A Better Team, but They Still Have Work to Do

1-28-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

If you live in Pittsburgh, or used to at least, chances are you’ve made the pilgrimage to one or our beautiful East Coast beaches. If you have, well you know that moment where you get out of the car to grab a sandwich or fill up the tank and you suddenly realize, hey, I can smell the ocean!

It smells so clear to you, and it instantly makes you feel like you’re right there, even if your stubborn GPS continues to tell you it’s still 100 miles away.

I kinda feel like that’s where we are with this team as we get ready to start 2023.

All the signs that this team is ready to show some improvement, and win games with much more regularity are there. The players feel it, the coaches feel it, even many fans feel it, but at some point while watching it play out, I can’t help but feel that GPS is going to remind us there’s still some travel to do.

Most of the questions or comments I get recently lead me to this topic. I put them all in the category of “I want to believe, help me be sure I’m not being dumb”.

First, I try really hard to not make convincing people part of my job. I just like to give you all the things I’m looking at, and the angles surrounding them so that you form your own opinion. I’ll give you mine, but I entirely understand if you come to a different conclusion. That’s healthy and I hope is the goal for anyone covering a team.

Answering these types of things, man it makes me feel like Fox Mulder from the X-files series. I can help you feel better about your belief, but I’ll never be able to do it without open questions.

In other words, Mulder wanted to believe in whatever theory he was presented with, and he’d often only strengthen that belief during his investigation, rarely were his findings conclusive.

So for me, I want to believe this team is better, I might even want to believe it’s a .500 club, but I’m afraid the best I can do is feel better about it.

There’s another reason I feel this is necessary. As the Pirates have garnered some positive news (thanks Cutch) there have been more eyes out there. Just trust me, the numbers are up on all metrics for podcasts, articles, across the board and on everything Craig or I do we see it. That’s going to require covering some old ground a bit more. Things that we’ve covered and established as we traveled the road here together, well, we can’t expect fans just opening their Pirate eyes to go back and read a history they happily ignored can we?

Let’s dig into some topics that illustrate this well.

What is the Team’s Biggest Weakness?

Oh man. Is catcher too easy?

I understood Austin Hedges being the free agent acquisition, defensively he’s very very good, but he simply isn’t a hitter. This position really calls back to my original analogy, I can smell the ocean air here at this position, but I still think we have some traveling to do before we actually can dip our toes in the sand.

Everyone and their mother knows Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis are right there on the doorstep. Endy first, Davis at some point later in the year. That said, solid chance we start 2023 with Hedges and Heineman.

Now, in the Pirates view, at least based on their quotes on the subject, having a top notch defensive catcher is a huge key to helping to develop their pitching staff, and the young catchers they’ll eventually call into action.

That sounds great, but last year when said top notch defender was injured, they did nothing to replace him, and because of that, I can’t help but question just how important it really is. They willingly went 6+ months without something they went into the season claiming was “key”.

There were real live defensive oriented catchers they could have traded for, and bluntly, they could have moved some of the plethora of players they DFAd for next to nothing this year like Hoy Park, Diego Castillo, Zach Thompson, Bryse Wilson, take you pick. Defensive catchers don’t require what a catcher with big time offensive upside costs.

Either way, and even if much of that is 2022 sour grapes, catcher stands to be close to a free out in the lineup. So to me, that’s the clear weakness, even if it’s worth positive WAR defensively.

The Bullpen Scares Me Gary, it Was So Bad in 2022

I personally feel this fear has a couple important things that need pulled to the forefront before we talk actual players. First, many of the returning arms had very nice seasons or stretches here in Pittsburgh last year, but the fresh memory for most is the last month plus after injuries set in and roles got jumbled and tossed at dead armed remnants.

Second, the Pirates went into 2022 short on pitchers on the 40-man, and it screwed them all year long. It was blatant mismanagement. No grey area there really, no GM should enter a season that tight on arms that could feasibly carry a stretch of innings at the MLB level.

To the Pirate’s credit, and where this 2023 story really pivots, they aren’t poised to repeat their mistake.

Colin Selby, Yohan Ramirez, Dauri Moreta, Colin Holderman, David Bednar, Robert Stephenson, Duane Underwood Jr., Jarlin Garcia, Chase De Jong, Yerry De Los Santos, Jose Hernandez, Wil Crowe are all sure fire bullpen options for this club. All on the 40-man.

Meaning any of them could realistically make the opening day roster.

The team also can realistically say at some point this year it’s likely Vince Velasquez, maybe even JT Brubaker could make their way into this mix. In the minors they could say realistically that Johan Oviedo, Cody Bolton, or even Luis Ortiz could help out in this area should you really run into trouble.

This team is deep in the Pen.

You can hate Underwood Jr., after all you’ve watched him pitch for 2 straight years. Devil’s advocate here, his underlying stats point to him being extremely unlucky and he wasn’t used in a good role. More than that, if he’s really bad, they have a TON of options.

If I have a main worry, it’s left handed pitching. Jarlin Garcia is a really nice veteran lefty, and I feel good about him, but the only other lefty they have in the mix is Jose Hernandez the rule five selection. This might lead them to allow an NRI to win a job or at least be there in AAA as depth. Either way, I don’t believe they have enough from this side of the mound.

Even so, the bullpen isn’t what you watched at the end of the season. I feel stronger about the pen than any other aspect of this team.

Endy Rodriguez Should Make the Team! Play Your Best Players!

There’s truth to this.

What Derek Shelton did by plainly stating at the Winter Meetings that Endy Rodriguez will start the season in AAA was slam the door on this decision being developmental.

Here’s the thing about every fan’s relationship with every team’s front office. We all know they’re manipulating some players service time, and we all know that some players aren’t ready too. We just want to believe guys have a chance to show the team they’re ready and can earn the call up. In other words, just keep the door cracked, and maybe we’ll “buy” the dude needs to learn how to call a game.

Taking that off the table, knowing he could hit .375 in Spring with 8 home runs and still be shipped to AAA, well, it’s going to scream manipulation. Had you not said anything, at least you could claim some obscure defensive aspect you need to have him fine tune. We’d still hate it, and people would still scream, and people would rightly point out it could be learned at MLB.

OK, rant over.

That all being said, the dude has 6 games at AAA under his belt, it’s very likely he will need more than 24 PA. In those AAA games he caught 3, played 2B 1 time and was the DH twice. I mean, maybe he really does need a bit of work too ya know?

I think many of us would be able to see this inexperience and be ok, and that’s why it’s dumb to declare the outcome 3 months before its happened.

The Team Looks Better, but This Coach Sucks

Ahh, one of my very favorites.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe what this team added hardly mattered because Derek Shelton and his staff will render it impotent.

First, there are things that have happened since Shelton being hired that fans tend to blame him for, but couldn’t possibly be farther off on.

For instance, playing guys who obviously (to you) stink. The way Ben Cherington approached this rebuild and indeed his rosters, when he wanted to get a look at someone, he’d outline what that look would entail. So if he wanted to make sure Josh VanMeter got 175-200 at bats, well, guess what Derek Shelton is tasked with finding a way to do.

If he’s told to make sure Yoshi Tsutsugo gets 200 at bats, again, guess what he’ll have to find a way to do.

There should be less of this in 2023. There aren’t a lot of spots where you could do it for one, and he’ll have fewer overtly poor choices on his bench.

Same goes for the bullpen, there were few good choices to be made last year, this year he should be able to ask for a AAA swap when he sees it as needed.

I understand there are things you expect to see from a baseball coach, I do too, and to be clear, I haven’t seen what I’d like to see either. But 2023 is the first year this coach really has enough to truly evaluate his performance.

If you don’t like the way he handles starting pitchers, I agree, but this isn’t his philosophy being applied, this is from above his head. Analytics say starters who face a lineup the 3rd time through don’t do as well. Baseball teams all over the country are adjusting this and applying it. If Derek Shelton were fired tomorrow, the new skipper would come in and likely do the same thing. In fact if they hired Dusty Baker or Earl Weaver, they’d either quit on the spot or they too would apply the philosophy.

It’s for this reason, I worry much more about the Pitching and hitting coaches. Oscar Marin did pretty well with some important projects last season. Specifically Jose Quintana and Mitch Keller.

He’s gained a reputation to a degree, and as I said some time ago, his job was tied to Keller at least to begin with. Next he needs to turn one of the youngsters into a piece.

Haines needs to help Jack, Oneil, Hayes, Castro to be better versions of what they are, and stay out of the veteran’s way. He’s got the hardest job in the room if you ask me, because they’ve brought in enough veteran presence that kids will have multiple people to talk to and bounce things off of. If he’s preaching poor lessons it’ll be out in the open much faster than last season.

I’d say, keep an open mind here. But it’s fair to judge starting now.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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