Pirates Positional Improvement

2-9-23 – By Michael Castrignano – @412DoublePlay on Twitter

There’s been a lot of talk about the Pirates off-season and whether or not they’ve sufficiently improved a team which has lost 100+ games the previous two seasons. The team had some clear holes to fill and places where they could improve so I did a position-by-position breakdown of 2022 against the expected opening day roster for 2023, as well as discussing some depth pieces for the roster spots:

Catcher: Roberto Perez -> Austin Hedges

Perez had more offensive upside but was injury-prone and that came into play very early in the season after only 60 at-bats. Realistically, we should be comparing Tyler Heineman/Jason Delay/Michael Perez/Andrew Knapp/Jose Godoy to Hedges, which is probably a wash as that combination provided negative overall value. 

Additionally, we have players waiting in the wings to come up. Endy Rodriguez will be in Indy and could come up in June and has potential to be a game-changer. Davis is not far behind, though he has been hampered by injuries. If he’s healthy, gets a full season to work on hitting and on his receiving skills, look out because he’s a work-horse. Are we improved at this position? Maybe not yet, but probably soon.

1B: Yoshi Tsutsugo/Michael Chavis -> Carlos Santana/Ji-man Choi

In 2022, Pirates 1B combined for a net negative 4 WAR. No other team in baseball had a position on the field which more adversely impacted the team. They HAD to upgrade this position. Yoshi and Chavis are both long gone, and the Choi trade combined with the Santana signing sufficiently fulfilled that need. Choi had a 1.2 WAR in 419 PAs last season with solid defense. Santana had a 1.2 WAR in 506 PAs and while he mostly played at DH, when he was at 1B, he was above average. 

This isn’t including Daniel Vogelbach, who posted a .5 WAR almost exclusively as a DH in his 75 games before being traded to the Mets. Still, that’s potentially a 5 win swing in the positive direction (assuming they aren’t also dealt at the trade deadline) before we even see what we have with Malcom Nuñez, who could be a late season call-up. 

2B: Multiple players -> Rodolfo Castro/Ji-hwan Bae

Without looking, could you tell me who was the Pirates opening day 2B in 2022? I’ll spoil it for you, it was Hoy Park (86 OPS+ and -0.3 WAR over just 60 plate appearances). The team had a run of stability at 2B the previous decade or so as Neil Walker, Josh Harrison and Adam Frazier were consistent pieces on the team manning that position. Last year saw turns at 2B by Park, Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman, Yu Chang (*shudders*), Diego Castillo, Josh VanMeter and the aforementioned Chavis. None of those guys are on the team anymore and all except Newman provided negative net value to the team. 

Bae earned a ten game preview and posted a 136 OPS+ while Castro had more playing time and posted solid numbers with a 1.4 WAR and a .725 OPS. This position is still potentially up on the air but these guys both improve the team’s chances immensely.

SS: Newman/Castillo/Park -> Oneil Cruz

I already talked about offensive deficiencies of last year’s middle infield starters so I’ll just talk now about Cruz, who took big strides late in the season. His overall numbers might look like extremes to both sides with a K rate of 34.9% and BB rate of 7.8% but also 17 HRs in just 361 plate appearances, exit velocity and hard hit percentage numbers in the top tier of baseball as well as elite speed. His last 13 games, he posted equal K/BB rates of 16.1% with a 129 wRC+ in 62 PAs. 

Small sample size? Obviously, but it is reflective of his ability to adjust to MLB pitching. Early on, he was struggling against sliders off the plate and started laying off down the stretch. The defensive issues are what they are – and it’s been an ongoing problem through his professional career. Hopefully that improves but the offensive upside puts him far and away above his predecessors.

3B: Ke’Bryan Hayes -> Ke’Bryan Hayes

Hey! A repeat! Hayes should have a gold glove (and probably a platinum one) in his trophy case right now but that aside, his offense hasn’t been close to what we saw in the 2020 abbreviated debut. Back and wrist injuries have certainly played a factor in that but you can’t make excuses forever. 

Hayes posted a wRC+ of 88 each of the past two seasons with sub-700 OPS. He’s provided positive WAR due to his amazing defense and he did steal 20 bags in 25 attempts but would like to see the bat show up more. His exit velocity is well above average and recent videos he posted on Instagram look like he’s added some more muscle. That’s good to see but he needs to get the bat path/launch angle geared up to utilize that power. Healthy Hayes is a very good Hayes but the defense/speed will be valuable regardless.

Outfield: Bryan Reynolds/Jack Suwinski/Ben Gamel/Tucupita Marcano/Cal Mitchell/Greg Allen/Bligh Madris -> Bryan Reynolds/Jack Suwinski/Andrew McCutchen/Connor Joe+

I didn’t include Tucker, Park, Jake Marisnick, Anthony Alford and many others who played outfield for the Bucs in 2022. There’s just too many of them. Reynolds set a career high in home runs with 27, posted a 3.0 WAR and potentially should be better this year given a bit more talent around him, which should give him better pitches to hit. 

Suwinski has some ridiculous home/away splits (.982 OPS at home vs. .395 away) which seem less sustainable long-term than a Kevin Newman Spring Training Batting Title. He also struggled against lefties, but with Cutch and Joe in the mix, they’ll be able to platoon him as needed.

Speaking of Cutch and Joe, the third OF spot could change a bit this year. Cutch could see time at DH, Joe could specifically platoon and names like Canaan Smith-Njigba, Travis Swaggerty and others could make their way to the grass at PNC Park sometime this season. Ben Gamel notched the 2nd most plate appearances last season among all Pirates outfielders (behind Reynolds) and provided replacement level production. Here’s hoping the replacements provide better value.

Rotation: Mitch Keller/Jose Quintana/JT Brubaker/Zach Thompson/Bryce Wilson -> Keller/Roansy Contreras/Rich Hill/Brubaker/Vince Velasquez

The top five in the rotation each started 20+ games last year, with some very glaringly different degrees of success. Keller led the staff in starts and innings pitched, as well as tied for WAR (2.0, Quintana) posting a 3.21 ERA from May 18 through the rest of the season. Brubaker led with strikeouts while cutting his HR rate from 2021(5.2% to 2.6%), and posted a career best ERA. They are the only two remaining from an inconsistent staff in 2022. 

Replacing the others are free agent veterans Hill and Velasquez, who should be serviceable in the rotation, and Roansy Contreras, who logged 18 starts with a 3.79 ERA in 2022, and has shown some electric stuff. The organization was limiting his workload/service time last season leading to inconsistent starts, which can mess with a player’s rhythm. I expect he has more to show this season. Hill has proven to be a reliable arm. 2022 was his first season posting a 4+ ERA as a starter since 2009 and his FIP/xFIP were both at/around his career norms. Velasquez is a bit of a question mark as he performed much better in relief than as a starter last year (640 OPS out of the pen as opposed to a .789 as a SP). He has a good mix of pitches and, if he struggles, can transition to relief with plenty of arms in the wings. Luis Ortiz, Johan Oviedo, Mike Burrows, Quinn Priester could all see starts in Pittsburgh this season with plenty of depth behind them as well. 

Bullpen: David Bednar/Heath Hembree/Duane Underwood/Anthony Banda/Chris Stratton/Wil Crowe/Dillon Peters/Aaron Fletcher/Miguel Yajure -> Bednar/Crowe/Underwood/Robert Stephenson/Jarlin Garcia/Colin Holderman/Jose Hernandez/Chase De Jong/Yerry de Los Santos/Dauri Moreta/Yohan Ramirez/Colin Selby

Yes, we started last season with Heath Hembree in the bullpen. It’s a more youthful look to open this season with Bednar, Crowe and Underwood as the only ones returning from the opening day squad. This part of the roster was a HUGE problem last year as there were not enough arms to cover the innings throughout the season, leading to a revolving door of call-ups, DFAs and waiver claims over the course of the year. 

The depth is looking much better now as many of these names will be down in Indianapolis to start the season. Our relief corp was 2nd worst in MLB last year (behind the Diamondbacks), but could potentially provide a positive net value by end of season.

Will this team be a contender this season? That may be a stretch. A lot of things would have to go right, especially given the amount of young players on the roster. But will they be much, MUCH better than last year?

Yeah, I think so. 

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