Pirates Morning Report: Opening Day

Today starts the 2023 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates as they face off against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati. As I look at the 26 man roster, I am happy with the 13 position players on the team. The pitching staff is another issue but more on them later. I will still hold to the prediction that this team will contend for the division title. As I have written previously there are some unknowns that will determine just how well the Pirates will do. To summarize the unknowns, just how good a manager is Derick Shelton, will management actually try to win games this year, and if this team gets to August playing meaningful games for the first time, how will the players respond? There is also avoiding the disastrous injury. Already the Pirates have 3 pitchers on the shelf. I think the biggest lost is Jarlin Garcia, the free agent left-handed reliever they signed over the winter. He seemed to be a solid addition, but then he got a strange nerve injury to his left arm, to the point he cannot even pick up a ball. There is no telling when he might be back. J. T. Brubaker is on the shelf, but Johan Oviedo should fill in for him quite nicely. What would be considered a disastrous injury. If Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Bryan Reynolds or Oneil Cruz would miss a significant amount of time due to injury, it would be devastating, and all bets are off. Let’s take a look at the position players that are going to start the season.

I like all the decisions that the Pirates made concerning who they kept on the team. Many thought that Travis Swaggerty should be on the team with the very good spring that he had. He has shown nothing in 3 years in the minors and one good spring is not going to change that. If he shows the same batting skills in the minors during the first month and someone is struggling or injured, I’m sure he would get the call up, but I am not sure he will continue to hit in AAA. I felt Jason Delay was the best choice as backup catcher but let’s face it, sending down Endy Rodriguez is strictly a player control move. A switch hitter who is hitting at every level and is a catcher who plays other positions, sure let’s send him down. Especially since we have the worst hitting catcher in all of baseball in Austin Hedges. He better throw out every runner, never have a passed ball, and pitchers better carry him off the field every game for the way he handled them. The team can be divided into two groups. The young and up and coming group. The old veteran group with a few in between. The young group include Oneil Cruz, Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Rudolfo Castro, Ji Hwan Bae, and Canaan Smith-Njigba. Many have stated that this group played a lot last year and the Pirates still did not win many games. The fact remains that this group, particularly the first 5, were rarely in the line up at the same time. The Pirate management team continued to put on the field, way below major league level players, just to ensure losing games. These 5 should be together almost every game with Bae and Smith-Njigba being key bench players. The old group is Andrew McCutchen 36, Carlos Santana, who will be 37 in April, Ji-Man Choi 32 in May, Conner Joe and Austin Hedges who both will be turning 31 during the season. The man in the middle is the backup catcher Jason Delay who is 28. This group needs to stay healthy and improve their play just a touch to make this team a contender. Nobody needs to have a career year. They just have to be a nice 2 WAR player and the Pirates will make a solid move forward. The good news here is that there are plenty of good young players down on the farm, if any of this group gets hurt or really falters. This group should be the steadying influence, if there are meaningful games to be played in August and September. They know what it is like to play in the heat of a pennant race. With the exception of Rodriguez, the Pirates are taking the 13 best players up North. They could not come close to saying that last year. Now for the pitchers, where I do not have the same warm fuzzy feeling.

Back in the fall I wrote that one of the prerequisites for the Pirates to be a contender would be that certain players should not be on the team. They have fulfilled that, except for good old Dwayne Underwood Junior, who will be referred to as DUJ, from this moment on. Now, maybe he is on the team because of other pitchers going down with problems, but this just points to the fact that the Pirates really did not do that much to shore up the bullpen during the offseason. The acquisition of Vince Velasquez is still one that has me scratching my head. There is nothing in his pedigree that suggests he is going to be an average Major League pitcher. He has a career ERA of 4.93 and ERA+ of 85. What I find interesting about him, and Rich Hill is that both have a lot of bullpen experience. Velasquez has relieved 47 times in his career and Hill has come out of the bullpen 129 times. That versatility may make them have a different role than expected as the season moves forward. More on Rich Hill later, but the fact remains that the Pirates are not famous for revitalizing anyone’s career, but maybe Velasquez will be the first. Despite these misgivings I think the bullpen will do alright. The Pirates have to make some 40-man roster moves even as I write this, but it appears that they are going to go with 2 lefties and the core from last year. I think the performances of Will Crow, Colin Holderman, and Chase De Jong will be a big key to the overall success of this bullpen. The starting rotation should do fine and if they don’t, then a lot of young arms are ready to be called up. This pitching staff is the real wild card on this team. They could really stink or be the real strength of this team.

It is very easy to see what the key to success for this team will be. First, the young players have to show some progress. It would be nice to see an upgrade in their play of around 10 to 20%. Second, the old group just needs to be themselves. The perfect example is Rich Hill. His 162 game average stats are 10 wins 7 losses an ERA of 3.85 and an ERA+ 111. Even if he does what he did last year, 8-7 with an ERA+ 98 the Pirates will be just fine. The same could be said of the rest of the veteran group. Carlos Santana has averaged about 19 homers the last 3 seasons. If he only has 2 during the first 60 games then the Pirates are in trouble. Andrew McCutchen’s on base percentage over the last 3 years has been .325. If at the 60 game mark his OBP is under 300 then the things are not going well. You get the picture. It is not a big ask but the veterans need to be themselves if the team is going to have success. Today is one of the great days in sport and I love the fact that it is just called Opening Day. Everyone knows what sport you are talking about without saying any more. The 162-game journey begins today.

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