The Pirates’ lineup went through some far-reaching changes during the course of the 2022 season. This was their opening day lineup, which gave a foretaste of things to come by getting shut out:
Dan Vogelbach, DH
Bryan Reynolds, CF
Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B
Yoshi Tsutsugo, 1B
Kevin Newman, SS
Cole Tucker, RF
Ben Gamel, LF
Roberto Perez, C
Hoy Park, 2B
Substituting in the game were Michael Chavis, Diego Castillo, and Josh VanMeter.
Not exactly a lineup for the ages. Out of this Dismal Dozen, three are long gone, two are more recently departed, two (one of whom missed most of the season) will be free agents shortly, and one had a poor year at age 26 and shouldn’t be anywhere close to a lock to return.
So the Pirates went through an extensive sorting-out process that led to all the changes. Or not. They didn’t really do the sorting in 2022, because they were too busy with players who just took up space. They gave 2,198 plate appearances, or 37% of the team’s total for the year, to players who are gone, many of them players who obviously weren’t going to be around in 2023. So the sorting is still in very early phase. Not that it was ever going to get finished this year, but with more potential pieces of the puzzle becoming available over the next couple years, the Pirates needed to be further along with the ones who were already available.
And there are other reasons it’s the roster at the end of 2023 that’s going to matter, not the one at the beginning. Most notably, guys like Endy Rodriguez and Ji-Hwan Bae are going to have to waste their time at Indianapolis until some point in June in order to save Bob Nutting a bit of arbitration money.
I wanted to look at where the roster might stand by September of 2023. Obviously, I don’t know what players they might acquire during the off-season, although Cherington made it clear the other day that they’re not going to spend any real money. But, making some effort to be realistic about the way this front office operates, here’s a look at where the position player part of the roster could be late in the season.
Focusing on the late-season conveniently avoids talking about the early-season catching. Ideally, the Pirates will re-sign Roberto Perez, although I don’t think that’s a given at all. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d guess they don’t. But he’d give them a nice transition to Rodriguez, who should be up as soon as Nutting’s wallet is safe, and then Perez could serve as backup. That would give the Pirates a legitimate major league backup catcher for the first time in Cherington’s woeful tenure.
The more intriguing question is what happens if the Pirates don’t re-sign Perez. Blake Sabol is another catcher who’s probably ready for the majors now; in fact, he should be given a chance to win a job out of Spring Training. And, of course, there’s Henry Davis. I think he’d probably need a healthy season to reach the majors in 2023, and what are the odds of that? Carter Bins could also work his way into the picture. After the first couple months of 2022, he hit decently, with good power and a frightening K rate. Defense is a problem for him, though. Of the realistic possibilities, having Rodriguez and Sabol both in the majors in September could mean a lot of upside.
Half of this is easy. Hayes at third and Oneil Cruz at short. And, no, moving Cruz off short wouldn’t be a good move now, especially with Liover Peguero not looking like a near-term answer. The rewards from Cruz being able to stay there are worth some risk. You just have to consider the travesties the Pirates have readily tolerated at catcher, first base, the outfield corners and elsewhere. The potential harm from Cruz staying at short is trivial compared to those, and there’s significant upside, compared to zero upside. The risk/reward calculation of Cruz playing short is exponentially more favorable.
Second base is pretty interesting. Rodolfo Castro seemed to have it locked up at least as long as he continues to be Second Half Castro and not First Half Castro. But then Bae surfaced, three months later than he should have, and was close to the team’s best player over the last couple weeks.
I kinda doubt second base is going to get definitively resolved in 2023, and I’m not sure it should be. Bae can play the outfield and Castro can play short and third, which will help when Hayes is hurt and Cruz is DHing. It seems like it’d also make sense for the Pirates to get Castro some time at first, but that probably won’t happen. And there’s also Kevin Newman, who probably isn’t going anywhere. The Pirates can just go with whomever makes sense each day. A choice of Castro, Bae or Newman sure seems better than a choice of Josh VanMeter, Michael Chavis or Yu Chang.
And then there’s first base. The Pirates seem to have identified the position as their top priority for a fix. It’s virtually certain that this just means Cherington will wait until the latter part of Spring Training and sign the cheapest player available, which has been his SOP so far. Whoever he acquires that way is very unlikely to be around in September.
So what happens in September? It’ll be time to find internal options. Hopefully not a mind-numbingly stupid one like having Newman play first. I’m skeptical Miguel Andujar is going to get a shot. When you rank behind Zack Collins for a shot at a position, you’re probably not going to be playing there. The big remaining possibilities, then, would be Matt Gorski and Malcom Nunez. As a hitter, Nunez is probably much lower risk than Gorski because he commands the strike zone better. Gorski, though, is an excellent athlete who should be able to pick up the position; he’s not very good there now, a product of very limited experience.
The Pirates also have some upper-minors prospects who figure to be utility guys. Most notably, right now that’d be Diego Castillo, Hoy Park and Tucupita Marcano. Park hasn’t been impressive and should be in danger of losing his roster spot. Marcano probably isn’t, but maybe should be. It doesn’t help that the Pirates seem determined to eliminate any value he may have by making him an outfielder. Castillo showed surprising power in 2022, but his strikeout rate won’t work long-term.
The dark horse here is Jared Triolo. He should be going on the 40-man roster this fall, he’s probably the best defensive infielder in the organization other than Hayes and maybe Javier Rivas, and his bat always seems to come around after a slow start at a new level. He hasn’t played first yet, but it probably wouldn’t take him long to pick it up well enough to back up there.
The outfield could end up as one of the team’s more stable spots, although disappointing performances could change that. The wild card, of course, is Cherington adding a sub-replacement veteran to stand in the way of progress, as is his habit. Assuming that doesn’t happen, the Pirates could go most or all of the year with an outfield primarily made up of Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, Cal Mitchell, and Andujar, plus Bae some of the time. Mitchell and Andujar also fit at DH as well as anybody who might be a candidate for the roster.
A lot of fans seem to underrate Mitchell, maybe because he struggled early in the year in the majors. He hit very well in the majors starting in July, had a big year when he was in AAA, and has, by Pirate standards, exceptional control of the strike zone. With Andujar, there’s the unsettling question of why the Yankees weren’t able to trade him, but his history just looks like that of a guy who was torpedoed by injuries and never got much of a chance in the majors afterward. And it’s hard to believe Suwinski can’t find some happy middle ground between the wild extremes of Home Jack and Road Jack.
The other possibilities here would be Sabol — who’ll surely get a chance at some point — Travis Swaggerty and Canaan Smith-Njigba. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the Pirates have lost interest in Swaggerty. I don’t expect him to be around in September 2023. I wouldn’t bet on him being around in March 2023, for that matter. Smith-Njigba will no doubt get some opportunity in between injuries, but him hitting left-handed and his severe struggles against LHPs in the minors aren’t a plus.
I could see the Pirates’ 13 position players next September (I’m ignoring the expanded rosters here) looking like this:
C: Endy Rodriguez, Blake Sabol
IF: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, Ji-Hwan Bae, Kevin Newman, Matt Gorski, Jared Triolo
OF: Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, Cal Mitchell, Miguel Andujar
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.