Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

1-9-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Ahh the middle of January.

The stove cools dramatically, the teams stop looking like amorphous conglomerations of signings and acquisitions, and you start to sit back and look at the collective with an eye toward weak spots instead.

It hasn’t been formally announced yet, but the Pirates are likely going to have pitchers and catchers report on February 15th, and this year, that’s going to be filled with extra intrigue. Endy Rodriguez, Henry Davis and a host of young pitchers we have a whole lot of hope pinned to will mesh with veterans we expect to start with.

I can honestly say, I’m more excited for this Spring Training than I’ve been since probably 2015. When the first pitch is thrown in anger this February 25th against the Blue Jays, I think many are going to be caught off guard how much more difficult cut downs are going to be this time around. Haven’t been in recent years, instead you spent time wondering how they’d find 26 you could pretend were good enough. A welcome change.

Let’s go….

1. Let’s See Some Snarl

Fans loved watching AJ Burnett emphatically get that key strikeout, pump his fist and mouth off with a STFD! to his opponents. That attitude bled into the entire rotation, and indeed team.

It’s why AJ was seen as the team leader, even if in the locker room he wasn’t necessarily looked to in that fashion. Sure everyone liked him, learned from him, but more than anything he showed them how to use passion to maximize what they had to give situationally.

That’s something I fully expect Rich Hill to bring.

Look, at his age, he isn’t going to relate to some 22 year old making his MLB debut, but he might just show them how much baseball is about rising to the occasion situationally as it is opening every game thinking this will be the one you toss a perfect game.

Hill has snarl to his game, and he does it without a triple digit fastball. No, he does it by throwing a 69 mile per hour curveball, knowing the hitter is aware of it, and making sure that hitter knows Rich was sure he couldn’t hit it anyway.

Mitch Keller does have some of that stuff. He can hit upper 90’s, he has incredible movement on his slider, he has a devastating 2-seamer, but Keller has for the majority of his career lacked the attitude to believe his stuff was so good, executing it would lead to outs, not fooling hitters alone.

Hey, sometimes a one year guy is nothing more than a stop gap and potential trade piece, Rich Hill is that too of course, but this aspect, the lessons he can teach through his demeanor and presence, that’s an added benefit I really hope pays dividends up and down the rotation.

2. Will Choi Have Us Saying Yoi?

The first real move the Pirates made this offseason was to trade Minor League right handed pitcher Jack Hartman to the Rays to acquire First Baseman Ji-man Choi.

Many of us assumed that would be it for first base at the time, and many of us were rightly underwhelmed, but hey, at least he was a professional first baseman right?

Well, now that the dust has settled, the Pirates have gone out and gotten another option to back their play over there, have we potentially decided Choi is the everyday starter prematurely?

First, Choi has never played more than 127 games in a single season, and that came during 2019, his best season by far. In fact if 2019 was reflective of the player the Pirates acquired, 19 HR, .261 AVG, .822 OPS, I think there’d be a bit more buzz about the move. In reality though, he’s a lot more like his career stat line and a lot more apt to play 80-100 games than he is to handle 3/4 of the starts over there.

He’s also a player that figures to be helped by the shift rule change, but I can’t imagine he’s helped so much that is takes him from a 1.2 WAR player to something like 3.

Competent, that’s the best way to describe Choi. He’s an excellent fielder, and he takes a professional at bat. He’ll strike out a decent amount but he’ll walk quite a bit too. He hasn’t had an OPS below .729 since his rookie campaign, so he brings competency and consistency, both important, especially when talking about someone you’re looking to step right in and help hold together a position.

He brings something else, 4 straight years of playoff experience. We talked about snarl potentially coming from Hill, well Choi can bring some experience that small markets can get the job done, and he’s got four years of proof in his back pocket.

All that being said, Choi is little more than an average player, and despite his age, Carlos Santana could wind up getting more playing time over there than we’re thinking. We’ve all penciled Santana as the DH and Choi as the 1B, but maybe we’re jumping the gun a bit here. We know Shelton likes using DH as a rest position and we’d be foolish to think Choi is suddenly going to play more than he ever has.

Santana on the other hand has rarely played fewer than 150 games. In fact, Santana has never been a full time DH, he’s always played in the field more so it’s plausible we have it backwards a bit.

Just something to think about, even positions we have considered decided, well, maybe not.

3. I Hate to Raise Hopes But…

I always feel the need to make sure you, my readers or listeners, understand fully that I know what I am, and I know what I’m not. I’m not a journalist, I’m a blogger and podcaster who happens to have a growing list of people willing to talk to me. That comes with responsibility, at least to me it does.

I get information just about every day, some of it I share with you, some of it I just use to ask questions, see things differently or to simply help me verify reports or rumors I see from others out there including the journos.

So, take this for what it’s worth, with all due skepticism you should rightly have.

Internally, the Pirates are absolutely not through trying to extend Bryan Reynolds. Despite all the reports of offers, and return requests. Despite Bryan and his agent going public with a trade request. The team doesn’t see this as a forgone conclusion, at least not yet.

This, according to a couple I’ve spoken to, was not handled well by the club. (shocker right?) There was a low bar that the Reynolds camp put under the Pirates nose and still the Pirates undershot it. The low bar wasn’t insane as illustrated by the reports we’ve all seen and heard in the past week, but it was an indication the Bucs weren’t serious about getting anything done to CAA and their client.

They didn’t undershoot that threshold by 50 million, but let’s just say this initial offer needed to hit 100 million to keep negotiations moving and instead they clumsily took that less seriously than they should have.

Rewind all the way to Ben Cherington’s comments about being peeved at the player’s representation. I believe this was Cherington showing frustration that there was no counter instead a pushing of the nuclear button. An outcome he could have easily avoided in my opinion, but I digress.

If you want me to get into who was right and who was wrong, I guess I could, but what’s more important to me, the team is willing to get at least closer to what both sides saw as fair before this event, and Bryan’s team is willing to at least listen (largely because the team still controls his rights regardless of what they want).

The asks from the Pirates to move Reynolds have been insane and that’s according to a litany of GMs and journalists, but that’s what you do when you simply have no interest in making a move. Blow my doors off or go away.

Bottom line, at least from what I’m hearing directly, while this was not handled well, it also isn’t dead, and the lines of communication aren’t closed. Early Spring will be very important to how this turns out.

I will say this too, if they plan for that next offer to be simply a step up from what they did, don’t bother, it’ll just set up another round of potentially more vocal issues. If they plan to present something that legitimately gets the two sides talking, have at it. From what I hear, Nutting isn’t in the way here, yet. As of now, hasn’t said no to a single proposed offer to anyone, let alone Bryan.

Again, I hesitate to “report” as much as verify things real journalists have reported, but I’ve simply heard too much that sounds like this to sit here pretending I haven’t heard it.

4. Jun-seok, Big Get

According to Daniel Kim, ESPN’s KBO insider the Pirates are about to sign RHP Jun-seok Shim of Korea. He’s seen as the 10th best international amateur, and the 2nd best pitcher. Shim was the consensus number 1 overall pick in last year’s KBO draft before pulling out to pursue an MLB career.

The 6′ 4″ right hander is already 18 years old, which means unlike most international signings, Jun-seok should likely start in the mainland and with a fastball already touching 100 MPH, and a developed 4 pitch mix he should move fairly quickly.

Another pitfall of international signings tends to be the need to clean up deliveries and pitch shapes, but here again, Shim is advanced. Scouts compare him to Chan Ho Park.

This is a clip of him as a 16 year old, but it shows some of what there is to be excited about.

I mean as a 16 year old, that kind of shape and placement on a 12-6 curve, and that kind of ride on a fastball with that much velocity, yeah, special.

The Pirates, and really any team in the lower bowl of market size simply must make hay in this market, and this is one of the more exciting potential international signings they’ve had in years.

This is essentially a draft pick as opposed to the typical 16 year old you hope might grow 4 or 5 more inches and develop a power tool.

I can’t express how huge it would be for this organization to hit on a guy like this.

5. Hayes Remains a Key Figure

Ke’Bryan Hayes is going to be a Pirate for a while, and here’s the thing, we fans barely got to celebrate that fact before we looked up and saw he hurt his hand. Then we found out he would spend the entire season nursing a back injury.

Bottom line, I’m not sure we’ve really seen Ke’Bryan Hayes play the way he can, and here we are entering year two of his 7 year extension.

Now, Hayes was a 4.3 WAR player in 2022, a season most would consider a very underwhelming effort. Still, he played in 136 contests, fought through the back issues to still play gold glove caliber 3B, but the plate is where he suffered.

Hayes may not have the highest offensive ceiling but he also isn’t a guy who struck out like he did last season. Strikeouts were up, walks were down, power in general was down for that matter.

I’d like to think he didn’t feel right all year. First of all, that’s what he and the team said after the season concluded, but more so because he didn’t look like Ke’Bryan Hayes most of the season, yes, even if you think his minor league performance was predictive. This was still a down year.

In my proposed lineups for opening day, I have a hard time putting Ke’ in the top 6 of my lineup. If he can work himself back into that position, man that’s a huge plus for this team and permanently lengthens the lineup.

I can live with Hayes being a doubles hitter in lieu of homeruns, the world needs those to but you can’t abide only pulling off 34 XBH in 560 Plate Appearances.

One thing you notice watching Ke’Bryan is that he tends to get taken to the woodshed on a pitch in a certain location, changes everything to address it, hunt it even, and everything else suffers. To me, Andy Haines has to help Hayes improve or it’s time to move on and find someone who will.

A good player is in there, but it isn’t going to show itself until someone helps him realize he’s taking too many good pitches and swinging at too much crap.

Injury happens. Failing to make adjustments does too. But this 4th year player is the only one being paid on a lengthy contract as we speak, and on this team, it has bigger implications.

I’ve said before, just the glove is worth a certain amount, but for this team, they need him to be more than that. If he doesn’t, he’ll remain a defensive dynamo, but at some point, on a good team like this one hopes to be, that might not be enough.

I’ll say this, nobody will outwork him, and I’ll add, maybe that’s part of the problem. Simplify, focus on contact, and get out of your head when it comes to taking long at bats, most of the league knew Hayes was good for 2 strikes provided you were capable of throwing them before he was willing to take the bat off his shoulder.

Come out there and be unpredictable.

Hayes as a well rounded star puts this whole thing on a different track, Hayes as a defender who hits a little, well, that’s ok I guess.

2023 is going to help paint this picture, believe it or not we don’t yet know what we’ve got here.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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