1-15-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
For the 3rd consecutive offseason, making the case that the Pirates roster is different won’t be an issue. The changes are clear, the side by side, stark.
As I began with, changes aren’t new, we’ve seen that prior to 2021, 2022 and even 2020 albeit to a lesser degree. So as we sit here about a month away from the first act of 2023 to get underway with pitchers and catchers reporting, lets talk about what this season could bring. I’m not going to make a prediction here, I’m simply going to lay out things to look for, and expect to see, which should allow you to form your own opinion.
One thing I think will be painfully obvious as we go through this though, 2023 and 2024 will bring just as much change.
That’s really where we should start I think.
They’ll Trade All These Free Agents So Who Cares?
Vince Velasquez, Austin Hedges, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Santana, Ji-man Choi, Robert Stephenson, Rich Hill, that’s a whole bunch of new or expiring contract talent brought in here for 2023.
The first thing most people setting out to “defend” the Pirates do wrong in my opinion is pretend things like this aren’t going to happen, or this time it’ll be different for some reason. Let’s be real clear here, every name I put up there could easily be traded at the deadline.
Sure, Andrew McCutchen reportedly has some kind of a gentlemen’s agreement that he’d prefer not being traded and would even like an opportunity to return in 2024 if he and the team agree he has a role, but we simply can’t discount the reality that moving guys on expiring contracts is one way teams like this can add talent to the system.
There are factors involved here. For one, Ben Cherington has openly said he wants results this year, a better record and at least the tangible feeling of progress. That’s one thing, and as Burgess Meredith famously said in Grumpy Old Men, “Well, you can wish in one hand and crap in the other, see which fills up first”.
If this team gets off to a slow start, the likelihood that they move most if not all these guys is on the table. If they start well, there could be more of a clutching of these players in order to hunt results.
I already mentioned Cutch’s agreement, but even the PR deficient Pirates know moving him from a team that is competing or even just threatening .500 would be foolish.
So yes, some or all of these guys could get moved. I’ll be really honest with you, if 2024 is truly to be a “compete” year as many have forecasted, you should almost be hoping they perform well, but young players push many of them aside.
If not, next offseason will look eerily similar.
Some Top Prospects are Coming
Prospects are a crap shoot. You never know how they’re going to turn out long term, but when they get to AA or AAA, you typically can at least tell if they’ll make it to the league. At the very least it tends to become more of an educated guess.
During this season it’s very likely we’ll see the debut of Endy Rodriguez, Jared Triolo, Mike Burrows, Nick Gonzales, Quinn Priester, and Colin Selby.
It’s likely we’ll see some others who got their cup of coffee make their return to MLB action, Luis Ortiz, Johan Oviedo, Liover Peguero, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Yerry De Los Santos, Ji-hwan Bae and maybe even Blake Cederlind.
I didn’t even mention Henry Davis, Cody Bolton, or Malcom Nunez who also could easily make the jump this year, and there are others.
Hell, Travis Swaggerty didn’t even get a courtesy mention until now.
Point being, just because the Pirates went and got a bunch of guys to fill roles on this team in 2023, it doesn’t mean they’re done rebuilding, it just means they’re no longer comfortable with or so far away from some of these young talents arriving that the MLB team can be ignored. You always want to provide a smooth landing for youngsters, especially if you think they matter.
The largest and loudest complaint about the Pirates free agent acquisitions, aside from age has been that they’re only for one year.
Well folks, you just read a list of why.
The starting rotation on opening day will likely look like this. Mitch Keller, Rich Hill, Roansy Contreras, JT Brubaker, and Vince Velasquez, and that’s going to leave guys like Luis Ortiz, Johan Oviedo, Mike Burrows, Quinn Priester, and Cody Bolton on the outside looking in. For the Pirates to have a successful evolution and continuation of this rebuild into 2024, it’s key that some of these names are part of it.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that eliminated the possibility of signing anyone to longer than a year, but it absolutely is a factor as to why they didn’t.
Throughout the year injuries will create opportunity, so will performance I’m quite sure, either way at some point because it’s what has to happen, opportunity will be forced upon some if need be.
And let’s be really blunt here, you’d love if at some point one of those starting pitchers I named forced the Pirates to move Velasquez to the bullpen or even out the door. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that is the only successful outcome on the table.
Holes Have Been Patched
Listen, most of you live in currently, or at some point lived in Pennsylvania, so I know you’re all painfully aware of how effectively and long term tar and chip patches work on potholes.
That’s what many of these signings are. They might work or a time, might even make you forget there ever was a hole but make no mistake, once you toss some salt on top and run a plow over it a few times you’ll be reminded quickly, it was a temporary patch.
At some point you have to come along, cut the area out and refill it with new concrete and rebar, smooth it over with fresh black top and that my friends is what the wave of prospects need to be.
Carlos Santana and Ji-man Choi will be a fine duo at first base, they both can play the position well, they both can hit a little, but make no mistake, if Malcom Nunez doesn’t both figure out how to play at first base this year, and get his bat evolved to where it needs to be, the Pirates will wake up in November looking again to “solve the position”.
More than any other factor, this is why I’m hesitant to go ahead and predict a huge record improvement. Because at some point they’re going to have to introduce some of these kids, and kids play like kids a whole lot of the time. Even if their ceiling is far higher than whom they’re replacing, even if they were killing it in AAA, even if the veteran patches were struggling, fusing youngsters in can be dicey.
And as I hope I’ve illustrated, we’re going to see quite a bit of this in 2023.
It may have a detrimental effect on the record, but if they don’t do it, and do it well, again, we’ll be watching Ben Cherington use free agency in much the same way next off season.
Some of these decisions will force themselves to be more permanent. For instance, that first base battle, well if Malcom Nunez or Mason Martin finish this season having not debuted or having had a poor run when they do, we’ll absolutely be looking for the Pirates to either move another prospect over there who’s bat is begging for a place to play or back to free agency potentially looking for something that delivers more than a year of help.
In fact, one of those trades we touched on could provide that help potentially.
So is it Better or What?
On paper? Yes.
If you don’t see that, or won’t admit it, I’m sorry, you just don’t want to see it. When you’re DFAing players like Bryse Wilson, Zach Thompson, Diego Castillo and Hoy Park, you’re a team who has changed the talent balance on your roster plain and simple.
I firmly believe if the Pirates were simply trying to take this roster mix and see how many wins they could accumulate they’d absolutely win more than they did in 2022, and by a measurable amount, not just one game. As I also outlined though, the likelihood that this roster and all the patches finish 2023 together is slim to none, in fact, it’d be unhealthy if it did.
I’ll find my way to a prediction by the time Spring Training wraps, just like every year, and I’ll probably be wrong again too, but it’s a better team for sure on paper, and the talent coming is easily the most exciting collective we’ve seen since this entire thing started.
Don’t get me wrong, Oneil Cruz is the most exciting player, but as a group, well he was an island to a degree, even if you were someone who wanted Ji-hwan Bae and Castro to be included in it.
That brings me to another reason to expect this year to be better. The Oneil Cruz we saw in 2022 will likely not be the Cruz we see in 2023. Rodolfo Castro should improve, Bae should get a longer look to showcase his skills, someone should emerge in the outfield or at the very least Jack Suwinski it seems very unlikely will have insane home/away and Left/right splits like he did in 2022. They don’t even make sense.
Point is, kids who came up last year, should improve, and that eventuality is exactly why it’s so key to get eyes on as many of this next batch as you possibly can during 2023. I’d like to be talking about their improvement in 2024 as opposed to their debuts.
All of this leads me to a couple major takeaways. One, how the team starts will help determine what this group of patches gets done in Pittsburgh. Two, how this thing evolves is almost as important as how this season finishes.
I don’t think we’re in evaluation mode on the players this year as much as finally onto evaluation mode on the coaching staff. If there’s one thing bringing in veterans does, it takes away all of Derek Shelton’s hiding spots.
No more can you look at the bullpen and give him a pass. If he and his team choose to artificially stunt the amount of innings the starters provide and it kills the pen, well, it likely wasn’t because you were trying to pull all the right strings.
If his hitting coach is going to preside over another epic offensively inept season, it’s going to point at Shelton. Sure it did last year too, but this year, he’d be allowing it with better talent.
This lame duck coach is very much so for the first time overseeing his first competent roster. If he were to even be within shouting distance of another 100 loss season, you can expect real consequences. That pressure either creates a diamond, or pulverizes the substance into dust.
Now, don’t mistake, player evals will of course still go on, but by in large, someone with some modicum of experience is available at just about every spot on the diamond. Short stop probably being the exception, but I think somehow you’ll cope with what they do have there.
This will be a fun year, a year where you expect they could win most nights. Can’t have been something you’d say to yourself most of the time these last three seasons but this year, I expect a lot less crying about the lineup, a lot less stressing about some guy getting a start, a lot more excitement about facing rivals, many more reasons to hope and more evidence this ship is steering in the right direction.
If you think all the above is moot if the Pirates trade Bryan Reynolds, you might very well be right. I for one am convinced from talking and listening that He isn’t being moved this offseason, and that the team is going to reengage his representation and I get the impression they think it can get done.
Doesn’t mean it will work out, but it does mean for now, I simply can’t allow it to override every other conversation. I don’t forget it’s there, but at some point we have to look at what is as opposed to what might be.
You will watch Cutch and Reynolds in the same outfield, how long I can’t say.
So better? Yeah, I think so. Is .500 in play? Well, on paper, yeah, I think it is. I also think how they navigate all that stuff I mentioned above will have more to do with determining that than these guys they brought in.
Either way, this figures to feel a lot more like a baseball season than the last three. If only because we’ll likely see our team looking capable more often.
As fans, we can overlook them and wait for them to show us something, but trust me, other teams won’t. MLB isn’t dumb, they know what a team emerging from darkness looks like, and by the end of 2023 I think most of you will too.