Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

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

There isn’t much the Pirates could do on paper that would merit the response they received for signing Andrew McCutchen, but when you focus on the field, or what this team could actually get done this year, it’s arguably not even in the top 5.

That’s fandom in a nutshell sometimes. What excites us isn’t always what’s most important. Thing is, when you haven’t had many reasons to smile in recent years, you could argue that in and of itself made this a priority.

Lots to think about this week, lets go…

1. If This Team Wins…

Most of the additions to this team have been position players. Cutch, Santana, Choi, Joe, Hedges, but if this team really shows marked improvement this year it’ll be because they pitched.

This is going to sound crazy when I first say it but think about it for a minute, the Pirates were extremely fortunate with health in their starting rotation last season.

They had next to nothing backing their rotation, and we saw what injury did to the bullpen as the season played out. It all added up to 100 losses, so largely it didn’t matter record wise, but when I really sit back and think about what a lengthy injury to Keller or Contreras, even Brubaker would have caused them to do, man, it’s not pretty.

They potentially could have had to tap into someone they really didn’t want to force into action yet, or we could have watched 2 months of Jerad Eickhoff.

This season, it’s not like you want to see guys dropping like flies, but if they do, they actually have a solid layer of depth.

Pitching is still probably not at the level it needs to be, but I can honestly say, some of the guys who wind up starting in AAA this year are already better than guys who spent the entire year in MLB last season. Watching this slowly transition and merge in new players is really going to be interesting.

When a guy underperforms in the bullpen, chances are they have 3-4 guys in AAA who you could legitimately look at as relief. If they manage this properly, with all the options to move up and down they’ve baked in, we could see a very strong aspect of this team emerge.

If they’re going to win, it almost has to.

The overall staff is better, and the depth is better, time to perform and manage it well.

2. Will They Hit Though?

It’s funny, I personally feel pretty good about the pitching staff, but according to comments I see from fans, most of you seem more upbeat about the offense. Strange how we can all look at the same things and see things differently isn’t it? Doesn’t make me right and you wrong or vice versa, but it just goes to show how much this stuff is little more than an educated guess.

All that being said, the offensive potential is there, my struggle is the shear number of players I feel have to grow, turnaround, fix a hole, improve an aspect, become more consistent, or flat out change their approach.

I think McCutchen, Santana, Choi, and Hedges, are all pretty proven out commodities. At all their ages it’s very unlikely an upswing is coming, but what they did last year is probably achievable in 2023. For Hedges, that’s wholly unexciting. For the other three, even repeat performances from 2022 would be welcome.

Then you have youngsters who have things to work on but you can be reasonably hopeful for improvement. That’s Cruz, Hayes, Suwinski, and Castro.

Tack on from there the guys who were good, are good and will very likely be good, Bryan Reynolds. Not much here huh?

And onto kids who haven’t really had much if any opportunity yet but surely will. Bae, Rodriguez, Gonzales, Peguero, Smith-Njigba, Swaggerty, I’d maybe even toss Mitchell in here.

So I can easily see a world where those vets all do what they’re supposed to do, and a couple of those kids improve. Get to the point where you have a lineup that’s 6-7 deep with actual hitters, and real offense is doable.

If nothing else, I feel good saying it’s less defined than I see the pitching staff.

I’ll also add, the offense was historically stinky in 2022, so getting worse with these additions is VERY unlikely. Maybe that’s the best way to see it.

3. Should We Just Assume Heineman is the Backup Catcher?

Man, it sure feels that way as we sit here.

The coach all the way back at the Winter Meetings decided to take the plausibility of Endy making the club out of camp off the table.

One thing is clear, the Pirates apparently don’t want to head to camp with a clear cut backup catcher, at least not yet.

Austin Hedges will be the starter, and defensively, it’s hard to argue that’s the right call, but you’d like to think they’d want to bring at least a bit of an offensive threat into the picture right?

The options as we sit here are, Tyler Heineman, Carter Bins, and Jason Delay. Henry Davis isn’t in this mix for the same reasons Endy isn’t, on top of quite literally not being close to where Endy is in development.

I’d have to imagine the Pirates would love if Carter Bins made it, he’s 24 and would give them a younger option behind the dish who has some offensive ability, at least from a power standpoint, but his glove has been a question and he’s certainly not been a contact hitter.

Heineman and Delay got plenty of time last year to show what they were since the Pirates chose to not replace starting catcher Roberto Perez after his injury. All indications are that the team was pretty comfortable and happy with both of them defensively, but neither offer real offensive upside.

Now, this team clearly prioritizes defense at the position, and they likely aren’t looking for anyone who could hold Endy back longer than they already plan to.

The way I see this, Spring will be a competition to see which of Bins, Delay and Heineman wins the backup gig, with an outside shot the team picks up someone they like who gets cut toward the end of Spring by another team. But I don’t see them signing another before then.

This is going to sound very similar to what I said last season but hell, I’ll do it anyway. it’s really weird to hear a team put so very much priority on the importance of a position, yet provide themselves no depth. The one thing I can add for 2023 is that now they have depth, and talented depth, but they’re going to not allow it to help.

Endy isn’t a finished product either, so I’m not getting weird and claiming they’ve screwed up before we even get started, but it feels to me like they’ve invested enough into the team this year to not fumble on the 5 yard line with the catching position.

If there is an injury to Hedges, I’d hope we at least would see them change course on Endy. Watching him learn on the job might still be better than starting Heineman for 65 games.

4. Crucial Season for Some?

The Pirates are still a relatively young team, but with a wave of prospects on the doorstep, and some guys reaching a point where the team has to make decisions, 2023 is a big year for a few guys in particular, and for different reasons.

JT Brubaker – I have little doubt JT is going to get another shot at starting. If nothing else he gave the Pirates 144 innings last season and is likely to be tasked with even more in 2023, but at some point, innings alone won’t cut it, quality innings need to win out. Competition for the rotation is about to ramp up, and JT has 2 years of arbitration left after this season. His stuff would play in the bullpen, so it may not be crucial for his overall existence on the team, but if he’s to remain a starter, he’ll need to provide those innings with a sub 4.00 ERA one would imagine. Otherwise, he’s going to get run over.

Rodolfo Castro – Let’s start with this, it’s strange to say a 23 year old is at the point where he’s facing anything “critical” but I truly feel it is for him. He debuted in 2021, got a good long look last year and I firmly believe he’ll get the beginning of this season to prove second base is his. He’s played all of 102 games, had 371 plate appearances and what makes him exciting is that’s led to 16 homeruns and a .707 OPS. He’s got room before he reaches his ceiling too, but he’s got pressure coming from behind. Ji-hwan Bae, Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Jared Triolo, and Tucupita Marcano could all push him out of the way should he not show he’s capable of limiting the strikeouts and improving on that OPS a bit. He could stand to improve defensively a bit too, but either way, 2023 is going to be big for determining if he’s a starter, or a bench player.

Jack Suwinski – The way I see it, Jack either proves he’s an everyday player this season or he proves he’s a platoon player. Hitting 19 homeruns in 372 plate appearances already screams MLB player in my mind. You’d like to see a little less all or nothing though. I mean the kid had 30 extra base hits in 2022, 19 dingers, 11 doubles. 36 singles make up the rest of his hits, all of this added up to an OBP of only .298. We all know how downright silly his splits were but Jack has to learn how to do damage against lefties, and how to do more, and specifically more consistent damage against everyone. I wouldn’t say he has a lot of super highly touted talent pushing him aside, but the way everything else is shaping up on the roster, what he’s put up so far won’t likely have the team feeling comfortable making him an everyday starter unless he changes these trends a bit.

Oneil Cruz – Look, Cruz has an exciting bat, he’s done nearly the same as Jack Suwinski with a higher OPS and SLG, that’s not his problem. That said, Cruz does still have some things to work on at the plate. Specifically against left handed pitching. Here’s the weird thing though, I don’t think it’s as start as it is for Jack. Cruz’ crucial season for me comes in the field. He’s going to get another shot at SS, and I don’t mean a few weeks, I’d suspect he’ll get the majority of 2023. In 77 games he committed 17 errors, and while you can attribute some of those to the first base position, you all watched, Michael Chavis saved him a few times too. These things tend to even out, and I feel they largely did in 2022. Cruz needs to prove he can play the position he clearly wants to play, and the Pirates need to prove they’ll make a decision, even if uncomfortable after they’ve given him a real crack at it. I can’t see this going into 2024 unanswered. If he has an out, it’s likely that the Pirates don’t feel strongly about their other options at SS. Liover Peguero has all the tools (so does Cruz) but he too has struggled mightily in the field. Beyond him, well, you’re talking 2025 timeframe solutions unless Triolo hits.

5. Want to Play the What if Game?

It is what it is, I make no claim this is likely but say come July 25th or so the Pirates somehow are 4-5 games out of a Wild Card spot. How would they approach it?

Think about it, trading guys like Vince Velasquez, Rich Hill, Austin Hedges, Carlos Santana, Ji-man Choi, could all be on the table, but if the team somehow was in the conversation, would they still do it?

If they didn’t, what would that mean for 2024? None of these guys are answers for next season, even if they were to retain each for another season, and the same reason you went out and got these guys would still be in play. Not wanting to start rookies with no experience would still not be attractive right?

Don’t get me wrong, if the Pirates get to that point somehow, first, I’d be really really surprised, and already very wrong about my estimations for growth and performance. Second I don’t think I’d feel like writing about this “problem” and you likely wouldn’t want to read about it either.

So the relevant conversation we can have about it right now is, what would you want them to do?

Would you want them to go out and get something they needed and make a push for that lowest of playoff positions? Are you more of the mind that they should just let it play out, maybe move one of them but not most?

Perhaps you’d prefer they just stay the course and move who they planned to move, the plan is the plan, get those kids up here. Basically we want it done right, and we’ve hurt this long, finish it up.

Of course I haven’t put forward the best case scenario.

They’re in this position, and prospects have already had to help along the way due to injury, or ineffectiveness. So when you look to move someone like Hill or Santana, you already feel good about Oviedo and Gonzales. In other words, best case is the prospects push the vets aside and the Pirates get the best of both worlds.

No matter what, even if this is a longshot, it’s interesting to think about how they might handle it. What direction would you approach? Did I even cover all the points of consideration, like does it matter if it’s the Pirates who are close and only them as opposed to a group of teams?

Even strength of remaining schedule could be a factor.

Man, see, that’s some fun stuff that even being in the conversation for the playoffs starts to bring to a fanbase that is already talking Steelers camp in July instead.

Even if not this season, it’s growing closer, and the path from here to there is much more murky than 2020-Now has been.

This team has bottomed out for 3 straight seasons under this GM, and the reason was to bring in talent, via draft, trade, signing, rule 5, and develop it. We’re right on the doorstep of finding out about that develop part. There is a nice chunk of talent here, and close now, they’ve done that part, now it has to become more than what it left for, more than what we’ve suffered through watching.

Have a great week everyone, the Journey starts in about 3 weeks.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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