Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

1-30-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

We’re down to a little over 2 weeks until pitchers and catchers report to camp and the next season officially starts. In fact, they report on my birthday 2-14, so happy birthday to me. All the talk, all the player moves, all the panic about potential player moves, everything will transition to on the field questions.

We’ll now start talking about local baseball in a different way. When someone young goes 0-16 with 9 strikeouts and people scream to demote them, we’ll no longer be able to say “For Who?” because in most cases, there’ll be 2 or 3 answers.

I’m not sitting here telling you every answer is already internally available, but I am saying there shouldn’t be any more situations where the team is literally stuck knowing they have nowhere to turn to at least try.

We’ll talk a lot more baseball this year. And maybe back off on the intricacies of a rebuild a bit. Doesn’t mean in any way the job is over, just means baseball, on the field, is going to be interesting enough to evaluate with much more frequency.

Let’s dig in, lots to talk about this week!

1. Fan Interaction

The Pirates offered Season Ticket holders on an invite basis an opportunity to meet with some players and participate in a Q&A with some upper brass at the Winter Warmup Event.

By all accounts the event was nice, the Q&A was a bit boring, and it was a bit hard for attendees to make it from station to station in order to take everything in.

That’s how these things go, and every one of these Q&A sessions I’ve been to tends to be 10 minutes of people murmuring about all these super tough questions they’ll be asking these guys, only to see them get the mic and either water it down or entirely change the agenda. It’s actually a lot like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” and they stammer out f-f-f-ooootball.

Then there’s always one dude who follows through. It’s almost always a lot more anger than substance. In fact most of the time, there isn’t an actual question and everyone on the stage just moves on, after all, you never asked them a damn thing.

It’s cringy most of the time.

Sounds like this wasn’t much different. Most people were just happy to see Cutch and Walker. Blass and Keller.

I saw some people pretty upset about this event (it’s not the first they’ve done this year btw) because it was only for season ticket holders.

Look, I wanted them to do a Pirates Fest too, but they’ve explained why they couldn’t (or felt they couldn’t) host something like that at the very under construction PNC Park. They could have potentially done something at the convention center I suppose, but whatever, I get it.

I still think it was an unforced error. I still think that fans deserve a chance to ask questions after the baseball they’ve been given to watch, even if most aren’t truly equipped to ask effective ones.

I’m not saying everyone is dumb or that someone like me would do it better. I’m just saying there is an art to asking a question that prompts a fruitful answer. Most people just jump to a gotcha, and most of those that do get through are super easy to wiggle around for a seasoned wiggler. Do you regret trading Clay Holmes for two guys you DFA’d? We wish Clay well, and we knew we were giving up a good player, but we really liked the opportunity to work with the guys we got back too. Certainly that’s not the outcome we’re looking for.

Now you knew they’d answer like that, but you fancy yourself following it up with something even stronger. By then, they’ve either taken the mic or the cordial way it was answered lowers your bristle and you surrender the mic with a meek thank you.

Next year, I’m quite sure the Pirates will return to hosting a full scale event. Probably not coincidentally the Pirates will also likely have a roster that garners less angst.

I don’t begrudge season ticket holders getting something special, they’ve chosen to spend their dollars on a team that rarely puts them to the use they’d like to see. I don’t begrudge non season ticket holders feeling left out either, it’s something that was always there and now it’s not, that rarely goes unnoticed.

What exactly is Travis Williams’ job if not to show up to events like this and field questions? That’s my biggest question, and no, I don’t think I’d have wasted my breath asking Derek Shelton, Ben Cherington and Don Kelley that one.

2. Cutch Isn’t a Savior

Nobody knows this better than Andrew himself. He’s here because he wanted to come home, and he thinks the team has a chance to really improve.

Say what you will about McCutchen, but one thing he’s never been is a liar. If he thought he had nothing to give, he’s got too much respect for his legacy and this city to collect a paycheck.

He’s not the savior, but he may very well be the flag bearer for this club. A bridge to the past and glue for present day. Alex Stumpf over at DKPittsburghSports has a really nice piece after a sit down with Cutch on the 28th that I encourage you to check out.

I especially loved this quote when asked what winning here would mean to him. “It would mean the world, not with [just] me, but it would mean the world to the fan base as well,” McCutchen said about what it would mean to win here. “The fans here, they don’t want to see another 20 years of losing… They don’t want that to happen. I don’t want that to happen either. I do feel within that clubhouse, there’s a good group of guys out there and in that clubhouse. Great talents. It’s just a matter of belief of that and going out there on the field and doing it.”

Folks, this stuff doesn’t happen every day. This man LOVES you. This man GETS you. And he gets that the guys in the clubhouse will have more to do with that success than his own performance alone.

I don’t know what he’ll produce in 2023, nobody possibly could, but I know we’ll get everything he’s got, every day, every game, every time he’s mobbed in the post game availability, every time this team needs reminded a losing streak isn’t to be endured, it’s to be fought through.

If this team is successful, chances are Andrew McCutchen isn’t the primary reason. He knows that, you should know that too, but that doesn’t mean he won’t act like every bit the MVP he’s been.

Hey, what do you expect? He’s a Pittsburgher after all.

3. The Winds of Change

Three years ago, the Pirates had little more than Jared Oliva and Travis Swaggerty when you looked downhill to the minors. In fact for most of the time Ben Cherington has been here, Bryan Reynolds has been the only true outfield solution they’ve had.

Ben Gamel was serviceable, certainly helped as much as any waiver claim could be expected to.

The problem was identified quickly, and Ben Cherington set forth to bring in prospects to augment the few prospects that were already here. Now as we sit here on the cusp of 2023, it looks like they prepaid $80 to fill a 10 gallon tank.

The Pirates have a glut of outfielders.

They have 8 dedicated outfielders on the 40-man. 12 if you want to get technical about who could play out there. Jump down to include AA and AAA and the number jumps to something like 22 who have some kind of plausibility of making the league within the year or next.

Let’s start here. You aren’t going to see a team go through 22 players for 3 spots in 2 years and have everyone feel they’ve gotten a fair shake. The at bats just aren’t there.

The Pirates are going to already have to play some games with finding playing time in AA and AAA. I see no way around the fact that the team is going to have to make some decisions quickly to thin the herd.

This is a throw things against the wall and see what sticks approach. All teams do it, but the Pirates didn’t just add lottery tickets, they added guys who ultimately would need protected from the Rule 5 draft. In the process of these “close to the league” additions being developed, internal options and younger acquisitions that were very far away, to a degree caught up.

Last season they protected Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski, and Travis Swaggerty. Then chose to promote and add Cal Mitchell.

So when you add 4 you’d like to think in a season where you weren’t winning, you’d at least get some answers knowing you have another pile coming up in the next year. Instead, we learned that Jack Suwinski can play good defense, and hit right handed pitching for power. We also learned that Cal Mitchell’s arm is an issue and at times he looks to have an interesting bat.

That’s the list.

CSN was hurt, so entirely not their fault, and Swaggerty entered 2022 not 100%, and earned nothing more than a series worth of call up.

Point of all this, a whole bunch of these guys could wind up being MLB players. Keep in mind, even becoming a bench player isn’t a given for prospects, of all the fan bases in the league you all should know that very well. Well, they have a bunch of guys with that kind of capability, and they’re going to have to get a bit more choosy.

They may have to decide Mitchell’s arm (and yes I’m picking on him here) isn’t good enough to be an everyday outfielder. So that would lead them to needing the bat to be special. So far, it isn’t, but if it were to take a jump and start producing, you might find them try really hard to find him a new place to live in the field, like first base for instance.

If it turns out he’s just bench worthy at best, that might have easily given him a job here for half a decade not too long ago. With the pressure they’ve packed into this position now, it won’t provide him any comfort.

When you’re asking yourself why that guy you like got DFA’d without really getting a chance, the answer will undoubtedly lie in this realm.

4. And That’s Just Part of the Outfield Story

The Bucs have some big questions to answer elsewhere too, and when they answer them, the outfield again could be affected. Lets say Oneil Cruz and Rodolfo Castro both hit the baseball and stick at SS and 2B. Push aside how likely you feel that to be for a moment because it hardly matters for this exercise. What do you do with Nick Gonzales? Liover Peguero? I mean I’d add in Termarr Johnson in here too but I think we safely have a couple seasons for that.

Conversely, lets say they both hit, but don’t handle the positions. Well, you still want the bats, so they have to find a home right? Think they might try outfield? Everyone can’t be a DH.

When you start to really think about how teams like this are formed, you start seeing things at their simplest form.

There are categories for prospects.

Bats, Arms, and Catchers. Bats are just that, and some will show you things they can’t do, others will show you somewhere they excel.

Arms are arms, some could start, others for sure can’t. Catchers are outliers, but even they sometimes have to find somewhere else to play.

Henry Davis is one of these. He could wind up being a full time catcher, he could wind up being swapped elsewhere because Endy has it on lockdown. Hell the team could decide Endy’s athleticism is too valuable to have him spend 9 innings a game crouching.

Point is, if both bats prove productive, they’ll find a home for them.

Don’t get too hung up on who plays where when they’re prospects with a couple exceptions. 1. They’ve proven they can only play only one place. 2. The defense is so exceptional you’d be doing a disservice by not using the player at a given position.

Remember the journey of Neil Walker. Drafted as a catcher, moved to 3B because he was blocked by Ryan Doumit (true, I swear), moved to 2B because he was blocked by Pedro Alvarez. Stuck because he showed a valuable switch hitting bat with some pop, and learned to be a decent to above average 2B here in Pittsburgh.

The more spots the MLB team locks in, the harder this gets. Ke’Bryan Hayes is an awesome 3B, period. Statistically he’s the best defender in the league. So anyone who comes up through the system thinking they’re going to be the Pirates 3B of the future, has a long wait. Reality dictates, if the bat plays they’d just have to find somewhere else to stick him.

Messy, sure. But like the band 311 once wrote it can all wind up being a beautiful disaster.

5. Prediction Time?

Well, I’m not ready for a record prediction yet. I’ll get there before Spring is out but I still think there are some things we can predict right now.

  • By the end of the season we’ll either know Mason Martin or Malcom Nunez will get a crack at first base, or we’ll head into the offseason thinking Connor Joe might be the veteran option over there. For that reason I think we’ll see him get an odd start or two over there this season.
  • The Pirates still don’t have a lefty starter anywhere near the landing strip. I can already say next off season procuring a lefty starter will be a priority.
  • If it looks like Andrew McCutchen is still productive, and knowing the interest is already there, I could see the Pirates knocking out a one year extension with Cutch during 2023.
  • If Mitch Keller has a productive season, say an ERA under 4.25 with a WHIP of 1.125 and at least 175 innings, he’ll become their number one priority this offseason to get an extension done with.
  • Andy Haines will be the hitting coach for the vast majority of 2023, but I think we’ll see the team move on if they finish below 16th in the league offensively. Especially if the offense is largely driven by veterans.
  • The Pirates will use options to keep the bullpen fresh in 2023, and at some point that could mean guys like Colin Holderman going down for someone like Yerry De Los Santos. Fresh arms will be a theme all year, and bluntly, the Pirates are better positioned here than 90% of the teams in the league.
  • Derek Shelton will sign a quiet extension sometime around the All Star Break.
  • JT Brubaker won’t relinquish his rotation spot easily and by the end of the season most of us will feel the Pirates have room to actually trade a guy like him.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

6 thoughts on “Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

  1. Good stuff. I’m enjoying the added frequency of new content. I have to think that they knew all along that Mitchell had a weak arm and that’s why he wasn’t protected last year. I think his bad in the minors has been solid enough to get his an extended look at this point and he could very well be in the mix at 1B long term.

    I still think that the OF is wide open as Suwinski has to work out his strikeout issue and Cutch probably doesn’t play 75 games in the OF. I see Bae getting a lot of work in the OF with Mitchell getting regular ABs as well. Not sure where Swaggerty or Smith-Ngiba fit in other than depth.

    I think Shelton already has been extended, at least through 2024 and it’s unannounced, just like the unannounced extension for NH some years back. After the 3 years that we’ve had I think that they didn’t want the fan reaction to dominate the conversation but they aren’t going to have a lame duck either. I’d look for an announcement during the early part of the season, especially if they get off to a decent start.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “This man LOVES you. This man GETS you.”

    Gary, that sounds like the Jesus ad on the right field scoreboard from last season. I’m sure that Cutch would be the first to tell you that he’s not Jesus. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He will shout to nobody, “I’m the best in the world!” after he homers, though. X-D
      (This isn’t an issue, just amuses me.)


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