Top Pirates Camp Battles to Watch in 2023

1-19-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

I’m going to start this piece by saying simply, there are far fewer than I anticipated. I planned on focusing on all the potential rookies and 2nd year players who’d be fighting it out over breaking camp and heading North.

That doesn’t mean Spring is unimportant or the Roster is completely set, but listen, if Malcom Nunez for instance hits 8 homeruns in camp, he’ll earn being the leader in the clubhouse for First Base or DH call up. So, it matters, but some places on the field, guys simply aren’t battling for making the roster now, they’ve signed enough veterans to ensure barring injury, they won’t be forcing many, if any at all, rookies into service.

This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a reality of trying to field a better team. At some point you stop filling the 26 man with hope, and instead fill it with probable contributors.

That said, there are spots where the team has room for battles to answer the question, and the best way to look at this, is probably to start with the guys who WILL make this roster. Before we start discussing who’s going to battle, we need to understand how many spots we’re talking about right?

The Locks

Infielders: Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Ji-Man Choi, Carlos Santana

Catchers: Austin Hedges

Outfielders: Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen

That’s 7 locks out of 13 spots for position players. Now, keep in mind the word lock doesn’t account for extremely likely, it simply speaks to guys who will absolutely be on this roster.

Pitching Staff: Roansy Contreras, Rich Hill, Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, Vince Velasquez, David Bednar, Jarlin Garcia

Now that’s 7 locks out of 13 there too. Again, I stress, lock is much different than likely. The way I see it, we will enter Spring knowing 14 names that will ultimately fill out the 26-man roster. Now let’s move on to the likely guys.

Likely to Make it

Outfielders: Jack Suwinski – He’s just short of a lock, about as close as you can come, but he has some poison pills in his game, and enough veterans competing for a spot that if Spring is a complete disaster you could see the team going in another direction.

Infielders: Rodolfo Castro – Much like Jack, he showed enough to assume the team will want to give him a real shot in 2023 to cement his role, but he isn’t without competition for playing time, and the additions in the outfield might just force him into a direct battle with Ji-hwan Bae for second base. Have to give the edge to the guy who is down to his last option and has 102 MLB games under his belt.

Pitching Staff: Chase De Jong, Duane Underwood Jr., Robert Stephenson – Three pitchers, all with no options, all likely to have at least a weighted decision on whether they make the roster or not. In other words, they aren’t likely to want to lose these guys for nothing without at least getting some precious innings out of them before moving on to the younger guys. In other words, deciding these guys don’t make it is a final decision.

Colin Holderman – Recent interviews with Oscar Marin by Alex Stumpf and Jason Mackey have led me to believe Colin is very much so in the plans. He has 3 options so I don’t want to make him a lock, but he’s as close as you can get.

I’ll add one more here, Wil Crowe, he’s got one option and before his arm turned to churned butter at the end of the season and he was forced into a role he didn’t fit, he was legitimately good.

That adds 7 more folks, putting our running total at 21.

We’ve got 5 spots left and we’ll now talk about all the guys who will fight for them and talk to their challenges and advantages.

Fighting for a Shot

Catcher (1) Spot Available: Tyler Heineman, Jason Delay, the first thing I’d say is, I could easily see the Pirates waiting until the end of Spring, and grabbing a catcher who gets cast off another team’s 40-man roster. The coach was very up front that Endy Rodriguez wasn’t going to break camp, right or wrong, we needn’t waste time on that argument, he isn’t going to be given the shot. Point is, these two will likely fill the backup role if they don’t act.

Outfield/Utility/Infield (2) Spots Available: We already talked about the locks, Reynolds and Cutch, we talked about the very likely, Jack, I think they’ll carry 5 here so that leaves 2. This will be one of the most interesting battles in camp and you’ll start to find some of these guys will be competing for multiple spots. For obvious reasons, competing for multiple spots ups your chances of making the team. They have to have someone who can play SS/2B/3B in particular, and that may ultimately get in the way for some of the left handed dedicated outfielders.

Miguel Andujar – At best, Andujar is a shot at reclaiming a wasted talent, he’s also a picture frame of a very active offseason. At the end of 2022, most saw him as a lock to DH this year, now he’s fighting for a chance to make the team. Miguel has no options which gives him an advantage, but he’s fighting for a spot in the outfield which isn’t his best position (if he has one). He also has something most of his competition doesn’t, a successful MLB season. I think the Pirates have to keep one more right handed stick in addition to Andrew McCutchen for the outfield, so yeah, Andujar has a shot.

Connor Joe – Another right handed outfielder and he’s put together two decent stretches with the Rockies in the past two seasons. I have no doubt he’s a better fielder than Andujar but one of his biggest advantages to make the roster was probably his ability to play first base too. The acquisition of Ji-Man Choi and signing of Carlos Santana kinda render that skill moot. Carrying 2 options in his back pocket, Joe will really have to impress to either force the team to take 3 right handed outfielders North or beat Andujar so soundly the Pirates are willing to lose Miguel.

Ji-hwan Bae – Make no mistake, Bae is capable of playing infield or outfield. I see him as more of a second baseman, but he could probably handle SS in a pinch. His versatility will help, and his uniqueness at the plate gives him an edge too. The Pirates will have to walk a balance here, Bae could easily be one of the best 26 but if the club feels they can’t keep him active enough he may have to go to AAA where he can play. Again, his ability to play multiple positions might help him, a properly deployed utility man can wind up getting starting level at bats.

Tucupita Marcano – Hey I could easily say Marcano and Bae are directly in competition. They both largely do the same things, and while I personally think Bae is superior, even I have to admit, neither have enough of a track record for me to definitively decide. Tucupita has one big, albeit perceived, advantage, Ben Cherington wanted him from the Padres so badly in the Joe Musgrove deal he circled back and made sure he got him in the Adam Frazier deal. He got him, but I don’t think anyone knows how to use him or where.

Jared Triolo – A pure rookie if he makes it, Jared has never played in AAA. We’ve seen that not matter to this club in the past and I can honestly say out of everyone who could play SS behind Cruz, Triolo would be the best out the gate. He’s also a really talented outfielder and third baseman. Arguably the best defender in the system. Boy it’d be tough now for him to make the club, but I’d be tempted if he hit.

Cal Mitchell, Travis Swaggerty, Canaan Smith-Nigba – Cal got the longest shot last year, Canaan was hurt almost all of 2022, and Travis Swaggerty will either be added to the list of first round picks cast off by this GM or finally win a spot on this roster. I lump them all together because they’re all left handed, they all can really only play outfield. Clearly all are behind Jack Suwinski but I think the team is going to want to have a left handed and right handed option off the bench. This is a battle within a battle. The Pirates could easily decide keeping two utility guys who can play outfield and infield as opposed to a dedicated outfielder here.

That’s 7 names, for 2 spots and while I could add in some other names, I don’t think it would be productive, I firmly believe this list is where these guys will come from.

Pitching Staff (2) – There are going to be a ton of guys fighting for these 2 spots. Now, I think the starting rotation is pretty set, so I’m leaning heavily to this really being a bullpen battle but the team could easily go with a 6-man rotation which frankly would be silly in April since you rarely even need 5, but piggybacking could make a return appearance too.

Jose Hernandez – Rule 5 selection and left handed. That’s two things that give him an extreme advantage here. Jarlin Garcia is the only lefty in the pen if Hernandez doesn’t make it and of course he’s no longer a Pirate most likely if he is cut. I think he’s interesting enough that the Bucs might overlook some warts to give him a shot. To me, this was almost in the likely category.

Yerry De Los Santos – He was impressive last season filling a role in the back end of the bullpen, but he’s young, has options and didn’t do anything that would make the Pirates look insane for starting him in AAA.

Dauri Moreta, Yohan Ramirez – Dauri was just acquired from the Reds for Kevin Newman, and has 2 options remaining, Yohan was a waiver claim in 2022 and really impressed some of the brass with his work down the stretch. Both of these guys have a real shot to make this club but neither are someone I feel overly excited about. Depth is a good thing.

Johan Oviedo – The Pirates very much so see him as a starter, and they want to continue to operate under that assumption. He was the key to the Jose Quintana deal and the Bucs won’t want to waste him by prematurely deciding he’s a bullpen arm. That said, he could be a perfect fit for a potential piggy back role, or even could force Vince Velasquez into the pen. Keep an eye open here, Oviedo has a very good shot to make this team one way or another.

Colin Selby – I’ve been asked a couple times, do any rookies have a real shot to make it out of camp? If one does, in my eyes it’s Colin. This is a flame thrower, and he could impress too much to ignore. Don’t get me wrong, he has hurdles to jump, and he’d have to be damn impressive, but I don’t think it’s insane to believe he could make it happen.

Conclusion

Feels to me like there are some battles there, but instead of head to heads it’s more about picking from groups to fill some spots on the edges of the roster. That’s what happens when you fill a bunch of holes with veterans. It’s also why you do so on a 1 year basis, because you expect, and want some of these guys competing to make the decisions easy come deadline time.

So I suppose I owe you my 26-man as we sit here. Let’s go…

Catcher – Austin Hedges
Infield – Ke’Bryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, Carlos Santana
Outfield – Andrew McCutchen, Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski
Bench – Tyler Heineman, Ji-hwan Bae, Miguel Andujar, Ji-Man Choi, Tucupita Marcano

Starting Rotation – Rich Hill, Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, Roansy Contreras, Vince Velasquez

Bullpen – David Bednar, Colin Holderman, Jarlin Garcia, Jose Hernandez, Wil Crowe, Robert Stephenson, Duane Underwood Jr., Chase De Jong

Now, the bench construction is more about who they face. For instance, I think Cutch probably plays DH more often than outfield, hence keeping a couple utility guys, and because this team doesn’t tend to use DH as a stand alone spot, I keep it rotating a bit. In other words, don’t get hung up on who I have as bench/starter.

I do think Santana will play in the field more than Choi though, their histories tell me that.

All in all, a different kind of Spring and it could lead to something like this…

  1. Ji-hwan Bae – CF
  2. Bryan Reynolds – LF
  3. Oneil Cruz – SS
  4. Carlos Santana – 1B
  5. Andrew McCutchen – DH
  6. Jack Suwinski – RF
  7. Ke’Bryan Hayes – 3B
  8. Austin Hedges – C
  9. Rodolfo Castro – 2B

I can’t sit here and tell you Shelton is going to agree, even if he did, I can’t tell you he’s done with his near constant changes to the lineup, but hey, have some fun with it, a lineup is kinda the fun culmination of all this jazz.

Listen to this week’s Pirates Fan Forum, we’ll be discussing a lot of these position battles.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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