Five Pirates Thoughts at Five – Last Full Week of Spring Training

3-20-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

It’s the last full week of Spring Training, and some of the roster is really starting to take shape. Today, I’m going to run through some of the biggest questions remaining, where we are, and where I see it going.

This isn’t going to be all sunshine and roses folks, it just isn’t, some holes are still rather apparent.

Let’s Go!!!

1. Does Anyone Want to Win Second Base?

Oh, this was a competition. Sure.

Ji-Hwan Bae certainly had a chance to earn the starting nod here, Tucupita Marcano too for that matter, but make no mistake this was also Rodolfo Castro’s position to lose.

Here’s the thing, he’s just about done exactly that.

Problem is, his expected competition, well, they haven’t taken advantage.

Enter Mark Mathias whom the Pirates just traded for. He’s not done much either, but he’s barely been given a chance since his acquisition, and folks, if this team is as worried about Castro’s performance as I am, I think we’ll see Mathias get that opportunity this week.

The reality is, the Pirates best performing second baseman this Spring has been Nick Gonzales, and while I’m sure many wonder why he wasn’t really IN this competition, I’ll simply tell you, he was, but he was never going to escape the same thing most prospects deal with, the 40-man, service time, and the very real wish to make sure they’ve squeezed the talent out of what they have at this level or right there on the outskirts first.

Castro is a hard guy to give up on. A switch hitter with 20-25 HR power, the Pirates only real MLB level 3B backup option and he’ll be entering his 3rd year of MLB action if/when he makes the club.

So how does he make his standing on the club this precarious? I mean everyone and their mother will tell you how hard it is to take Spring Stats at face value right? Certainly true, but lets just say, the less established you are, the more important your Spring Stats become and if you strike out as often as Rodolfo has, there aren’t going to be many peripherals that analytics wonks can point to that paint a rosier picture. If Bryan Reynolds strikes out 16 times in 38 plate appearances, you probably shrug. I mean it’s not good, but it’s Bryan Reynolds, he’ll be fine and what are you gonna do, send him to AAA?

Well, when Rodolfo Castro does that exact same thing and puts up half his Spring offensive numbers up with one grand slam swing of the bat, it hits different. He doesn’t have that MLB consistency in his back pocket, he doesn’t have the receipts to prove this is just Spring and he’s just dealing with getting his timing back like everyone else. He’s not facing the AA and Single A arms that some other prospects are facing as they enter games in the 5th or 6th.

I still think Castro is likely to make the team out of camp. For one thing, there isn’t much to be learned for a guy like him in AAA at this point, for another thing, he’s really all they have to backup Ke’Bryan Hayes when he needs a day.

Mathias can play all over the field, but he’s really more of a 2B, corner OF type. Bae has just looked like he was pressing all Spring. Trying to look spectacular in the field and in the process looking horrible. He’s much better when he just makes the plays he’s supposed to, and now that I’ve seen it all Spring, I understand entirely why the Pirates dedicated him to the infield this year.

Marcano is probably the best fielder of the group but he hasn’t hit at all and 3B isn’t even a consideration for him in fact with his arm strength, SS isn’t preferable.

Castro might win this spot simply because nobody else made him pay for how he performed. Look, sometimes this stuff works out anyhow and Rudy is said to be working on the side fields tirelessly to improve his plate recognition.

If someone doesn’t grab this spot come June, I for one won’t be shocked if Liover Peguero or Nick Gonzales get a shot, maybe even Jared Triolo could sneak in there.

2. OK, So What the Hell Does the Outfield Look Like?

A mess? Too many dogs for one bone? Where do they play Reynolds?

OK, let’s slow down here.

The Bucs have a few considerations here that play a role and a few locks for the roster too.

Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen and Connor Joe are all going to make this club. Out of those 3, only Reynolds is a true starter, meaning he’s the only one I can see playing 150+ games in the outfield.

That’s not great. Cutch and Joe both will have significant roles, and both could play there but they clearly need more.

I’m sure the team will want 2 more dedicated outfielders brought north.

The contestants for those spots as I see them are Jack Suwinski, Travis Swaggerty, and Canaan Smith-Njigba from the pure outfielder pool. Mark Mathias is probably the only utility guy I can see here and as we just discussed, he could wind up being the 2B starter.

As I see this right now, Jack has really lost what should have been a lock on heading North. I still think he will, if only because when sent down to AAA last year he was called up and most of the bad habits remained. 19 homeruns as a rookie in a partial season is nothing to sneeze at, super weird splits aside, it’s still impressive. Nobody else can make that claim in this battle but his leash isn’t as long as it would have been 3 years ago, now they have options.

CSN and Swaggerty have been hitting, they’ve been fielding too, in fact if I had to pick two young position players who actually looked like they were trying to win a spot on this team in 2023, it might be those 2.

I think Cutch will DH more than he plays in the field, and I think Joe is fine off the bench. So that means the Pirates could have not only two spots available, but two spots that get starting opportunities pretty regularly. Maybe 3 depending on how that 2B situation plays out.

A big part of me would want to bring all three of Jack, Swaggerty and CSN North. Pair them with Reynolds, Cutch and Joe and I think you have a strong bench along with one of Santana or Choi and whomever the utility guy happens to be, but therein lies the rub, they HAVE to have a utility guy. The at bats will be there via injury and just the typical Shelton lineup philosophy that seemingly demands a new lineup nightly. I’m not sure what you get out of any of those 3 going to AAA but I think they’ll have to do it anyway.

3. OK, Lets Try Listing the 13 Position Players

C Austin Hedges
C Tyler Heineman
1B/DH Carlos Santana
1B/DH Ji-man Choi
DH/RF Andrew McCutchen
CF/LF Bryan Reynolds
3B Ke’Bryan Hayes
SS Oneil Cruz
LF/CF Jack Suwinski
OF/1B Connor Joe
CF/OF Travis Swaggerty
2B/SS/3B Rodolfo Castro
OF/2B Mark Mathias

This kills me. I think CSN has earned a look, but I can’t see penalizing Connor Joe or Travis Swaggerty as a result. I believe CSN is a better bat than a couple of names I put on that list too, but being left handed, a rookie, and limited to corner outfield spots to me makes him the odd man out to start the season. In my mind if he’s to make it, he’ll have to convince the team he is a better option than Jack Suwinski, and folks, another week of striking out and looking frustrated might just produce that result.

In my mind, that’s the battle right there. Jack vs CSN.

I guess Mathias is probably in a battle with Bae and Marcano, and it’s probably not fair to just pick him because he hasn’t had a chance to look bad yet. That said, if I were picking it today, I’d go Mathias, let’s see where this goes as the week goes on.

I also should mention Catcher. To me Tyler Heineman is the backup and if there is competition in my mind it’s Carter Bins, not Kevin Plawecki. Bluntly though, I could see the Pirates not agreeing with me here, in fact I wouldn’t rule out the team still looking for a better option.

4. Oh Hell, Lets Do Lineups Too!

It’s only fair to point out, Derek Shelton is not likely to do what I think is best, so I’ll give you what I think side by side with what I think Shelton will do. And these are everyday type lineups, obviously for tough lefties or righties you’ll see variations.

My Lineup

3B Ke’Bryan Hayes
CF Bryan Reynolds
SS Oneil Cruz
1B Carlos Santana
DH Andrew McCutchen
LF Jack Suwinski
RF Connor Joe
C Austin Hedges
2B Rodolfo Castro

Shelton’s Lineup

SS Oneil Cruz
3B Ke’Bryan Hayes
CF Bryan Reynolds
1B Carlos Santana
DH Andrew McCutchen
LF Jack Suwinski
RF Connor Joe
C Austin Hedges
2B Rodolfo Castro

Now, I see Cutch playing the field and getting both Choi and Santana in there together on occasion. Joe is a bench guy I think we’ll find as the season goes on, but at the beginning of the season, I think he’ll get heavy use.

This would leave on the bench…
Choi, Mathias, Swaggerty, Heineman. A good mix that at times will feature Joe, Castro, Jack, even Cutch and Santana.

As a starting point for 2023, this is where I see things.

5. Short Leashes?

We took considerable time today talking through some positions that were less won, and more given by default since nobody stepped up. Well, first of all, fans aren’t going to like that, and to some the wrong decision will have been made from the jump. Totally fair, totally expected of course, but what you should know from that is one simple thing, those “winners” well, they aren’t going to get carte blanche to just keep underperforming.

There is very real pressure building, maybe not enough to build up and matter before Spring ends, but enough to fully expect someone to hit or pitch their way into the conversation as the season goes on.

You know all the names, Nick Gonzales, Endy Rodriguez, CSN or Swaggerty, Bae, Marcano, Burrows, Ortiz, Oviedo, my goodness there are so many more who COULD push their way into this conversation during 2023. Some will get a shot because of poor performance from someone who made it out of camp, some will get their shot because someone was injured.

No matter how you crack the egg, it’s going break is the point. In fact, the way this system lays out right now, having nobody graduate from AAA to MLB would cause problems all up and down the system. As it stands right now, some guys will start in AA that truly belong in AAA. Some will start in High A and really should be in AA Altoona. No teams like cutting ties with AAA players they think have some ability but haven’t had the chance to get them in MLB yet.

On top of that, many of the opening day roster choices themselves have options, meaning the team could send them down and not lose them as depth. Joe, Mathias, Castro, Jack, and more, this team is truly set up for an unusual situation. We could see this club have a very short leash with guys.

Talk about a tight rope to walk.

Have too short a leash and you probably don’t learn anything about anyone. Have too long a leash and miss the opportunity to see someone, and give them ample opportunity to be less of a question the next season.

As I see it, there are the danger spots on the roster. Meaning, these guys might want to install rear view mirrors on their ballcaps.

Do this too often and the roster feels turbulent. Don’t do it enough and you’re settling for stagnation.

I’d like to think we’re at the point where Derek Shelton gets some say here as opposed to how things used to be his entire tenure here. The last 3 seasons were essentially open tryouts, but the GM outlined how much of a shot guys were going to get and whom got the shot. It’s my hope that at this stage, Shelton is capable of saying hey Ben, Rodolfo is really struggling, I need to get him sent down and from what I’ve seen this guy should get a shot.

Now, there will still be GM decisions there to come into play, but so long as he isn’t asking for some dude from Greensboro he just read about from Craig Toth, my guess is the GM would be open to these conversations.

I know, I know, you don’t trust Shelton, and I get that entirely. I don’t either, but this process is part of coaching, and if he’s going to prove himself worthy of an extension, man I’d be pressing him to be big with me about his opinions. Show you understand the game beyond putting a lineup together based on an analytics packet.

Handle the delicate nature of player movement with guys who potentially matter, not just some waiver you were handed to deal with. Find a way to send that number one pick down and have him hungry to improve and get back instead of hang his head and wonder if he has a future. You know, coaching.

Oh 2023 is going to tell us a ton about a whole lot of members of this organization, and this one component and how its handled is arguably going to be the easiest to see as it happens.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

3 thoughts on “Five Pirates Thoughts at Five – Last Full Week of Spring Training

  1. Could it be that some of free agents are in the way? Ok the outfield if Reynolds is in left than swags is your starting center field vs right-handed starters, Csn or jack in right vs rh, Joe and cutch play some corners vs lh. Firstbase Choi vs rh Santana vs lh and some dh vs both.2b Castro or bust with Bae as a bench bat and getting starts at 2b/ss Cruz ss duh and hayes3b a back up catcher. I guess I go with Csn as a bench guy because he can hit. Ps just say no to dfa-none roster invitees in your 4 yr of a rebuild.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You seem down on Bae as spring training has gone along. What happen to him in the outfield ? With Reynolds moving over to left I thought Bae would get more of a look ??? I don’t like Rudy batting last. If Cruz bats lead off they need a high on base guy batting on in the 9 hole ahead of Cruz. I like Joe or CSN in the 9 hole

    Liked by 1 person

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