Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

8-29-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

This space has been a dark place for a few weeks now. Near constant losing will do that, near constant losing while being seemingly out of it by the third night after night will do that from all directions.

Let’s see where this week goes.

1. Young Players Who’ve Cemented Spots in 2023

We still have a month to go in this season. I can hardly believe we’re at the end of August already, but here we are, and believe it or not there has been progress made in some important areas. Mainly youngsters who found a foothold and likely a job in the Bigs as we head into next season. As much scrap as we’ve watched this season, I think as we sit here and really lay out what they’ve found, it might actually not feel like what you watched.

Rodolfo Castro – Rudy didn’t make his debut this year, but 2022 is when it clicked for him. The switch hitter came up here swinging for the fences last year and did little else, beside make some terrible decisions in the field. This season he’s still struggled in the field a bit but he’s shown the ability to handled 2B and 3B capably. The switch hitter has a natural stroke and really effective approach. He will be on this team next year and I think he’ll start more often than he doesn’t.

Roansy Contreras – It’s arguably the most important thing that happened during 2022. Contreras is at this stage a Porsche that can only use 3 gears, but you know a simple tune up will open up the other two. This kid is the real deal, and his stuff is only going to get further polished. I don’t care about numbering the starters, he’s one of the five, and that’s all that matters.

Michael Chavis – Michael may not be a long term starter, but he’s proven he’s a major league baseball player. He has some power, he mashes left handed pitching, plays all out every play no matter where they stick him and in general has shown the Red Sox probably moved on a bit early.

Yerry De Los Santos – Now, I wish we’d have gotten to see more of him, but Yerry showed enough that I can’t possibly see a world where he isn’t plugged right back in toward the back of the pen in 2023. He’s confident, and he should be, his stuff is just filthy. I won’t sit here and tell you he came out of nowhere, Craig and I were beside ourselves he was left off the 40-man list that wound up not mattering at all because the Rule 5 draft was cancelled, but he sure did maximize his opportunity.

Oneil Cruz – Nowhere near what he could be. I suspect that will sum up what Oneil put on tape this year. The power is very real, the athleticism is not a mirage, his arm is an absolute cannon. Tons of room to grow, tons of need to grow, but Cruz will be a starter in 2023, and even performing at roughly 20% he’s easily one of the most dangerous bats in the lineup. It’s ok, be excited, he’ll keep climbing.

Chase De Jong – This isn’t just some prospect, this is a two time minor league free agent who has finally found his footing. Chase has become arguably the most consistent bullpen arm the Pirates have. He does nothing spectacularly but he is consistent as hell. A spot in the bullpen is easily a given.

Wil Crowe – In 2021 he fought through a season and delivered more innings than any other Pirate in a starting role. In 2022 he was asked to take a shot at the bullpen and he took it on with attitude. Completely remaking himself and embracing the role, Wil worked his way into at this point being the closer in the absence of Yerry and David Bednar. He still has a starter’s repertoire, but he changes that mix every single night and it keeps hitters off balance because he’s incredibly tough to scout. Next to nobody saw this coming this year, not even me who wanted him in the pen. I saw him as a long man.

Jack Suwinski – Jack still leads the majors in homeruns for rookies, and he hasn’t been here for the best part of two months. I don’t think it’s fair to pretend we know what he is yet, I don’t even think it’s fair to pretend we know he is a locked on starter, but I am sure he’s a locked on MLB player in 2023. The power is just intoxicating, the defense is above average and the flair for the dramatic showed up multiple times. Expect a healthy dose of Jack next year and if I know him and his meticulous note taking, expect him to find a path to improving what the Pirates identify as a deficiency, the strikeouts.

Tucupita Marcano – Energy, contact, speed, sneaky pop and a hell of a defender wherever they play him. Tuc has shown why Ben Cherington was so hell bent on getting him back from San Diego. After trying to have him included in the Joe Musgrove deal he was turned into the sticking point to get the Adam Frazier deal done. Adam Frazier, huh, not a bad comp right? Maybe with a bit more upside and diversity in the field but Marcano is a little spark plug and keeping him off the field is going to be hard next year.

Diego Castillo – He hit for power and held his own wherever he played in the field, but much like Jack he struggled with the strikeout. Diego though tinkered with his swing and led to wild swings in performance. The thing you can’t ignore is the power and he’ll have the inside track at making the club this Spring.

Mitch Keller – Finally. It took longer than anyone wanted to see, but Mitch Keller is finally one of the better starters the Pirates have. He’ll enter arb 1 next year and yes he’s a no brainer to be here in the rotation next year. As we sit here I’d be shocked if he wasn’t the opening day starter in 2023.

I’ve complained all year about not answering questions, but here we are, and know what, this is a bunch of answers. Every one of these players was nothing more than a question mark heading into 2022, and while they all still have room to grow, each and every one of them has done enough to not just be counted on to stick around, but to improve and stick.

Maybe not as bad as I thought, despite the lightning rods of pooh we watched surround them and suck away playing time.

2. Big Changes Might be Coming for MiLB

So far this is just a statement, but it’s been in the works for quite some time. The Advocates for Minor Leaguers has been an organization working hard to improve the lives of MiLB players for years, and with this announcement every executive from that group has resigned and taken a position with MLBPA.

It’s important to note, the CBA that was just signed will not expire until 2027, so how this effects MLB teams before then is at least grey. All of this is good for those of us who have been proponents of a salary cap and floor system, because eventually all forms of manipulation and potentially even the option system will have to change. They are collectively bargained right now, but those bargains are struck with all MLB players.

Introduce an entire (and much larger group I should note) group of players and suddenly that top 1% that stands in the way of financial structure, well let’s just say that number becomes .5%.

I’m not ready to predict how this will shake out, but I will say this is a ball that’s been rolling for several years and this is huge for minor league players.

Another aspect here that could be important, MLB is and has been long understood to be the single hardest path to the Bigs of any of the big 4 sports entities. This could make that trip a bit more attractive, and maybe wrestle some young talent back from the other leagues.

I think this has potential to make teams that saw low MLB payroll as a profitable endeavor (uh hmm) rethink things a bit, because even a modest raise for MiLB players and fielding a poor MLB team is suddenly not profitable. So many angles here and this offseason I’m sure Craig (who’s much more qualified than I in this department) and myself will dig in and really start to examine where this heads.

3. Captain Jack is Back in Black & Gold

If it hasn’t been announced by the time this drops Jack Suwinski will be called back up to the Pirates, and yes, Josh VanMeter will survive again. I’ve been told Bligh Madris will be the option for this move.

What’s really funny, I don’t think he really did anything in AAA that screamed I’m ready. Now on the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have sent him down in the first place. His issue has been striking out, and again that didn’t really improve, in fact it may have actually gotten worse.

One thing I’ll stress, he was sent down to work on things with his approach (and yes to manipulate time if you must), point being, we don’t know what he was working on. Sometimes in breaking down a swing and approach it’s going to look worse before it looks better. You may for instance tell him he is to focus on taking everything on the outer third of the plate to the opposite field, and that swing might just be so foreign to a kid you could see strikeouts actually increase for a bit.

The Pirates need that left handed power back in the majors, since moving Daniel Vogelbach to New York they’ve been pretty much left with Reynolds and Cruz to provide that and injecting him back into the lineup should provide another bat to be careful with, and that can only help.

Ben Gamel and Greg Allen getting a bunch of playing time might be coming to a close here.

4. The Defensive Nose Dive

The 2021 Pirates ended the season with the second fewest errors in the league with 70. The 2022 Pirates with a month left are dead last with 92.

Considering improving defensively was a priority stated by this coaching staff back before the 2020 season it’s alarming to say the least to watch such a stark regression in this area.

While many people were very happy to see Joey Cora relieved of his duties, few saw that much of that defensive improvement came under his tutelage. Those duties have been split up between other coaches, Don Kelly taking the bulk.

It’s hard to blame the coaching though. The Pirates haven’t played anyone at first base all year who had any real success there previously and they’re fortunate beyond words that Michael Chavis has taken to it like he has.

Ke’Bryan Hayes has struggled in between the spectacular. Cruz making some throwing errors wasn’t a shock but he’s been better than most of us expected. Bottom line is they set themselves up for this by playing guys out of position, or training guys to move positions at the MLB level.

This isn’t a team with boatloads of strikeout pitchers and that means contact, well, you can’t afford to play shoddy defense behind pitchers like that and it’s something they have to figure out next year.

Funny thing is, I can legitimately tell you they got VERY lucky this year that it wasn’t worse. Catching has been a mess all year after the Roberto Perez injury, but they’ve managed to find guys who capably filled in back there.

We listed a bunch of kids who put their foot down this year in the first point, defensively many of those players are key to this metric improving too. Consistency of position will only help, and it’s time to help players by being more prudent with this dream of position flexibility.

5. Let’s Take a Fresh Crack at a Good Everyday Lineup

I think the Pirates have offensive potential, but much like defensively, I think a bit of consistency is key. Yes, I know Derek Shelton is still the coach and this won’t happen, but here’s what I’d do.

  1. Tucupita Marcano – RF
  2. Bryan Reynolds – CF
  3. Rodolfo Castro – DH
  4. Oneil Cruz – SS
  5. Michael Chavis – 1B
  6. Jack Suwinski – LF
  7. Ke’Bryan Hayes – 3B
  8. Kevin Newman 2B
  9. Tyler Heineman – C

I like Castro in the field too, but as DH and a switch hitter he can consistently focus on hitting and swap for others you want to get breaks for.

The flow of a lineup like this would prevent matching up to attach Chavis with right handers and Cruz with Left handers. Nobody wants to see Chavis face a lefty and nobody wants to see Cruz face a righty. Stacking the bats like this creates a lineup that’s really tough to navigate with a bullpen, let alone a starter.

I’ve moved Hayes down to 7. It’s time to start putting him in the lineup where his bat currently says he should be, not where his 2020 bat said he should be.

Personally, I’d run this out there almost every day. Regardless of the starter. Let’s see what these guys can do when they know who’s behind them, lets see if they can start to trust the next guy will get it done if I just do my job.

You can say you’d like to see Bae or Swaggerty up here, but based on who’s here right now, this is what I’d do.

Of all the things you could consider controversial, moving Hayes is likely to get the most scrutiny, but folks, it’s time, and it doesn’t even mean I think he’s a bad player. Should he start to hit like a middle of the order player again, ok, make a change, but as we sit here I’m not seeing it, in fact I’d go so far as to say he retards the offense by being there. And yes, you could say the same about Cruz but that’s part of why I built it this way, I think it builds in some protection for him. Bring in a lefty to get him out and pay the price by having Chavis get a swing at one.

Bring in a lefty to face Marcano and face two switch hitters who can damage you from the right side before you get to Cruz. Bring in a righty to face Chavis and face Suwinski from the right side. It creates land mines for bullpen usage and an uncomfortable trip through the lineup for starters.

We’ve seen some talent establish themselves a bit, now lets establish an environment to see if we can help them even more.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

One thought on “Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

  1. 1. It’s certainly not all for naught, just seems they’re needlessly clipping wings, which to me can only be self-defeating.

    2. You already know I’m pumped!

    3. Time to show his debut wasn’t an extended flash in the pan? It’ll be interesting to see whether they maintain some kind of developmental focus for him vs. having him just play ball.

    4. Louder for the people in the back! I wasn’t alone in wondering whether they could’ve somehow taken Cora off third base coach but enhanced his focus as fielding coach and turned it into a horizontal promotion at the very least. By some metrics Cruz and Hayes are the only above-average fielders on the team. There are rookie mistakes and then there are downright problems teamwide.

    5. I like the concept and realize specifics are not as big a deal while losing, but I have some thoughts.
    – Marcano needs to get on base a LOT more for this to work. If this is an audition for him to prove that, so be it.
    – Reynolds I don’t feel like needs as many PAs as others, and he’s going to remain one of the biggest power threats on this team for his whole time as a Pirate, in all likelihood. So I would flip him and Cruz in hopes of getting Cruz more PAs.
    – I like the Castro idea, though I am a proponent of truly rotating the DH around very evenly among the viable hitters. That doesn’t mean precisely 11.1% for all nine guys, but I’m not looking for anyone to have more than 20-25% of DH appearances unless he’s truly inept in the field like Vogelbach.
    – Agreed on Hayes hitting lower, as well as the elder veterans getting less time.
    -If we really want to take the alternating handedness all the way, Heineman could bat eighth as a switch hitter. He seems to make better contact as a righty anyway, which gives perhaps a small incentive to turn him around in the late innings. Moreover, Newman could be a “reverse leadoff man,” as I’ve heard and seen it called. That would increase the chance of top-of-the-order guys having someone on base. I might be wrong, but I see that as a greater desire than to see whether the guy in the 8 spot can knock in Hayes, Suwinski, or Chavis with smart contact–or the three of them running the bases, for that matter, semi-lost art though it is.

    Liked by 1 person

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