2023 Pirates Season Preview

3/29/23– By Gary Morgan and Craig W. Toth – @garymo2007 & @bucsbasement on Twitter

It’s that time of year again folks, a brand new baseball season here in Pittsburgh and for the first time since probably 2019 a bit of an air of optimism can at least be smelled in the wind. What this team is this season and what they have coming, well, safe to say both world will collide a bit this season as it looks to be the biggest migration of talent from the system to the Bigs we’ve seen since easily 2010.

Craig and I secretly love writing this piece together. For one thing, we use it all year to hold each other accountable and reading back through the previous two preparing for this one, it’s a really nice snapshot of how we’ve felt entering every season before it played out.

Walk through the roster with us today, bookmark it for all our horrible guesses and takes but most of all, have fun with it, we sure do.

The Pitching Staff

The Starters: Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Johan Oviedo, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez

Gary: (C) I was probably at a C+ before the Brubaker injury news. No matter what you think of him, he’s a work horse, and losing him early is not ideal, especially since he looked to be stretched and hitting on most of his pitches. If this is long term, I could even switch to C-, but I’ll settle here not knowing.

Now, I do think Keller is poised to be in the top 5 starters in this division in 2023, and that’s not nothing. Having a guy who can stop losing streaks or start winning steaks depending on how you look at it is something this team hasn’t had in quite some time. Roansy is expected to be great, but to me he’s still a bit of an unknown. We have to see what he looks like with the restraints removed and his trip to WBC prevented him from fully stretching out. Rich Hill is consistent if nothing else and probably offers more as a mentor than top line pitcher anymore. The AAA rotation gives hope that underperformance won’t be sat on too long.

Johan Oviedo was going to be a tough reassignment, so if there is an upside to the injury to JT, it might be that he gets to stay and develop.

Craig: (C+) As the off-season started, my own personal goal for the Pirates was that they would sign two starting pitchers; which I guess technically they did. However, part of that goal-an objective if you will-should have been to get a more reliable, Major League proven arm and ink him to a two-year deal. This is something that Ben Cherington talked about, but never followed through on.

Instead, they went the reclamation route with Vince Velasquez, and a likely flip candidate in Rich Hill. Now, Hill I am fine with, as a veteran leader on the mound. Velasquez on the other hand, likely provides little value. And this is coming from a guy who has actually tried at times to defend his place in the rotation. I still hold out some hope, but I definitely would have preferred the alternative; that probably would’ve turned my grade into a solid B.

At the top they hopefully have an interchangeable one-two punch of Mitch Keller and Roansy Contreras, Hill slotting in at three, JT Brubaker was their four and Velasquez rounding it out at five.

Now with JT likely starting the season on the IL, the Pirates can call on something that has been absent during previous seasons…legitimate options; starting with Johan Oviedo, and followed by Luis Ortiz, Mike Burrows, Kyle Nicolas and Quinn Priester.

This recent development had me considering a bump to a C as well. Prior to the Brubaker development, I really liked the idea of Oviedo being the go as long reliever once a week to save the bullpen over the long stretches in April.

Overall I feel the starting rotation contains less ifs than it did last season, as we didn’t really know what to expect from the likes of Keller, Bryse Wilson and Zach Thompson.

The Relievers: David Bednar, Colin Holderman, Wil Crowe, Chase De Jong, Duane Underwood Jr., Dauri Moreta, Jose Hernandez, Rob Zastryzny

Gary: (C+) I really like the bullpen, mostly because I like the options they have almost as much if not more than what they’re starting with in certain places. Cody Bolton, Carmen Mlodzinski, Colin Selby, Yerry De Los Santos, heck even Yohan Ramirez showed the ability to have a real nice stretch in 2022. I could see members of the rotation winding up there too. Now, if I know Craig, he’ll have numbers here and I have more of a shear number of options, but in baseball, having options is often more important than 8 guys you think are going to shove and stay healthy all year.

If I have a big concern, it’s that they don’t have a long man really in this opening day alignment, and with the compressed schedule the Pirates have in April and starters not being fully stretched, that’s a concern to me. I worry about it because it causes them to make poor choices with guys like Underwood and Crowe. They’ve thrown their arms off for 2 years running now, and this setup says they’ll probably do it again.

Craig: (C-) Outside of Bednar, I am not super high on any other member of the bullpen; and I even take caution with Bednar because of the re-occurring back issues. Holderman was solid for the Mets-posting a 2.04 ERA and a 1.019 WHIP; yet, it was only in 17.2 innings. Also he ended up on the IL with the Pirates, so I’m not sure what to expect. Same goes for De Los Santos, who’s season ended in the same fashion, and was just sent to Triple-A.

To his credit DeJong had his best season in the Majors last year, with a 2.64 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP; but the advanced metrics showed he might have just been lucky. Underwood, Jr. has been an innings eater out of the pen the last two season; still his results have been mediocre.

Then you move on to Wil Crowe, who has been downright awful this Spring, and ended the year on downward slide.

Wrapping things up you find the Rule 5 Guy in Hernandez. Truth be told, I’m not sure how he makes the team, considering how he’s looked.

Plain and simple, it doesn’t look good. Especially when you consider the one pitcher they brought in to make the situation a little bit better-Jarlin Garcia-is currently on the shelf, since he can’t grip a ball.

Hopefully, these relievers can hold it together; because if they don’t, things could get out of control really fast.

The Position Players

Catcher: Austin Hedges (Starter), Jason Delay

Gary: (D) Listen, I like Jason Delay, and part of me hopes this was about keeping Bryan Reynold’s best friend on the team to get this damn deal done. I’m kidding of course, but truthfully, he just doesn’t add much to the team. Austin Hedges is an easy guy to like, talks a very good game, reportedly teaches the catching position with passion and pride, but he can’t hit.

Both of them will handle the pitching staff well, and we know the future behind the dish is not on this roster to start. Whether people want to admit it or not, Endy really does have quite a long way to go to even equal Delay defensively. So if you’re thinking his call up will raise this rating, I think the offensive upswing will be eroded to a degree defensively.

That doesn’t mean I think Endy will always be an underwhelming defender, it just means I personally think most catching prospects are when they first reach the league. It’s arguably the hardest position in baseball to master aside from pitcher, and to expect perfection or seasoned MLB defender from call up on is a bridge to far for me.

Craig: (C) Man I feel like I’m giving out a lot of C’s; but it feels like they are deserved.

In this case it is all about offense, or lack thereof, when it comes to who will crouch behind the dish. Offense is an F, defense is an A for Hedges; and Delay can hold his own.

The goal for Hedges is to develop this young staff, and mentor Endy once he comes up. There’s no doubt he can do just that; all while batting around the Mendoza line.

Third Base: Ke’Bryan Hayes (Starter), Rodolfo Castro

Gary: (B+) I like starter and backup here. Hayes is Hayes defensively so I won’t bore you with his ability, but Castro, well, 3B might just be his best position on the field. I like this as a position group. Hayes has just been stinging the baseball all Spring long, and it looks a lot more like he’ll wield a dangerous bat in 2023 than the singles hitter he had become dealing with injuries.

I’ll go ahead and say it, I think Hayes hits enough to finally get the required votes to get the Gold Glove he has already deserved.

Craig: (B) Based on defense alone Hayes will live up to his 8 year/$70 million contract. Last season he produced 4.3 WAR and 3.0 fWAR, in spite of batting just .244 with a OPS+ of 87.

Obviously this needs to improve; which many think it will, based on him bulking up this offseason.

However, the issue with Hayes has never been about being able to hit the ball hard. In 2021, was in the 71st percentile for Average Exit Velocity, and 75th for Hard Hit Rate. Then this past season he bumped up to 85th and 84th respectively; yet, he continued to struggle with the bat.

For Hayes, it’s all about launch angle, as Michael wrote about just last week. When you have an average launch angle of 5.2, versus the league average of 12.1, those hard hits naturally matter less.

Now, as far as the back-up plan goes, if Hayes would go down for an extended period of time. Well, that took a slight blow with Jared Triolo having surgery on his hamate bone; although it seems like Castro would probably get a shot at it first, and actually has the ability to play the position at a decent level.

But just in case, maybe Connor Joe should start taking reps at 3rd base again.

Short Stop: Oneil Cruz (Castro, Bae)

Gary: (B) Have to start with offense here. Cruz is going to hit, and he’ll lead this team in just about all the sexy offensive numbers. Defensively, according to everyone on the staff, and the beat guys, nobody on the team has put in more extra time practicing fielding. That doesn’t mean he’ll turn into a gold glover, it doesn’t even mean he’ll become “good” but it does mean he wants it bad enough to fight for it and there’s something to be said for that.

I’ll say this, the footwork is better, he’s controlling the arm strength, he’s leading his DP partner to the bag, and he’s under control when he makes the second throw on DPs himself. Range for days too. Let’s take a month or two and stop trying to stick him in the outfield, especially as you’re finally seeing outfielders emerge.

Craig: (B) Cruz has 30-30 potential; and could honestly run into those 30 homers, even if the other numbers-Average, OBP (On Base Percentage) and K%-don’t necessarily follow suit, as much as the Pirates want them to.

Now, as far as his defense is concerned, I think he will be just fine; plus he has more range than nearly anyone at the position.

So, far this Spring it seems that his work with Mendy Lopez-the new Infield Coordinator-has paid off. His footwork looks better, and he isn’t rushing his throws; which ends up causing the majority of his errors.

The only thing that worries me is that if he struggles, or god forbid gets injured, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a legit backup option waiting in the wings.

Second Base: Rodolfo Castro (Bae)

Gary: (B) Between the two of them, I love this position. Both can handle 2B admirably, but having both of them should mitigate some of the longer slumps we’ve seen from Castro. It’s an energy position and from this one spot, the entire feel of the lineup could change. Castro creates more of a power threat, Bae creates more of a speed and on base annoyance threat. One can change the game by running into one, the other can change the game by setting the table for the expected boppers.

Craig: (C) Castro did enough in his last 200 plate appearances of last season to make the Pirates want to give him an extended look to begin 2023.

During that time he slashed .247/.310/.478 with 10 homers, 19 total extra base hits and a 119 wRC+.

At this time my biggest concern is his lopsided platoon splits; that have followed him through the Minors, and into his time with Pirates. As a lefty, Castro’s OPS in the Minors has been about 200 points lower than when he bats right handed; a number that has grown to nearly 300 points in MLB.

Bae on the other hand has a much more well-round approach at the plate; with less power of course. He also has additional position flexibility, as he can slide to the outfield when called upon.

Seen by many as the most advanced hitter in Indianapolis last year-as evidenced by his .297/.364/.450 slash line through the first four months of the season-Bae was delayed in being promoted to the Majors due to an oblique injury that sidelined him for almost a full month.

First Base: Carlos Santana (Ji-man Choi)

Gary: (C) Two veterans. Two proven MLB fielders. Two experienced and proven leaders. I don’t really know what to say here. I’m not excited about the position, but I’m certainly not down about it.

The Pirates haven’t had a really quality first baseman defensively in quite some time, and now they have two. They certainly haven’t had one who could do both, and now they have 2 who are capable of exactly that.

This is really vanilla, but I’m sorry, I just don’t have any issues with how they filled this spot for 2023, and I’m not super jazzed about it either.

Craig: (P): I couldn’t view this as more than it was. In the end it became a simple Pass/Fail, grading wise. Last year was atrocious, so it honestly could get much worse.

Heading into the offseason, the Pirates didn’t have any options for first base on the roster; so, Cherington made it his mission to solve the position.

First he traded for Ji-Man Choi, then he acquired Carlos Santana and finally he added he added Connor Joe; who could move in from the outfield, if needed.

Nevertheless, they really don’t have a solution beyond this year; which might make an Incomplete the best option at the moment.

Outfield Starters: Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, Connor Joe (McCutchen, Smith-Njigba)

Craig: (B) Reynolds looks primed to put together his third strong season in a row following what was the 2020-small sample size-debacle. Last year, his overall numbers took a slight hit due to the struggles he experienced patrolling centerfield; although, it looks like the Pirates may have rectified this by moving him to left field more regularly.

As far as Suwinki is concerned, his K-rate will likely tell the tale of how 2023 turns out for him. We all know he possesses the power necessary to stick in the Big Leagues. All you have to do is look at his 19 homers from last season. Still, there is really no way to overlook him striking out at a 30.6% clip.

In Joe the Pirates have hopefully found stability in an eventual 4th outfielder, with some Major League success. Although, it will be interesting to see how he performs on a consistent basis outside of that Mile High air.

Gary: (B) It’s the best it’s been since 2019. The outfield has been a barren wasteland for so long it’s hard to not feel hopeful watching the fan base lose their minds because one option didn’t make it.

I trust Reynolds to perform, and I’ll leave it there. I think no matter what they do to start, Canaan Smith-Njigba will force them to play him more. Connor Joe will wind up being a bench bat and utility guy before too long.

Now my big concern is Jack Suwinski. He looked awful this Spring, but we’ve seen things like this not matter come regular season just as often as it’s predicted the performance. The K rate is alarming, the new stance isn’t helping, and pressure is building not only on the MLB roster but AAA as well.

Cutch will play occasionally out there, and he’s still capable of playing a “good” outfield.

Outfield Reserves: Andrew McCutchen, Canaan Smith-Njigba (Bae)

Craig: (C+) This is not the same Andrew McCutchen we saw patrolling the grass at PNC in the early 2010’s. He will likely be limited in the role, and see a majority of playing time at DH. This doesn’t mean he won’t be able to contribute in a meaningful way, and hopefully reach all of his career milestones by the end of the season.

With a very impressive Spring, Smith-Njigba put all of the memories-and more importantly any concerns-surrounding his season ending wrist fracture to rest.

Smith-Njigba possesses an advanced approach at the plate to go along with some untapped power potential. In his Minor League Career Canaan posted a .387 OBP, but has only hit 26 homers, in spite of his 60-grade raw power; although, I am not really worried about it, as he hasn’t even turned 24 yet.

Gary: (C) I just don’t see Cutch playing out there much and if I’m honest, I see CSN and Bae pushing for more playing time, potentially to the point they aren’t in this role anymore.

I will say everyone they kept can defensively handle the outfield, but they’ve only got one who has the potential to be defensively spectacular and that’s Reynolds IF they primarily leave him in Left Field.

I firmly believe Cutch will DH 80% of his starts, and I think that’s directly why they felt they had room for 5 OF on the 26.

Next Man Up: Prospect Watch

Craig: (A) The easy answer here is Endy Rodriguez, so I will quickly pivot to Carmen Mlodzinski. With the recent decision to have the former Gamecock appear out of the bullpen, I could see him called up sooner, rather than for a cup of coffee at the end of the season.

Under Ben Cherington’s supervision, the Pirates relievers have gone through a revolving door, more times than Buddy The Elf on spaghetti and Maple Syrup; which could continue with potential injuries and/or inconsistencies.

Gary: (A) I didn’t even have to read Craig’s entry to know Rodriguez would be brought up. Like him I’m going to skip him because first, I kinda talked about him in the catcher position part already, and there is another I can’t wait to see.

I think Cody Bolton being moved to the bullpen for the season was sneaky smart by the organization, and I truly believe he will thrive there. The stuff plays and the guy has way more polish than most potential rookie pitchers. I could see him being an option as early as May and he might help fill that traditional long man spot I already said was missing.

Playing Their Last Year as a Pirate

Gary: First things first. I’m not taking the easy way out and naming one of the rentals they signed. I’ll say Duane Underwood Jr.

I’m not an Underwood hater, but I’ve hated his usage, and think the team has asked too much from the guy and by the end of this year I think it will be obvious they’ve used him up.

Craig: Even though I don’t actually want this to happen, I am going to go with JT Brubaker. Both Brubaker and Mitch Keller entered their first year of arbitration this season. Realistically they can only sign one. Clearly they could let JT finish out his controlled years and walk, but that really doesn’t make much sense if he is a somewhat half-way decent starter; that profiles as a bullpen arm.

Obviously this is now dependent on health, as Brubaker is now facing the same health concerns he did back in 2019. Since that time he has accumulated the most innings by a Pirates Pitcher; 315.2 to be exact..

As a safety net, I’ll go with David Bednar. Yes, I understand this is probably an unpopular opinion, but let’s recognize that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy over the last two seasons, and more than likely won’t be saving games if and when this team is competitive.

Crazy Prediction

Gary: Oh man…Let’s go with Mitch Keller as a Cy Young Finalist

I think Mitch has finally, really and truly, figured it out. He’s confident, even starting to get a bit cocky about what he can do and has one of the rarest of abilities, he can change the shape of every single one of his pitches while maintaining his tunneling.

He can be unhittable when he’s on, but what’s most important, he’s more quickly recognizing what he does and doesn’t have on a given night. Coupled with Hedges who is a known Cy Young maker, I like his chances.

Craig: Connor Joe leads the team in stolen bases.

Everyone-including myself-has mentioned Hayes swiping 20 bags last season, or Cruz aiming for 30-30; yet I can’t help, but think about Joe taking advantage of the new rules this Spring.

Last season Joe sat in the 90th Percentile of BB%, so he definitely has the ability to get on base; and take second base in the process.

Division Standings

Craig: 1) St. Louis 2) Milwaukee 3) Chicago 4) Pittsburgh 5) Cincinnati

Gary: 1) St. Louis 2) Milwaukee 3) Pittsburgh 4) Chicago 5) Cincinnati

Pirates Record

Gary: 76-86

I said way back in 2020 they’d flirt with .500, and as I look at this team and what is pushing from behind, I think that’s what I see.

Now listen, I know this would be a huge improvement over what they’ve done last season, and I know that’s not easy to do. I also know they have more talent by leaps and bounds than they had on those teams.

Also, it’s just a prediction, being wrong is fine, I have been the last couple years while trying to be conservative with my guess, so why not be bold this time?

Craig: 70-92

I went in between 68 and 72 wins for at least the past month. The easiest way to deal with this was to split it down the middle.

After two 100 loss season in a row, with a near guaranteed third if 2020 played out, avoiding another one would be ideal, to say the least.

For some it appears that this level of underachieving is almost guaranteed to continue. Nevertheless, I think they might not fully understand just how hard it is to lose 100 games.

Over the past two seasons there has been a downslide after the trade deadline, however this year I believe there is enough padding/depth to allow the team to be competitive during last couple months of the year.

Of course, much of this will depend on the youth movement that is set to take over PNC Park in 2023. Most times rookies will struggle when they first arrive in the Majors, so there is always the possibility that more of them fall flat to start; rather than hitting the ground running. However, I would look for them to bounce back quickly, in order to right the ship heading into 2024.

In Conclusion

Craig: Last year Dennis Eckersley branded the Pirates as a Hodgepodge Of Nothingness. I could disagree with him then, but it’s just not what I see now; although I am pretty sure we will continue to see this label used by detractors for years to come, even if the team starts winning. Hell, we still hear about the 5 Year Plan nearly 30 years after Cam Bonifay first uttered the words.

This team has made positive adjustments since last season, and looks better on paper to start the year. Now we just have to wait for the results; as veterans take the field, soon to be replaced by wide-eyed rookies-in some cases-in natural progression.

When this whole thing started during the 2019-2020 Off-season, I had 2023 pegged as the potential step in the right direction year; which to me basically means things should become a lot clearer in October…For better, or for worse.

Gary: All in all, the Pirates have improved the on field product at the MLB level, but it’s built with guys who are expected to be pushed aside. That my friends is the real story this year, how seamlessly do they handle the drip drip drip of introducing rookies into this roster?

I’ve always had this long range prediction of how this thing would loosely flow through 2023, and folks, I stopped there for a reason. Because after this year, this whole thing turns from trying to win a bit more to trying to win. That will require things I simply couldn’t say they’d do. They’ll have to spend, they’ll have to push even when they think they might have an internal option.

I can’t tell you they will, and that’s why I’ve never gone beyond this year that I always knew could come, because of the simple fact I knew it wouldn’t require money.

The way they manage this season will show us how capable they are at maximizing what is developed internally, and for that reason, I’m really excited to see it play out. Fun season I think all in all.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

4 thoughts on “2023 Pirates Season Preview

  1. Their good AAA pitchers may be needed sooner than desired. Cruz, Hayes, and Reynolds are enough to create a good offense if all three have good years. Hard to see 81 wins but it’s a lot more possible this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. SP: C- but potential to improve (or decline, honestly) as the year progresses

    RP: C, assuming Garcia isn’t our too long. Obviously volatile as bullpens tend to be, but I have more optimism for this group in and of itself. SP struggles likely cause disarray again, but that attrition isn’t really the relievers’ fault. Much better depth this year, as noted.

    C: D+ to start but could be much improved late this season, to state the obvious. If Hedges can provide the stellar defense and mentoring to catchers and pitchers, I’ll gladly choke down the 10-plus outs per series.

    1B: B-, not conventional hitters for the position, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful–good, not great. Both mentors, so like Hedges, I’m pleased if that works out. I might have some bias from enjoying Santana in his Cleveland days with that as my favorite AL team, as well as a lighter grading because of the debacle the position has been for so long.

    2B: B-, a good deal of hope but also a good deal of uncertainty. I like the makeup of the top candidates, just need to see it come together long-term.

    SS: B, but man, it’s hard to keep it there. Only because of the uncertainty and lack of clear immediate backup who could step in every day in case of injury. Could very easily rise a lot. Could also easily drop a lot, very exciting but volatile time.

    3B: A-, and that’s hedging on what I predict will be a breakout season for Hayes. The depth is tremendous too for depth.

    OF: B-, but yet another slot very capable of wide swings during the season. Reynolds drags up an otherwise lackluster group. McCutchen is more DH now; Joe is a decent fourth; and CSN I have expectations for but a lot of uncertainty. Suwinksi drags it down despite Reynolds with how he has looked in 2023 so far. Swap him with Swaggerty to start and this probably rises to a B for me.

    Prospects: A-, lots of good but need to get some more breakouts to great. As for first up, I am unexpectedly hoping Swaggerty. I have become that dubious of Suwinski, at least under this hitting coach.

    Last season in Pittsburgh: Underwood was my first thought for the same reasons. Only other unmentioned one with multiple years of control who isn’t truly fringe is Joe. I would be unsurprised if enough outfielders emerge at comparable value that he becomes expendable.

    Crazy prediction: I think mine was Mitchell breaking through with the bat but leaving a quandary because he can’t be hidden in the field. Might as well stick with that.

    Standings: 5) Cincinnati 4) Pittsburgh 3) Chicago 1b) St. Louis 1a) Milwaukee (just to be different and because I’m higher on Brewers pitching carrying the team than many people are)

    Pirated record: I said 72 wins, think it is the type of team that could be within 10 of .500 but also within 10 of 100 losses, and that’s the only number that does it. So far it looks good, though.

    In conclusion: Yep, they need prospects (whether current or recently graduated) to click, plain and simple.

    Liked by 1 person

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