The Pirates opened the season with Jack Suwinski in Double-A and Cal Mitchell left off the 40-man roster in Triple-A.
You wouldn’t expect that to be the combo to lead the Pirates’ offense to a victory in early June.
Suwinski lit Double-A on fire, was called up as an early short-term replacement, and has shown enough to stick around and develop in the majors. Mitchell not only hit well in Triple-A, but passed up teammates Travis Swaggerty and Canaan Smith-Njigba for the first promotion.
On Sunday, Suwinski went 3-for-4 with two doubles, a day after hitting a walk off home run. Mitchell went 2-for-3, hitting his first MLB homer.
The Pirates also called up 2018 first round pick Travis Swaggerty, who should make his debut this week against the Detroit Tigers. With Bryan Reynolds already on the team — albeit while not looking fully like the MVP-caliber Bryan Reynolds yet this year — the Pirates need these three outfield prospects to lock down two long-term spots.
That Sunday lineup also included Diego Castillo and Tucupita Marcano.
Castillo essentially skipped Triple-A with a strong performance this spring, and has since gotten a lot of playing time, with a .587 OPS on the year. He played shortstop on Sunday, where he’s played 18 games in the majors this year, more than any other spot.
Marcano took a similar path as Suwinski. He started in Altoona, came up early for that same COVID replacement that called up Suwinski. Unlike Suwinski, the Pirates sent Marcano back down. He continued to hit, and looks to be getting an extended look now in the majors.
The only difference in the lineup with these players from Saturday to Sunday was that Rodolfo Castro, not Diego Castillo, played shortstop on Saturday night.
Castillo, Castro, and Marcano all can play shortstop, though I see all three having more success in a utility role off the bench, with the chance to develop into average starters in some seasons.
The Pirates have a need for middle infielders, similar to their need for outfielders.
In fact, you could argue that they have better short-term depth and a better short-term outlook in the outfield.
In the long-term, the outfield solution is going to come from the guys who are currently making their way in the majors.
The Pirates have outfield depth emerging beyond Mitchell, Suwinski, and Swaggerty.
They don’t have outfield depth that is better than that trio.
In the long-term, the shortstop solution is going to come from Liover Peguero.
That’s a prediction, as Peguero is only in Double-A right now, and prospects will break your heart.
Considering that Suwinski started the year in Altoona, and is currently developing in the majors, I don’t think we can say this puts Peguero far away.
Peguero reminds me a lot of the guy he was acquired for — Starling Marte — at least from a value standpoint. Both showed the minor league ability to hit the ball for average, power, and play a premium defensive position up the middle. Both were a bit unrefined in a way that shows up with a K/BB ratio that makes you just a little uncomfortable about projecting their bat for impact — not to mention the occasional defensive miscue.
If you’re asking me right now who the top prospect in this system is, even if Henry Davis is healthy, I’d say it’s Peguero.
We can dream about upside all day with prospects, and you can include Peguero in some of the loftier dreams.
We can fear about prospects busting all day, and you can include Peguero in some of the scarier nightmares.
But the reality, as I see it, is that Peguero does so many things well that he’s got a great shot of ending up that perpetual 3-4 win player from a combination of his tools. He also has the build and athleticism to maintain MLB production into his 30s.
And as far as I’ve seen, there’s nothing that sounds long-term alarms with Peguero’s approach at the plate, or his play in the field. He can get a bit uncontrolled on both sides, leading to some bad swings at the plate, and wild throws on defense. Both are issues that can be controlled enough for eventual big league success.
The Pirates have shortstop prospects who will be getting a look before Peguero, but no one in the system has his total upside at the position.
With all of this said, what are the Pittsburgh Pirates doing with Oneil Cruz?
Cruz has mostly played shortstop this year, but had spent eight games in left field.
You can see why the Pirates want Cruz playing the outfield. Long-term, it’s more likely that he would be an upgrade over someone like Mitchell/Suwinski/Swaggerty in the outfield. He could also concurrently be a downgrade over Peguero at shortstop.
You can see why Cruz is upset.
The Pirates have promoted a lot of players with minimal to zero Triple-A experience. They’ve allowed some of those players to develop in the majors. Yet, Cruz is relegated to the minors, and the biggest reason given seems to be giving him outfield work.
The downside is that Cruz has shown issues in the outfield in Indianapolis. You don’t want him learning on the job in the majors.
That said, with shortstop open in the majors — both Diego Castillo and Rodolfo Castro have an OPS under .600 — why can’t Cruz develop the bat in the majors and focus on his position when Peguero forces a change?
I know Cruz is returning from an injury, but there was a window where he could have been called up for this purpose.
As far as impact potential, no one has a bigger bat than Cruz. The issue seems to be where to play him.
I’m going to say something that is purely open speculation, and based nothing on any inside information that would constitute this an official trade rumor.
I think Oneil Cruz’s best value to the Pirates — this year and long-term — is as a trade chip.
He could play shortstop for Pittsburgh, providing a luxury bat at the position while detracting value with his defense. The moment Peguero arrives, that’s over. That gives Cruz a year or two at the position in the majors, with this year being one of those years.
Ideally, you’d want him in right field, where his bat could shine and the defense could be minimized. But, he hasn’t been open to the outfield, which means it’s unlikely that he ever really learns the outfield.
If you just want the bat in the majors, there’s always the designated hitter role. Cruz would also make an interesting first baseman, though as I mentioned yesterday in First Pitch, that’s a different type of position than the free-ranging ones he is used to. And if he doesn’t want to learn left field, he’s probably not going to want to learn first base.
Cruz is a top prospect for the pure impact potential of his bat, and the pure hope that he can play a position that won’t detract much value from that bat.
The bat has still maintained value. In fact, I don’t know if the Pirates intentionally did this, but they’ve basically orchestrated peak Cruz prospect value. They brought him to the majors at the end of 2021 and he homered. He did well in Spring Training. Then, they sent him down for a reason that could easily be considered frivolous if this was another organization.
The bat has struggled in Triple-A this year, but that has also come with Cruz being frustrated for multiple reasons. That’s not exactly a point in his favor, but a team might see that and think they’ve got a better shot with him.
The Pirates need a bat like Cruz can provide. Realistically, they don’t really have a spot for him that he has been open to playing.
I think there’s still enough value coming from the lofty projections for the 6′ 7″ Oneil Cruz that he would have significant trade value at the deadline. I don’t think anyone is giving up on the bat, and some team will probably dream that the defensive positioning won’t be an issue that would warrant passing on that bat.
Some teams don’t have Liover Peguero.
Cruz could land the Pirates a player at a position of need — which I don’t think he will ever be for them.
Again, I’m merely looking at the writing on the wall with how the talent is laid out in this system, and how the Pirates are prioritizing that talent. I think it’s more likely to assume Cruz will join the Pirates at some point when he is healthy this year, than to assume he will be traded.
I just can’t help but thinking that Cruz isn’t really part of the long-term plans in Pittsburgh.