1-20-23 – By Ethan Smith – @mvp_EtHaN on Twitter
Yes, it’s only January, but pitchers and catchers report in less than a month’s time, so Pittsburgh Pirates baseball is just around the corner, which means it’s not to early to pose some important questions the Pirates will need to answer in this calendar year.
This off-season may not be the off-season that propels the Pirates into a contending team, but it has been eventful and much more than we’ve seen in some time from a Pittsburgh front office and management group.
It started with Ji-Man Choi and for now has concluded with the return of Andrew McCutchen and there is no doubt the team has gotten better than the final product we saw wrap up the season in 2022.
What questions do the Pirates have to answer in 2023? Well, let me pose some on my mind that I am sure are on the minds of GM Ben Cherington and the front office group.
What, or When, is the conclusion of the Bryan Reynolds Situation?
Ever since his trade request in December, the main conversation surrounding the Pirates has been whether star outfielder Bryan Reynolds would wear black and gold or be traded elsewhere.
It has been reported the Pirates offered something in the vicinity of 6-years, $75-million, a number that Reynolds’ camp said was not enough and that they see him as a three-figure player. I’ll shy away from contract conversation for the most part, but its worth noting the Pirates at least offered something.
The situation has cooled off now for the most part, mainly due to the immense asking price the Pirates want for Reynolds seeing as he is still under team control through 2025. That of course doesn’t stop Twitter GMs from making mock trades featuring Reynolds, all being deals neither team would likely do, but this situation has to be front and center for the Pirates and the future of the team.
All signs point to Reynolds wanting to be a Pittsburgh Pirate and to get an extension done. Do we see that before the conclusion of Spring Training? Who knows? If it extends into the regular season, things get shaky on what direction the team goes with it. It’s a wait and see situation, as most trade request or extension conversations are, but its easily the biggest question Pirates fans, players, management and everyone involved wants an answer to before we turn the page to 2024.
Does Oneil Cruz Take the Next Step?
Oneil Cruz was a revelation last season, breaking StatCast records and proving he could be the Pirates next great player.
Heading into 2023, Cruz definitely has areas of improvement, ranging from his defensive ability at the shortstop position to limiting strikeouts and adjusting to MLB pitching for an entire season.
Cruz taking the next step entails a ton of things. If he improves his approach at the plate and plays at least average or just below average at the shortstop position, that’s a win. What does that look like? Well, improving his average, strikeout numbers and swing-and-miss rate would go a long way in doing that, all things he is capable of due to his physical ability alone.
Does he stick at shortstop long-term even if he has a good defensive season? That’s an entirely different conversation. The main focal point to Cruz’s continued development is completely centered around his bat, which again will get its first full MLB season in 2023.
There is no doubt Cruz will be a good MLB player due to multiple factors, but taking the next step would also allow the Pirates to move forward with a superstar player at their fingertips for quite some time.
When Do the Top Prospects Make an Impact?
Prospect debuts defined the entire 2022 season for the Pirates, but that sentiment will likely not have as much importance in 2023.
With the slew of veteran signings and positions filled already at the MLB level, top prospects such as Endy Rodriguez, Quinn Priester, Mike Burrows, Henry Davis and others will have ample opportunities to work on their game at the minor-league level because they won’t have to come up too early due to lineup ineptitude.
So with that said, when do these players ultimately come to PNC Park and make an impact? Well we know the Pirates love service time manipulation, so the easy answer is sometime after the deadline of service time counting as a full-season for debuting players, but pencil in the All-Star break and the trade deadline for when much anticipated debuts will be made.
Carlos Santana, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, Austin Hedges and Ji-Man Choi are likely not in the long-term plans for Ben Cherington and Co., so expect deadline trades from the Pirates unless they are on the fringe of wild-card contention, which is my ceiling for the team in 2023.
Those deadline trades of course would open up spots all over the place, including starting rotation spots, first base and behind the plate, so expect Rodriguez, Priester, Burrows, Bolton and other pitchers like Luis Ortiz and Johan Oviedo to fill those voids if deadline trades do happen.
This leaves the Pirates with multiple positives. For starters, they would get decent returns if the veterans perform well, which we’ve seen the past two seasons, while also allowing their top prospects to fix much needed downfalls and come to the MLB level with about another half-season of experience and fine tuning under their belt.
On the flip side, if the Pirates are contending for whatever reason and don’t move on from the veteran players, the top-prospect call-ups would not be asked to do much except sustain and already winning product, putting the Pirates in a pretty good spot heading into 2023 as far as prospects are concerned.
What Do You Do With All These Outfielders?
Anybody with a technological device with the ability to look up projected lineups, prospects lists or last year’s roster would be able to tell that the Pirates have an ample amount of outfielders available to them.
You look at who will likely start the season starting at the outfield positions, Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski and Andrew McCutchen, and can be pretty happy about that already, but the depth the Pirates have in the outfield is lengthy.
The Pirates already have the starting trio along with Connor Joe, Miguel Andujar, Ji-hwan Bae, Tucapita Marcano, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Travis Swaggerty and Ryan Vilade on the 40-man roster. News flash, that’s a lot of outfielders.
That list also doesn’t include Endy Rodriguez, who has played in the outfield before, Connor Scott, Matt Fraizer, Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales(both Peguero and Gonzales could move to the outfield), Matt Gorski and even further away prospects like Hudson Head, Lonnie White Jr. and Shalin Polanco.
Spring Training will likely weed out the players who under perform from that huge group because not all of them will pan out, but that amount of outfielders will also need reps to make an accurate assessment on who to keep and who to let go. We’ve seen that issue with Travis Swaggerty over the past season or so with his lack of MLB time and surely the Pirates will have to have a plan in place to make decisions about the outfield group.
What are the Expectations for the Pirates in 2023?
This is more of a fans and readers question but also a question the front office will have to answer at some point.
The Pirates have not been in the postseason since 2015 and haven’t had a winning record since 2019, so the rebuilding stages are starting to become tiring.
On paper, this isn’t a World Series or playoff contender, again my ceiling for them is final wild-card contention, but after back-to-back 100 loss seasons, what kind of expectations should this team have?
Obviously the win total has to go up, and no, not by one win like we saw last season. The benchmark has to be around 68-75 wins as far as realistic expectations for this team are concerned. They have enough talent to be competitive and with MLB changing the schedule format, you’ll see matchups against lowly American League teams the Pirates haven’t seen in a few years as well as the AL Central, a division much like the NL Central, that will likely be a two-horse race.
With the new schedule taken into account, the Pirates also see the NL Central less, which would’ve probably worked to their benefit, so we’ll see how the new schedule affects baseball as a whole.
But expectations being “high” for a 68-75 win season as well as saying that’s still not a good record can go hand-in-hand. If the Pirates won 75 games, would you be happy about that? I sure would be.
So setting expectations and meeting those expectations has to be of major importance to everyone in the organization. The rebuild is starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but how this team performs and answers important questions could decide just how long we wait until the Pirates are in a competitive window again.