12-26-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
I hope this piece finds you basking in the afterglow of a wonderful holiday with your friends and family. The Pirates were relatively quiet over the break, which for those who assumed a big Christmas Eve deal in the style of a classic news dump is a great thing.
Let’s dig in.
1. What About Travis?
Travis Swaggerty entered the 2022 season almost universally seen as the top outfield prospect, but a nagging injury prevented him from getting the opportunity many expected. That said, if he wasn’t a number one pick, his numbers show a player nobody is even thinking about.
There just isn’t much there offensively that inspires you to consider him. No big homerun totals, no screaming high batting average. OPS is just ok for AAA. Defensively he’s legitimately very good, but on a team that desperately needs offense, I’m not sure that’s ever going to be enough. That said, Harrison Bader has a job.
Thing is, as unfair as most seem to think his path has been, it seems after 1,259 minor league plate appearances it’s pretty much decision time. To me, if Travis wants to continue on the 40-man, he’ll have to beat Canaan Smith-Njigba, and Cal Mitchell out for a spot.
Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, Ji-hwan Bae, and likely one of Connor Joe or Miguel Andujar to me constitute the makeup of the outfield situation with room for another bench or alternate. This is where I think Swaggerty can slip in, and why I specifically say he’d have to beat out CSN and Mitchell.
It’s a strange situation, but not every top pick makes it. On a team like this, one that desperately needs help from young talent, man you start to feel wiggly about his future when he can’t crack this lineup.
If it’s because he’s left handed as I’ve heard many suggest, well, that didn’t stop Cal Mitchell or Bligh Madris. All I know is, the opportunity was there, he didn’t take it.
This Spring he’ll get another shot, and if he doesn’t earn a chance, you have to feel he’s going to be really easy to put on the pay no mind list, if not lose his spot altogether.
Baseball isn’t always fair, but in Travis’ case, even with injuries and COVID, over 1,200 at bats is a decent amount of opportunity.
And no, before you automatically go there, I don’t blame the development system, I blame the team involved in the draft. And specifically the draft team that was in place previously. We may eventually find out this new unit is just as bad, but I can’t assign the failures of the past regime to this one.
2. The First Base Plan
First, I’m not sure there is one beyond hope.
Carlos Santana and Ji-man Choi will hold down first base this year, but after that is the question. Will 2024 see Malcom Nunez, or Mason Martin get a chance to take the job? Or will we be on a full scale search to see which player gets moved there from another spot? Maybe we’ll be back to shopping for free agents instead.
While we’re watching things play out at the Major League level this will all be playing out in the background. Every aspect will be interesting. Will Malcom and Mason split time there? Will they platoon?
Martin for instance has already proven he can play the position, Nunez hasn’t. Perhaps we’ll see Martin get more DH opportunities in an effort to see what Nunez can do in the field.
I really don’t know where they go from here honestly. Too many variables to make decisions now, but one way or another, they’ve bought themselves a one year window to let this play out.
Perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to move one of their highly touted catching prospects over there, but that might not be fair to do something like that without seeing what the players themselves show us. For instance, if you plan on Endy Rodriguez or Henry Davis going over there, then Nunez works out, well then what?
I’m completely intrigued by how this could play out, and I think they have enough internal options that by Spring of 2024 we’ll see this position internally filled. Maybe with a free agent insurance policy along side.
3. Short Stop is Interesting
Oneil Cruz himself is interesting, I could probably focus on him and make this easy to write, but since we all know he’s going to get 2023 to show he can handle the position, I’d rather focus on who backs him up.
I’ll be really honest, needing someone to play this position capably if something happened to Cruz is why I didn’t think the Pirates needed to move Kevin Newman. I’m fine that they did, but now the question comes up, who plays there in the short term when you want to get a rest for Oneil, and who plays there a lot if god forbid Cruz is injured.
The candidates are Ji-hwan Bae, I don’t personally like the range there, to me he’s more of a second baseman or center fielder. Rodolfo Castro, he got a stretch there last year and quite honestly struggled. Starting or turning double plays didn’t seem natural to him, and his positioning wasn’t sound enough to function with Ke’Bryan Hayes who has the leagues very fastest glove to throw time in the league. You have to know where you need to be, and it has to be second nature, or Hayes is going to be rendered mere mortal, and a SS certainly can’t make your other fielders less than they are.
The best option defensively anyway might be Jared Triolo. I have little doubt he can handle the spot, but he has zero AAA at bats. Defensively, this kid is ready, with the stick, man it’s a big jump still from AA to MLB. Now, the Pirates have already shown they aren’t afraid to do it, Diego Castillo who was just traded after being DFAd was one, and so was Jack Suwinski.
In this case, maybe the glove is more important. This is a guy who could give a break to Hayes, Cruz, Castro and potentially even play center field or first base. This team could really benefit from that sort of thing.
I don’t believe they are in a position where bringing in another option is necessary. But a long term injury to Cruz could easily change that mindset.
4. So, They’d Like Another Pitcher and Position Player?
I saw some people bristle at this, specifically the “like” part. I mean just do it if you want to right?
Here’s my thing, I don’t think bringing in another starter is worthwhile unless it’s someone who is very clearly a top 3 on this staff. They have plenty who are capable of being a number 4 or 5. This team would be better off getting opportunity for guys like Luis Ortiz, Johan Oviedo, Cody Bolton, Mike Burrows, and Quinn Priester.
Bluntly, if we get to August and haven’t seen some of that list, the Pirates have done themselves a disservice.
I expect the team to improve record wise in 2023, but lets face it, even a wild card would be a reach. 2024, that’s another story. This team should absolutely step up and have a shot at the playoffs in that year. To do that, the Pirates are going to have to get contribution from at least a couple of these kids. I’d rather watch them get their sea legs under them this year than next.
So, I’m not really sure what they’re looking for here. If it’s another Vince Velasquez, I’m sorry, I don’t see the logic.
I understand wanting to infuse veteran help into the roster, but borderline veteran help isn’t going to do more than hold back guys that need to be part of next year.
Don’t get me wrong, if they find a way to bring in a pitcher who can help carry the staff, ok, nobody will complain, but if it’s another guy who’s struggled and is looking for a shot, they’d be hard pressed to convince me that’s better than say Johan Oviedo.
5. What About all These No Names They’re signing?
Jonawel Valdez, Edwarli Brioso, Shawn Ross, I could go on. These are minor league signings, and some of them will be given Non Roster Invites (NRI’s) to Spring Training.
This stuff happens every year, to every team, and the Pirates are no different. I don’t say this to crap on these guys, I just say it because this isn’t the “dumpster diving” you tend to hear about.
This is typically a guy like Phillip Evans who has no business making a team out of Spring. It’s a guy like Bligh Madris, who was DFAd from the Pirates, picked up by the Rays, plopped in AA, unlocked some power. Brought in by Detroit and before playing an inning was again DFAd.
He’ll get a contract just like this, and to other fan bases, he’s just as obscure as Valdez up there. You know, Hodgepodge of nothingness and all.
Sometimes these players wind up working out. Chase De Jong is an example of that. And even if he doesn’t throw another pitch as a Pirate what he’s already done is best case scenario for these types of things.
They help prevent premature promotions to AAA in some cases. They help fill out a full Spring Schedule, something we haven’t seen since 2019. This year the plan is for full schedule complete with split squad affairs and that requires more players, not always players you plan to truly give a shot to.
Many of these guys aren’t even reported. You’d have to be a nut (looks in mirror) to go through the transaction page on the Pirates website to see them and they never take up a precious 40-man spot.
Point is, this isn’t the same as disliking the Velazquez signing. This is a lot more about function than it is hoping and praying one of these contribute.
I will say, in a year like this, where the bill has come due for a ton of prospects who aged out while COVID wreaked havoc on everyone’s development system, there could be some sneaky talent discovered, but as the team fleshes itself out more and more, the opportunity just isn’t there for these types to actually make the team.
Many will quite literally put a few innings on tape and head out looking for their next shot somewhere else.
Something Chase De Jong himself did with the Blue Jays, Dodgers, Mariners, Twins, Astros and finally the Pirates. I can’t begin to tell you how improbable making a team is after all that, let alone putting together an MLB season at 28 years old where you throw in 42 games with a 2.64 ERA.
I know it sounds like I’m trying to give you a reason to care about these signings, but instead, I’m trying to illustrate the utter difficulty a player forced into this path goes through to earn a paycheck, and ultimately a place to call home. Chase will forever look over his shoulder, and maybe he gets caught as early as this year.
That’s life on the fringes of MLB.