Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

4-10-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

I sincerely doubt there are many of you out there who thought the Pirates would at this point have a 6-3 record. I bet there are even fewer who thought that record was achievable after starting 1-2 against the supposed to be bad Reds.

Yet here they are. The bats have picked up the pitching. This pitching has picked up the bats. They’ve dealt with big injuries to important players, and when they’ve gotten down they’ve fought back instead of rolling over like we saw far too often over the past couple seasons.

Yes folks, this is what good baseball looks like. Doesn’t mean they’ll keep playing it, doesn’t mean they’ll survive losing Oneil Cruz and keep humming either, but it does mean these players weren’t just whistling Dixie when they said they loved the group and believed they could achieve something this season.

Lets go…

1. Have to Start with Cruz

Let’s start with what we know.

Cruz has a fractured left ankle. He underwent surgery and early prognosis is set at 4 months by the team.

How it happened. This was a go on contact play. The 3rd base coach didn’t “send” him, it was simply the play to go if there was contact. This play is called by every team in the league in that situation, designed to avoid a double play, force the defense to make a play, and come out of the situation with 2 guys on so the opportunity doesn’t die in the process. Sometimes there will be a variation, say the contact is to the left side, the runner doesn’t go. In this case, it was a straight go, probably because with Cruz in 8 strides he’s nearly there.

The catcher didn’t do anything wrong during the play, Cruz probably slid a bit late, but also had to know the 3B would have to throw it over him to get it to the catcher, so it kinda makes sense as to why he might have stayed vertical as long as he did.

After the play, the White Sox catcher got mouthy and Carlos Santana took exception.

Baseball play. Bad accident. Nobody really to blame. I will say, he charges into just about every base with reckless abandon. It’s part of what makes him such an exciting player, it’s also something I guarantee you felt would eventually get him hurt.

Well, it did.

Now the Pirates will call up Mark Mathias to replace him on the roster. Let’s start here, nobody is going to directly replace Oneil Cruz, so who the guy was, well, it wasn’t going to “fix” the hole left. I personally thought it would be Tucapita Marcano, but Mathias almost made the team out of Spring, so that makes some sense too. I expect Rodolfo Castro to step in at SS, backed by Bae for now, and if Castro keeps not hitting, and or shows he can’t handle the position, they’ll have to get Marcano up and let him have a crack. In fact, wanting to get Castro involved more consistently likely led directly to the call up choice here.

This could also lead to Ji Hwan Bae getting a real look at the leadoff spot. Something many of us have wanted to see anyhow, but a couple month audition is far more than he was going to get without Cruz overtly struggling, which he wasn’t.

This also knocks out the issue of not being able to get consistent at bats for Castro. That simply has to happen this year, because good or bad he can’t be a question heading into 2024.

I know no other way to mentally approach something like this. It certainly isn’t good, but it will create opportunity for others to step up. There is nothing “good” that comes from a player like Cruz getting injured, but it does afford the Pirates a chance to get eyes on different guys they may have needed to wait on or struggle to create chances for.

This too shall pass….

2. Bryan Reynolds is On Fire

He’s tied for the league lead in home runs, he’s second in OPS, carrying an over .400 batting average, and he’s hitting the ball hard from both sides of the plate.

As if the Pirates needed another sales pitch right?

The Pirates lineup has presented every team with a problem. You don’t want to pitch to Cruz or Reynolds, but you kinda have to pick one at least cause Cutch is near the top of the league in OBP too.

Obviously part of that formula has been taken away for a little while. So what’s going to be interesting is seeing how the league decides to attack the problem and more importantly, can Reynolds be as patient as it could require him being?

We could see Ji Hwan Bae create a new set of issues for teams to deal with should he get some lead off opportunities, but make no mistake, picking the guy who isn’t gonna beat you just got easier.

I’m incredibly interested to see how he and the entire offense adjusts.

3. Put a Bridge Between Hill and Velasquez

So, you’re first thought here is probably to just move on from one or both, but let’s be realistic, they aren’t going to do that right now.

That said, having the two of them back to back in the rotation is not going to work long term.

Having them right near each other has the potential to kill the bullpen once every 5 days, and god forbid one of the other 3 has an off outing.

So how the hell do you fix this? The Pirates aren’t off until the 24th. The way that falls the 24th would be Oviedo’s scheduled day, so they could do something creative like have Oviedo go on the 23rd, and plan on Velasquez to piggyback him. Next time through, just switch the two of them in the rotation.

Even that solution gives them another 2+ cycles through like this.

Keller, Hill, Velasquez, Oviedo, Contreras does give you your 3 best all in a row, so it could help sometimes too, but unless Oviedo is now going to throw a 7 inning shutout most times out, I hate the idea of him having a depleted bullpen backing him. So to me, it’s imperative they find a way to transition to Keller, Hill, Oviedo, Velasquez and Contreras.

It’s a small thing. It’s not about Hill being better than anyone. It’s about the best configuration to insulate the pitching staff from being overworked back to back nights.

4. Leadership Put to the Test

A big part of bringing in so many veterans this year was of course to create some realistic MLB measuring sticks, but it was also to help these kids who have experienced little more than being part of a hodgepodge learn how to be Major Leaguers.

Carlos Santana, even if irrational, defended his teammate on the field. Andrew McCutchen showed after the game, you can have grief about one of your brothers going down for a while but you have to turn the page and believe you still have enough to win.

Ji-man Choi shows how you get very limited playing time and still show up every day ready for work.

Even Bryan Reynolds, all the consternation surrounding his contract situation, he’s showing everyone in that room, the business stuff, yeah, you can’t count that as an excuse either.

Baseball is incredibly hard, having people around who have seen just about everything, and experienced just about all the things you could imagine on the diamond is absolutely key to creating the next group of ballplayers.

Think about it. One day Roansy Contreras will take a young pitcher under his wing and tell him stories about the time he was tipping pitches. Mitch Keller will one day tell some youngster to trust his stuff is good enough to get outs in the zone.

I’ve never once talked to a baseball player who didn’t credit a veteran for helping him unlock something big in his career. Having as many as they do, increases that probability that a youngster clicks with a guy.

I understand the frustration when some of them don’t play up to your expectations, but keep in mind, a big, arguably more important part of their reason for being here is happening behind the scenes.

5. Let’s Talk About What Mathias Brings to the Table

In his 9 games for AAA Indianapolis this year, he’s posted a .333 batting average, an OPS of .926. This dude is capable of playing really everywhere but short stop. So the first question is probably, why is he the call up for Cruz then? It goes back to what we talked about in point number 1, the Pirates need to see what Castro and Bae can do so Mathias will bounce around and do whatever is needed for now.

This shouldn’t be seen as nothing though. Mathias is 28 years old and reaches his first year of arbitration next year, so if he becomes someone the Pirates like having around, he could carve a nice role for himself here. He’s not Josh VanMeter, he’s a worthy endeavor and the power has been very real.

While he’s never stuck in the Bigs, he has a positive .9 WAR number with 6 homeruns in 117 at bats.

Look for him to spell Bae and Castro, and potentially eat into their time if he’s really firing.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

One thought on “Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

  1. Great thoughts, especially 3 and 4. Did Shelton (or someone else) explain why Hill and Velasquez ended up next to each other in the rotation? I didn’t think that was supposed to happen. Even if it was, it feels like a mistake either way.

    Liked by 1 person

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