Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

1-30-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

We’re down to a little over 2 weeks until pitchers and catchers report to camp and the next season officially starts. In fact, they report on my birthday 2-14, so happy birthday to me. All the talk, all the player moves, all the panic about potential player moves, everything will transition to on the field questions.

We’ll now start talking about local baseball in a different way. When someone young goes 0-16 with 9 strikeouts and people scream to demote them, we’ll no longer be able to say “For Who?” because in most cases, there’ll be 2 or 3 answers.

I’m not sitting here telling you every answer is already internally available, but I am saying there shouldn’t be any more situations where the team is literally stuck knowing they have nowhere to turn to at least try.

We’ll talk a lot more baseball this year. And maybe back off on the intricacies of a rebuild a bit. Doesn’t mean in any way the job is over, just means baseball, on the field, is going to be interesting enough to evaluate with much more frequency.

Let’s dig in, lots to talk about this week!

1. Fan Interaction

The Pirates offered Season Ticket holders on an invite basis an opportunity to meet with some players and participate in a Q&A with some upper brass at the Winter Warmup Event.

By all accounts the event was nice, the Q&A was a bit boring, and it was a bit hard for attendees to make it from station to station in order to take everything in.

That’s how these things go, and every one of these Q&A sessions I’ve been to tends to be 10 minutes of people murmuring about all these super tough questions they’ll be asking these guys, only to see them get the mic and either water it down or entirely change the agenda. It’s actually a lot like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” and they stammer out f-f-f-ooootball.

Then there’s always one dude who follows through. It’s almost always a lot more anger than substance. In fact most of the time, there isn’t an actual question and everyone on the stage just moves on, after all, you never asked them a damn thing.

It’s cringy most of the time.

Sounds like this wasn’t much different. Most people were just happy to see Cutch and Walker. Blass and Keller.

I saw some people pretty upset about this event (it’s not the first they’ve done this year btw) because it was only for season ticket holders.

Look, I wanted them to do a Pirates Fest too, but they’ve explained why they couldn’t (or felt they couldn’t) host something like that at the very under construction PNC Park. They could have potentially done something at the convention center I suppose, but whatever, I get it.

I still think it was an unforced error. I still think that fans deserve a chance to ask questions after the baseball they’ve been given to watch, even if most aren’t truly equipped to ask effective ones.

I’m not saying everyone is dumb or that someone like me would do it better. I’m just saying there is an art to asking a question that prompts a fruitful answer. Most people just jump to a gotcha, and most of those that do get through are super easy to wiggle around for a seasoned wiggler. Do you regret trading Clay Holmes for two guys you DFA’d? We wish Clay well, and we knew we were giving up a good player, but we really liked the opportunity to work with the guys we got back too. Certainly that’s not the outcome we’re looking for.

Now you knew they’d answer like that, but you fancy yourself following it up with something even stronger. By then, they’ve either taken the mic or the cordial way it was answered lowers your bristle and you surrender the mic with a meek thank you.

Next year, I’m quite sure the Pirates will return to hosting a full scale event. Probably not coincidentally the Pirates will also likely have a roster that garners less angst.

I don’t begrudge season ticket holders getting something special, they’ve chosen to spend their dollars on a team that rarely puts them to the use they’d like to see. I don’t begrudge non season ticket holders feeling left out either, it’s something that was always there and now it’s not, that rarely goes unnoticed.

What exactly is Travis Williams’ job if not to show up to events like this and field questions? That’s my biggest question, and no, I don’t think I’d have wasted my breath asking Derek Shelton, Ben Cherington and Don Kelley that one.

2. Cutch Isn’t a Savior

Nobody knows this better than Andrew himself. He’s here because he wanted to come home, and he thinks the team has a chance to really improve.

Say what you will about McCutchen, but one thing he’s never been is a liar. If he thought he had nothing to give, he’s got too much respect for his legacy and this city to collect a paycheck.

He’s not the savior, but he may very well be the flag bearer for this club. A bridge to the past and glue for present day. Alex Stumpf over at DKPittsburghSports has a really nice piece after a sit down with Cutch on the 28th that I encourage you to check out.

I especially loved this quote when asked what winning here would mean to him. “It would mean the world, not with [just] me, but it would mean the world to the fan base as well,” McCutchen said about what it would mean to win here. “The fans here, they don’t want to see another 20 years of losing… They don’t want that to happen. I don’t want that to happen either. I do feel within that clubhouse, there’s a good group of guys out there and in that clubhouse. Great talents. It’s just a matter of belief of that and going out there on the field and doing it.”

Folks, this stuff doesn’t happen every day. This man LOVES you. This man GETS you. And he gets that the guys in the clubhouse will have more to do with that success than his own performance alone.

I don’t know what he’ll produce in 2023, nobody possibly could, but I know we’ll get everything he’s got, every day, every game, every time he’s mobbed in the post game availability, every time this team needs reminded a losing streak isn’t to be endured, it’s to be fought through.

If this team is successful, chances are Andrew McCutchen isn’t the primary reason. He knows that, you should know that too, but that doesn’t mean he won’t act like every bit the MVP he’s been.

Hey, what do you expect? He’s a Pittsburgher after all.

3. The Winds of Change

Three years ago, the Pirates had little more than Jared Oliva and Travis Swaggerty when you looked downhill to the minors. In fact for most of the time Ben Cherington has been here, Bryan Reynolds has been the only true outfield solution they’ve had.

Ben Gamel was serviceable, certainly helped as much as any waiver claim could be expected to.

The problem was identified quickly, and Ben Cherington set forth to bring in prospects to augment the few prospects that were already here. Now as we sit here on the cusp of 2023, it looks like they prepaid $80 to fill a 10 gallon tank.

The Pirates have a glut of outfielders.

They have 8 dedicated outfielders on the 40-man. 12 if you want to get technical about who could play out there. Jump down to include AA and AAA and the number jumps to something like 22 who have some kind of plausibility of making the league within the year or next.

Let’s start here. You aren’t going to see a team go through 22 players for 3 spots in 2 years and have everyone feel they’ve gotten a fair shake. The at bats just aren’t there.

The Pirates are going to already have to play some games with finding playing time in AA and AAA. I see no way around the fact that the team is going to have to make some decisions quickly to thin the herd.

This is a throw things against the wall and see what sticks approach. All teams do it, but the Pirates didn’t just add lottery tickets, they added guys who ultimately would need protected from the Rule 5 draft. In the process of these “close to the league” additions being developed, internal options and younger acquisitions that were very far away, to a degree caught up.

Last season they protected Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski, and Travis Swaggerty. Then chose to promote and add Cal Mitchell.

So when you add 4 you’d like to think in a season where you weren’t winning, you’d at least get some answers knowing you have another pile coming up in the next year. Instead, we learned that Jack Suwinski can play good defense, and hit right handed pitching for power. We also learned that Cal Mitchell’s arm is an issue and at times he looks to have an interesting bat.

That’s the list.

CSN was hurt, so entirely not their fault, and Swaggerty entered 2022 not 100%, and earned nothing more than a series worth of call up.

Point of all this, a whole bunch of these guys could wind up being MLB players. Keep in mind, even becoming a bench player isn’t a given for prospects, of all the fan bases in the league you all should know that very well. Well, they have a bunch of guys with that kind of capability, and they’re going to have to get a bit more choosy.

They may have to decide Mitchell’s arm (and yes I’m picking on him here) isn’t good enough to be an everyday outfielder. So that would lead them to needing the bat to be special. So far, it isn’t, but if it were to take a jump and start producing, you might find them try really hard to find him a new place to live in the field, like first base for instance.

If it turns out he’s just bench worthy at best, that might have easily given him a job here for half a decade not too long ago. With the pressure they’ve packed into this position now, it won’t provide him any comfort.

When you’re asking yourself why that guy you like got DFA’d without really getting a chance, the answer will undoubtedly lie in this realm.

4. And That’s Just Part of the Outfield Story

The Bucs have some big questions to answer elsewhere too, and when they answer them, the outfield again could be affected. Lets say Oneil Cruz and Rodolfo Castro both hit the baseball and stick at SS and 2B. Push aside how likely you feel that to be for a moment because it hardly matters for this exercise. What do you do with Nick Gonzales? Liover Peguero? I mean I’d add in Termarr Johnson in here too but I think we safely have a couple seasons for that.

Conversely, lets say they both hit, but don’t handle the positions. Well, you still want the bats, so they have to find a home right? Think they might try outfield? Everyone can’t be a DH.

When you start to really think about how teams like this are formed, you start seeing things at their simplest form.

There are categories for prospects.

Bats, Arms, and Catchers. Bats are just that, and some will show you things they can’t do, others will show you somewhere they excel.

Arms are arms, some could start, others for sure can’t. Catchers are outliers, but even they sometimes have to find somewhere else to play.

Henry Davis is one of these. He could wind up being a full time catcher, he could wind up being swapped elsewhere because Endy has it on lockdown. Hell the team could decide Endy’s athleticism is too valuable to have him spend 9 innings a game crouching.

Point is, if both bats prove productive, they’ll find a home for them.

Don’t get too hung up on who plays where when they’re prospects with a couple exceptions. 1. They’ve proven they can only play only one place. 2. The defense is so exceptional you’d be doing a disservice by not using the player at a given position.

Remember the journey of Neil Walker. Drafted as a catcher, moved to 3B because he was blocked by Ryan Doumit (true, I swear), moved to 2B because he was blocked by Pedro Alvarez. Stuck because he showed a valuable switch hitting bat with some pop, and learned to be a decent to above average 2B here in Pittsburgh.

The more spots the MLB team locks in, the harder this gets. Ke’Bryan Hayes is an awesome 3B, period. Statistically he’s the best defender in the league. So anyone who comes up through the system thinking they’re going to be the Pirates 3B of the future, has a long wait. Reality dictates, if the bat plays they’d just have to find somewhere else to stick him.

Messy, sure. But like the band 311 once wrote it can all wind up being a beautiful disaster.

5. Prediction Time?

Well, I’m not ready for a record prediction yet. I’ll get there before Spring is out but I still think there are some things we can predict right now.

  • By the end of the season we’ll either know Mason Martin or Malcom Nunez will get a crack at first base, or we’ll head into the offseason thinking Connor Joe might be the veteran option over there. For that reason I think we’ll see him get an odd start or two over there this season.
  • The Pirates still don’t have a lefty starter anywhere near the landing strip. I can already say next off season procuring a lefty starter will be a priority.
  • If it looks like Andrew McCutchen is still productive, and knowing the interest is already there, I could see the Pirates knocking out a one year extension with Cutch during 2023.
  • If Mitch Keller has a productive season, say an ERA under 4.25 with a WHIP of 1.125 and at least 175 innings, he’ll become their number one priority this offseason to get an extension done with.
  • Andy Haines will be the hitting coach for the vast majority of 2023, but I think we’ll see the team move on if they finish below 16th in the league offensively. Especially if the offense is largely driven by veterans.
  • The Pirates will use options to keep the bullpen fresh in 2023, and at some point that could mean guys like Colin Holderman going down for someone like Yerry De Los Santos. Fresh arms will be a theme all year, and bluntly, the Pirates are better positioned here than 90% of the teams in the league.
  • Derek Shelton will sign a quiet extension sometime around the All Star Break.
  • JT Brubaker won’t relinquish his rotation spot easily and by the end of the season most of us will feel the Pirates have room to actually trade a guy like him.

A Better Team, but They Still Have Work to Do

1-28-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

If you live in Pittsburgh, or used to at least, chances are you’ve made the pilgrimage to one or our beautiful East Coast beaches. If you have, well you know that moment where you get out of the car to grab a sandwich or fill up the tank and you suddenly realize, hey, I can smell the ocean!

It smells so clear to you, and it instantly makes you feel like you’re right there, even if your stubborn GPS continues to tell you it’s still 100 miles away.

I kinda feel like that’s where we are with this team as we get ready to start 2023.

All the signs that this team is ready to show some improvement, and win games with much more regularity are there. The players feel it, the coaches feel it, even many fans feel it, but at some point while watching it play out, I can’t help but feel that GPS is going to remind us there’s still some travel to do.

Most of the questions or comments I get recently lead me to this topic. I put them all in the category of “I want to believe, help me be sure I’m not being dumb”.

First, I try really hard to not make convincing people part of my job. I just like to give you all the things I’m looking at, and the angles surrounding them so that you form your own opinion. I’ll give you mine, but I entirely understand if you come to a different conclusion. That’s healthy and I hope is the goal for anyone covering a team.

Answering these types of things, man it makes me feel like Fox Mulder from the X-files series. I can help you feel better about your belief, but I’ll never be able to do it without open questions.

In other words, Mulder wanted to believe in whatever theory he was presented with, and he’d often only strengthen that belief during his investigation, rarely were his findings conclusive.

So for me, I want to believe this team is better, I might even want to believe it’s a .500 club, but I’m afraid the best I can do is feel better about it.

There’s another reason I feel this is necessary. As the Pirates have garnered some positive news (thanks Cutch) there have been more eyes out there. Just trust me, the numbers are up on all metrics for podcasts, articles, across the board and on everything Craig or I do we see it. That’s going to require covering some old ground a bit more. Things that we’ve covered and established as we traveled the road here together, well, we can’t expect fans just opening their Pirate eyes to go back and read a history they happily ignored can we?

Let’s dig into some topics that illustrate this well.

What is the Team’s Biggest Weakness?

Oh man. Is catcher too easy?

I understood Austin Hedges being the free agent acquisition, defensively he’s very very good, but he simply isn’t a hitter. This position really calls back to my original analogy, I can smell the ocean air here at this position, but I still think we have some traveling to do before we actually can dip our toes in the sand.

Everyone and their mother knows Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis are right there on the doorstep. Endy first, Davis at some point later in the year. That said, solid chance we start 2023 with Hedges and Heineman.

Now, in the Pirates view, at least based on their quotes on the subject, having a top notch defensive catcher is a huge key to helping to develop their pitching staff, and the young catchers they’ll eventually call into action.

That sounds great, but last year when said top notch defender was injured, they did nothing to replace him, and because of that, I can’t help but question just how important it really is. They willingly went 6+ months without something they went into the season claiming was “key”.

There were real live defensive oriented catchers they could have traded for, and bluntly, they could have moved some of the plethora of players they DFAd for next to nothing this year like Hoy Park, Diego Castillo, Zach Thompson, Bryse Wilson, take you pick. Defensive catchers don’t require what a catcher with big time offensive upside costs.

Either way, and even if much of that is 2022 sour grapes, catcher stands to be close to a free out in the lineup. So to me, that’s the clear weakness, even if it’s worth positive WAR defensively.

The Bullpen Scares Me Gary, it Was So Bad in 2022

I personally feel this fear has a couple important things that need pulled to the forefront before we talk actual players. First, many of the returning arms had very nice seasons or stretches here in Pittsburgh last year, but the fresh memory for most is the last month plus after injuries set in and roles got jumbled and tossed at dead armed remnants.

Second, the Pirates went into 2022 short on pitchers on the 40-man, and it screwed them all year long. It was blatant mismanagement. No grey area there really, no GM should enter a season that tight on arms that could feasibly carry a stretch of innings at the MLB level.

To the Pirate’s credit, and where this 2023 story really pivots, they aren’t poised to repeat their mistake.

Colin Selby, Yohan Ramirez, Dauri Moreta, Colin Holderman, David Bednar, Robert Stephenson, Duane Underwood Jr., Jarlin Garcia, Chase De Jong, Yerry De Los Santos, Jose Hernandez, Wil Crowe are all sure fire bullpen options for this club. All on the 40-man.

Meaning any of them could realistically make the opening day roster.

The team also can realistically say at some point this year it’s likely Vince Velasquez, maybe even JT Brubaker could make their way into this mix. In the minors they could say realistically that Johan Oviedo, Cody Bolton, or even Luis Ortiz could help out in this area should you really run into trouble.

This team is deep in the Pen.

You can hate Underwood Jr., after all you’ve watched him pitch for 2 straight years. Devil’s advocate here, his underlying stats point to him being extremely unlucky and he wasn’t used in a good role. More than that, if he’s really bad, they have a TON of options.

If I have a main worry, it’s left handed pitching. Jarlin Garcia is a really nice veteran lefty, and I feel good about him, but the only other lefty they have in the mix is Jose Hernandez the rule five selection. This might lead them to allow an NRI to win a job or at least be there in AAA as depth. Either way, I don’t believe they have enough from this side of the mound.

Even so, the bullpen isn’t what you watched at the end of the season. I feel stronger about the pen than any other aspect of this team.

Endy Rodriguez Should Make the Team! Play Your Best Players!

There’s truth to this.

What Derek Shelton did by plainly stating at the Winter Meetings that Endy Rodriguez will start the season in AAA was slam the door on this decision being developmental.

Here’s the thing about every fan’s relationship with every team’s front office. We all know they’re manipulating some players service time, and we all know that some players aren’t ready too. We just want to believe guys have a chance to show the team they’re ready and can earn the call up. In other words, just keep the door cracked, and maybe we’ll “buy” the dude needs to learn how to call a game.

Taking that off the table, knowing he could hit .375 in Spring with 8 home runs and still be shipped to AAA, well, it’s going to scream manipulation. Had you not said anything, at least you could claim some obscure defensive aspect you need to have him fine tune. We’d still hate it, and people would still scream, and people would rightly point out it could be learned at MLB.

OK, rant over.

That all being said, the dude has 6 games at AAA under his belt, it’s very likely he will need more than 24 PA. In those AAA games he caught 3, played 2B 1 time and was the DH twice. I mean, maybe he really does need a bit of work too ya know?

I think many of us would be able to see this inexperience and be ok, and that’s why it’s dumb to declare the outcome 3 months before its happened.

The Team Looks Better, but This Coach Sucks

Ahh, one of my very favorites.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe what this team added hardly mattered because Derek Shelton and his staff will render it impotent.

First, there are things that have happened since Shelton being hired that fans tend to blame him for, but couldn’t possibly be farther off on.

For instance, playing guys who obviously (to you) stink. The way Ben Cherington approached this rebuild and indeed his rosters, when he wanted to get a look at someone, he’d outline what that look would entail. So if he wanted to make sure Josh VanMeter got 175-200 at bats, well, guess what Derek Shelton is tasked with finding a way to do.

If he’s told to make sure Yoshi Tsutsugo gets 200 at bats, again, guess what he’ll have to find a way to do.

There should be less of this in 2023. There aren’t a lot of spots where you could do it for one, and he’ll have fewer overtly poor choices on his bench.

Same goes for the bullpen, there were few good choices to be made last year, this year he should be able to ask for a AAA swap when he sees it as needed.

I understand there are things you expect to see from a baseball coach, I do too, and to be clear, I haven’t seen what I’d like to see either. But 2023 is the first year this coach really has enough to truly evaluate his performance.

If you don’t like the way he handles starting pitchers, I agree, but this isn’t his philosophy being applied, this is from above his head. Analytics say starters who face a lineup the 3rd time through don’t do as well. Baseball teams all over the country are adjusting this and applying it. If Derek Shelton were fired tomorrow, the new skipper would come in and likely do the same thing. In fact if they hired Dusty Baker or Earl Weaver, they’d either quit on the spot or they too would apply the philosophy.

It’s for this reason, I worry much more about the Pitching and hitting coaches. Oscar Marin did pretty well with some important projects last season. Specifically Jose Quintana and Mitch Keller.

He’s gained a reputation to a degree, and as I said some time ago, his job was tied to Keller at least to begin with. Next he needs to turn one of the youngsters into a piece.

Haines needs to help Jack, Oneil, Hayes, Castro to be better versions of what they are, and stay out of the veteran’s way. He’s got the hardest job in the room if you ask me, because they’ve brought in enough veteran presence that kids will have multiple people to talk to and bounce things off of. If he’s preaching poor lessons it’ll be out in the open much faster than last season.

I’d say, keep an open mind here. But it’s fair to judge starting now.

Roansy Contreras – Ready to Climb

1-27-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

It amazes me. Every single time it happens with this fan base.

Comfort.

Roansy Contreras has been one of the rarest of rare prospects here in Pittsburgh. He was traded to the Pirates as part of a package that sent Jameson Taillon to New York in exchange for Maikol Escotto, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Miguel Yajure, and of course Roansy himself a little over 2 years ago.

At the time of the deal it was believed that Miguel Yajure was key, but he’s since been DFAd and long since was passed by Contreras for the mantle of headliner.

Fans have simply accepted that Roansy is not only good, but great by in large. There’s almost an easy comfort that he’ll figure out how to fix any issues he’s cropped up with.

To his credit, he’s done just that. Toward the end of 2022 Contreras was discovered to have been tipping pitches. It had been going on for a little while but hadn’t really burnt him, until it did.

A dedicated bullpen session later, he was back to himself.

That’s all great, and as I said, to his credit, but I still think many Bucco supporters have declared him a success story before the story is fully written.

This is a very important year for Contreras and today, I’m going to outline that case.

Roansy is 23 years old from Peralvillo, Dominican Republic and thus far in his budding Major League career he’s thrown all of 98 innings.

The Pirates handled him like a Fabergé egg in 2021, and with good reason.

This is a kid who didn’t pitch in 2020, like so so many prospects, and before that had never pitched more than 132.1 innings in a single season (2019). Add in that he had a very scary forearm tightness situation in 2021 that shelved him for an extended period and caused him to only rack up 58 innings between AA and AAA.

He’d still earn a cup of, er, sip of coffee in 2021, tossing 3 innings of shutout ball and setting the stage for coming to Spring in 2022 with some excitement.

After the forearm scare, Roansy tweaked some of his training and maintenance techniques, but the process of building an arm back up, especially a potentially golden arm is not simple. There was real fear this would wind up the way forearm tightness typically can and when it was put forward by doctors that rest might be enough, all parties involved took the risk. It’s a risk because if you’re wrong, all you’ve done is turned an already long recovery time into 5-6 months longer.

So far, it’s paid off, but the process called for not immediately putting a full workload of an MLB starter on the young man’s arm.

In 2022 Contreras was forced into early action at the MLB level. The Pirates had left themselves extremely short on pitchers on the 40-man, specifically guys who had options, so Roansy was placed in the Pirates bullpen where he’d make 3 appearances before being sent back to AAA.

Knowing they had a specific amount of innings they didn’t want to exceed altered almost every decision made surrounding Contreras in 2022. He’d wind up throwing 129.1 innings, 95 of which were in MLB.

Add in yet another strange offseason that altered the ramp up and training schedule for everyone who throws a baseball, and the Pirates did well to get that volume out of him, especially if the preseason chatter he’d be held to close to 100 check out.

The numbers for the rookie were really solid. An ERA of 3.79 in 21 games with 18 starts. 39 walks, 86 strike outs, a WHIP of 1.274, no matter how you look at it, Contreras had an effective rookie campaign.

Now entering 2023, Roansy is being counted on to be one of their best starting pitchers. The Pirates will still have a plan for his usage, and it’ll disappoint anyone who expects him to get a volume that all the top pitchers in the game carry. I’d put that number around 165-175, which would get a guy in the top 35-40 league wide. The important number for Roansy is his entire 2022 body of work which again was 129.1.

I’d expect the Pirates to up that target number to at least 150, maybe 160, but that’s going to continue to mean some shorter outings for Ro.

OK, so innings load should ramp up, that’s good. What else does he have to work on to take the next step?

First, his fastball, slider and curve are all plus pitches. Sharpening is easy to say, and almost always the go to suggestion for a young pitcher, so I’ll spare you that. Of course hitting your spots is important.

Lets talk through some percentile placements amongst his peers in MLB. For one thing, he has a really good Whiff% of 64 and a Chase Rate% of 82, that somehow have only created a K% of 38. Couple things here, one, I think part of this is evolution, it takes time for a young pitcher who could so badly fool most hitters in AA or AAA with a 3000RPM breaking pitch to swing outside the zone, to convince themselves that their stuff is so good they can afford to throw it at least closer to the zone. We saw some of this with Mitch Keller, although Roansy has not struggled nearly to the degree Mitch did.

I say this noting he also has a world class Chase Rate% of 82, but to turn some of those chases into K’s, he’ll need to realize enticing MLB hitters to take a hack at something with two strikes, it better be close enough to convince them a take would make them look worse than swinging at something off the plate.

Next, Roansy throws a changeup, but he only threw it 46 times last season, or 2.9% of the time. Don’t get me wrong, Roansy’s curveball acts as his change of pace and if he never develops this pitch he could still be a quite effective pitcher, but I love the thought of having a solid changeup in his quiver. Something like that could help keep guys off the fastball and creep down his hard hit rate a bit.

Even the Curve he only threw 14.4% of the time, and at some point major league hitters have to have their timing messed with more than 16-17% of the time, even if your high velo offerings are top notch.

To a degree, he’s already shown the ability to adjust, but he could stand to reign in his hard hit rate and the higher than league average launch angle results. This is why I’d put some emphasis on further developing the changeup and using the curve a bit more. Contreras needs to have more offerings in the bottom of the zone, and both of those pitches would help push back against a league that will absolutely have him well scouted this time around.

Year two is important for every player, clearly, but for a pitcher who experienced success as a rookie, in many ways the pressure is greater.

One thing he’s shown us, almost more than anything measurable, is the ability to not lose focus and continue to throw his pitches.

I don’t write all this to say you should be concerned or that he’s going to turn into a pumpkin this season, but I also think it’s entirely reasonable to expect he’ll run into at least a little more resistance than he faced last year.

Through The Prospect Porthole: Pirates Rule 5 Logjam Could Continue

1-26-23 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)

Earlier in the week when I wrote about the Power Bats in the Pirates Farm System, the topic of Rule 5 Eligibility was briefly mentioned at the end of the post; which really got me thinking about next crop of prospects that will join the ranks of those needing to be protected from the Major League Portion of the Rule 5 Draft.

Obviously this doesn’t just include first time eligible players, as I can think of several prospects that may need to be added in what would be at least their second go-around in the process; if everything goes well, and/or they are not selected to the 40-Man in season.

At the top of my list is soon to be 21 year-old Dariel Lopez. Last season in Greensboro Lopez slashed .286/.329/.476 with 19 homers.

Closely behind in the second spot would have to be Matt Gorski. Had it not been for his hamstring injury we could have seen a lot more of Gorski; still, his .280/.358/.598 slash line with 24 homers is pretty impressive.

Magic number three is Malcom Nunez. Between Double-A in the Cardinals and Pirates Farm System-with a sprinkle of Triple-A-he slashed .262/.367/.466 with 23 homers.

Coming in at four-even though there are two catching prospects ahead of him-you find Abrahan Guiterrez. Guiterrez was Endy’s fellow catcher in Greensboro, before the now -near consensus-top back stop in the system rocketed through Altoona to Indianapolis. Left behind in Greensboro the former Philadelphia Phillies Prospect slashed .257/.356/.411 with 12 homers, while providing above average defense at catcher and 1st Base.

Rounding out the top 5-because I always seem to make groups of 5-i ended up landing on Tahnaj Thomas slightly ahead of JC Flowers. Thomas-a former Top 100 Prospect-has moved to the bullpen, but still has his 100 mph fastball, which is the only thing that keeps him ahead of Flowers at the moment. For comparison’s sake, Thomas posted a 3.02 ERA with a 1.263 WHIP and 52 strikeouts in 50.2 innings, versus a 2.88 ERA with a 1.180 WHIP and 62 strikeouts in 68.2 innings for Flowers; both in Double-A Altoona.

The wildcard is Cody Bolton; who after two years off the mound, put up a respectable 3.09 ERA with a 1.282 WHIP and 82 strikeouts across 75.2 innings of work with the Indianapolis Indians.

Then, you pile on the 50+ guys that become eligible in December of 2023; headlined by Quinn Priester, Nick Gonzales, Carmen Mlodzinski and a couple of my personal favorites in Jase Bowen and Tsung-Che Cheng.

And it won’t stop there. Each year the number of prospects seem to multiply, either by sheer volume or based on the highly touted players the Pirates will have to make decisions on.

As I’ve always said, for me the Rule 5 Draft is more about who the Pirates choose to protect, rather than who is left off the 40-Man. It obviously doesn’t mean that these players won’t get their opportunity, or in some cases be successful; but, it has shown us who the next man up will be.

Throw out the 2019-20 off-season even though Cody Ponce, Will Craig and Blake Cederlind made cameo appearances; while Ke’Bryan Hayes played like Ted Williams for a month. At the time of these decision(s), Cherington was maybe on the job for a week at most.

Moving ahead to 2021, Max Kranick and Rodolfo Castro were protected, with the later getting the call-up from Altoona more than once over some other players in Triple. When, it comes to Kranick his debut-at the end of June-was fairly memorable, as he carried a no-hitter through five innings.

Then just last year, Jack Suwinski jumped over Triple-A, Diego Castillo was on the Opening Day Roster and Canaan Smith-Njigba seemed to be in position to get a longer look, until he broke his wrist.

Sure other players have gotten looks or emerged, but those guys usually got the first crack; and for now, things have kind of worked themselves out.

So, at this point I guess my way of thinking comes down to, what do you do when the depth the Pirates have built up is in some ways overflowing?

Well, I would hope that the best option would be to have the cream of the crop rise to the top-House of Pain Style-and then trade off those that still have some shine; which is something I punctuated in a blog post about a month ago, that dealt with Capitalizing On Prospect Depth. Yes, I realize the word trade is pretty taboo in these parts, but, it’s something every other team in MLB does to acquire Major League Talent. Sure other teams are more active on the free agent front, however-as I have already stated countless times-this may never be a viable route for the Pirates.

Obviously, this sentiment doesn’t go over very well with Pirates Fans.

Nevertheless, until something changes in MLB, and/or the Pirates begin to operate differently, this long jam and the way it is addressed will be focused on a lot; each and every year.

The Evolution of Rodolfo Castro

1-25-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

2023 will be the third season of Major League baseball that Rodolfo Castro has participated in and it’ll also be his most important.

See, nobody expected the 21 year old kid called up from AA in April of 2021 to do much of anything. Even to those of us who had watched him and looked forward to his arrival thought it was a bit rushed.

Still, we were happy to see him, and while he largely struggled, his first 5 hits were homeruns. This created a narrative that Castro was “swinging for the fences” every time he came to the dish, but to say that is to ignore his track record. Swinging hard, missing a lot, punishing the ball when he got one, these were the calling cards for the young Dominican by the time he reached Low A as a 19 year old.

2021 was just a cup of coffee for Rodolfo. 2022 was almost a perfect split between AAA and MLB. Up and down, mistakes and triumph, athletic prowess mixed with painful lapses in focus, you know, a rookie.

He was given a run at SS, 19 games to be exact, and it didn’t go well. He was asked to cover 3B 24 times, and he looked much more at home over there. Finally the Pirates moved him to 2B for 32 games and while it wasn’t perfect, at least his issues were more about decision making and inexperience than they were lacking the ability.

By the vast majority of the fan base (and this writer in particular) Castro is for now the top 2B, in other words it should be his position to lose as we head to Spring.

All that base shuffling was important. Finding out where Rodolfo can help, and maybe shouldn’t is simply information you have to have moving forward.

For years I’ve been telling you the bats will tell the story, and determine who plays. So as these prospects filter on in, seeing them bounce around really says less about how the team feels about that player in particular in the field as it speaks to how much they believe this player’s bat could force them to find a place for him to play.

In 2022, Castro played in 71 ballgames and took 278 plate appearances. With those at bats he hit 11 homeruns, 4 triples, 8 doubles, walked 22 times and struck out 74. All of this gave him an acceptable OPS of .725 and collectively with his defensive work he put forward a 1.4 WAR season.

Not great, not bad, but securely in the above average range.

In 2023, Castro’s next step will be interesting. The Pirates are going to likely want to get him into the 500-550 plate appearances echelon. To do that, he’s going to likely get a ton of time at second base.

Now, before you jump down my throat with your I want to see Ji-hwan Bae takes. Before you tell me Nick Gonzales is the future. Before you argue that Liover Peguero and his superior range would be a better 2B, let’s not ignore what Castro has already shown, and why its key to find out what he can do at the plate to the degree I feel he has to get those at bats.

In all the time he’s gotten at this level, Rudy has taken 371 plate appearances, and he’s hit 16 homeruns with them. If you forecast out what his 162 game average would look like even if he stayed at this level of production you get to 25 homeruns. Let me clarify that, if he gets no better, that’s a nice bat with enough OPS to matter and easily a 3+ WAR player.

That could very well add up to Castro being a utility guy mind you.

Folks, if you get that out of a player, I don’t care where he plays, he’s going to get more at bats.

Now, back to the very valid concerns about some of the other guys who should or could take some of that playing time or at bats. If you’re really thinking about the future of this position, I can’t sit here and tell you Castro will hold it down defensively, but I can say, if you give him the at bats in 2023 and he proves out that side of his game minimally, boy a nice homegrown DH who switch hits and can pop 25 homeruns is pretty attractive too isn’t it?

What this could mean for this team moving forward, well, it could mean they have no reason to go get a Carlos Santana in 2024.

Rookies don’t always burst on the scene and stake claim to the position they were always supposed to play. While there is no guarantee Castro will remain at 2B, there is no guarantee Bae, Gonzales, Peguero or I’ll even throw in Tucupita Marcano will ever hit to even the level Rodolfo already has. With what the Pirates have done to the roster this offseason, they’ve certainly improved the team, but they’ve also made at bats for youngsters a premium commodity.

They must spend them wisely. Kicking the can down the road on someone like Castro will only leave questions lingering into 2024 about his abilities.

I expect many of the names I listed in this piece to get much the same chance to play that Castro himself received in 2021. They may have to get creative about making that happen. Meaning, if they were to have someone like Peguero take a big step early, well, he’s on the 40-man, and already in his second year of being rostered, the Pirates should rightly have some urgency to start the process.

Ji-hwan Bae just made the roster at the end of 2022, while I’m very interested to see him, they may have to take advantage of his ability to play other spots to work his bat in.

Nick Gonzales isn’t even on the 40-man, and honestly the urgency to get him up here is arguably greater on the fan front than to the team.

Marcano is simply not someone I fully understand as a prospect as we sit here. I think he can play a little at a lot of places, but I’m not sure I’ve seen the signs the bat is going to matter quite yet.

Bottom line, I want to see the Pirates do whatever is necessary to make sure Castro gets a full bucket of at bats, and if that comes at the expense of someone else, it’s worth it just to answer the question to me.

I’m going to add in one more caveat here that I think matters, and directly speaks to why I’d like to see some consistency at second base this season. This position matters to the development of Oneil Cruz too. Having a consistent double play partner should help eliminate one aspect of defense he’s concerned about, allowing him to focus on just making plays.

Developing prospects doesn’t stop when you get called up, and for Rodolfo Castro 2023 is his chance to prove he’s officially finished being a prospect, and ready to call himself a major leaguer.

Are The Pirates Setting A Higher Bar?

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-yvkvm-13718f0

Look at this Pittsburgh Pirates roster and notice a group of veterans standing in the way of hopeful prospects. That isn’t a bad thing. Let’s talk about how competition is the next phase in creating a winning organization in “30 Minutes of Pirates Talk!”

Brought to you by ShopYinzz.com! Craig Toth covers the Pirates for Inside The Bucs Basement, and joins his buddy Chris at a 9-foot homemade oak bar to talk Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball. Listen. Subscribe. Share. We are “For Fans, By Fans & All Pirates Talk.” THE Pirates Fan Podcast found EVERYWHERE podcasts can be found and always at BucsInTheBasement.com!

Top 5 Pirates Prospects: Power Bats

I absolutely love it when people act like a prospect came out of nowhere. Sure, he might not have had the attention and/or the same prospect ranking as others, but it’s not like he was invisible either.

Can we really pretend like a player that was drafted in the 2nd round out of a Big Ten school just miraculously appeared on a roster, and immediately started smashing baseball’s like he never did before?

These types of players exist. We don’t have to create them.

Nevertheless, I digress.

Much like the Arms, Arms, Arms piece mentioned last week, power bats are inherently expensive.

You want 30 home runs from a player, you better be ready to open up your pocketbook. It’s either that or you have to develop a player that can produce at this level within a few years of him reaching the Majors.

For the Pirates, the latter option is the most likely scenario.

1) Matt Gorski-OF/1B/DH

Not surprisingly this is the aforementioned 2nd Round Draft Pick out of the University of Indiana; who came into the year, prepared for his second go-around with the Greensboro Grasshoppers.

Back in 2021, Gorski had struggled at the plate to the tune of a .224/.294/.416 slash line with a 31.2% K to 8.5% BB rate, as he shook off the rust from a lost 2020 Minor League Season. He did show some power by blasting 17 homers, but the other numbers were hard to ignore.

At a full year and half years older than the average player in the South Atlantic League, the former Hoosier jumped out to an extremely fast start. Through 37 games, Gorski was batting .294 with an 1.131 OPS, 17 homers and a 26.7% K to 11.6% BB rate; which ultimately lead to a promotion to Altoona.

With the Curve, the big power hitting righty didn’t slow down too much; slashing .294/.374/.560 with 6 home runs. His K rate did increase slightly to 29.6%, but his BB rated stayed slightly above 10%.

Then, unfortunately, his season nearly ended as his hamstring looked like it pretty much exploded as he stretched a double into a triple on June 29th against the Harrisburg Senators.

Gorski would return before the end of the year, but he clearly wasn’t himself. After 55 plate appearances across 14 games, he was eventually placed back on the IL; and, was withdrawn from participating in the Arizona Fall League.

Since then, we really haven’t heard much about Gorski’s rehab; although there have been some rumblings about him getting in a little bit more work at 1st Base once Spring Training starts.

To me it doesn’t matter where he plays, as long as the power stays and the K to BB ratio remains manageable.

2) Malcom Nunez-1B/3B

Nunez is a player that I already dug into during a recent post about prospects that were Peaking My Interest-yes I know it Piquing; so, there isn’t as much of a need to break down the young man’s performance, both before and after arriving in the Pirates Farm System as part of the Jose Quintana trade.

What I will say is that, the more I look at Nunez’s power numbers, less I believe that they were overly exaggerated by playing in a smaller ballpark in the Cardinals Farm System. Sure, there could be a slight correlation; however, most of the homers I watched were complete no-doubters.

Is there anyway this isn’t out of every ballpark?

Plus, as I stated before in the previous post, the power didn’t really dissipate once he arrived in Altoona; as his ISO (Isolated Power) only dropped from .208 to .190.

Add in the fact that he was able to maintain his BB-rate of over 13% for the entire season; which could mean that he avoids the normal pitfall for power hitters.

A third baseman by trade, Nunez has started the move to first base due to some defensive concerns at the hot corner. However, if you ask Anthony Murphy from Pirates Prospects, these concerns might be a little bit overstated.

I can’t say I disagree.

3) Dariel Lopez

The first time I wrote about Lopez during the 2021-22 off-season, I mentioned the possibility of him moving across the diamond from 3rd to 1st, as well as how well he performed in comparison to the other players his age; but, mostly I focused on the concerns that existed with his extreme splits.

When facing right-handed pitchers- as a Marauder-he possessed an .662 OPS versus an 1.037 with a lefty on the mound. This past season with Greensboro it flip-flopped quite a lot as he had an OPS of .850 against righties and .643 opposing lefties. However, almost immediately another potential issue popped up.

Everyone knows that First National Bank Field is a bandbox, that often magnifies home-road splits in favor of the time that is spent in Greensboro. For Lopez, the situation was no different. At home he had a .915 OPS with 15 homers in 213 plate appearances, as compared to 4 homers with an .692 OPS on the road.

Be that as it may, Lopez still has a few things going for him; including youth, a track record of being able to make adjustments to correct extreme splits and some of the better center to opposite-field power in the system; even though he did start pulling the ball more with the Grasshoppers.

4) Henry Davis-C

When you initially look at the power numbers, they may seem slightly underwhelming. Yet, when consider that he has literally been healthy for-at most-67 games during his first year and a half of his professional career, things start to look more promising. .

Throw out the home run Davis hit on his rehab assignment in Bradenton and you have 9 on the season between High-A and Double-A. Obviously this isn’t going to jump off the page.

Now, think about him having a full season of at bats, without a broken wrist. The total easy jumps over 20, if you extrapolate it out to 500+ trips to the plate.

Yes, I realize that you can’t just ignore the facts as the exist. He hasn’t had a healthy season, since being draft. He gets hit by pitches so often that it has almost become comical; but, also could put him at high risk for re-injury in the same breath.

Still, I can’t reject the absolute violent swing I witnessed as Davis took the #1 Minor League Pitching Prospect-Andrew Painter-deep on his first offering.

With Davis, health is clearly the biggest concern. His ability to play catcher is a distant second.

But, Craig we don’t want to waste the 70 Grade arm at another position!

Well let me ask you this.

Would you care about a third basemen’s arm if he booted every ball into left field? Or a right fielder’s arm, who dropped every pop up the came his way?

Clearly this is an exaggeration. Davis’ defense behind the plate is lacking, but he’s not totally incompetent. Plus, what would it matter if he hits, or nails a runner-with a laser from them outfield-as he tries to stretch a single into a double? Or tags first, and then catches a runner on his way to the plate?

Would you think about his wasted arm?

5) Mason Martin-1B

The discussions surrounding Martin’s ability to take the next step-up onto the Major League Stage-always come back to the same topic; time and time again.

It’s the K-rate; plain and simple.

No one is doubting the power potential. I mean no one.

In 2019 Martin burst onto the scene with 35 homers between then Low-A Greensboro and High-A Bradenton. Then, when Minor League Baseball resumed in 2021, he mashed 25 balls over fence in Altoona and Indianapolis. Each of them in impressive fashion, with his raw power on full display.

Nevertheless-along with the power-there was always this constant nagging to check the stat-line to see how many times he struck-out; and, unsurprisingly the result was the same.

29% in Greensboro. 32.3% in Bradenton. 34.2% in Altoona. 37% in Indianapolis.

In conjunction with a walk rate that averages out to right around 10%-that had been decreasing over those years. This made 2022 a very crucial year for Martin; but one that also came with a lot of opportunity due to the lack of answers at the MLB Level at 1st Base.

Now-aside from the power-another that has never been questioned, is his ability to man 1st Base. Since being used as both a 1st Basemen and Outfielder in the Gulf Coast League-now the Florida Complex League-Martin has fully transitioned into a full-time guard of the other hot corner; doing very well in the role.

So, it’s back to the bat.

Unfortunately, during his most recent season with the Indians, he fell into a similar pattern; eventually posting the worst OPS of his career. On the year he slashed .210/.287/.410 with 19 home runs and 34.9% K to 9.6% BB ratio.

Man, do I wish this kid could find some balance; because there is no doubt his swing would play well at PNC Park.

Conclusion

It feels like potentially 1st Base options of the future became the theme of this post; even if it wasn’t entirely intentional. Although if you think about it, this position-more than many others-has lacked power and consistency throughout the recent history of the Pirates.

Another underlying-and unintentional-theme is that 4 of these 5 prospects will be Rule 5 Eligible again in December 2023; with Davis as the outlier.

I get that there are 38 spots on the Minor League Reserve Roster-granted that none of them end up on the 40-Man/Major League Roster-to end the season. But, in all honesty, how many 1st Baseman can you protect; with only one, or maybe two spots available on the Active Roster, if you keep the DH in mind?

In any case, it should be fun to watch this play out during the upcoming season.

Can we talk about Reynolds?

1-24-23 – By Justin Verno – @JV_Pitt on Twitter

I’m not sure starting something like this off with a disclaimer is normal, but here goes:

DISCLAIMER-I am not advocating to trade Bryan Reynolds with this piece. I’m always of the opinion that the return should always determine if a team should or should not have made a trade.

But if we are being honest here, the rumors will persist. They will grow and rattle and multiply until the Pirates front office extends him. Trades him. Or flat out takes him off the market: and even then I’m quite certain we hear some rumors like “the Yankees will make a run at Bryan Reynolds at the deadline” type whispers.

One specific rumor has me, I guess you can say annoyed. And not because it’s out there but because of the fan reaction to it and the pure ridiculousness of it. And whether you take it on the surface or delve into the details of what the rumor implies, it makes no sense.

The rumor? That Ben Cherington is looking for a “Juan Soto type return”. And you’ll have to forgive me here as for the life of me I cannot recall who first shouted that the theater was on fire, most likely due to the mad rush to the door and ensuing screams and mayhem that followed. Twitter has been a blur of people trampling over people and screaming how dare they, Bryan Reynolds is not Juan Soto.

First off let’s start out with admitting the obvious, Bryan Reynolds is in fact, not Juan Soto. B-Rey is good, really really really good. A .281/.361/.481 slash line is excellent and any team would love to have that in their line up. However, it isn’t .287/.424/.516. The biggest separation in their games is the OPS and wRC+. With Reynolds bolstering a healthy .842 and 126 to Juan’s .950 and 153. Did I mention Soto is just 24 and has already amassed an fWAR of 22.8? He’s elite. Reynolds is excellent, he’s not elite.

With that out of the way let’s take a look at WHY this rumor is just ridiculous. Ken Rosenthal is one of the insiders that broke that the Bucs are looking for a Soto type return. But lets take a look at the entire quote-

“One rival official, in what surely was an exaggeration, said the Pirates want a ‘Soto-type package’ for Reynolds. Another said Reynolds is ‘super expensive.’ A third described him as ‘unlikely to move.'”

The important part of the quote gets ignored, “in what surely was an exaggeration”. I’m not why people look past that, but it’s very important to note. It drastically changes the perception and honestly sounds like a GM frustrated by failed attempts to acquire Reynolds. Another reason I find this rumor silly? We have heard exactly one package that GMBC has asked for or at the least the overall frame work of it.

That rumored package? GMBC asked for 2 of the Yankees top 3 of Anthony Volpe, Oswald Pereza and Jason Dominguez and 2 more of their ‘top prospects’. Is this a Jaun Soto type return? What would a Soto type return look like? Welp, lets get to it.

The Soto Deal-

It’s been a few months and finding Soto’s projections and Surplus Value has proven too much. But if memory serves me right his SV was somewhere around $99 million(shout out to Joe Boyd for the assist there). (here’s Bryan Reynolds for comparison sake. NOTE: the new projections are out and the market is high putting Reynolds SV closer to $65M)

Padres- Juan Soto and Josh Bell

Nationals- CJ Abrams, Robert Hassell III, James Woods, Robert Susana, MacKenzie Gore and Luke Voit

Let’s put Voit and Bell aside as neither had much value due to being rentals. This deal was about Soto for the prospects and MacKenzie Gore.

CJ Abrams-SS- ETA:2021 FV 60($55M)

The 16th ranked prospect per Fangraphs. Debuting at 21 years old. Big time get.

James Wood-OF-ETA:2026 FV 60($55M)

Rocketing up boards.

Robert Hassell III-OF- ETA:2023 FV 50($28M)

Flying thru the MILB systems.

Jarlin Susana-SP-ETA:2027 FV 40+($3M)

Big time FB/SL upside.

MacKenzie Gore-SP MLB SV using low side projections $30M

Add it all together and the Nationals received $171 million in trade value, in what looks like an overpay for Soto.

And Reynolds?

The only reported ask we have seen is the Yankee package I referenced above. 2 of Volpe, Pereza and Dominguez. How does that compare?

Anthony Volpe-SS-FV 60($55M)

Oswald Pereza-OF/SS/2B-FV 50($28M)

Jason Dominguez-OF-FV 50($28M)

Volpe and either Pereza or Dominguez come out to $83M. The rumor also suggests that the Bucs want “2 more top prospects”. The next 2 prospects for the Yankees are Yoendrys Gomez, SP 45+($6M) and Everson Pereira, OF 45+($8M). If Yanks were to agree to this type of a deal they’d be overpaying for Reynolds to the tune of $32M.($97M) Hardly a “Soto esq” deal.

What about a Dominguez ($28M), Pereza($28M), Gomez and Pereira package? That shakes out to $70M return. A slight overpay(By $5M) and a much easier deal to swallow, it’s nowhere NEAR a “Soto” type package.

I can’t say why this bothers me so much. Of course any good GM will seek an overpay on a Bryan Reynolds. 3 years of control matters and he should make it clear that if he is to move his best player that he needs a package he simply cannot say no to. I promise I am not saying they should move Bryan Reynolds.

Sitting here today it looks less likely that GMBC does indeed trade Reynolds. But if teams persist and keep upping the pot? If GMBC knows that he just won’t be able to get an extension done? I can see the perfect storm converging.

I think it’s important for fans to be realistic in the kind of return to expect. And Frankly, rumors about GMBC wanting a “Soto” type of return doesn’t really help when viewing it thru those glasses. If GMBC holds to a huge overpay it shows he really doesn’t want to move Reynolds. If GMBC does get the booty he needs and Reynolds finds himself in another city there’s one thing I can promise you. You aren’t going to like it anyway.

Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

1-23-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

There isn’t much the Pirates could do on paper that would merit the response they received for signing Andrew McCutchen, but when you focus on the field, or what this team could actually get done this year, it’s arguably not even in the top 5.

That’s fandom in a nutshell sometimes. What excites us isn’t always what’s most important. Thing is, when you haven’t had many reasons to smile in recent years, you could argue that in and of itself made this a priority.

Lots to think about this week, lets go…

1. If This Team Wins…

Most of the additions to this team have been position players. Cutch, Santana, Choi, Joe, Hedges, but if this team really shows marked improvement this year it’ll be because they pitched.

This is going to sound crazy when I first say it but think about it for a minute, the Pirates were extremely fortunate with health in their starting rotation last season.

They had next to nothing backing their rotation, and we saw what injury did to the bullpen as the season played out. It all added up to 100 losses, so largely it didn’t matter record wise, but when I really sit back and think about what a lengthy injury to Keller or Contreras, even Brubaker would have caused them to do, man, it’s not pretty.

They potentially could have had to tap into someone they really didn’t want to force into action yet, or we could have watched 2 months of Jerad Eickhoff.

This season, it’s not like you want to see guys dropping like flies, but if they do, they actually have a solid layer of depth.

Pitching is still probably not at the level it needs to be, but I can honestly say, some of the guys who wind up starting in AAA this year are already better than guys who spent the entire year in MLB last season. Watching this slowly transition and merge in new players is really going to be interesting.

When a guy underperforms in the bullpen, chances are they have 3-4 guys in AAA who you could legitimately look at as relief. If they manage this properly, with all the options to move up and down they’ve baked in, we could see a very strong aspect of this team emerge.

If they’re going to win, it almost has to.

The overall staff is better, and the depth is better, time to perform and manage it well.

2. Will They Hit Though?

It’s funny, I personally feel pretty good about the pitching staff, but according to comments I see from fans, most of you seem more upbeat about the offense. Strange how we can all look at the same things and see things differently isn’t it? Doesn’t make me right and you wrong or vice versa, but it just goes to show how much this stuff is little more than an educated guess.

All that being said, the offensive potential is there, my struggle is the shear number of players I feel have to grow, turnaround, fix a hole, improve an aspect, become more consistent, or flat out change their approach.

I think McCutchen, Santana, Choi, and Hedges, are all pretty proven out commodities. At all their ages it’s very unlikely an upswing is coming, but what they did last year is probably achievable in 2023. For Hedges, that’s wholly unexciting. For the other three, even repeat performances from 2022 would be welcome.

Then you have youngsters who have things to work on but you can be reasonably hopeful for improvement. That’s Cruz, Hayes, Suwinski, and Castro.

Tack on from there the guys who were good, are good and will very likely be good, Bryan Reynolds. Not much here huh?

And onto kids who haven’t really had much if any opportunity yet but surely will. Bae, Rodriguez, Gonzales, Peguero, Smith-Njigba, Swaggerty, I’d maybe even toss Mitchell in here.

So I can easily see a world where those vets all do what they’re supposed to do, and a couple of those kids improve. Get to the point where you have a lineup that’s 6-7 deep with actual hitters, and real offense is doable.

If nothing else, I feel good saying it’s less defined than I see the pitching staff.

I’ll also add, the offense was historically stinky in 2022, so getting worse with these additions is VERY unlikely. Maybe that’s the best way to see it.

3. Should We Just Assume Heineman is the Backup Catcher?

Man, it sure feels that way as we sit here.

The coach all the way back at the Winter Meetings decided to take the plausibility of Endy making the club out of camp off the table.

One thing is clear, the Pirates apparently don’t want to head to camp with a clear cut backup catcher, at least not yet.

Austin Hedges will be the starter, and defensively, it’s hard to argue that’s the right call, but you’d like to think they’d want to bring at least a bit of an offensive threat into the picture right?

The options as we sit here are, Tyler Heineman, Carter Bins, and Jason Delay. Henry Davis isn’t in this mix for the same reasons Endy isn’t, on top of quite literally not being close to where Endy is in development.

I’d have to imagine the Pirates would love if Carter Bins made it, he’s 24 and would give them a younger option behind the dish who has some offensive ability, at least from a power standpoint, but his glove has been a question and he’s certainly not been a contact hitter.

Heineman and Delay got plenty of time last year to show what they were since the Pirates chose to not replace starting catcher Roberto Perez after his injury. All indications are that the team was pretty comfortable and happy with both of them defensively, but neither offer real offensive upside.

Now, this team clearly prioritizes defense at the position, and they likely aren’t looking for anyone who could hold Endy back longer than they already plan to.

The way I see this, Spring will be a competition to see which of Bins, Delay and Heineman wins the backup gig, with an outside shot the team picks up someone they like who gets cut toward the end of Spring by another team. But I don’t see them signing another before then.

This is going to sound very similar to what I said last season but hell, I’ll do it anyway. it’s really weird to hear a team put so very much priority on the importance of a position, yet provide themselves no depth. The one thing I can add for 2023 is that now they have depth, and talented depth, but they’re going to not allow it to help.

Endy isn’t a finished product either, so I’m not getting weird and claiming they’ve screwed up before we even get started, but it feels to me like they’ve invested enough into the team this year to not fumble on the 5 yard line with the catching position.

If there is an injury to Hedges, I’d hope we at least would see them change course on Endy. Watching him learn on the job might still be better than starting Heineman for 65 games.

4. Crucial Season for Some?

The Pirates are still a relatively young team, but with a wave of prospects on the doorstep, and some guys reaching a point where the team has to make decisions, 2023 is a big year for a few guys in particular, and for different reasons.

JT Brubaker – I have little doubt JT is going to get another shot at starting. If nothing else he gave the Pirates 144 innings last season and is likely to be tasked with even more in 2023, but at some point, innings alone won’t cut it, quality innings need to win out. Competition for the rotation is about to ramp up, and JT has 2 years of arbitration left after this season. His stuff would play in the bullpen, so it may not be crucial for his overall existence on the team, but if he’s to remain a starter, he’ll need to provide those innings with a sub 4.00 ERA one would imagine. Otherwise, he’s going to get run over.

Rodolfo Castro – Let’s start with this, it’s strange to say a 23 year old is at the point where he’s facing anything “critical” but I truly feel it is for him. He debuted in 2021, got a good long look last year and I firmly believe he’ll get the beginning of this season to prove second base is his. He’s played all of 102 games, had 371 plate appearances and what makes him exciting is that’s led to 16 homeruns and a .707 OPS. He’s got room before he reaches his ceiling too, but he’s got pressure coming from behind. Ji-hwan Bae, Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Jared Triolo, and Tucupita Marcano could all push him out of the way should he not show he’s capable of limiting the strikeouts and improving on that OPS a bit. He could stand to improve defensively a bit too, but either way, 2023 is going to be big for determining if he’s a starter, or a bench player.

Jack Suwinski – The way I see it, Jack either proves he’s an everyday player this season or he proves he’s a platoon player. Hitting 19 homeruns in 372 plate appearances already screams MLB player in my mind. You’d like to see a little less all or nothing though. I mean the kid had 30 extra base hits in 2022, 19 dingers, 11 doubles. 36 singles make up the rest of his hits, all of this added up to an OBP of only .298. We all know how downright silly his splits were but Jack has to learn how to do damage against lefties, and how to do more, and specifically more consistent damage against everyone. I wouldn’t say he has a lot of super highly touted talent pushing him aside, but the way everything else is shaping up on the roster, what he’s put up so far won’t likely have the team feeling comfortable making him an everyday starter unless he changes these trends a bit.

Oneil Cruz – Look, Cruz has an exciting bat, he’s done nearly the same as Jack Suwinski with a higher OPS and SLG, that’s not his problem. That said, Cruz does still have some things to work on at the plate. Specifically against left handed pitching. Here’s the weird thing though, I don’t think it’s as start as it is for Jack. Cruz’ crucial season for me comes in the field. He’s going to get another shot at SS, and I don’t mean a few weeks, I’d suspect he’ll get the majority of 2023. In 77 games he committed 17 errors, and while you can attribute some of those to the first base position, you all watched, Michael Chavis saved him a few times too. These things tend to even out, and I feel they largely did in 2022. Cruz needs to prove he can play the position he clearly wants to play, and the Pirates need to prove they’ll make a decision, even if uncomfortable after they’ve given him a real crack at it. I can’t see this going into 2024 unanswered. If he has an out, it’s likely that the Pirates don’t feel strongly about their other options at SS. Liover Peguero has all the tools (so does Cruz) but he too has struggled mightily in the field. Beyond him, well, you’re talking 2025 timeframe solutions unless Triolo hits.

5. Want to Play the What if Game?

It is what it is, I make no claim this is likely but say come July 25th or so the Pirates somehow are 4-5 games out of a Wild Card spot. How would they approach it?

Think about it, trading guys like Vince Velasquez, Rich Hill, Austin Hedges, Carlos Santana, Ji-man Choi, could all be on the table, but if the team somehow was in the conversation, would they still do it?

If they didn’t, what would that mean for 2024? None of these guys are answers for next season, even if they were to retain each for another season, and the same reason you went out and got these guys would still be in play. Not wanting to start rookies with no experience would still not be attractive right?

Don’t get me wrong, if the Pirates get to that point somehow, first, I’d be really really surprised, and already very wrong about my estimations for growth and performance. Second I don’t think I’d feel like writing about this “problem” and you likely wouldn’t want to read about it either.

So the relevant conversation we can have about it right now is, what would you want them to do?

Would you want them to go out and get something they needed and make a push for that lowest of playoff positions? Are you more of the mind that they should just let it play out, maybe move one of them but not most?

Perhaps you’d prefer they just stay the course and move who they planned to move, the plan is the plan, get those kids up here. Basically we want it done right, and we’ve hurt this long, finish it up.

Of course I haven’t put forward the best case scenario.

They’re in this position, and prospects have already had to help along the way due to injury, or ineffectiveness. So when you look to move someone like Hill or Santana, you already feel good about Oviedo and Gonzales. In other words, best case is the prospects push the vets aside and the Pirates get the best of both worlds.

No matter what, even if this is a longshot, it’s interesting to think about how they might handle it. What direction would you approach? Did I even cover all the points of consideration, like does it matter if it’s the Pirates who are close and only them as opposed to a group of teams?

Even strength of remaining schedule could be a factor.

Man, see, that’s some fun stuff that even being in the conversation for the playoffs starts to bring to a fanbase that is already talking Steelers camp in July instead.

Even if not this season, it’s growing closer, and the path from here to there is much more murky than 2020-Now has been.

This team has bottomed out for 3 straight seasons under this GM, and the reason was to bring in talent, via draft, trade, signing, rule 5, and develop it. We’re right on the doorstep of finding out about that develop part. There is a nice chunk of talent here, and close now, they’ve done that part, now it has to become more than what it left for, more than what we’ve suffered through watching.

Have a great week everyone, the Journey starts in about 3 weeks.

Through The Prospect Porthole: Pirates Prospect Rankings

1-22-23 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)

The last season Bryan Reynolds was a prospect, he didn’t make his way inside the Top 100; and, he barely fit inside the Pirates Top 10. Four years later we are battling with the idea of having our best player asking for a trade.

That same year Travis Swaggerty was at #3, Cole Tucker was projected at #5 and Kevin Newman sat right behind at #6.

If you turn back the clock to 2018, and you would find Miguel Andujar comfortably within the Top 100. Now he’s been designated for assignment. In 2015 Robert Stephenson was at 26, Austin Edges was 51 and Vince Velasquez was at 86.

I could keep on going, but I want to warn you…we will be be here for a while.

Like a long time. No joke.

It’s fine. I get it

Many people don’t want to have anything to do with prospects until they see what they perceive as an unfavorable assessment.

However, without getting fully engulfed in every aspect of the system, it’s tough to gauge how negative everything truly is.

I’ve heard more than once that this is Ben Cherington’s third year building the system; yet, I have a hard time buying into this theory.

How much of the system was able to get built in 2020?

What portion of 2021 was spent trying to catch up from the time lost in 2020?

Did you pay attention to all of the changes the Pirates made to the development system in 2022?

Each Minor League Team had an Integrated Baseball Performance Coach added to their staff, Dewey Robinson was hired to be a Special Advisor to Pitching Development and Chad Noble was called upon to be a Roving Catching Instructor; moving up and down throughout the Pirates Farm System on an as needed basis.

It’s a process. One that many Pirates Fans are getting exhausted with.

Now, as an act of desperation, we are using the praise laid on the Baltimore Orioles, and their miraculous turnaround to make ourselves feel bad. Their rebuild began in 2018, but it makes total sense to compare it to the Pirates because you want your team to experience the same sort of success.

Well, in order for this to even be a possibility for them, it was decided that they had to lose 115 games in 2018, 108 games in 2019 and 110 games in 2021; with what would have equated to 95 losses in the shortened 2020 season.

All too often we focus on the results, while selectively ignoring what it took to get them to where they are now.

Does this mean the process that Ben Cherington and Company have decided to undertake will work? No.

Was this the only way to do it? No.

Is it ideal to have prospects fall out of the Top 100 on any list? Also, no.

Does this mean the process is failing? Once again, that’s a no.

Even when the Pirates had what was seen as a Top 5 Farm System, it was always because of depth; not due number of highly rated prospects.

Now as far as discussion concerning individual prospects like Quinn Priester. Nowhere does it say he is a bad player, and/or isn’t going to succeed.

Earlier in the thread Cooper spoke about the difference between a player that makes the Top 100, and those that don’t.

For the record Priester was 88th on last year’s list, so what really changed? Other than dealing with an injury to begin the season, really nothing.

The writers at Baseball America did go a little more in depth with their explanation, so it is definitely worth mentioning.

Still, it’s hard for me to overreact when the young man posted a 2.98 ERA and a 1.200 WHIP between Altoona and Indianapolis.

But, if that’s your thing, have at it.

I just can’t, because eventually it comes down to actually performing on the field; which realistically won’t be affected by whether or not the player made some list.

Although, it should be noted there is one thing that could be affected by these lists, and that’s PPI (Prospect Promotion Incentive), which Ethan Hullihen and Nola Jeffy did a good job breaking down on Pirates Prospects , so I won’t go into it.

It should also be noted that the staff of this and other publications didn’t agree to take on this responsibility.