What Are the Biggest Questions for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2023?

1-20-23 – By Ethan Smith – @mvp_EtHaN on Twitter

Yes, it’s only January, but pitchers and catchers report in less than a month’s time, so Pittsburgh Pirates baseball is just around the corner, which means it’s not to early to pose some important questions the Pirates will need to answer in this calendar year.

This off-season may not be the off-season that propels the Pirates into a contending team, but it has been eventful and much more than we’ve seen in some time from a Pittsburgh front office and management group.

It started with Ji-Man Choi and for now has concluded with the return of Andrew McCutchen and there is no doubt the team has gotten better than the final product we saw wrap up the season in 2022.

What questions do the Pirates have to answer in 2023? Well, let me pose some on my mind that I am sure are on the minds of GM Ben Cherington and the front office group.

What, or When, is the conclusion of the Bryan Reynolds Situation?

Ever since his trade request in December, the main conversation surrounding the Pirates has been whether star outfielder Bryan Reynolds would wear black and gold or be traded elsewhere.

It has been reported the Pirates offered something in the vicinity of 6-years, $75-million, a number that Reynolds’ camp said was not enough and that they see him as a three-figure player. I’ll shy away from contract conversation for the most part, but its worth noting the Pirates at least offered something.

The situation has cooled off now for the most part, mainly due to the immense asking price the Pirates want for Reynolds seeing as he is still under team control through 2025. That of course doesn’t stop Twitter GMs from making mock trades featuring Reynolds, all being deals neither team would likely do, but this situation has to be front and center for the Pirates and the future of the team.

All signs point to Reynolds wanting to be a Pittsburgh Pirate and to get an extension done. Do we see that before the conclusion of Spring Training? Who knows? If it extends into the regular season, things get shaky on what direction the team goes with it. It’s a wait and see situation, as most trade request or extension conversations are, but its easily the biggest question Pirates fans, players, management and everyone involved wants an answer to before we turn the page to 2024.

Does Oneil Cruz Take the Next Step?

Oneil Cruz was a revelation last season, breaking StatCast records and proving he could be the Pirates next great player.

Heading into 2023, Cruz definitely has areas of improvement, ranging from his defensive ability at the shortstop position to limiting strikeouts and adjusting to MLB pitching for an entire season.

Cruz taking the next step entails a ton of things. If he improves his approach at the plate and plays at least average or just below average at the shortstop position, that’s a win. What does that look like? Well, improving his average, strikeout numbers and swing-and-miss rate would go a long way in doing that, all things he is capable of due to his physical ability alone.

Does he stick at shortstop long-term even if he has a good defensive season? That’s an entirely different conversation. The main focal point to Cruz’s continued development is completely centered around his bat, which again will get its first full MLB season in 2023.

There is no doubt Cruz will be a good MLB player due to multiple factors, but taking the next step would also allow the Pirates to move forward with a superstar player at their fingertips for quite some time.

When Do the Top Prospects Make an Impact?

Prospect debuts defined the entire 2022 season for the Pirates, but that sentiment will likely not have as much importance in 2023.

With the slew of veteran signings and positions filled already at the MLB level, top prospects such as Endy Rodriguez, Quinn Priester, Mike Burrows, Henry Davis and others will have ample opportunities to work on their game at the minor-league level because they won’t have to come up too early due to lineup ineptitude.

So with that said, when do these players ultimately come to PNC Park and make an impact? Well we know the Pirates love service time manipulation, so the easy answer is sometime after the deadline of service time counting as a full-season for debuting players, but pencil in the All-Star break and the trade deadline for when much anticipated debuts will be made.

Carlos Santana, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, Austin Hedges and Ji-Man Choi are likely not in the long-term plans for Ben Cherington and Co., so expect deadline trades from the Pirates unless they are on the fringe of wild-card contention, which is my ceiling for the team in 2023.

Those deadline trades of course would open up spots all over the place, including starting rotation spots, first base and behind the plate, so expect Rodriguez, Priester, Burrows, Bolton and other pitchers like Luis Ortiz and Johan Oviedo to fill those voids if deadline trades do happen.

This leaves the Pirates with multiple positives. For starters, they would get decent returns if the veterans perform well, which we’ve seen the past two seasons, while also allowing their top prospects to fix much needed downfalls and come to the MLB level with about another half-season of experience and fine tuning under their belt.

On the flip side, if the Pirates are contending for whatever reason and don’t move on from the veteran players, the top-prospect call-ups would not be asked to do much except sustain and already winning product, putting the Pirates in a pretty good spot heading into 2023 as far as prospects are concerned.

What Do You Do With All These Outfielders?

Anybody with a technological device with the ability to look up projected lineups, prospects lists or last year’s roster would be able to tell that the Pirates have an ample amount of outfielders available to them.

You look at who will likely start the season starting at the outfield positions, Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski and Andrew McCutchen, and can be pretty happy about that already, but the depth the Pirates have in the outfield is lengthy.

The Pirates already have the starting trio along with Connor Joe, Miguel Andujar, Ji-hwan Bae, Tucapita Marcano, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Travis Swaggerty and Ryan Vilade on the 40-man roster. News flash, that’s a lot of outfielders.

That list also doesn’t include Endy Rodriguez, who has played in the outfield before, Connor Scott, Matt Fraizer, Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales(both Peguero and Gonzales could move to the outfield), Matt Gorski and even further away prospects like Hudson Head, Lonnie White Jr. and Shalin Polanco.

Spring Training will likely weed out the players who under perform from that huge group because not all of them will pan out, but that amount of outfielders will also need reps to make an accurate assessment on who to keep and who to let go. We’ve seen that issue with Travis Swaggerty over the past season or so with his lack of MLB time and surely the Pirates will have to have a plan in place to make decisions about the outfield group.

What are the Expectations for the Pirates in 2023?

This is more of a fans and readers question but also a question the front office will have to answer at some point.

The Pirates have not been in the postseason since 2015 and haven’t had a winning record since 2019, so the rebuilding stages are starting to become tiring.

On paper, this isn’t a World Series or playoff contender, again my ceiling for them is final wild-card contention, but after back-to-back 100 loss seasons, what kind of expectations should this team have?

Obviously the win total has to go up, and no, not by one win like we saw last season. The benchmark has to be around 68-75 wins as far as realistic expectations for this team are concerned. They have enough talent to be competitive and with MLB changing the schedule format, you’ll see matchups against lowly American League teams the Pirates haven’t seen in a few years as well as the AL Central, a division much like the NL Central, that will likely be a two-horse race.

With the new schedule taken into account, the Pirates also see the NL Central less, which would’ve probably worked to their benefit, so we’ll see how the new schedule affects baseball as a whole.

But expectations being “high” for a 68-75 win season as well as saying that’s still not a good record can go hand-in-hand. If the Pirates won 75 games, would you be happy about that? I sure would be.

So setting expectations and meeting those expectations has to be of major importance to everyone in the organization. The rebuild is starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but how this team performs and answers important questions could decide just how long we wait until the Pirates are in a competitive window again.

Through The Prospect Porthole: Axiel Plaz

1-19-23 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)

Last week I did my best to breakdown exactly how hard it is for Major League Ball Clubs to find successful players and stars in the First Round of the MLB Draft; where they are choosing from an array of mostly 18 year-old high school players to 22 year college graduates.

Now imagine you are scouting 16 and 17 year-old kids, or even younger; just waiting until a certain date until you can sign them. Picture how difficult that has to be. It feels like trying to find a needle in a haystack; although, it’s possible that the level of difficulty has been slightly skewed by several international players working their way to the top of MLB’s Ranks.

For every Ronald Acuna, Jr., Rafael Devers or Shohei Ohtani there are hundreds of other players that never make it to the states; let alone to MLB.

The simple numbers game is often why it so hard to invest much energy, and excitement into young men that are inked during the International Signing Period; beyond the general joy for them and their families that is.

However, at times, there are certain prospects that cause you to forget all about the uncertainty that exists with prospects. Last season that young man was then 16 year-old Axiel Plaz.

Signed less than six months prior to his debut for $350,000 out of Venezuela, Plaz would put on a clinic with the bat; in spite of missing nearly a month with an injury. In a small sample size of 86 plate appearances, the young backstop slashed .382/.500/.706 with 3 homers, 15 total extra base hit and a 16K to 13BB ratio; all while throwing out 35% of the would be base stealers that challenged him.

Obviously performances in the DSL don’t always translate to success stateside. However, when contact skills were the main thing he needed to work, once again, it’s hard not to get excited.

So, what does 2023 hold for the Just Prospect Baseball Academy product?

Well, first of all I think we need to look at the work he has been putting in during the off-season.

Not only has Plaz continued to hone his approach at the plate, but he is also working on his defense by improving agility, completing countless drills and hitting gym; with the last activity also working toward adding more power at the plate, if that’s even possible.

For Plaz it is tough to be away from home, but the support of his family, friends and coaches, as well as his faith have helped him focus on the task at hand.

Now, it only remains to be decided if that distance will increase from the Dominican Republic to Pirate City in Bradenton for the Florida Complex League.

To the Pirates credit, they have reassigned Major League Interpreter/Translator, Mike Gonzalez to Pirate City/Bradenton to have him help assimilate younger players to pro-ball as a mental health skills coach. The skills he possesses will be invaluable for any prospect; but especially for any of the Spanish-speaking players in the organization.

Selfishly, I am hoping for the FCL so I can catch this young man on the backfields when I am down in Florida this summer.

A giant thank you to Axiel himself for not only being open to this post being published, but also for providing input on his off-season workouts and thanks to his friends, family and coaches for their suport.

Please follow him on his main social-Instagram-and show your support as well.

Top Pirates Camp Battles to Watch in 2023

1-19-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

I’m going to start this piece by saying simply, there are far fewer than I anticipated. I planned on focusing on all the potential rookies and 2nd year players who’d be fighting it out over breaking camp and heading North.

That doesn’t mean Spring is unimportant or the Roster is completely set, but listen, if Malcom Nunez for instance hits 8 homeruns in camp, he’ll earn being the leader in the clubhouse for First Base or DH call up. So, it matters, but some places on the field, guys simply aren’t battling for making the roster now, they’ve signed enough veterans to ensure barring injury, they won’t be forcing many, if any at all, rookies into service.

This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a reality of trying to field a better team. At some point you stop filling the 26 man with hope, and instead fill it with probable contributors.

That said, there are spots where the team has room for battles to answer the question, and the best way to look at this, is probably to start with the guys who WILL make this roster. Before we start discussing who’s going to battle, we need to understand how many spots we’re talking about right?

The Locks

Infielders: Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Ji-Man Choi, Carlos Santana

Catchers: Austin Hedges

Outfielders: Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen

That’s 7 locks out of 13 spots for position players. Now, keep in mind the word lock doesn’t account for extremely likely, it simply speaks to guys who will absolutely be on this roster.

Pitching Staff: Roansy Contreras, Rich Hill, Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, Vince Velasquez, David Bednar, Jarlin Garcia

Now that’s 7 locks out of 13 there too. Again, I stress, lock is much different than likely. The way I see it, we will enter Spring knowing 14 names that will ultimately fill out the 26-man roster. Now let’s move on to the likely guys.

Likely to Make it

Outfielders: Jack Suwinski – He’s just short of a lock, about as close as you can come, but he has some poison pills in his game, and enough veterans competing for a spot that if Spring is a complete disaster you could see the team going in another direction.

Infielders: Rodolfo Castro – Much like Jack, he showed enough to assume the team will want to give him a real shot in 2023 to cement his role, but he isn’t without competition for playing time, and the additions in the outfield might just force him into a direct battle with Ji-hwan Bae for second base. Have to give the edge to the guy who is down to his last option and has 102 MLB games under his belt.

Pitching Staff: Chase De Jong, Duane Underwood Jr., Robert Stephenson – Three pitchers, all with no options, all likely to have at least a weighted decision on whether they make the roster or not. In other words, they aren’t likely to want to lose these guys for nothing without at least getting some precious innings out of them before moving on to the younger guys. In other words, deciding these guys don’t make it is a final decision.

Colin Holderman – Recent interviews with Oscar Marin by Alex Stumpf and Jason Mackey have led me to believe Colin is very much so in the plans. He has 3 options so I don’t want to make him a lock, but he’s as close as you can get.

I’ll add one more here, Wil Crowe, he’s got one option and before his arm turned to churned butter at the end of the season and he was forced into a role he didn’t fit, he was legitimately good.

That adds 7 more folks, putting our running total at 21.

We’ve got 5 spots left and we’ll now talk about all the guys who will fight for them and talk to their challenges and advantages.

Fighting for a Shot

Catcher (1) Spot Available: Tyler Heineman, Jason Delay, the first thing I’d say is, I could easily see the Pirates waiting until the end of Spring, and grabbing a catcher who gets cast off another team’s 40-man roster. The coach was very up front that Endy Rodriguez wasn’t going to break camp, right or wrong, we needn’t waste time on that argument, he isn’t going to be given the shot. Point is, these two will likely fill the backup role if they don’t act.

Outfield/Utility/Infield (2) Spots Available: We already talked about the locks, Reynolds and Cutch, we talked about the very likely, Jack, I think they’ll carry 5 here so that leaves 2. This will be one of the most interesting battles in camp and you’ll start to find some of these guys will be competing for multiple spots. For obvious reasons, competing for multiple spots ups your chances of making the team. They have to have someone who can play SS/2B/3B in particular, and that may ultimately get in the way for some of the left handed dedicated outfielders.

Miguel Andujar – At best, Andujar is a shot at reclaiming a wasted talent, he’s also a picture frame of a very active offseason. At the end of 2022, most saw him as a lock to DH this year, now he’s fighting for a chance to make the team. Miguel has no options which gives him an advantage, but he’s fighting for a spot in the outfield which isn’t his best position (if he has one). He also has something most of his competition doesn’t, a successful MLB season. I think the Pirates have to keep one more right handed stick in addition to Andrew McCutchen for the outfield, so yeah, Andujar has a shot.

Connor Joe – Another right handed outfielder and he’s put together two decent stretches with the Rockies in the past two seasons. I have no doubt he’s a better fielder than Andujar but one of his biggest advantages to make the roster was probably his ability to play first base too. The acquisition of Ji-Man Choi and signing of Carlos Santana kinda render that skill moot. Carrying 2 options in his back pocket, Joe will really have to impress to either force the team to take 3 right handed outfielders North or beat Andujar so soundly the Pirates are willing to lose Miguel.

Ji-hwan Bae – Make no mistake, Bae is capable of playing infield or outfield. I see him as more of a second baseman, but he could probably handle SS in a pinch. His versatility will help, and his uniqueness at the plate gives him an edge too. The Pirates will have to walk a balance here, Bae could easily be one of the best 26 but if the club feels they can’t keep him active enough he may have to go to AAA where he can play. Again, his ability to play multiple positions might help him, a properly deployed utility man can wind up getting starting level at bats.

Tucupita Marcano – Hey I could easily say Marcano and Bae are directly in competition. They both largely do the same things, and while I personally think Bae is superior, even I have to admit, neither have enough of a track record for me to definitively decide. Tucupita has one big, albeit perceived, advantage, Ben Cherington wanted him from the Padres so badly in the Joe Musgrove deal he circled back and made sure he got him in the Adam Frazier deal. He got him, but I don’t think anyone knows how to use him or where.

Jared Triolo – A pure rookie if he makes it, Jared has never played in AAA. We’ve seen that not matter to this club in the past and I can honestly say out of everyone who could play SS behind Cruz, Triolo would be the best out the gate. He’s also a really talented outfielder and third baseman. Arguably the best defender in the system. Boy it’d be tough now for him to make the club, but I’d be tempted if he hit.

Cal Mitchell, Travis Swaggerty, Canaan Smith-Nigba – Cal got the longest shot last year, Canaan was hurt almost all of 2022, and Travis Swaggerty will either be added to the list of first round picks cast off by this GM or finally win a spot on this roster. I lump them all together because they’re all left handed, they all can really only play outfield. Clearly all are behind Jack Suwinski but I think the team is going to want to have a left handed and right handed option off the bench. This is a battle within a battle. The Pirates could easily decide keeping two utility guys who can play outfield and infield as opposed to a dedicated outfielder here.

That’s 7 names, for 2 spots and while I could add in some other names, I don’t think it would be productive, I firmly believe this list is where these guys will come from.

Pitching Staff (2) – There are going to be a ton of guys fighting for these 2 spots. Now, I think the starting rotation is pretty set, so I’m leaning heavily to this really being a bullpen battle but the team could easily go with a 6-man rotation which frankly would be silly in April since you rarely even need 5, but piggybacking could make a return appearance too.

Jose Hernandez – Rule 5 selection and left handed. That’s two things that give him an extreme advantage here. Jarlin Garcia is the only lefty in the pen if Hernandez doesn’t make it and of course he’s no longer a Pirate most likely if he is cut. I think he’s interesting enough that the Bucs might overlook some warts to give him a shot. To me, this was almost in the likely category.

Yerry De Los Santos – He was impressive last season filling a role in the back end of the bullpen, but he’s young, has options and didn’t do anything that would make the Pirates look insane for starting him in AAA.

Dauri Moreta, Yohan Ramirez – Dauri was just acquired from the Reds for Kevin Newman, and has 2 options remaining, Yohan was a waiver claim in 2022 and really impressed some of the brass with his work down the stretch. Both of these guys have a real shot to make this club but neither are someone I feel overly excited about. Depth is a good thing.

Johan Oviedo – The Pirates very much so see him as a starter, and they want to continue to operate under that assumption. He was the key to the Jose Quintana deal and the Bucs won’t want to waste him by prematurely deciding he’s a bullpen arm. That said, he could be a perfect fit for a potential piggy back role, or even could force Vince Velasquez into the pen. Keep an eye open here, Oviedo has a very good shot to make this team one way or another.

Colin Selby – I’ve been asked a couple times, do any rookies have a real shot to make it out of camp? If one does, in my eyes it’s Colin. This is a flame thrower, and he could impress too much to ignore. Don’t get me wrong, he has hurdles to jump, and he’d have to be damn impressive, but I don’t think it’s insane to believe he could make it happen.

Conclusion

Feels to me like there are some battles there, but instead of head to heads it’s more about picking from groups to fill some spots on the edges of the roster. That’s what happens when you fill a bunch of holes with veterans. It’s also why you do so on a 1 year basis, because you expect, and want some of these guys competing to make the decisions easy come deadline time.

So I suppose I owe you my 26-man as we sit here. Let’s go…

Catcher – Austin Hedges
Infield – Ke’Bryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, Carlos Santana
Outfield – Andrew McCutchen, Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski
Bench – Tyler Heineman, Ji-hwan Bae, Miguel Andujar, Ji-Man Choi, Tucupita Marcano

Starting Rotation – Rich Hill, Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, Roansy Contreras, Vince Velasquez

Bullpen – David Bednar, Colin Holderman, Jarlin Garcia, Jose Hernandez, Wil Crowe, Robert Stephenson, Duane Underwood Jr., Chase De Jong

Now, the bench construction is more about who they face. For instance, I think Cutch probably plays DH more often than outfield, hence keeping a couple utility guys, and because this team doesn’t tend to use DH as a stand alone spot, I keep it rotating a bit. In other words, don’t get hung up on who I have as bench/starter.

I do think Santana will play in the field more than Choi though, their histories tell me that.

All in all, a different kind of Spring and it could lead to something like this…

  1. Ji-hwan Bae – CF
  2. Bryan Reynolds – LF
  3. Oneil Cruz – SS
  4. Carlos Santana – 1B
  5. Andrew McCutchen – DH
  6. Jack Suwinski – RF
  7. Ke’Bryan Hayes – 3B
  8. Austin Hedges – C
  9. Rodolfo Castro – 2B

I can’t sit here and tell you Shelton is going to agree, even if he did, I can’t tell you he’s done with his near constant changes to the lineup, but hey, have some fun with it, a lineup is kinda the fun culmination of all this jazz.

Listen to this week’s Pirates Fan Forum, we’ll be discussing a lot of these position battles.

Welcome Back, Cutch!

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-fr7ft-136739b

Andrew McCutchen is back and the fan in Craig is super-pumped. Unfortunately he has some concerns. Are they valid? We look at what the veteran will bring to the 2023 Pirates. The Pirates also did well spending their international money. We break it all down 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: Arms, Arms, Arms

1-17-23 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)

The two most expensive commodities to acquire on the open market are power and pitching. Seeing as the Pirates will never find themselves in the bidding war for an Aaron Judge or a Jacob DeGrom type, they will need to develop most of this talent internally; with the keyword being most.

Unfortunately, this is a point that must be emphasized amongst those of us that talk and write about prospects. Otherwise, the rebuttal of no team can be built entirely on prospects, will immediately be echoed by detractors; who are ultimately screaming into a void. Obviously no one believes that a team can be made up of players from within one’s own farm system.

But, in the Pirates case, most of them eventually will have to.

Sure, there will be some free agent signings and trades to fill holes-or hopefully to make a playoff push. However, these will be the finishing touches, not the moves that set things in motion; or even speed up the process significantly in my opinion. That type of stuff happens when young players outperform projections sooner than expected, role players contribute consistently, rotations give their teams a chance day in and day out, bullpens gel together and/or regulars all perform at an above average level.

As far as the rotation is concerned,the Pirates have three pitchers-Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras and Rich Hill-who I believe can realistically give their team a chance more often than not. The rest are a bit of what I consider wildcards. JT Brubaker has shown the ability, but lacks the consistency, Vince Velasquez performed better as a reliever than a starter and Johan Oviedo is the victim of the dreaded small sample size; although he did perform well.

To me this means Pittsburgh needs to find more arms within the system to fill the current holes, and/or to be the patchwork if injuries, poor performance(s) or trades occur.

Here are the top candidates, at the moment.

1) Luis Ortiz

Many want Ortiz to be on the Major League Roster when the team heads north from Bradenton this Spring; however, most know that he more than likely will not be.

Immediately fans will jump to the Service Time Manipulation/Super 2 conclusion; still, I don’t know if this is a simple connection that can be made when you look into the underlying numbers.

In his first Major League start Ortiz had Pirates Fans sitting up in their seats as he mowed down the Reds-in the second game of a doubleheader on September 13th-in dominating fashion. Using his four seam fastball that topped out at over 100 mph and wipeout slider, he struck out 5 and allowed only one hit in 5.2 innings of work.

Over his next two starts Ortiz would continue to control the competition to the tune of 12 strikeouts, 4 hits and two earned runs over 9.2 innings.

At this point you might be wondering, What’s the Catch? Why won’t Ortiz be in the rotation to start the season?

Well, remember those underlying numbers? At the same time Ortiz was striking out 10.1 batters per 9 innings, he also had a walk rate 4.2 batters per 9; which finally caught up with him in his last start of the season, as he didn’t even make it out of the first inning against the Cardinals.

After allowing a leadoff double to Brandon Donovan, Ortiz proceeded to walk the bases loaded twice before giving up a grand slam to Corey Dickerson; with an RBI single by Albert Pujols mixed in between.

Sure, you could possibly chalk this all up to one bad start, but for a player that struggled with command/control at times in the Minors-and allowed 1.5 HR/9 in Double-A-this could become more of a regular occurrence. For reference, when compared to the qualified pitchers in MLB last season, Ortiz’s 1.5 HR/9 would come in as the 4th worst.

Obviously, this flaw is something that many pitchers have overcome in order to be successful; yet, I can’t say it’s something I would want a younger pitcher to deal with from the jump.

Now, I didn’t intend for this to be a piece about why Ortiz should start the season in Triple-A; it just sort of happened. Clearly this young man has a lot of positive traits that have gotten him this far, and resulted in quick rise from Altoona to Indianapolis to Pittsburgh. His 1.172 WHIP with the Curve was only second to Mike Burrows in the starting rotation, he has two above average offerings and he’s consistently added strength/endurance, in order to maintain velocity throughout his starts.

Worst case scenario, Ortiz becomes a shut-down bullpen arm; with a 100 mph fastball, and wipeout slider.

2) Carmen Mlodzinski

During last year’s off-season, Mlodzinski became one of the names mentioned as possibly getting the bump to Triple-A Indianapolis; even as I cautioned everyone to pump the brakes on the young man from South Carolina.

Once again this has nothing to do with not liking a player and/or trying to prove a point; it’s about honest assessments of players based on performance.

During the 2021 Minor League Baseball Season, Mlodzinski performed well inside the bandbox in Greensboro-3.93 ERA, 1.291 WHIP and 64 strikeouts in 50.1 innings; but, unfortunately he was only able to make 14 starts due a shoulder injury. He did return to finish the Grasshopper’s season, get a cup of coffee with the Indians and appear in the Arizona Fall League; still, he unfortunately never looked as good as he did at the start of the year.

Then this past season-all in Altoona-Mlodzinski posted a 4.78 ERA and a 1.415 ERA with 111 strikeouts in 105.1 innings, while dealing with a shoulder injury once again.

Projected to start the season in Triple-A, he will have some pretty stiff competition for the starting rotation; including, each player listed, any Minor League signings and potentially a pitcher like Oviedo; who the Pirates could continue to stretch out into a full blown starter.

3) Quinn Priester

After missing pretty much the first two and half months of the season with an oblique injury, Priester made his way back to his original assignment in Altoona; but, not before being part of a combined no-hitter in Bradenton, and getting knocked around in his old stomping grounds in Greensboro.

Eventually-following a couple more starts to ramp up his pitch count-the former first round pick from Carey-Grove High School would settle in; and, end up having the type of year one would hope for from the top pitching prospect in the system.

Over 75.1 innings and 15 starts for the Curve, Priester posted a 2.87 ERA and a 1.195 WHIP with 75 strikeouts; including a 7 inning, 2 hit, and zero earned run performance in his next to last start in Altoona.

Ultimately he was promoted to Indianapolis for a quick cup of coffee-and two polar opposite starts-before getting in some extra work in the Arizona Fall League.

Now, onto what will happen in 2023.

Well, if I am being totally honest, I can’t see Priester being called upon in Pittsburgh unless there is a string of unforeseen injuries. This clearly doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. I just see them playing it slow with the young man; which will more than likely bring the service manipulation and Super 2 conversation(s) into play. Because, we can’t go one year without having that discussion.

4) Mike Burrows

With the presumptive ace of the Curve staff sidelined to begin the season, Burrows stepped right in; and, took over. Through his first 12 starts of the year he put up a 2.94 ERA and a 1.096 WHIP, while striking out 69 batters across 52 innings; earning a promotion to Indianapolis on June 16th.

Unfortunately this promotion did not go smoothly for Burrows as he struggled his way to a 5.31 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP with 42 strikeouts in 42.1 innings; ultimately ending up on the IL after battling a sore shoulder, that began to bother him only a month after he arrived in the Circle City.

Added to the 40-Man to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft back in November, Burrows is looking to put together his first healthy season in the past two years.

Back in 2021 he made just 13 starts for Greensboro, although he was extremely dominant, as evidenced by the 2.20 ERA and 0.898 WHIP; however, he also dealt with an oblique injury.

If he does stay healthy, he is probably third in line behind Oviedo and Ortiz for a shot at the starting rotation in Pittsburgh; but, things could always change.

5) Kyle Nicolas

Acquired as part of Jacob Stallings Trade back at the end of November 2021, Nicolas spent the entire season with the Curve; making 22 starts and 24 total appearances. Like nearly every player on this list Nicolas spent some time on the IL; with his reasoning also being shoulder injury.

At the point he went on the IL, his ERA sat at 3.98, his WHIP was a solid 1.27 and he had 54 strikeouts in 40.2 innings. Upon his return, Nicolas picked up right where he left off, ending the year with a 3.97 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP and 101 strikeouts in 90.2 innings.

Due to him coming over in such a big trade, it’s surprising that he often flies under the radar. When most people discuss who could make their debut in the rotation, Nicolas’ name rarely comes up; and, for some reason that makes me think he could be the one who arrives before the more familiar names.

Honorable Mention: Cody Bolton

Bolton is the one player on this list that spent the entire season in Triple-A, but it never felt like he was even close to being promoted to Pittsburgh; even though he didn’t really do anything wrong, and pitched in every role he was asked to.

One game he would be a starter, the next he was used in long relief, then he would be an opener and after that he would be set-up man. In one game he was even asked to be the closer.

In the end he had a 3.09 ERA, a 1.282 WHIP and 82 strikeouts in 75.2 innings to show for his hard work in flexibility; both being reasons why I was surprised he was protected for and/or selected in the Rule 5 Draft.

Conclusion

All arms on deck!

Since arriving as the Pirates GM in November 2019, this is the first time that Ben Cherington and Company have really had this much pitching depth so close to the Majors; which is kind of exciting.

Beyond this initial excitement, is a general curiosity/interest surround how and when each of these arms will deployed.

5 Pirates Thoughts at 5

1-16-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Even as I look out the window in my Pittsburgh home at the frost covered ground, it’s hard to not have my sights set on Spring Training. Baseball is as associated with the seasons changing as the weather itself and when you finally get to the point where the team itself looks ready to change…well, it adds another layer of anticipation.

Let’s dig in on this MLK Day, and I hope you take some time to listen to Dr. King himself today. Not other people telling you what he would think of something today, but his actual words, and his actual actions. There’s a lot to learn from him and a lot of people who think “I have a dream…” is it.

1. Looking for a Trade?

Yeah, I know the first name that popped into your head, but as I’ve written and said countless times now, not yet.

As we sit here, the Pirates have 9 designated outfielders on the 40-man. When they add Andrew McCutchen that number will jump to 10.

First things first, the Pirates will almost assuredly remove one when Cutch is official.

Here’s the thing though, even after they DFA whomever they plan to DFA, they’re going to run into trouble getting playing time for everyone in AAA.

I smell a trade.

You could distribute talent down to AA to make it work, but there are already guys there as well, and more ready to come up from High A too. Feels to me like after Ryan Vilade, they might be out of guys you’d be comfortable taking a shot at losing to waivers.

We could see a straight swap of Cal Mitchell for a prospect at another position, or Travis Swaggerty to a team desperate for OF depth and someone just drafted last season as return. Maybe even someone the Pirates had on their 2022 draft board.

I think we’re going to have to be open minded about this eventuality. Prospect trades are going to be a thing. If we’re honest, when we saw it was all shaping up to be left handed, at least at the upper levels, it kinda had to shake out this way and end up here.

2. Keeping an Eye on Andy Haines

Even as Steeler Nation beats the drum to fire Matt Canada as their Offensive Coordinator, the Pirates plan to return an equally popular assistant coach in Andy Haines.

Different situations and sports obviously, but similar issues. Historically poor offense, performed by largely young players who you’d hope have room left to improve quite a bit.

It’s a classic chicken or the egg story, except you can’t be 100% sure either is viable.

No matter what, lets cut away the excuses for a moment. Andy Haines was in charge of an offense that did this…

  • 27th in Runs Scored
  • 29th in Hits
  • 29th in Doubles
  • 18th in Home Runs
  • 3rd in Strikeouts
  • 29th in Batting Average
  • 28th in OPS

Had enough? Well, the Pirates don’t agree.

Here’s the thing, there is some reason to believe this was a lot more about players than coaching. After all, looking at the roster today vs last season, there are 2 guys who opened 2022 in the starting lineup who figure to open 2023 in it.

So clearly change has taken place here. In other words, the Pirates have clearly decided, this was more player driven than it was coach driven.

One thing I like a lot about this roster, especially when it comes to offense, there are a lot of veterans, and that comes at the right time to really get a picture of what Haines brings to the table.

Making changes to the approach and swing of a guy like Jack Suwinski is not the same as trying to tell Carlos Santana to change his. Having Rodolfo Castro take 2 strikes every at bat before looking to swing, is a lot different than asking Andrew McCutchen to do so.

Vets push back. Vets know themselves better than almost any coach ever could. And maybe most importantly, they know when they see talent, and they aren’t afraid to tell that young talent when they might be listening to potentially poor advice. Not in a divisive or undermining way, but more in a big brother, you outta ask about this bro way. Or, you know you’re allowed to tell them it isn’t working for you right?

I can understand the Pirates thinking 1 year with inferior talent might not be enough to judge a coach, but make no mistake, they’ll be watching this year. The Pirates haven’t invested this much money in the roster on free agents since 2014, they’ll want to protect that investment more than the next to nothing they invested last season.

Bring it Andy.

3. NL Central Update

Even with the new balanced schedule, it’s still important to understand your neighborhood. Let’s take a quick walk through what all these teams look like on the very surface after an active offseason and where they’re headed.

Chicago Cubs – The Cubs have almost completely overhauled their lineup, but not necessarily for the long term. They’ve taken an approach that many would have loved to see the Pirates adopt. Signed real live baseball players, including some reclamation projects to stem the tide as they wait for players in the system to improve and mature. Dansby Swanson is the big get, but they’ve filled just about every spot with a bat worth seeing. You’d have to figure almost everyone they signed and anyone on expiring contracts will be available later in the season, especially if they don’t get off to a great start. Even with the addition of Jameson Taillon, I don’t think they have enough pitching to really compete for the division. They need a bounceback from Marcus Stroman, Kyle Hendricks underwent shoulder surgery and probably won’t be back until early May, and Justin Steele while light on experience might be their best when all is said and done. Ultimately, I see them hitting the baseball and getting hit almost just as much. The bullpen in my eyes is really light.

St. Louis Cardinals – The Cards aren’t a team that typically shoots for transformative change. They tend to trust the core they’ve built and bolt on pieces as they see fit. This off season was no different. Yadi Molina retired, they went and got Wilson Contreras. If you liked the Cards lineup last year it got about that much better. Even if asking Goldschmidt to have another MVP season at 35 years old might be unfair. Either way, they have some really nice prospects on the doorstep too, like Jordan Walker and Matthew Liberatore. The rotation is still largely what it was, but I’m sure they hope it’ll be healthier. I expect the Cardinals to remain the cream of the crop in the division, even if it’s a bit by default.

Milwaukee Brewers – Reality. That’s what the Brewers are facing in 2023. Major additions to the lineup are William Contreras, and Jesse Winker. We Pirates fans all remember Winker killing us and everyone else in a Reds uniform, but after being moved to the Mariners he fell off a cliff. Reality comes when the Brewers had no choice but to take a chance that he returns to form. Christian Yelich has not lived up to his contract, at least not lately and that contract is going to create problems especially in their rotation come 2025. Willy Adames remains their top offensive threat barring bounce backs. The rotation is still formidable, with Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff leading the charge and their bullpen has taken a hit this offseason none bigger than losing Bruce Suter who’s been absolute glue for them. If they get to the backend, they’re good to go, but getting there got tougher this offseason. They could compete with St. Louis, but I think we start to watch them decline a bit in 2023.

Cincinnati Reds – Hey, it’s a rebuild. I can’t sit here and tell you how the Reds will follow up this season, but the roster they start with doesn’t figure to look like what they end with. They picked up Wil Myers and I could see him hitting quite a few homeruns in that ballpark, but they need a lot of youngsters to step up all over the place. Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo got a taste last year, and this year we’ll see how they’ve evolved, the bullpen looks like a problem if you ask me. Prospects like Elly De La Cruz, will eventually supplant Kevin Newman or Spencer Steer but I don’t see enough stacking yet to think they’re close. Just looking at this roster, they’re easily in the running for worst in the division, if not the league. I will say, De La Cruz is going to be a problem in this division for a long time once he gets here and I really like Lodolo and Greene as front of the rotation types. There’s some framework there, and last time they went out and bought the drywall. We’ll see how they approach it this time since it ended poorly in the last effort. All signs point to Joey Votto being back after an injury plagued season in 2022, and it’s likely his last with a club option for 2024, the Reds will undoubtedly want out of that 20 million.

I’m not going to insult you by doing one of these for the Pirates. We talk about them everyday. I’ll just say this, aside from the Cardinals, I don’t think it’s a given they’re worse than any of the other teams in this division. Doesn’t mean they’ll finish second, but it should be a division they don’t look up in August and find themselves 22 games back in.

4. Mitch Keller’s Late Bloom

We’ve waited and waited, and got so frustrated many of us quit waiting, then suddenly like getting in a really hot bath, we eased our way into believing this just might be real with Mitch.

Sound accurate?

Even last year, he struggled to show the offseason adjustments were going to take. Increased velocity, yup, still got creamed. Better spin rate on breaking stuff, yup, still didn’t hit the zone and when it did, didn’t fool anyone.

The Pirates sent him to the bullpen and worked with him to use a 2 seam fastball in addition to his 4 seam, and to his credit and Oscar Marin’s, with an assist from Clay Holmes, it took.

He looked good from that point on and the hope is he comes back to camp this year ready to pick up where he left off.

Therein lies something we’re simply going to have to start talking about. If Mitch comes out throwing darts and looking like a top of the rotation starter in 2023, the realization he has two years of arbitration remaining is going to cause some very tight backsides dahn at 115 Federal.

He’ll only be 27 years old this year, so it’s not like he’s aging out, and the kid isn’t an idiot, he knows what a top of the rotation starter entering free agency as a 29 year old can net.

Thing is, I can’t blame the Pirates for this thing getting to this point. He wasn’t good, and he wasn’t getting it either. It’s not like I can go back in time and claim I was advising his extension back in 2021 before he entered arbitration, but make no mistake, if he has a season similar to what he did in the second half of 2022 he’s going to get expensive really quickly.

Plenty of other teams wouldn’t even think about this. It’s 3 years away for God’s sake right? Well, the Pirates have to, and they can’t afford to wait until they see how this next wave of pitching turns out before deciding they need or want Mitch to stick around.

He and the team just agreed on a 2.4 Million dollar contract for 2023 avoiding arbitration, if he has even another inconsistent complete season like last one, and as a reminder that was 2 WAR, 3.91 ERA, in 159 IP, next year he’ll easily get double that, if not more. Better than that, or he does what he did in the second half all season and you’re looking at over 6.

That’s the advantage the Pirates still have. If they like what they see early on this year, I suggest offering him a 5 year deal, buying out 2 years of arbitration and 3 years of free agency, and I start around 50-60 million. That’s clearly more than arbitration would be likely to give in those first two years, and a bargain for the 3 years of free agency. An AAV of 10-12 per is nothing for a solid starter in today’s game, hell it’s even still tradable.

The Pirates have worked hard to get something out of this player, the least they can do for themselves is to make sure they get some of the benefit when it actually matters.

5. Skepticism is Earned

I understand entirely why many fans are skeptical about the Pirates, they’ve earned it by in large and if we’re really honest, most of those folks you’re thinking of when you see the word I typed aren’t really paying attention to the Pirates, probably aren’t really paying attention to MLB at all to be real.

It’s probably never more apparent than when someone just says they’ll still lose 100 games this year!

I’m not sure how you get there? I really do pride myself on trying to take an honest look at this team, and that includes being really honest about what their record will likely be. They’ve lost the equivalent of 100 games in 2020, 101 in 2021, 100 in 2022, and every time I didn’t even entertain thinking they’d win more than 70.

That came by way of looking at the roster, looking at the depth, movable pieces, everything. So it’s not like I look at a terrible roster and put my fan glasses on and scream .500! from the roof tops.

This year though, to me if you’re still stuck on thinking it’s a 100 loss roster, you’re just not being serious. It just isn’t.

When I first started doing this, I might have argued about it, now, I just kinda sit back and wait for it to play out.

There’s a difference between looking at this roster and thinking 100 losses, and someone who has been burned by believing in the past and won’t go above 70 just to protect themselves. That’s not what I’m talking about, I’m talking to those who simply haven’t looked, don’t care to, but simply want to go online and push some Pirates fans buttons a bit, even while claiming they themselves are fans.

I understand the impulse to avoid being made fun of, but take an honest look at this roster, it’s better, and it isn’t close. Name a position aside from catcher, and it can be proven statistically.

Point is, One day when we are all cheering together, there’s a good chance you’ll be next to someone who never had anything to say to you online but…😂 when you suggested something as benign as we might be 10 games better, well, here’s hoping you don’t recognize them.

The Pirates Roster is Different, Can We Expect Results to be As Well?

1-15-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

For the 3rd consecutive offseason, making the case that the Pirates roster is different won’t be an issue. The changes are clear, the side by side, stark.

As I began with, changes aren’t new, we’ve seen that prior to 2021, 2022 and even 2020 albeit to a lesser degree. So as we sit here about a month away from the first act of 2023 to get underway with pitchers and catchers reporting, lets talk about what this season could bring. I’m not going to make a prediction here, I’m simply going to lay out things to look for, and expect to see, which should allow you to form your own opinion.

One thing I think will be painfully obvious as we go through this though, 2023 and 2024 will bring just as much change.

That’s really where we should start I think.

They’ll Trade All These Free Agents So Who Cares?

Vince Velasquez, Austin Hedges, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Santana, Ji-man Choi, Robert Stephenson, Rich Hill, that’s a whole bunch of new or expiring contract talent brought in here for 2023.

The first thing most people setting out to “defend” the Pirates do wrong in my opinion is pretend things like this aren’t going to happen, or this time it’ll be different for some reason. Let’s be real clear here, every name I put up there could easily be traded at the deadline.

Sure, Andrew McCutchen reportedly has some kind of a gentlemen’s agreement that he’d prefer not being traded and would even like an opportunity to return in 2024 if he and the team agree he has a role, but we simply can’t discount the reality that moving guys on expiring contracts is one way teams like this can add talent to the system.

There are factors involved here. For one, Ben Cherington has openly said he wants results this year, a better record and at least the tangible feeling of progress. That’s one thing, and as Burgess Meredith famously said in Grumpy Old Men, “Well, you can wish in one hand and crap in the other, see which fills up first”.

If this team gets off to a slow start, the likelihood that they move most if not all these guys is on the table. If they start well, there could be more of a clutching of these players in order to hunt results.

I already mentioned Cutch’s agreement, but even the PR deficient Pirates know moving him from a team that is competing or even just threatening .500 would be foolish.

So yes, some or all of these guys could get moved. I’ll be really honest with you, if 2024 is truly to be a “compete” year as many have forecasted, you should almost be hoping they perform well, but young players push many of them aside.

If not, next offseason will look eerily similar.

Some Top Prospects are Coming

Prospects are a crap shoot. You never know how they’re going to turn out long term, but when they get to AA or AAA, you typically can at least tell if they’ll make it to the league. At the very least it tends to become more of an educated guess.

During this season it’s very likely we’ll see the debut of Endy Rodriguez, Jared Triolo, Mike Burrows, Nick Gonzales, Quinn Priester, and Colin Selby.

It’s likely we’ll see some others who got their cup of coffee make their return to MLB action, Luis Ortiz, Johan Oviedo, Liover Peguero, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Yerry De Los Santos, Ji-hwan Bae and maybe even Blake Cederlind.

I didn’t even mention Henry Davis, Cody Bolton, or Malcom Nunez who also could easily make the jump this year, and there are others.

Hell, Travis Swaggerty didn’t even get a courtesy mention until now.

Point being, just because the Pirates went and got a bunch of guys to fill roles on this team in 2023, it doesn’t mean they’re done rebuilding, it just means they’re no longer comfortable with or so far away from some of these young talents arriving that the MLB team can be ignored. You always want to provide a smooth landing for youngsters, especially if you think they matter.

The largest and loudest complaint about the Pirates free agent acquisitions, aside from age has been that they’re only for one year.

Well folks, you just read a list of why.

The starting rotation on opening day will likely look like this. Mitch Keller, Rich Hill, Roansy Contreras, JT Brubaker, and Vince Velasquez, and that’s going to leave guys like Luis Ortiz, Johan Oviedo, Mike Burrows, Quinn Priester, and Cody Bolton on the outside looking in. For the Pirates to have a successful evolution and continuation of this rebuild into 2024, it’s key that some of these names are part of it.

I’m not going to go so far as to say that eliminated the possibility of signing anyone to longer than a year, but it absolutely is a factor as to why they didn’t.

Throughout the year injuries will create opportunity, so will performance I’m quite sure, either way at some point because it’s what has to happen, opportunity will be forced upon some if need be.

And let’s be really blunt here, you’d love if at some point one of those starting pitchers I named forced the Pirates to move Velasquez to the bullpen or even out the door. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that is the only successful outcome on the table.

Holes Have Been Patched

Listen, most of you live in currently, or at some point lived in Pennsylvania, so I know you’re all painfully aware of how effectively and long term tar and chip patches work on potholes.

That’s what many of these signings are. They might work or a time, might even make you forget there ever was a hole but make no mistake, once you toss some salt on top and run a plow over it a few times you’ll be reminded quickly, it was a temporary patch.

At some point you have to come along, cut the area out and refill it with new concrete and rebar, smooth it over with fresh black top and that my friends is what the wave of prospects need to be.

Carlos Santana and Ji-man Choi will be a fine duo at first base, they both can play the position well, they both can hit a little, but make no mistake, if Malcom Nunez doesn’t both figure out how to play at first base this year, and get his bat evolved to where it needs to be, the Pirates will wake up in November looking again to “solve the position”.

More than any other factor, this is why I’m hesitant to go ahead and predict a huge record improvement. Because at some point they’re going to have to introduce some of these kids, and kids play like kids a whole lot of the time. Even if their ceiling is far higher than whom they’re replacing, even if they were killing it in AAA, even if the veteran patches were struggling, fusing youngsters in can be dicey.

And as I hope I’ve illustrated, we’re going to see quite a bit of this in 2023.

It may have a detrimental effect on the record, but if they don’t do it, and do it well, again, we’ll be watching Ben Cherington use free agency in much the same way next off season.

Some of these decisions will force themselves to be more permanent. For instance, that first base battle, well if Malcom Nunez or Mason Martin finish this season having not debuted or having had a poor run when they do, we’ll absolutely be looking for the Pirates to either move another prospect over there who’s bat is begging for a place to play or back to free agency potentially looking for something that delivers more than a year of help.

In fact, one of those trades we touched on could provide that help potentially.

So is it Better or What?

On paper? Yes.

If you don’t see that, or won’t admit it, I’m sorry, you just don’t want to see it. When you’re DFAing players like Bryse Wilson, Zach Thompson, Diego Castillo and Hoy Park, you’re a team who has changed the talent balance on your roster plain and simple.

I firmly believe if the Pirates were simply trying to take this roster mix and see how many wins they could accumulate they’d absolutely win more than they did in 2022, and by a measurable amount, not just one game. As I also outlined though, the likelihood that this roster and all the patches finish 2023 together is slim to none, in fact, it’d be unhealthy if it did.

I’ll find my way to a prediction by the time Spring Training wraps, just like every year, and I’ll probably be wrong again too, but it’s a better team for sure on paper, and the talent coming is easily the most exciting collective we’ve seen since this entire thing started.

Don’t get me wrong, Oneil Cruz is the most exciting player, but as a group, well he was an island to a degree, even if you were someone who wanted Ji-hwan Bae and Castro to be included in it.

That brings me to another reason to expect this year to be better. The Oneil Cruz we saw in 2022 will likely not be the Cruz we see in 2023. Rodolfo Castro should improve, Bae should get a longer look to showcase his skills, someone should emerge in the outfield or at the very least Jack Suwinski it seems very unlikely will have insane home/away and Left/right splits like he did in 2022. They don’t even make sense.

Point is, kids who came up last year, should improve, and that eventuality is exactly why it’s so key to get eyes on as many of this next batch as you possibly can during 2023. I’d like to be talking about their improvement in 2024 as opposed to their debuts.

Conclusion

All of this leads me to a couple major takeaways. One, how the team starts will help determine what this group of patches gets done in Pittsburgh. Two, how this thing evolves is almost as important as how this season finishes.

I don’t think we’re in evaluation mode on the players this year as much as finally onto evaluation mode on the coaching staff. If there’s one thing bringing in veterans does, it takes away all of Derek Shelton’s hiding spots.

No more can you look at the bullpen and give him a pass. If he and his team choose to artificially stunt the amount of innings the starters provide and it kills the pen, well, it likely wasn’t because you were trying to pull all the right strings.

If his hitting coach is going to preside over another epic offensively inept season, it’s going to point at Shelton. Sure it did last year too, but this year, he’d be allowing it with better talent.

This lame duck coach is very much so for the first time overseeing his first competent roster. If he were to even be within shouting distance of another 100 loss season, you can expect real consequences. That pressure either creates a diamond, or pulverizes the substance into dust.

Now, don’t mistake, player evals will of course still go on, but by in large, someone with some modicum of experience is available at just about every spot on the diamond. Short stop probably being the exception, but I think somehow you’ll cope with what they do have there.

This will be a fun year, a year where you expect they could win most nights. Can’t have been something you’d say to yourself most of the time these last three seasons but this year, I expect a lot less crying about the lineup, a lot less stressing about some guy getting a start, a lot more excitement about facing rivals, many more reasons to hope and more evidence this ship is steering in the right direction.

If you think all the above is moot if the Pirates trade Bryan Reynolds, you might very well be right. I for one am convinced from talking and listening that He isn’t being moved this offseason, and that the team is going to reengage his representation and I get the impression they think it can get done.

Doesn’t mean it will work out, but it does mean for now, I simply can’t allow it to override every other conversation. I don’t forget it’s there, but at some point we have to look at what is as opposed to what might be.

You will watch Cutch and Reynolds in the same outfield, how long I can’t say.

So better? Yeah, I think so. Is .500 in play? Well, on paper, yeah, I think it is. I also think how they navigate all that stuff I mentioned above will have more to do with determining that than these guys they brought in.

Either way, this figures to feel a lot more like a baseball season than the last three. If only because we’ll likely see our team looking capable more often.

As fans, we can overlook them and wait for them to show us something, but trust me, other teams won’t. MLB isn’t dumb, they know what a team emerging from darkness looks like, and by the end of 2023 I think most of you will too.

Cutch is Back! Pirates in Agreement on 1 Year Deal

1-13-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

The Pirates have agreed to a 1 year deal with former MVP Andrew McCutchen reportedly worth 5 Million dollars according to Alex Stumpf over at DK Pittsburgh Sports, a reunion that certainly smells like a PR move, but makes sense for many other reasons as well.

First of all, the fan in me is struggling to get my fingers to stop trembling as I type. What this move will mean mentally to the fan base will likely far outweigh what it brings tangibly on the field.

This is a player who loved Pittsburgh so much he signed a low ball extension offer that essentially turned him into the journeyman he’s become to finish out his career. He still lives here, he’s still active in the community. His kid’s name is Steel.

I mean he made in his 9 seasons in Pittsburgh a little over 56 million dollars, even though salaries have exploded, he could have easily not signed that extension. He did.

And now Andrew is back, the most likely modern addition to the Pirates Hall of Fame out in the outfield concourse has returned to chase milestones in his beloved black and gold.

Milestones like, these.

He needs 52 hits to reach 2,000.
He’s looking for 13 homeruns to reach 300.
8 Doubles to hit 400.

And make no mistake, it’ll mean something in this uniform if he does hit them.

Stick with me here, I’ll get to the counter points, but I’m sorry, there’s a lot of good to get through first.

Cutch is a guy who can look every single member of this team in the eye and say “We can do this. Here! And I have”. Don’t think that message is lost on youngsters who don’t always see what’s building around them in the moment.

He’s a guy who has proven you can win big baseball awards here in Pittsburgh. He helped show a new generation what playoff baseball felt like. This is a player who has shown you can have an absolute blast playing the game of baseball, and you can still focus and lead even while smiling.

From the pure perspective of a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, well, there isn’t much to dislike here. It’s a fit in just about every way you’d want a free agent signing to fit.

Now, because I am who I am, and I always have to make sure I paint a full picture, we have to talk about the serious, baseball side of this thing. As much as I’ve admitted my enthusiasm for this move, I also have to admit, I know what this is AND isn’t.

Let’s start here, where is he going to play?

Couple options there, he could platoon with Choi at DH, he could play some right field in a platoon with Suwinski or another lefty outfielder. This is a guy who right or wrong took 515 at bats last season with the Brewers, so it’s not like he has entirely become a bit player in this league yet.

Those 515 at bats added up to 1.1 WAR. Most of that WAR came from the bat, because he only had 97 attempts at put outs in the outfield last year, he did that in 50 games and while he made no errors, he’s simply not the fielder you remember who played shallow and ran down balls at the center field wall. Keep in mind, the Brewers weren’t exactly stacked in the outfield and chose to deploy him in this fashion, so keep your head screwed on, he’s likely not going to be a starter in the OF most nights.

As many of you remember, I already didn’t see Connor Joe as a lock to make this roster, Miguel Andujar either, this signing makes that almost a lock. I can’t see both of those players making this team now, even if I think Vilade is the probable corresponding removal from the 40-man.

This also could cost Ji-hwan Bae a shot, and I’m not a fan of that. I’m confident the Pirates want to get Castro 500 at bats this year, and that to me sent Bae to Centerfield. We may have to wait to see that play out now a bit.

The outfield capable players on the 40-man as we sit here are:
Ji-hwan Bae
Jared Triolo
Miguel Andujar
Connor Joe
Tucupita Marcano
Cal Mitchell
Bryan Reynolds (And yes, the Pirates still see extending him as possible, and preferable)
Canaan Smith-Njigba
Jack Suwinski
Travis Swaggerty
Ryan Vilade

And now, Andrew McCutchen.

Out of that list Bae, Triolo and Marcano are all capable of playing infield so they have a roster spot advantage.

You have to assume Jack Suwinski, Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen are all locks to make the roster on opening day. That leaves 2 spots in my mind believing they’ll bring 5 north.

To me, this smells like a healthy, good old fashioned Spring Training battle.

Again I see Vilade being the easy odd man out here, but if I’m really honest, that’s because he’s the only one I haven’t really seen play baseball.

Conner Joe and Miguel Andujar probably have a bit of an advantage too, for one thing both have already played in the majors and experienced some success, regardless of when it was. Both are right handed, and against a really tough lefty, the team could value being able to toss three right handed sticks out there like Joe, Cutch, Reynolds. Those two are locked in a mini battle inside the overall battle if you ask me. Joe has options, Miguel doesn’t. Miguel has also avoided arbitration and signed a contract with the Pirates, meaning, he makes money already, albeit not much.

After that, take your pick from the other lefty. Bae, Swaggerty, Mitchell, Marcano, Smith-Njigba, that in and of itself is going to be interesting. I have my preference in Bae, but for these types of things, it’s best to just stay open minded. Bae has some things this team lacks. Real leadoff ability, and he’s a shi* stirrer on the base paths, pardon my French. He’s an OBA guy, if not Power, but his speed will buy doubles too and he hits lefties well enough. That’s my leader in the clubhouse, problem is, they aren’t in the clubhouse yet, lol.

So some will probably say Cutch, awesome! But he’s blocking this guy I wanna see too. And they’d be right, this will inevitably cut into some playing time for someone I listed there. Might even wind up holding back someone else we haven’t even thought about yet. Cal Mitchell is simply going to struggle to make this team, and Smith-Njigba, well, he did nothing wrong but get hurt. Swaggerty could largely say the same.

All that being said, if you want your baseball team to put a better product on the field, you’re going to simply have to accept that we’re right on the cusp of the act of pining for prospects changing. I say that even as our most exciting batch in years is right on the doorstep.

Now they all have to beat someone. And they have to beat someone who is likely at least an MLB player.

That seems simplistic but folks that’s not something you could say in 2021. Getting to this point was always the goal, but this team is chalk full of 2023 solutions, not beyond, so while I explained the added difficulty facing the prospects on the doorstep don’t mistake, they really do need to find ways to get their feet wet and gain experience.

This is for another day, but the only position where a prospect could be reasonably expected to start on opening day if they did really well in Spring would be Catcher and Endy Rodruguez, and we all know they’ve already decided that isn’t happening.

It’s a better roster, and adding Andrew McCutchen adds depth, PR benefits, right handed power, a bridge to past success, nostalgia and a bit of swagger.

This isn’t some World Series here we come move, frankly one of those wasn’t out there for this roster, not even Judge, but it does further solidify when this team said they wanted to really improve in 2023, they weren’t kidding. The next step of meshing prospects into this will be interesting. If they do this well, by 2023’s conclusion we’ll be seeing a team grow increasingly younger, and more talented at the same time. Note, that’s more talented, polish doesn’t grow on trees, and the transition can be painful at times. Do this wrong and 2024 will be banking too much on untested kids or a repeat of the types of signings we saw this year to extend the bridge.

At some point, you do need to get eyes on the kids, but for now, it’s hard to argue they’ve made the roster stronger, deeper and more capable of surviving catastrophe like Yoshi or Perez wound up being. In fact, things like that might be how these prospects trickle in.

I said it last year in September, even as the bullpen and rotation fell to injury and the team imploded further. This is the fun part of rebuilds. The choices they make, when they make them, how the pieces fit.

Today the Pirates pushed a button.

Some monkeys like me are gonna eat it up, some are going to be critical of it for many of the reasons I pointed out up there.

Everyone will at least on the inside be smiling when they see him in black and gold, and hear his name blare out on the PA in PNC park and he tips the cap and gives that wink. He’ll be home, and so will some of us who watched him lead the charge to bring this team out of the darkness once. That won’t be his role this time, but it might just still feel like it.

This is good for the Pirates, and the city, that’s really the long and short of it.

Welcome home Andrew, we all never let you forget you were home when you came in for a series, here’s to a lot more this year.

Through The Prospect Porthole: First Round Picks

1/12/23 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)

66%. As in the percentage of players-on average-drafted in the first round that will reach the majors.

10%. That’s the percentage of these players that will find success in the majors; defined as averaging between 1.5 and 2.5 WAR per season; or more accurately, achieving the status of a consistent starter in the Majors.

17%. This is the percentage of players that will be seen as relative stars and superstars; earning 2.5 WAR or more per season.

73%. These are the busts. Of the 66% first round draft picks that make it to The Show, the clear majority will average less than 1.5 WAR per season.

For the Pirates the only measuring stick(s) can be traced back to 2013 through 2017, as these are the only players that have reached the Majors thus far; with the 8 selections-including those from competitive balance round A-from 2018 through 2022 still Pittsburgh’s Farm System.

In 2013 the Pirates selected Austin Meadows at 9 and Reece McGuire at 14. Forget the Archer Trade, or the Liriano Salary Dump for a second; if you can. Both players were developed with Pittsburgh’s Farm System, so the numbers count for something. In slightly over 4 years Meadows has earned 6.7 WAR, while Reece has put up 2.1 in 3; which puts Meadows just above the success threshold, with Reece clearly below.

The 2014 MLB Draft saw two more players enter the Pittsburgh Organization. Cole Tucker was the 24th Overall Pick, with Connor Joe-yes the same guy we just acquired-coming off the board at 39th (Competitive Balance Round-A). Tucker has a WAR of -2.1, with less than 500 plate appearances across 5 years. Joe is at 2.4 and counting in what would equate to about a year and a half; so, technically a success, for the moment.

Moving along to 2015, Pittsburgh took Kevin Newman at 19, followed by Ke’Bryan Hayes at 32. This is where things start to get fresh, as Newman was recently traded to the Reds, after accumulating 3.1 WAR over 4 years; landing squarely in bust territory. Hayes on the other hand becomes the Pirates first to achieve star status with 8.5 WAR in just north of 2 years of service.

As 2016 rolled around, Will Craig was plucked off the board at 22. Known as the architect of one of the worst defensive mishaps in Pirates history, Craig would play in 20 total Major League games; receiving -.7 WAR for his troubles.

Finally, you have the short-term member of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club-Mr. Shane Baz-who was thrown in as the Player To Be Named Later only a year after being selected at 12th overall. Currently scheduled to miss the entire 2023 season following Tommy John Surgery, Baz is at .5 WAR, 40.1 innings into his Big League Career.

Tally these all together and you get 5 busts, 2 successes and 1 star; good for a grand total 20.5 WAR in 19.008 years of services time, or approximately 1.1 WAR per season.

In other words, a bust.

Simply put, this just can’t happen. You don’t have to hit on every single first round pick, or any prospect for that matter; but, you sure can’t miss as often as the Pirates have in recent years.

Which leads us to the last 8 First Round Selections; 5 of whom belong to the current regime. In 2018 Neil Huntington and Company selected Travis Swaggerty with the 10th Pick, followed by Quinn Priester and Sammy Siani at 18 and 37 respectively in 2019.

During Ben Cherington’s time in charge they have chosen to draft Nick Gonzales at 7, Henry Davis at 1, Carmen Mlodzinski at 31, Termarr Johnson at 4 and Thomas Harrington at 36.

Of these eight, only Travis Swaggerty has any time with the Big League Club, totaling 9 at bats in 5 games; although a few others are poised to breakthrough-not to be confused with breaking-out-over the upcoming months, and years.

At the moment, all but Sammy Siani sit within the top 20 on MLB Pipeline; before the 2023 reshuffling that is. Still, more that few have see already seem the shine on their prospect status smudged over the past couple of years. Hell, Henry Davis was just voted as the most overrated prospect in baseball by team executives general managers to farm directors, scouting directors and analytics specialists.

This doesn’t mean that Davis will be bad or even fail, but trying to explain away why one of your team’s top prospects is thought of in this way is never a positive conversation to have.

So how does this narrative change? Not only for Davis, but the other prospect’s mentioned? Because, let’s not pretend like anyone outside of Priester-and maybe Johnson and Harrington-had positive stories swirling around their 2022 seasons.

Well, for one Davis and Gonzales have to stay healthy for the entire season, with pretty much the same thing being said for Priester and Mlodzinski. And secondly, the majority almost have to advance/take a step forward in their development. There’s no way around it.

After, what was seen by many as a fairly disappointing Minor League Season for the Pirates Organization, a rebound is truly in order during a crucial year for Ben Cherington’s rebuild.

And this even goes without mentioning the player that will be added to this list on July 17th.

What Does This Pirates Bullpen Look Like?

1-12-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

There is no escaping how pathetic the Pirates bullpen was by the end of 2022. Even though the pen carried the team early on, a combination of asking the pen to do too much of the innings lift, and a lack of players with options caused a revolving door of waiver wire pickups, DFAs and players forced into roles they had no business occupying.

At first glance, it would appear the Pirates learned a lesson.

The bullpen is almost always the hardest element of the roster to nail down. Starters could become relievers, moving on from a bullpen arm isn’t often worth the same consternation as cutting an outfielder, and thankfully this year, the Pirates simply have a ton of options.

Today, lets go through who is on the 40, who I see coming North with the club at least right now, and who from outside the 40 that could find their way into the mix as the season plays out.

The 40-man

Have to start here, and we have to remember too guys like Chase De Jong who weren’t on it, and 3 weeks into the season were added. As we go through this list, it’s easy to see it’s more fleshed out than it was last year.

David Bednar
Wil Crowe
Chase De Jong
Yerry De Los Santos
Jarlin Garcia
Jose Hernandez
Colin Holderman
Dauri Moreta
Johan Oviedo
Luis Ortiz
Yohan Ramirez
Colin Selby
Robert Stephenson
Duane Underwood Jr.
Vince Velasquez

Now that’s 15 players I think could find their way into a bullpen role, even if temporary in 2023. You’ll note there are some starters named there, and some who aren’t. I’ve chosen Velasquez because he’s been promised a shot at starting, but it’s not what he’s been, Oviedo largely because Thompson being DFAd creates a spot for long relief potentially, and Ortiz because if his secondary pitches don’t evolve, they may want to just cut bait and turn him into a killer back end piece.

Just options, not predictions. That’s for another section.

Now, who makes the 26-man?

The first thing to do is recognize how many pitchers the Pirates will likely go north with. I believe they will choose 13. 5 starters, 8 relievers will make that up.

Supposing a rotation of Keller, Brubaker, Hill, Contreras, Velasquez to start we need to focus on the 8.

David Bednar – Closer
Colin Holderman – Late Inning Set Up
Jarlin Garcia – Late Inning Set Up
Jose Hernandez – Rule 5, Start out Middle Relief
Robert Stephenson – Middle to Late Relief
Duane Underwood Jr. – Middle Relief
Wil Crowe – Long to Middle Relief
Chase De Jong – Long to Middle Relief

This is where I think they’d start, but I don’t think this will be where they sit all year. First of all, Holderman’s next healthy season will be his first. Stephenson and Underwood shouldn’t be locks. Crowe and De Jong don’t have long histories of being good.

What really makes this bullpen stronger in 2023 is who didn’t make this list. I constructed this with guys who don’t have options for the most part. Reason being, let them eat the early season work load, and reinforce them later with some of the live arms you stored in AAA.

This leaves us with Yohan Ramirez, Colin Selby, Dauri Moreta, Yerry De Los Santos as immediate guys who could get calls. As Pirates starters push their way up or performance dictates you can add names like Velasquez, maybe even Brubaker. It’s pretty clear that Hill and Velasquez will be traded if nothing else at some point, so room will be made.

How About Non-40 Guys?

This is going to be a long list, because I’m going to include the NRI (Non-Roster Invitees) we know about as of now, there could be even more.

Tyler Chatwood, Daniel Zamora, Rob Zastryzny, Angel Perdomo, JC Flowers, Blake Cederlind, Tahnaj Thomas, Hunter Stratton, Cam Aldred, Nathan Webb, Cameron Junker

Now, out of all those guys, I don’t see much opportunity out of Spring, but as the season rolls on, Flowers, Cederlind, Thomas and Junker are all super interesting.

With the NRI’s The Pirates have clearly focused on getting some lefty arms in to look at. Zamora, Zastryzny, and Perdomo are all left handers. None of them have options, none are of course on the 40-man, but any of them could prove they deserve a place. Reality dictates what the team would really hope here is some of them perform relatively well and decide they’re ok sticking around in AAA.

Tyler Chatwood has a ton of MLB experience, if any of them are going to threaten our 26-man list, it might be him, but he’d have to beat out Stephenson or Underwood in my mind but he hasn’t pitched since 2021, and that was only 32 innings.

Still, the Pirates have shown us something this offseason, they aren’t going to hold onto guys they simply don’t see as being all that good. The DFA of Thompson and Wilson, well, let’s just say for those of you constantly looking for this front office to act differently, that was different.

Should They Get More?

They certainly could. I personally would feel much better about having one more lefty for instance. Being that one of theirs is a Rule 5 pickup, thing is, if they pick one up it has to be a lock, and it has to be at the expense of Underwood, De Jong or Stephenson in my mind. Brad Hand, Andrew Chafin, Zack Britton, Justin Wilson, and Will Smith all would be interesting to me, and all should be relatively affordable.

Bullpens are usually the last thing to really come together, and they are NEVER just a group of 7 or 8 guys who kill it all year. You need most of that 40-man list, you need guys with options to bounce up and down, you need competent options to fill in for underperformance and injury.

Last year, the Pirates shorted themselves in this aspect of the roster so badly they were forced to rush Roansy Contreras into action, ultimately robbing him of starting innings later in the season and creating that weird mid season send down situation.

It forced them to be in on just about every guy who got waived it felt like for a while there.

Now I will say, the starting rotation should be stronger in 2023 and hopefully that causes less stress on the bullpen which should help their effectiveness even if they weren’t a stronger group, which at least on paper, they are.

Of everything I’ve mentioned in this piece, one thing I can’t possibly know is will Derek Shelton use these guys in more defined roles, or do they at least have better redundancies in place to handle some of these roles. By the end of 2022, the qualifications for closer looked like essentially do you have an arm, and do all 5 fingers on your pitching hand work currently.

The innings math never worked last year, and the Pirates made it worse by being overly cautious with what they did have.