumps throughout the long season.
Bringing in a veteran like Jose Quintana to pitch with Keller up until the trade deadline isn’t enough.
The Pirates need an experienced pitcher around when Keller is pitching in meaningful games in September, to lead by example. The same is true for an experienced hitter to lead the inexperienced offense by example. They’re not learning how to handle the grind of a contending season through the teachings of bench veterans who are watching those important games.
Before the Pirates are contenders again, they’re going to need to add to their team as if they’re already contenders. They’re going to need to add someone from the outside who knows the long, grinding process of winning in Major League Baseball.
Right now, no one in this organization has ever experienced winning in Pittsburgh. And very few have experienced winning in the Majors. It’s hard to see the Pirates magically becoming contenders with this lack of important experience.
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.