Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

4-24-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Here I sit, preparing to write this week’s Five Pirates Thoughts at Five, its something like the 145th time I’ve done so give or take, but it’s the first time I’ve done so while the Pirates solely owned the best record in the National League.

This doesn’t matter to the overall result this season will produce, but I do think it’s a kind of neat way to look at this team, and at least my coverage of the club as the weeks have gone by since late in 2019.

I’ve spent considerable time explaining the thinking behind the stages of this process. I’ve chronicled ways I thought they could do it better. I’ve wasted entry upon entry discussing players like Ka’ai Tom and Josh VanMeter, knowing all along they were just a small cog in the overall project but still annoyed they were.

Where they are now, well, it’s nowhere near the goal, but it is an interesting time to sit here and reflect a bit. I’ve covered a lot of bad baseball on the way here, and I like to think we’ve done it while keeping our eyes peeled on where this was headed.

That might be what’s so remarkable about what this team has done early on here, even we didn’t see THIS level of competitiveness in 2023.

Super fun.

Let’s go…

1. Worry About Later, Well, Later…

Nobody is blind here, we all know the Pirates planned to shop and move guys like Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, Carlos Santana, Ji-man Choi, and the like this year and replace them with youngsters. That WAS the plan, and it still may wind up being the case should things revert to the expected, but folks, that’s then, and this is now.

I can honestly say if this team is in the throws of playoff contention come deadline time, they won’t feel they have to move anyone that’s contributing positively. They may want to. They may actually feel moving one could help the ball club, but they aren’t going to sit back and say, “trust the process” while they move all these guys for prospects and watch the record and contention slip away.

Plans change in baseball, and nothing changes plans more than unexpected performance.

Make no mistake though, this team as currently constructed, is a one off. This mix of players won’t reunite in their entirety come 2024. Some of these guys are very much so twirling in their last dance, or at least performing in their last Summer where they aren’t “holding on” but contributing.

They’ll be replaced by younger players as the year plays out naturally, or in Spring next year, and augmented by more veterans. Maybe some of them will be veterans we’re watching right now, maybe a whole new crop, but the development system ultimately will still write the story of how this whole thing turns out, despite what 2023 brings.

I don’t say this so you keep your walls up and try not to embrace these veterans or what they’re doing for the team, I say it because by in large, the plan was for most of them, really everyone but McCutchen was intended to be here to be beaten out eventually or to ultimately be dealt for more fortification and provide opportunity for youngsters. Again, performance can, and will change plans if they force it to.

Keep this in mind, I can just about 100% guarantee had the Pirates not traded Jose Quintana last year they don’t lose 100 games, but they also don’t have Johan Oviedo who just looks incredible. Is Oviedo worth the pain of once again reaching that awful milestone as opposed to adding maybe 3-4 more wins in 2022?

This year, they could be asking themselves is holding that prospect more important than the 4-5 wins we could get from acquiring another veteran?

The team will tell us what makes sense by how this group performs.

2. The Value of Catching Excellence

Austin Hedges and Jason Delay have been a huge part of what this team has done. Ask any of the pitchers, they’ll all point to the excellence of how they call games, the confidence they have to throw any pitch in any situation, the masterful way they’ve helped control the run game, basically, being the brain that tells the body what to do.

We’ve seen it on display in games with tangible things like well timed mound visits. Knowing when a guy needs slowed down a bit. In general, having a great plan for opposition hitters too.

Endy Rodriguez, the team’s top catching prospect is in AAA and on the IL with a forearm strain, the hope is obviously that this isn’t a long term injury but let’s be really honest, to become the CATCHER that a guy like Hedges, or even Delay is, well, that isn’t going to happen by June. He can improve, he can be good, but what Hedges does in this aspect of the game is elite. Elite is a word that gets tossed around too often, but when it comes to everything a catcher can do to influence a game when he doesn’t have a bat in his hand, there simply isn’t anyone better.

I don’t say that to make you ok with Endy being in AAA, or to pretend he isn’t being kept there for contractual reasons. We all know what’s happening, and folks, I’m sorry, for that position, I get it.

Endy could be a great bat here, but I’m nowhere near ready to hand him the keys to this pitching staff and pretend they’ve been this good because they suddenly know how to pitch.

If this injury turns out to be insignificant, great, I believe he’ll still be called up in June and when he is, I think the Pirates might be wise to carry 3 catchers.

Hear me out.

Look at how much trouble the Pirates have had getting at bats for a guy like Canaan Smith-Njigba, maybe just making Endy that role, and his position flexibility plus catching a couple games a week under the tutelage of Austin Hedges is the play here.

I say keep 3 because if you have Endy as the backup or starter, it’s hard to use him elsewhere. Backup catchers playing elsewhere happens, but having one on the bench makes the decision to start your top 2 in different roles a bit easier.

None of this is because I think Endy will never be able to handle this position, but I can’t get past this one fact, I give the Pirates catchers a ton of credit for what this staff has done, so does the staff, so does the coaching staff, I can’t fathom just handing it to a rookie because some arbitrary date passed.

When it’s time, by all means, get his friggin’ bat up here, play him wherever you have to, work him in slowly, but make sure he doesn’t have to be the go to back there, at least not immediately.

I don’t want the Pirates to carry 3 catchers forever, but if this team is in contention in 2023, I don’t think they can afford to just go all in on a rookie backstop, even if he can outhit all other options since June of last year.

3. Andy Haines

Fair is fair.

Overseeing a historically pitiful Pirates offense that had players like Jack Suwinski, Bryan Reynolds, Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, Ke’Bryan Hayes, it was really easy to pin blame on the hitting coach. He had a plan, and let’s be really clear, it didn’t work. Guys were more interested in walking than hitting and every swing was about hitting the ball hard somewhere, even with 2 strikes, 1 out with a guy on third. There was just too much talent to be that pathetic at the plate. Not enough to WIN, but surely enough to not hit like a Junior College playing a Spring Training tune up game.

Hearing that Haines worked closely with many of these guys over the offseason, honestly, I was worried. I simply didn’t like a damn thing he’d shown me.

23 games in to the 2023 season, credit where due, Haines has these guys almost universally taking good at bats. Hitting for power, but adjusting in at bat to hunt contact. Situationally hitting to the correct side of the field, bunting when needed, taking off-speed to the middle of the field, just in general, looking in command of every at bat.

My job here isn’t to be critical, it’s to evaluate. So that’s what I’m doing. I was critical of his poor performance, and now I’m praising the much improved performance. Even if the credit belongs with the veterans and improved talent, I have to give him the same ownership of the process that I gave him when it wasn’t working.

I already went through this metamorphosis with Oscar Marin in 2022, and I’m happy to do it again in 2023 for Haines. Solid chance I extend it to recently extended Derek Shelton too. Lord knows the players love him.

I still think the system Haines likes to instruct is difficult for rookies to grasp, it requires at the very least a professional eye at the plate, so expecting many to come up ready to spit on pitches that have more break or velocity than they’ve experienced on the way up is a lot to ask.

But even that is more about the development system needing to create an easier path to onboarding talent, as opposed to directly blaming the hitting instructor.

It’s a long long season, so much can happen, but seeing positive things like Jack, Rodolfo and even Cruz before getting hurt walk as opposed to strike out perpetually, that in and of itself is a win.

Good stuff so far.

4. Even Feel Good Stories Don’t Trump Winning

Drew Maggi was called up from AA Altoona to fill a roster spot for Bryan Reynolds who was placed on the Bereavement list yesterday. We all obviously aren’t excited Bryan and his family are dealing with the pain of loss, so all appropriate condolences obviously extended, Maggi was a feel good call up.

He’s been promoted before, back when he was a Minnesota Twin, but never got in an actual game, a trend that continued yesterday when he was unable to get into the Pirates series wrap against the Reds on Sunday.

Why is this important? Why do we care? Why didn’t thy just put him in the damn game?

We care because in baseball, and sports in general, we all root for stories. Maggi has played over 1,000 MiLB games, he’s 33 years old, clearly nearing the end of his journey. He’s now the veteran and emotional leader of the AA Altoona Curve and everyone on the MLB roster just watched this 33 year old career MiLB player kick their butts all over the field all Spring long.

Everyone knows his situation, everyone knows they themselves are a draft position, or timely injury away from being him. Everyone loves his constant hustle, his willingness to play anywhere, his ability to keep wearing a smile even as he rides a bus for the 1,021st time to the middle of nowhere to play a game where every at bat he takes is at the expense of someone who “matters” far more than he does.

And yet, none of that mattered more than winning the fourth game of a series against the Reds at the end of April.

Up 1-0 late in the contest, Derek Shelton was actively using his bench to try to create some insurance for the back end of his bullpen, and Maggi’s name was never called. Despite Shelton’s personal relationship with him. Despite every member of that team actively wanting to get him in there, let him get his at bat, winning that game yesterday took precedence.

Bryan will return to the lineup on Tuesday, and Drew Maggi will in all likelihood head back down, if not be DFA’d. He may very well have had his last chance to get that one swing.

Everyone cared, but again, nobody allowed it to matter more than getting this team to 16 wins.

Even so, this choice of callup was exactly the right call by Ben Cherington. Think of the message it sends all through the system. Imagine you’re a guy like Mason Martin who’s just about to turn 24 and after playing the majority of a season in AAA has been asked to head back to AA this year and work on all the same stuff he failed to improve on last year.

Think he’d like to know as long as he keeps working the team won’t forget him?

How about Osvaldo Bido who’s 28 years old and has never been on the top of anyone’s prospect board, yet he’s the most seasoned AAA starter the team has as we speak. Think he might like to know this team rewards dedication and hard work?

Winning matters more than any of this feeling stuff, but that doesn’t mean the feel good stories have no place.

In this case, everyone in that room knows if they wanted to see Drew swing a bat on Sunday, they all needed to do more with theirs earlier in the game. Cause they were never going to let this story get in the way of the story this team has become.

Know what? Drew knew it too. So he stood there on the dugout railing, cheering and staying involved even as he watched his opportunity slip away out after out. He high fived guys who were chosen ahead of him, he celebrated with teammates he knew he’d be saying goodbye to in a mere 48 hours. He was Drew Maggi.

Teams are built on the backs of men like him and when he reaches his next stop, even if it’s right back in Altoona, he’ll relay the story of his time up there and get right back to helping the dream stay alive or come closer to fruition for his teammates.

That’s why it matters, even if he didn’t get that at bat. He was still part of a win, and more importantly, a key lesson in the constant effort to build the culture of a winner.

No one player is more important than the collective outcome of any one contest.

5. Jack Suwinski Isn’t Going Anywhere

Jack Suwinski was chosen to make this club over someone like Travis Swaggerty for one big reason. 19 homeruns in the Bigs, means far more than anything anyone has ever done in AAA.

His slow Spring was never going to be outweighed by another player’s hot Spring. This team needs his power, and more than that, the team trusted they were making adjustments that would eventually bear fruit for Jack.

They were right.

It’s ok, you can say it. And you don’t have to join some “I hate Swaggerty” club to do so.

All you really have to do is say Jack has taken 432 plate appearances in MLB and he’s hit 24 home runs in the process.

A typical MLB starter will average around 550 at bats, some will get as much as 650 but that’s reserved for some of the most elite of the elite.

Now, think of what Jack can do in an entire season. Further, consider he’s actually on more of a pace this year early on. He’s had 60 plate appearances and drilled 5 already.

Even if they hadn’t lost Cruz early, this team needed alternate power sources and Jack having already done so at this level was always going to get a chance.

None of this is to tell you Swaggerty shouldn’t or won’t get his shot, but more to serve as a cautionary tale. Spring training numbers aren’t as important as actual MLB playing numbers. Rookies who hit double digit dingers in the bigs, great bet to be back on the roster the following season.

Many of the principles that led to the choice to stick with Jack can be ascribed to Rodolfo Castro as well. He too is walking more, striking out less, hitting the ball hard and in general proving the team was right to keep giving him opportunity.

Why? Well, 440 plate appearances, 18 homeruns.

This isn’t rocket science folks. Youngsters with power, they tend to struggle with some other aspects of their game. When the power has been displayed, they tend to get a shot to show they can take the next step in the following season.

It helps when your team is winning, because you can afford to make a mistake working on something and not wind up being the town pariah.

Patience my friends, Endy will struggle too at some point, and that too will in all likelihood not be the end of his career or the world.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

4 thoughts on “Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

  1. I am a big proponent of 3 catchers as long as at least one has “positional flexibility.” It’s ‘way better to have an Endy than a VanMeter or even a Sean Rodriguez. Heck, he can catch!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 2. I’ve not seen a lot written about Delay defensively, though perhaps that’s for lack of me trying, and I imagine like Maggi his days are numbered also. I like the three catchers idea a lot and believe more and more players will split time with at least first base after the arguable HoF career of Posey, and Endy Rodriguez profiles as a whole other level of evolution in that. Even 10 years ago, when Russell Martin posed that he could play the left side of the infield, it was largely seen as absurd on a level close to when hitters pitch: “Aww, that’s cute–he plays out from behind the plate on his national team.” I didn’t know that about Martin until it happened, so it surprised me in that sense, but I didn’t think it was so absurd, and I’m glad we’re here now, though we’ll see whether they do actually take that approach with Endy come early to mid summer. It’d be strange to move him around the diamond just to not do so at the MLB level, though.
    It also makes me wonder what could’ve been with the makeup Jason Kendall had, or maybe not being all-or-nothing when it came to Neil Walker’s positions. (That then leads to the rabbit trail of Kendall having such amazing longevity for a catcher, while Walker was spared of the position and wore out while playing second base and then first base.)

    3. Very well said, and I’ll gladly eat crow on this if the turnaround lasts the year. We’ve seen setbacks this week for sure. I also want to note the blowouts are terrific but can skew a totals-based view in the end. To me it’s more beneficial to count how often they scored 0-2 runs, how often 3-5, and how often 6+. (If someone wants to tweak those ranges or add another level, I’m cool with that–just illustrating the concept, mode over median and mean in this instance.) The first run matters a lot more than the 16th run almost every time, and it’s more important how often you get to six than a total or average inflated by occasional 13s and 14s, y’know? Of course, looking at what he’s bringing out of each individual hitter is an even better measure, just a longer dissection.

    4. I’m almost embarrassed to say I hadn’t considered the message it sends to Bido, Martin, etc. That’s great for the org culture, definitely!

    5. It’s unlikely to stay there, but man, that 99th-percentile chase rate has me most excited. If he can at least stay 60th-plus in that category, that’ll be HUGE for his sticking potential as a good or better everyday player. He’s not losing out on much SLG, if any, from the adjustment, best of both worlds–no appearance of a ground-pound problem like Hayes, either. I’ll also admit that even though the arm does strike me as somewhere around average, I have liked what I’ve seen from him in center, by and large. No shame in Reynolds being a leftfielder–Suwinski’s the better option. I just didn’t expect him to be this much better, from what I’ve seen so far in 2023.

    Liked by 1 person

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