1-16-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
Even as I look out the window in my Pittsburgh home at the frost covered ground, it’s hard to not have my sights set on Spring Training. Baseball is as associated with the seasons changing as the weather itself and when you finally get to the point where the team itself looks ready to change…well, it adds another layer of anticipation.
Let’s dig in on this MLK Day, and I hope you take some time to listen to Dr. King himself today. Not other people telling you what he would think of something today, but his actual words, and his actual actions. There’s a lot to learn from him and a lot of people who think “I have a dream…” is it.
1. Looking for a Trade?
Yeah, I know the first name that popped into your head, but as I’ve written and said countless times now, not yet.
As we sit here, the Pirates have 9 designated outfielders on the 40-man. When they add Andrew McCutchen that number will jump to 10.
First things first, the Pirates will almost assuredly remove one when Cutch is official.
Here’s the thing though, even after they DFA whomever they plan to DFA, they’re going to run into trouble getting playing time for everyone in AAA.
I smell a trade.
You could distribute talent down to AA to make it work, but there are already guys there as well, and more ready to come up from High A too. Feels to me like after Ryan Vilade, they might be out of guys you’d be comfortable taking a shot at losing to waivers.
We could see a straight swap of Cal Mitchell for a prospect at another position, or Travis Swaggerty to a team desperate for OF depth and someone just drafted last season as return. Maybe even someone the Pirates had on their 2022 draft board.
I think we’re going to have to be open minded about this eventuality. Prospect trades are going to be a thing. If we’re honest, when we saw it was all shaping up to be left handed, at least at the upper levels, it kinda had to shake out this way and end up here.
2. Keeping an Eye on Andy Haines
Even as Steeler Nation beats the drum to fire Matt Canada as their Offensive Coordinator, the Pirates plan to return an equally popular assistant coach in Andy Haines.
Different situations and sports obviously, but similar issues. Historically poor offense, performed by largely young players who you’d hope have room left to improve quite a bit.
It’s a classic chicken or the egg story, except you can’t be 100% sure either is viable.
No matter what, lets cut away the excuses for a moment. Andy Haines was in charge of an offense that did this…
- 27th in Runs Scored
- 29th in Hits
- 29th in Doubles
- 18th in Home Runs
- 3rd in Strikeouts
- 29th in Batting Average
- 28th in OPS
Had enough? Well, the Pirates don’t agree.
Here’s the thing, there is some reason to believe this was a lot more about players than coaching. After all, looking at the roster today vs last season, there are 2 guys who opened 2022 in the starting lineup who figure to open 2023 in it.
So clearly change has taken place here. In other words, the Pirates have clearly decided, this was more player driven than it was coach driven.
One thing I like a lot about this roster, especially when it comes to offense, there are a lot of veterans, and that comes at the right time to really get a picture of what Haines brings to the table.
Making changes to the approach and swing of a guy like Jack Suwinski is not the same as trying to tell Carlos Santana to change his. Having Rodolfo Castro take 2 strikes every at bat before looking to swing, is a lot different than asking Andrew McCutchen to do so.
Vets push back. Vets know themselves better than almost any coach ever could. And maybe most importantly, they know when they see talent, and they aren’t afraid to tell that young talent when they might be listening to potentially poor advice. Not in a divisive or undermining way, but more in a big brother, you outta ask about this bro way. Or, you know you’re allowed to tell them it isn’t working for you right?
I can understand the Pirates thinking 1 year with inferior talent might not be enough to judge a coach, but make no mistake, they’ll be watching this year. The Pirates haven’t invested this much money in the roster on free agents since 2014, they’ll want to protect that investment more than the next to nothing they invested last season.
Bring it Andy.
3. NL Central Update
Even with the new balanced schedule, it’s still important to understand your neighborhood. Let’s take a quick walk through what all these teams look like on the very surface after an active offseason and where they’re headed.
Chicago Cubs – The Cubs have almost completely overhauled their lineup, but not necessarily for the long term. They’ve taken an approach that many would have loved to see the Pirates adopt. Signed real live baseball players, including some reclamation projects to stem the tide as they wait for players in the system to improve and mature. Dansby Swanson is the big get, but they’ve filled just about every spot with a bat worth seeing. You’d have to figure almost everyone they signed and anyone on expiring contracts will be available later in the season, especially if they don’t get off to a great start. Even with the addition of Jameson Taillon, I don’t think they have enough pitching to really compete for the division. They need a bounceback from Marcus Stroman, Kyle Hendricks underwent shoulder surgery and probably won’t be back until early May, and Justin Steele while light on experience might be their best when all is said and done. Ultimately, I see them hitting the baseball and getting hit almost just as much. The bullpen in my eyes is really light.
St. Louis Cardinals – The Cards aren’t a team that typically shoots for transformative change. They tend to trust the core they’ve built and bolt on pieces as they see fit. This off season was no different. Yadi Molina retired, they went and got Wilson Contreras. If you liked the Cards lineup last year it got about that much better. Even if asking Goldschmidt to have another MVP season at 35 years old might be unfair. Either way, they have some really nice prospects on the doorstep too, like Jordan Walker and Matthew Liberatore. The rotation is still largely what it was, but I’m sure they hope it’ll be healthier. I expect the Cardinals to remain the cream of the crop in the division, even if it’s a bit by default.
Milwaukee Brewers – Reality. That’s what the Brewers are facing in 2023. Major additions to the lineup are William Contreras, and Jesse Winker. We Pirates fans all remember Winker killing us and everyone else in a Reds uniform, but after being moved to the Mariners he fell off a cliff. Reality comes when the Brewers had no choice but to take a chance that he returns to form. Christian Yelich has not lived up to his contract, at least not lately and that contract is going to create problems especially in their rotation come 2025. Willy Adames remains their top offensive threat barring bounce backs. The rotation is still formidable, with Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff leading the charge and their bullpen has taken a hit this offseason none bigger than losing Bruce Suter who’s been absolute glue for them. If they get to the backend, they’re good to go, but getting there got tougher this offseason. They could compete with St. Louis, but I think we start to watch them decline a bit in 2023.
Cincinnati Reds – Hey, it’s a rebuild. I can’t sit here and tell you how the Reds will follow up this season, but the roster they start with doesn’t figure to look like what they end with. They picked up Wil Myers and I could see him hitting quite a few homeruns in that ballpark, but they need a lot of youngsters to step up all over the place. Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo got a taste last year, and this year we’ll see how they’ve evolved, the bullpen looks like a problem if you ask me. Prospects like Elly De La Cruz, will eventually supplant Kevin Newman or Spencer Steer but I don’t see enough stacking yet to think they’re close. Just looking at this roster, they’re easily in the running for worst in the division, if not the league. I will say, De La Cruz is going to be a problem in this division for a long time once he gets here and I really like Lodolo and Greene as front of the rotation types. There’s some framework there, and last time they went out and bought the drywall. We’ll see how they approach it this time since it ended poorly in the last effort. All signs point to Joey Votto being back after an injury plagued season in 2022, and it’s likely his last with a club option for 2024, the Reds will undoubtedly want out of that 20 million.
I’m not going to insult you by doing one of these for the Pirates. We talk about them everyday. I’ll just say this, aside from the Cardinals, I don’t think it’s a given they’re worse than any of the other teams in this division. Doesn’t mean they’ll finish second, but it should be a division they don’t look up in August and find themselves 22 games back in.
4. Mitch Keller’s Late Bloom
We’ve waited and waited, and got so frustrated many of us quit waiting, then suddenly like getting in a really hot bath, we eased our way into believing this just might be real with Mitch.
Even last year, he struggled to show the offseason adjustments were going to take. Increased velocity, yup, still got creamed. Better spin rate on breaking stuff, yup, still didn’t hit the zone and when it did, didn’t fool anyone.
The Pirates sent him to the bullpen and worked with him to use a 2 seam fastball in addition to his 4 seam, and to his credit and Oscar Marin’s, with an assist from Clay Holmes, it took.
He looked good from that point on and the hope is he comes back to camp this year ready to pick up where he left off.
Therein lies something we’re simply going to have to start talking about. If Mitch comes out throwing darts and looking like a top of the rotation starter in 2023, the realization he has two years of arbitration remaining is going to cause some very tight backsides dahn at 115 Federal.
He’ll only be 27 years old this year, so it’s not like he’s aging out, and the kid isn’t an idiot, he knows what a top of the rotation starter entering free agency as a 29 year old can net.
Thing is, I can’t blame the Pirates for this thing getting to this point. He wasn’t good, and he wasn’t getting it either. It’s not like I can go back in time and claim I was advising his extension back in 2021 before he entered arbitration, but make no mistake, if he has a season similar to what he did in the second half of 2022 he’s going to get expensive really quickly.
Plenty of other teams wouldn’t even think about this. It’s 3 years away for God’s sake right? Well, the Pirates have to, and they can’t afford to wait until they see how this next wave of pitching turns out before deciding they need or want Mitch to stick around.
He and the team just agreed on a 2.4 Million dollar contract for 2023 avoiding arbitration, if he has even another inconsistent complete season like last one, and as a reminder that was 2 WAR, 3.91 ERA, in 159 IP, next year he’ll easily get double that, if not more. Better than that, or he does what he did in the second half all season and you’re looking at over 6.
That’s the advantage the Pirates still have. If they like what they see early on this year, I suggest offering him a 5 year deal, buying out 2 years of arbitration and 3 years of free agency, and I start around 50-60 million. That’s clearly more than arbitration would be likely to give in those first two years, and a bargain for the 3 years of free agency. An AAV of 10-12 per is nothing for a solid starter in today’s game, hell it’s even still tradable.
The Pirates have worked hard to get something out of this player, the least they can do for themselves is to make sure they get some of the benefit when it actually matters.
5. Skepticism is Earned
I understand entirely why many fans are skeptical about the Pirates, they’ve earned it by in large and if we’re really honest, most of those folks you’re thinking of when you see the word I typed aren’t really paying attention to the Pirates, probably aren’t really paying attention to MLB at all to be real.
It’s probably never more apparent than when someone just says they’ll still lose 100 games this year!
I’m not sure how you get there? I really do pride myself on trying to take an honest look at this team, and that includes being really honest about what their record will likely be. They’ve lost the equivalent of 100 games in 2020, 101 in 2021, 100 in 2022, and every time I didn’t even entertain thinking they’d win more than 70.
That came by way of looking at the roster, looking at the depth, movable pieces, everything. So it’s not like I look at a terrible roster and put my fan glasses on and scream .500! from the roof tops.
This year though, to me if you’re still stuck on thinking it’s a 100 loss roster, you’re just not being serious. It just isn’t.
When I first started doing this, I might have argued about it, now, I just kinda sit back and wait for it to play out.
There’s a difference between looking at this roster and thinking 100 losses, and someone who has been burned by believing in the past and won’t go above 70 just to protect themselves. That’s not what I’m talking about, I’m talking to those who simply haven’t looked, don’t care to, but simply want to go online and push some Pirates fans buttons a bit, even while claiming they themselves are fans.
I understand the impulse to avoid being made fun of, but take an honest look at this roster, it’s better, and it isn’t close. Name a position aside from catcher, and it can be proven statistically.
Point is, One day when we are all cheering together, there’s a good chance you’ll be next to someone who never had anything to say to you online but…😂 when you suggested something as benign as we might be 10 games better, well, here’s hoping you don’t recognize them.