2-16-23 – By Ethan Smith – @mvp_EtHaN on Twitter
The Pittsburgh Pirates began their “youth movement” in 2022, featuring the debuts of Oneil Cruz, Roansy Contreras and others as full-time MLB players rather than short stints like we saw with Cruz & Contreras at the end of 2021 and Liover Peguero in 2022.
A good number of those second year players are returning in elevated roles for a Pirates team with some expectations this season, so let’s take a look at every second year player and how they performed last season and what we can expect from them this season.
SS Oneil Cruz
We all know the full-time debut of Oneil Cruz was one of the best moments we saw from the 2022 Pirates and he did not disappoint in the slightest.
Yes, Oneil Cruz is a below average defender at the shortstop position and trying to break a known stereotype that someone standing 6-foot-7 cannot play the position. Yes, Oneil Cruz broke multiple StatCast records and had eyes on him every time he stepped up to the plate expecting something crazy to happen. With all that said though, Cruz is polarizing, but even polarizing players have to improve.
Starting with his defense, Cruz had struggles, as expected, being the everyday shortstop. He rushed himself in times where the out at first was about as simple as it could get, speaking to his 97th percentile in arm strength. As the season came to a close though, improvements and adjustments were made in that area as Cruz began to take his time more often than not and still managed to make the highlight plays every once in awhile defensively.
He also posted a -9 Outs Above Average in 2022, a number that has to improve if he sees himself playing defense at shortstop long term. For comparison sake, Cruz had 327 defensive attempts at SS last season with an expected success rate of 80 percent. He was successful 77 percent of the time, so a -3 percent difference, so an improvement in that area would likely improve other areas defensively for Cruz.
Now moving to his most important area, his bat, Cruz did amazing things last season in terms of exit velocity, hard hit rate and many other areas. Batting .233/.294/.450/.744, numbers that don’t look flashy to the common eye, but adding in his 17 HRs and 10 stolen bases makes you wonder, could Cruz potentially have a 30 HR and 30 stolen base season in 2023?
30 HRs and 30 SBs is a major achievement for any player and it takes a good blend of power and speed to do so and it just so happens Cruz possesses both of those talents. He’ll have to improve against off-speed pitches though, which ranked him in the bottom-10 percentiles in whiff rate and strikeout rate last season, but with his potential through the roof, I expect him to at least figure out off-speed pitches a little bit this season and see a jump in HRs, RBIs, SBs and slugging and threaten to hit 30+ in the HR and stolen base departments.
SP Roansy Contreras
2022 was an interesting season for Roansy Contreras.
As mentioned before, Contreras made a cameo start at the end of 2021, but 2022 was his first season of prominence at the big-league level for the Pirates.
In 21 games, Contreras saw 18 starts, beginning the season in the bullpen after a call-up from Indianapolis, a move that puzzled myself and many across Pirates fandom, but he was sent back down to the AAA level and returned pretty quickly and cemented himself in the starting rotation pretty quickly.
Over those 18 starts, Contreras threw 95.0 IP, posted an impressive 3.79 ERA with 86 strikeouts and a 1.27 WHIP, all numbers that were very welcoming to a stagnate starting rotation that desperately needed well-pitched innings with the bullpen taking a noticeable decline as the season drew on.
Beyond those statistics, Contreras was impressive in StatCast metrics as well, ranking in the 80th percentile or higher in Chase Rate, Fastball velocity, Fastball spin and Curve spin. He also ranked above average in Whiff percentage and Extension, all measureables that speak highly of his improvements after each and every start.
Contreras features four pitches, the fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, as we saw last season, with the fastball and slider being used a combined 82.8 percent of the time. Focusing on the fastball and slider, Contreras’s fastball was hit a good bit last season, surrendering a .276 batting average and nine of the 13 HRs he allowed, so although the velocity on his fastball ranked highly, it was hit and hit often.
Moving to the slider, which I believe to be his best pitch in his arsenal, it was the second most thrown pitch by Contreras and he saw major success with it, with hitters only hitting .163 against it while also posting his highest whiff rate(42.1) and put away rate(24.2) of any pitch he threw in 2022.
His curveball rated well also, but Contreras heads into 2023 in a much more elevated role than what he saw in 2022. His innings numbers went up last season and I expect no different from him in 2023 seeing as himself and Mitch Keller will likely headline the rotation for the majority of the season.
Expect Contreras to utilize the fastball-slider combo a ton this season, bring down his hard hit rate, pitch close to if not more than 150 innings and cement himself as a top-option in the rotation for the foreseeable future.
2B Rodolfo Castro
How about a surprising debut season? Well, Rodolfo Castro delivered on that question last season at a point of need alongside Oneil Cruz and gave us a different thought process on the position at least for the short-term future.
His season was very comparable to Oneil Cruz if you just look at his stat-line, slashing .233/.299/.427/.726, numbers that were all in the range of what Cruz produced. Now, Castro obviously doesn’t have the ceiling of an Oneil Cruz, but he has the ceiling of an everyday second baseman who can produce at the plate for you offensively.
I have a special place in my heart for switch hitters, Castro being one of course, and he performed about equal on both sides of the plate, slotting 6 HRs against left-handed pitching and 5 HRs against right-handed pitching. His average against righties was considerably lower, but remind yourself he had 107 more ABs against righties than against lefties, so that makes his HR and RBI numbers from both sides that much more impressive.
Castro’s strongest month and real tone setter came in August last season, seeing 72 plate appearances and slashing .318/.375/.591/.966 with 4 HRs and 6 RBIs which then propelling his power to take an uptick in September, increasing both his HR and RBI totals and cementing himself as the starting 2B… for now.
Castro’s 2023 season will be defined by his production and his job is not as safe as it may seem. Liover Peguero, Ji-hwan Bae and Nick Gonzales, and maybe even Jared Triolo, will all be knocking on the door behind Castro at some point in 2023. If Castro’s 2022 production can be replicated across an entire season, I find it hard for Derek Shelton to remove him from that spot. If he struggles, this isn’t the Pirates we’ve seen the past couple seasons that just needed bodies, they have legit prospects waiting in the wings, but at worst, Castro could be a valuable bench bat if he can’t produce to standard everyday.
OF Jack Suwinski
Bryan Reynolds was the only constant in the outfield last season and the Pirates attempted to find an answer at the corner outfield spots.
Insert Jack Suwinski, who arrived, struggled early on, then returned following a short stint in Indianapolis and stood out from a deep group of prospective outfielders.
Suwinski’s power stood out early on and continued throughout the season, logging 19 HRs and a .709 OPS in his rookie season, and for a rookie, those are not numbers you shy away from taking a deep look at.
It’s not exactly rocket science to figure out Suwinski’s biggest problems, swing and misses and strikeouts, both being a reason he was sent down after his initial call-up. He ranked in the bottom six percent in the league in strikeout rate and bottom four percent in the league in expected batting average, so Suwinski will have to improve on those numbers while maintaining and power outputs.
Ironically enough, Suwinski saw immensely better success at PNC Park last season, a ballpark that is very kind to left-handed power bats, as 16 of his 19 HRs came at home and his slash-line numbers were considerably better as well, almost polar opposites of each other if you will in terms of HRs, RBIs, walks and OBP.
Defensively, Suwinski is fine, ranking in the 71st percentile in OBA and highly in arm strength, so don’t worry too much about him holding his own in left field.
For Suwinski, much like Castro, players like Matt Fraizer, Ryan Vilade, Connor Joe, Connor Scott and Ji-hwan Bae will be waiting in the wings if he doesn’t produce. Expect the HR total to stay on pace, if not better, than last season, but his strikeout rate and swing-and-miss rate must improve before it becomes a major detriment to the offense as a whole.
SP Johan Oviedo
Coming over in the Jose Quintana trade, Johan Oviedo inserted himself into the Pirates rotation relatively quickly.
He only saw one start in 14 appearances with the Cardinals before heading to Pittsburgh, which speaks more to the depth in the rotation we saw from St. Louis last season, but every appearance of the seven he made for Pittsburgh was a start, a clear indicator the Pirates see him as a starter for now.
In those seven starts, Oviedo was steady and looked comfortable, posting a 3.23 ERA over 30.2 IP while only allowing one HR. He struggled with the free pass though, posting a 4.7 BB9, a 2.2 increase from his time in St. Louis.
Oviedo is apart of a young group of pitchers at the Pirates disposal, but with the additions of Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez in free agency, its hard to get a read on if he’ll be apart of the rotation come Opening Day or be a depth option in Indianapolis or a bullpen option. Hill and Velasquez are prime trade deadline candidates though, so I would expect Oviedo’s role to expand once those moves happen, if they do of course.
Per Baseball Reference, he’s projected to see 79.0 IP and a 3.87 ERA, and if his ERA can remain sub-4.00 as well as bringing down the walk rate and increasing strikeouts, the Pirates will have no choice but to find somewhere for him to get starts. Don’t be surprised if he is a long-relief option either as he has the stuff to produce for the Pirates wherever they may need him.
OF Cal Mitchell/OF Canaan Smith-Njigba
Remember when I talked about the options behind Suwinski earlier, well, Cal Mitchell and Canaan Smith-Njigba, keeping the theme of second-year players and dismissing Connor Joe, Ryan Vilade and other off-season additions, would be next in line.
Starting with Smith-Njigba, he broke his scaphoid bone in his wrist last season, keeping him sidelined for the remainder of 2022. He only saw 5 ABs last season, so I’m sure the Pirates want to find a way to see what they have from the former Yankees product.
Taking a look at his time with Indianapolis, he played well at the AAA level slashing .277/.387/.408/.795 before coming up to Pittsburgh. It could be difficult for him to find playing time in a now “loaded” outfield, but I would expect Spring Training to give us some answers on where Smith-Njigba will fit into the 2023 Pirates plans.
Moving to Mitchell, he saw 212 ABs in 2022, posting a .635 OPS, a measure that showed his numbers weren’t flashy. He did add 5 HRs and 17 RBIs to his statistical totals, but like Suwinski, he struggled with strikeouts from the left side of the plate.
For Smith-Njigba and Mitchell, the additions of Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Vilade, Connor Joe and the indicators that Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski being starters in clear view make either of their roles hard to figure out, but I would expect them to be backup outfield options in the event of injuries or lack of production from Suwinski.
2B/OF Tucupita Marcano
Deemed “Adam Frazier lite” by myself, Tucupita Marcano came by way of a trade for Adam Frazier from San Diego and compares to Frazier in the way of his game.
Marcano saw 177 plate appearances in 2022, batting .206, numbers that don’t bode well for him heading into 2023 with the current situation in the outfield and middle infield.
As far as his role in 2023, I imagine Marcano as no more than a valuable depth piece in spots where a single or something in the gap is needed due to his lack of power, but I am sure he’ll get some sort of opportunity seeing as Ben Cherington was high on him since the Joe Musgrove trade.
If he can find a way to replicate his minor league numbers from last season, he’d have a much larger role, but I don’t expect that to happen unless he goes on a “All-Star like” tear hitting the baseball. With the log jam and 2B and his inability to play shortstop, expect Marcano to be no more than an off-day filler for Castro or an outfield plug and play guy.
The second-year players the Pirates have will all be involved at the Major League level in 2023 in some capacity, but some roles will be bigger than others and could even determine if the Pirates take a noticeable step forward or have to reconsider areas of improvement as the season progresses.
Expect the likes of Oneil Cruz and Roansy Contreras to take leaps to becoming valuable MLB players and maybe even beyond that while others fight for roster spots and create intriguing Spring Training battles and force production in the Pirates lineup, bullpen and rotation rather than having a lineup full of bridge players. 2023 is slated to be the most enjoyable Pirates season we’ve seen in some time and the names listed above are valuable reasons why our excitement levels are as high as they have been in a while.