9-12-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
When you choose to be an opinion writer for any subject really, you should plan to be wrong, and more importantly, be ready to accept it with some humility when it happens. Oh, there are caveats of course, for instance, should an opinion writer be wrong half the time, chances are you just aren’t very good at it.
One of my biggest instances of this has arrived this season. I very much so said the end of this season would be “fun”, and “you’ll like how this team looks in September more than you did in April”. For a few months now I’ve had these quotes thrown in my face, expecting me to take them back or admit I was wrong, and I’m sorry, I’m just not there.
Fun is subjective, I’ll give you that one. If the only way you perceive fun is when winning happens, hey, I can’t argue that out. You win. If you honestly don’t like this team better now than you did in April though, yeah, I’m not sure what you’re watching.
Oneil Cruz is finding it now. Mitch Keller has completely turned his career around. Roansy Contreras has become a solid top of the rotation pitcher and done so in his rookie campaign. Rodolfo Castro upon being called back up to the bigs has been nothing short of impressive. Jack Suwinski is still hitting homers. Cal Mitchell has really experienced some of that AAA success at the MLB level recently. And I could go on, pretty easily too.
The record is awful, I’ll absolutely give you that, but for me, seeing the kids come up here and start to forge their path, coupled with seeing some important players taking a step, yeah, I’m gonna stick with what I said and run through the tape.
Let’s do this.
1. Luis Ortiz, Call Up Out of Nowhere?
Well, certainly not. He may have eluded you if you don’t read or listen to a lot of prospect heavy coverage because he hasn’t caught the eye of many national publications, but he’s been on the radar most of this year, and it really ramped up in August.
In fact, here is the second time that our very own Craig Toth included him in his Top 5 Prospect performers piece. Justin Verno has mentioned him countless times in his Top 15 Plus 5 more piece too.
Anthony Murphy has been all over Ortiz too, following along as he continues to quickly rise through the system.
Now, this promotion is likely to be a cup of coffee, not a permanent call up. Not to diminish the meaningfulness of this promotion but he’s not a finished product.
First of all, he’s got triple digit velocity and a wicked slider, problem is, he doesn’t really have a reliable 3rd let alone 4th. That usually is the calling card of a relief pitcher, but the Pirates still want him to start, and for him to be successful in that role long term he’ll have to develop another off speed option. Again, it’s not as though he doesn’t throw one, it’s just very inconsistent.
His overall numbers aren’t going to impress you, and again he’s likely just going to pitch in the double header against the Reds and go right back down, but he’s 100% locked up being a 40 man addition to protect him from the Rule 5 draft at this point, so it makes sense that they’d want to just take this step especially after seeing what the last double header with no actual starters did to the bullpen.
Things to look for, first, the stuff. He can hit 102 on the gun, his slider is just gross (when he can control it) which isn’t a given. The likelihood that he goes deeper than 4 or 5 innings isn’t high. In other words, look for potential here more than his actual results. I know that’s not “fun” for many of you to harken back to the cold open, but it’s reality. This is a kid that started in low A, skipped High A all together, struggled early with the Curve then caught fire in August and got the promotion to Indy two starts ago. One was bad, one was a 6 inning no hitter.
He’s had some issues with the longball, giving up 19 but much of that has to do with the lack of secondary pitch mastery and control of the slider. If the slider doesn’t bite, well, it bites if you catch my drift.
Regardless, at 24 the Pirates identified a player with a special skill and promoted him quickly rather than keep him on a traditional schedule.
At the end of the day, when he pitches this week, keep in mind 4 months ago he was facing Low A competition. If he gets bombed, don’t get too low, if he is electric, don’t get too high.
This is an exciting prospect that most, including me, didn’t even have on the radar at the beginning of the season, and if they turn him out, a huge win for the system.
Congrats Kid, well earned.
2. Why is Oneil Cruz Suddenly Hitting?
Clichés are often not what people want to hear, but they exist largely because they tend to be based in fact. The fact is that Cruz is just settling in and it is resulting in improved performance, both in the field and at the plate.
The game is slowing down for him a bit. You can visibly see him realizing he has more time in the field than he thought he had when he first arrived. Well, at the plate, same thing. He’s finally realized his bat speed gives him a bit more time to recognize breaking pitches and still catch up. In fact he’s been keeping more of those mistake breaking pitches fair because he’s not 2 weeks early with his swing when they come.
Beyond just recognition, something has clicked and he has actively realized he can hunt pitches all over the zone. Hitting the ball hard to all fields works just as well as pulling the ball hard.
Recognizing the off speed stuff is one thing, understanding it’s going to be low or inside is another, and that too has increased the danger of facing him for opposing pitchers. Another thing that I just can’t help but factor in, man it’s just different having Bryan Reynolds and a hot hitting Rodolfo Castro hitting behind Cruz than Jason Delay and Kevin Newman.
Credit to Derek Shelton (that’s right, I think he did something right here), I wanted Cruz to hit leadoff just to get him seeing more pitches and getting more at bats. I can’t speak to Shelton’s motivation for the move but it’s turned his season around entirely. He’s actively seeing more pitches, being more selective and confidently taking walks if they come his way knowing Reynolds could make them pay for doing so. Pitchers are not anxious to walk the leadoff guy so chances are if he’s patient, he’ll get a pitch to work with, and for a guy who can cover the entire plate that’s going to lead to more offense.
This is still a developing talent and eventually I think we’ll want to see him hit 3rd or 4th in the lineup, but right now building his confidence and seeing pitches is far more important than where he’s supposed to be or the position he’ll man one day.
It’s very safe to say he’s started to figure things out though.
I know he’s not popular and has made plenty of mistakes, but I’m also happy we’ve seen Shelton leave him in the lineup to face lefties more as well. This is a player who simply isn’t everything he can be if the team remains afraid to let him face them, so that too is encouraging.
All part of the game, all part of evolution. The biggest issue with the Pirates isn’t so much that all of their prospects aren’t panning out, it’s more than they’re all trying to acclimate to MLB at the same time.
There is noting consistent about that path. Some games they’ll look like the Pirates are setting up a core that can hit with anyone, others they’ll look like every single one of them belongs in AAA. Worse, they’ll feed off each other most of the time.
Cruz is largely the key to this whole thing, so it’s not crazy to think him figuring things out is the most important thing they can accomplish this season, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
3. Mitch Keller is Now Expected to Perform
It’s been a long road for Mitch.
He was an MLB top rated pitching prospect selected in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft out of high school, and made his debut in 2019.
Since then he’s be nothing short of disappointing and many were ready to give up on him. Through his first 3 seasons he managed 170.1 innings and really didn’t do much more than struggle. This year started out largely the same, minus a bit more expectation he piled on himself by posting off season bullpen sessions in which he showed an ability to throw the ball triple digits. Of course that’s what everyone expected to see from the jump, but Mitch still had a very familiar problem.
He could throw the hell out of the ball, but his pitch mix didn’t work together. His 4 seam fastball which he still throws simply doesn’t have a ton of movement, in other words, no matter how hard you throw, an MLB hitter is going to hit it just as hard if A. they expect it and B. it has no deceptive movement.
The revelation for Mitch came after being sent to the bullpen, where he worked with coaches (despite popular belief) to introduce a 2-seam fastball, AKA sinker into his mix. The velocity is still there, but it created something he really needed, a very same plane offering that many hitters think is the slider.
Yes, it’s also true that he reached out to former teammate Clay Holmes to help him out with some tips, but the idea was internally developed and he’s implemented it about as quickly as I’ve ever seen pulled off.
Overall, if he winds up this season with an ERA under 4, (currently 4.01) it’s a win. He’s shown that not only does he have the skill, he is developing something equally important, consistency.
Roansy has burst on the scene, experiencing instant success and making a name for himself quickly. Next year he’ll face an entirely new challenge, being known. I’m not predicting he’ll struggle, but I am saying Mitch’s path to being a counted upon player is far more typical than Roansy’s. As this whole thing is about watching youngsters become important pieces, keep that in mind, because who knows what path we’ll see Mike Burrows, Quinn Priester, Luis Ortiz, Johan Oviedo or any other pitching prospect who makes the jump.
Fans are gonna fan, I don’t expect anyone to deal with poor performance and have 3 plus years of patience, that’s excessive to say the least, but do realize a couple starts do not a career make. Good or bad.
4. New Rules, New Problems
MLB is poised to implement some new rules next year.
Feel free to follow the link there and read the full story from Jeff Passan, it’s well done.
For me though, the rules are one thing, I personally find it far more interesting to think about all the unintended consequences.
Professional sports are constantly trying to address issues in, alter the trajectory of, eliminate the advantages inherent in, their games. Even the best of intentions have ramifications that nobody intended, sometimes the end justifies the means, sometimes it winds up making the game suffer and still doesn’t handle the intended issue.
NCAA College football comes to mind for me first, a couple years back they instituted a new targeting policy. Get caught targeting an opponents head and you’ll be penalized and ejected from the contest. Thing is, it’s a totally subjective call most of the time. It doesn’t account for the target ducking down into the hit. It doesn’t account for a player being bumped off track and accidentally making that bad contact. It doesn’t stop the bad contact, it just stops the game dead in it’s tracks waiting for refs to confer and review the call they just made. Sadly they still don’t get it right all the time.
MLB is constantly trying to change rules, these ones are actually counter to each other. On one hand you have rules intended to speed up the game like pitch clocks and limiting the number of times a pitcher can throw to a base or step off. On the other hand, they all but ensure more baserunners by limiting the shift.
Drama in the late innings will suffer the most here and the souls most old baseball fans just can’t see how this will all function, more so most of us can’t see why batters couldn’t just fix the shifting nonsense themselves.
I’m not going to rip these rules apart right here, I’ll wait a bit here and think a bit more, but let’s call this a little homework assignment. Find me on Twitter (@garymo2007) or on Facebook comment under the story, and hit me with your concerns. All the best I’ll use in a future piece and on the Pirates Fan Forum this week on DK Pittsburgh Sports Podcast Network.
5. The Bullpen is Impeding Improvement
Don’t get me wrong, the offense still has issues. The starting pitching still has holes too, but nothing has caused more losses of late than the bullpen.
It’s important to note, this isn’t the intended mix of pitchers the Pirates would like to have there, obviously injury has played a role, but even that is an issue, a good bullpen has to almost be 10 deep and they certainly weren’t.
The sad thing is, a pitcher like Wil Crowe has had a great season but now he’s being asked to do things that simply aren’t to be thrust on someone. He’s not a closer, and it shows. Chase De Jong has also been superb this year, again, not a closer and again, it’s shown.
They’ve been forced to use guys in positions they really shouldn’t ever since the All Star Break, and let’s just be real, if your bullpen is gonna fall apart because one guy got injured, or eve two, well let’s just say you never had enough.
Next year, David Bednar, Yerry De Los Santos, Wil Crowe, Chase De Jong back together alone sounds like an improvement, but in reality it’s just clawing back to where they intended to be in the first place. It’s crucial that players like Nick Mears, Blake Cederlind, and Tahnaj Thomas at least become viable options.
Manny Bañuelos has been a revaluation from the left side but the Pirates will need to either be 100% convinced Dillon Peters can stay healthy and can handle some leverage or go get another lefty.
Suring this up will secure more wins, even as the offense continues to mature along with the starters.
Real improvement to the record in my mind runs through the bullpen and I can count almost 10 wins lost on the cutting room floor in just the past 30 games due to nothing more than running out of quality options back there.