Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

11-14-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

The off season is in full swing now. The Pirates have traded for a first baseman, and made cuts to trim the roster to 40 after returning 5 players from long term IL status. Craig and I collaborated on an extensive look at the Rule 5 Draft, and it’s not even close to slowing down, tomorrow is the deadline for Rule 5 Protection.

Let’s rock!

1. Oh Choi! A Real First Baseman, but…

I could dive into numbers here and try to convince you this is some stellar move, but suffice to say, Ji-man Choi is a decent player overall. He’s a really good defender, and he’s also a dead pull singles hitter from the left side who walks a ton.

You can write in pen a .700 OPS for the most part, and you can also expect a fielding percentage of nearly .975.

He’s also not someone any fan is really going to get excited about.

Since moving Josh Bell prior to the 2021 season the Pirates have struggled to field the position. Colin Moran got the first shot and beside his injuries he also just never hit like a starter. 2022 they tried Yoshi Tsutsugo and it was an utter disaster that led to the emergence of noted try hard Michael Chavis and Josh Van Meter taking over there. Sprinkle in some Bligh Madris and Ben Gamel if you like but first base was an issue all year long.

If healthy, and that remains to be seen since after acquiring Choi from Tampa Bay news broke that he was having a small procedure on his right elbow to remove some “loose bodies” from it. Sounds like he should be ready for the season, but it’s a question until it isn’t.

Here’s the easiest way to put it, Choi is an upgrade on the nothing they have at the position, and he’s also not someone we’re hopeful can learn it on the job. This can do nothing but help the infield defense.

I’d also point out, limiting shifting helps a guy like this. He pulls the ball around 85% of the time, so it should be fairly obvious if he continues to do that he’s likely to improve some of his numbers. Even if only marginally.

Exciting? No. Competent? That’s probably fair.

2. Steamer Projections are Out

First, let me show you…

Now, personally, these things don’t do much for me and I’ll explain why at the end. That said, to some of you these are valuable so I promise I won’t just blow it off.

They were developed by Jared Cross, a high school teacher from Brooklyn with a couple of his students years ago. They use past performance and expected age trends to project numbers for the following season.

Really, it’s a fancy way of looking at what a player has done and trying to predict how they’ll progress or decline. Of all of this, the thing that tends to get the most wonky in my opinion is the projections for number of games or at bats or innings. Honestly, how could anyone possibly know?

Take last year for example, when these came out, could you possibly have predicted Michael Chavis would wind up being the starting first baseman?

Of course not.

It’s a nice snapshot of one way you can look at a roster and set expectations. There are a ton of ways to do this, but Steamer is a formalized version and because some outlets have picked it up and utilized it like Fangraphs it’s become legitimized.

Let’s take one player and see how close it was, and to make it as fair as possible, lets take an utterly known commodity like Bryan Reynolds. I’ll list for every category 2022 Steamer/2022 Actual and let’s see how close it was.

At Bats – 580/542 – Bryan was injured for a small stretch there remember?
Home Runs – 24/27 – Having fewer ABs and more HRs, one could argue this was off big.
RBI – 86/62 – Not their fault, no way to know where he’d hit and who behind.
Strikeouts – 133/141 – Impressive
Average – .279/.262 – Down year average wise for Bryan, and almost everyone else too.
OPS – .845/.807 – Not too shabby.

Not bad right? So why don’t I like it all that much? Well a whole lot of this is based on history, and most of the Pirates roster doesn’t have very much to go on. That’s a lot of guess work. I’m fine with these as far as general fun and expectation, but when you see people start to use them as selling points for acquisition, I have some issues.

Regardless, have fun with them, don’t preach them like their written in red in the good book.

3. The Rule 5 Draft Historically Isn’t All That Dangerous

One thing I often hear around this time of year is a ton of the sky is falling, everyone is getting taken, the team doesn’t like this guy type takes and folks, it’s just not that huge most of the time.

Of course we didn’t have a Rule 5 draft in 2022 due to the work stoppage, but back in 2021, 18 players were selected, 13 wound up playing in MLB, meaning 5 were returned to their original teams, and a few more still were offered back but refused.

That’s out of hundreds of eligible and unprotected players. One of those 13 was of course Luis Oviedo, another was Ka’ai Tom. For every success story there are 10 failures. For every Clemente, well, there’s only one Clemente.

This is important don’t get me wrong, but let’s take a quick minute and really digest why someone is or isn’t protected.

First, you have the obvious, if a player is eligible, and likely to find themselves promoted to MLB within the upcoming season, he is of course a consideration. Now, if he is someone who has a lot left to prove but super talented and nationally is seen as a player in MLB’s top 100, that stipulation might get ignored. Liover Peguero is a perfect example of that. He wasn’t ready for the show, but he was an MLB top 100 player, and that is simply too attractive to expect one of the other 29 teams won’t take a swing at burying the guy on their bench just to get a free top prospect. Remember they have to be rostered, not played.

Sometimes it has to do with the team’s depth at a position. For instance, you may see the Pirates protect a guy like Malcom Nunez, and that will have less to do with his ranking or readiness than it does his position. Funny thing is, his position itself is a good reason to think he wouldn’t be selected, but it’s a risk, and a risk that most teams won’t want to take.

Relievers are by far the most easy to roster, and likely to be selected players. You could see the Pirates choose to protect Tahnaj Thomas who is a perfect example here. He can hit triple digits on the gun, but struggles with control. He’s not likely a lock to make MLB in 2023 but that velocity is sexy. Colin Selby is another guy who’s been a really good reliever, but not a huge name. You could see both protected, but the team must be careful, if they protect a bunch of guys who are shaky at best to make the show and stick just to keep them in the system, they ultimately rob themselves of real help on the 40-man. That winds up causing players to get quick call ups followed by DFA to make room for another quick call up. MLB bullpenning has become about fresh arms and you need that option bank, something the Pirates haven’t had in a couple seasons.

This is part of what caused the Bucs to start 2022 with Roansy Contreras in the bullpen. They had no other pitching options on the 40-man, and that early in the season, let’s just say you aren’t looking to waive depth.

Either way, when the lists break tomorrow, don’t lose your mind. They know the dangers and have balanced all the risks. Even if they’re wrong, you won’t see them lose anyone you considered a lock to help in 2023.

4. Travis Swaggerty a Rule 5 Casualty?

Not bloody likely.

My sources tell me there is far too much being read into the Pirates belief in the 2018 first round pick and that his future role in the organization is not something the franchise has ruled out.

The team does have a glut of outfield prospects they need to filter through, and a trade of him or any prospect wouldn’t shock me, but the club is also nowhere near simply cutting him or giving him away for nothing.

His usage in 2022 was described to me as much more about how little he played since 2019, than performance or evaluation.

The pick position did Travis no good, it was a high pick for a college bat that profiled as a bench player more than a superstar, but the philosophy in this town used to be drafting the floor, instead of the ceiling. So far he’s done nothing to prove he can’t reach that level.

Now, it’s also very possible that level of performance will simply not find a place to play on this team, but that decision, at least according to those I talk to isn’t coming this off season. If nothing else they like the depth he provides and defensively they still have him chalked up as “elite”.

5. Dumpster Diving Alert!!!

I’d just like to note that most of the Pirates diving for players to patch holes is drying up. They’re now to the point where they have a decent amount of close to MLB ready players that can fill most roles. That doesn’t mean you won’t see them sign any more cast offs.

Remember every single year all teams will binge and sign NRI’s or Non-Roster Invitees. Sometimes they won’t be signed as such, but they might as well be. A tryout not on the 40-man brought in from the outside, well all I can say is it’s been a while since we’ve seen this go full tilt. Remember split squads in Spring Training? It’s been a while since baseball went through a spring that wasn’t affected by COVID and travel/roster restrictions.

I believe we’ll get back to “tryouts” all over the league and probably more than ever with all the players forced into the free agent pool by the older COVID year prospects losing spots left and right.

If you got by in camp with 18-20 pitchers last year, you might need 24-28 this year.

Point is, before you cry same old Pirates, look around the league, you’ll see NRIs everywhere and it’s going to be a bit weird.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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