Williams: The Pirates Have Improved Their Depth at the Major League Level

There has been a lot of talk the last few years about the depth that the Pittsburgh Pirates have collected in their minor league system.

“Depth” in a farm system is typically where you have a lot of future potential MLB players. The depth mostly comes from guys who aren’t MLB starting prospects now, but who could each see improvements in their game. The benefit of depth is that you’re more likely to see a 40-grade prospect break out when you’ve got so many of them.

It seems like the Pirates have been taking an approach the last few years where they’ve thrown 40-grade MLB players into starting roles in the majors, hoping that some of those guys would develop into starters. The results haven’t been good.

This offseason feels different. The Pirates have added several free agents, giving the team a boost of veteran leadership and legitimate MLB starters. Those starters might not be more than average starters at best, but they are an upgrade over the plans heading into the previous years.

As a result, all of those 40-grade MLB guys are starting to shift down into actual bench or depth roles. There’s still the chance for these players to emerge as 50-grade or better options. If that happens, it will now be a bonus, rather than the hopes that the Pirates are being built upon.

Here are two areas where the Pirates have made moves to shift their depth options into actual depth roles, along with one spot where they could still use an addition.

The Rotation

The Pirates right now have the makings of two interesting rotations.

At the MLB level, they’ve brought in Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez on one-year deals. They’ve had success the last few years with left-handed free agent options. Hill looks like he could be another solid lefty addition. Velasquez is a wild card, and looks better with the addition of Hill.

Those two join the trio of Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, and JT Brubaker. There will be less pressure on these three to produce with the addition of the two veteran starters. You could imagine a rotation of average starters, with the chance for Keller, Contreras, and/or Brubaker to take a step forward.

At the Triple-A level, the Pirates have a loaded prospect rotation. They’ve got Johan Oviedo and Luis Ortiz, who both showed some potential in 2022. If Velasquez doesn’t work, or if one of the other starters struggles, these two look like they could already be MLB-ready.

There are also starters who the Pirates have given opportunities to in the past. Zach Thompson might be the top candidate to serve as early-season rotation depth. Bryse Wilson, who was just designated for assignment today, could be a depth option if he sticks around — though I’d imagine he ends up elsewhere.

The Pirates also have top prospects in Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows, with both of these right-handers likely to be up in the second half.

Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, JT Brubaker, Johan Oviedo, Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester, Mike Burrows, Zach Thompson.

That’s a deep group. It wasn’t long ago that Thompson was the fifth best option. Now, he’s the fifth guy in Indianapolis, surrounded by talented young pitchers, and might only be an early-season depth option with the competition.

First Base/Designated Hitter

The Pirates didn’t get bad production in 2022 at first base from Daniel Vogelbach. The problem was that they didn’t get help from anyone else, and had no replacement when Vogelbach was dealt.

This year, they’ve added Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi to fill out first base and the designated hitter position. They’ve also brought in Connor Joe and Miguel Andujar to add depth to the position.

When Vogelbach was traded last year, the entire first base position collapsed. The designated hitter spot didn’t have much help.

This year, the Pirates have two people who could put up Vogelbach’s production or better, with contingency plans behind Santana and Choi.

There’s also the possibility of a prospect arriving from the minors. Malcom Nunez seems like the leader of the pack, but I think it’s more likely the long-term first base role in Pittsburgh will be filled by someone currently not at first base.

The Outfield

This is an area where the Pirates have a lot of depth, although they could still use help.

The starters here are Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski. If the season started today, I think that Connor Joe would be in the mix for a starting role, with Miguel Andujar on the bench. I also think Ji-Hwan Bae has a good chance at being a super-utility guy who can get time in the outfield.

The Pirates have Tucupita Marcano, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Travis Swaggerty, and Ryan Vilade as depth options on the 40-man roster. They also have Matt Gorski and a few other prospects to provide second-half depth from the upper levels of the minors.

If you look at the rotation and 1B/DH, the Pirates have their starters in place. Those starters might not be more than average starters, but that’s better than where the Pirates were last year, and there’s better depth behind those positions.

The Pirates don’t have this yet in the outfield. At best, they have a starter in Reynolds, and another spot where a platoon of Suwinski and Joe would look good. They could use a third outfielder, pushing everyone else down into a depth role, and strengthening the entire group.

There is depth in the outfield, but right now this feels like the type of depth we’ve seen in previous years. That type of depth is the “throw a bunch of guys at a position and hope one of them sticks”. It seems like the Pirates are moving away from that approach this year at the other positions. I wouldn’t be surprised if they add an outfielder to match how they’ve stabilized those other spots.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Aurorus

I don’t mean to be Debby Downer, just realistic. Is the team that much better coming into this year over last year? Is Rich Hill going to be better than Quintana? If you think so, you need your head examined. They had the improved version of Keller for 2/3rds of last season and still managed to lose 100 games. Outside of the Bednar and Crowe, the bullpen has as many questions this year as last.

Is Castro going to be a major improvement over Newman? Maybe, but maybe not. Is the 60 or so points of OPS that Choi adds over Chavis going to change the Pirates’ destiny in any meaningful way? Remember that Santana will not outperform Vogelbach, and both 3rd base and catcher remain blackholes offensively unless Hayes can improve his swing.

Finally, if they trade Reynolds, I don’t see how they could have a better team than last year. They are not going to get 6 years of a control over an MLB-ready prospect of equal value to Reynolds: even if a team overpays them for Reynolds.

They spent upwards of 30 million dollars on free agents and got, as far as I can see, little of real value. They could have had 2 impact players for this. Give me Quintana and Abreu on multi-year deals over the whole lot of the Pirates’ acquisitions. At least, there would be a chance that prospects could come up, get running in the majors, and that they would already have in place 2 solid players around which to build. As it stands, they have a bunch of veterans on 1-year contracts trying to hang on in the majors for 1 more year. It seems to be the same-old Pirates as always.

Last edited 1 month ago by Aurorus
pittsburghbob69

Career numbers-

Rich Hill – 1260 IP, 3.85 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 1295 K

Jose Quintana – 1720 IP, 3.75 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 1530 K’s

Seem pretty similar to me. Except Rich Hill much better strike out numbers.

Last edited 1 month ago by pittsburghbob69
AttyMike

I don’t see how having Johan Oviedo and Luis Ortiz start at AAA is advancing the cause of this team. Its just manipulating service time. Signing those other stiffs to be traded at the deadline is just more of the same. I prefer Ovideo and Ortiz work it out in the majors this year so they are that much further advanced for 2024.

NMR

Oviedo has been given three years in a row to “work it out in the majors”, my dude. At some point a guy has to earn it.

TNBucs

Oviedo should be given the chance to make the rotation out of ST—I would be happy with a rotation of Keller, Contreras, Oviedo, Hill, and Brubaker.

Ortiz should start in AAA as his success last year was cause for optimism but also over relatively few innings at the upper levels.

PirateRican21

I wasn’t much of a fan of K. Newman, but looking at the roster he is exactly what they need (unless everyone favorite Triolo could bypass AAA and back up SS). This is my estimate 26, by the way, I hate the bullpen….
SS Cruz
2B Castro
LF Suwinski/Joe
DH Santana 
1B  Choi 
RF  Mitchell/Andujar
C.   Hedges  
3B Hayes
CF Reynolds 

Bench:
Joe, Andujar, Heineman, Bae, back up SS.

RH Contreras 
RH. Keller
RH Brubaker
LH Hill
RH Vazquez 

Pen;
Bednar
Crowe
Holderman
Stephenson
Garcia
Hernandez
DeJong

Last edited 1 month ago by PirateRican21
Mblee24

I agree with most of what you say here but I don’t think they go with 14 position players and 12 relievers, more like 13/13 split. I would add de Los Santos and remove back up short stop or Mitchell. I wouldn’t be opposed to trading Mitchell as he is basically just a bat and seems to be an average one at that. He is a terrible defender with a noodle arm and I don’t think the pirates love him. However, Fangraphs likes him they project a 760 OPS out of him.

Aurorus

I like Mitchell too and am not sure why they felt the need to go out and spend $6 million on a DH, when Mitchell seems to fit the role perfectly.

b mcferren

hopefully Santana and Choi are platoon partners and the Mitchel/Andujar plattoon is the DH

need Bae in the starting lineup

think you forgot Yerry over either Chase of Stephenson

PirateRican21

YDLS is starting in AAA barring injuries, I like him better than most, but he has options, the others don’t. For the record I think Ramirez is the best arm in the pen and I don’t think he’s making the 26 unless he rocks ST.

redwards60

Did the Pirates add a mix of veterans way past their prime (Hill and Santana), who can provide veteran leadership, yes. I like the reliever they got from the Giants. As for Choi, Joe, and Velasquez, they added depth of very little quality and once again have blocked their own prospects. Bolton is so old he isn’t even a prospect anymore. They exposed an interesting prospect who played positions of need at first base and catcher in Sabol, so they could protect a pitcher with horrific career numbers including 2022 in Wilson, just to DFA him 2 to 3 weeks later. Great roster management BC!! Now I am glad to see Wilson gone, but Velasquez is no better…maybe even worse. This organization is a circus.

Last edited 1 month ago by redwards60
Mblee24

Velasquez is not worse than Wilson and they are not blocking anyone. They are just putting MLB players at positions where prospects will take their spots down the road. I would rather a prospect earn a spot rather than be given one because your MLB club is made up of a bunch of fringe prospects or reclamation projects.

roberto

Therapy sometimes helps with depression.

leefieux

Depth or just newer deck chairs?

Time will tell.

capirate

If they are new deck chairs, I think they are of higher quality than last year’s group.

leefieux

I corrected that for you. 🤓🤓🤓

‘I HOPE they are of higher quality than last year’s group.’

redwards60

More likely it is the latter

mpg43952

Still don’t have good feelings about Velasquez, would like to see Cueto brought in, also RH outfielder for platoon with Cal Mitchell in right. Mitchell should have been given a 1st base mitt and sent to winter ball.

Aurorus

I would prefer to see Mitchell at DH over both Choi and Santana. Mark my words, Mitchell will have better OPS than both at season’s end.

Anthony

wOBA is a much better stat, and I think Santana will post the second best wOBA on the team next to Reynolds.

I implore you to check out Santana’s expected stats. He’s still a beast.

Aurorus

In my opinion Santana is likely to be better than Choi, but it all depends upon the validity of the “wrist injury affected Choi” narrative. That said, Santana is 38 and on a downward trend for 3 years. 38 year-old players on a 3-year downward trend are what they are… players aging out of baseball. I am very familiar with Santana’s stats. I had him on my Diamond Mind baseball team for 4 years. Loved him and was probably his biggest fan. It’s just realistic that he has run out of gas.. I traded him 2 years ago.

Anthony

The expected stats are saying otherwise as he continues to hit the ball extremely well. The difference between his actual results and expected results are amongst the widest in MLB. I get he is older, and I don’t expect “peak” Santana. However, his stat cast data is still well above average, and the difference between actual and expected screams “shift”.

Aurorus

The whole thing frustrates me actually, because I think that I can pick up Cal Mitchell for my Diamond Mind team for a middling left-handed reliever (of which I have a surplus). I am very worried, however, that the Pirates will do their “veteranosity” thing with Choi, Santana, and Connor, which will limit Mitchell’s ABs this season and ruin my plan to use him as my DH full-time. It is probably still worth the trade, since I think Mitchell will be a regular for some years to come. However, I hope to compete for a title this year, and I don’t need a no-defense bench bat. I like to have only 1 or (at most 2) pinch-hitters on my bench and use the other spots for defensive subs who can pinch-run. I can sub these guys in when the starters need a break and I have a high groundball sinker/slider type starting.

leefieux

I’d like to see ANYBODY but VV. I would’ve kept Wilson over him. I still can’t believe he got a MAJOR league deal!

mpg43952

If Vince doesn’t perform, Nickles will have him on a paper route in Weirton so fast his head will spin.

redwards60

He didn’t…he signed with the Pirates

leefieux

My bad.😂😂😂😂

jaygray007

The pirates 6-10 starters… Ortiz oviedo priester Burrows thompson… might be as good as the 1-5 were at any point last year lol

Cobra

Not sure I would’ve spent $25m on our 5 FA vs $25m on like 2 better ones but what do I know. Is it coincidence all of this spending came after the Bryan reynolds embarrassing trade demand? I mean Lewin diaz was our plan for 1B with Choi literally days before that debacle

redwards60

I don’t think there is a very long line of quality free agents who would sign with the Pirates for obvious reasons.

sewer2001

Yes it’s coincidence. Reynolds trade request isn’t causing the pirates to lose sleep or change plans. He has zero leverage.

Wilbur Miller

I think it had more to do with the infusion of $30M. It’s a one-time infusion, hence one-year contracts.

Wabbit_Season

WM

This interests me. So this $30M is a one time windfall from MLB because of the sale of rights, or revenue sharing, or what?

Interested because this might not necessarily mean the Pirates are changing their penny-pinching ways, but literally are just bathing in an MLB pool of money for a while.

If it only takes $30M (said the guy who will never in a lifetime make $30M) to be decent, the Pirates, given a good, productive minor league system, should be decent all the time. Maybe not contenders, but decent.

It would be nice to see a team dispense with the whole tanking operation and instead invest a bit to make the team a good match for visiting powerhouses even in “down” years. There is dignity to consider for a storied franchise.

I like the MLB average guys who’ve been brought in simply because they make the prospects have to BE at least that good to break in. I guess the frustration for our estimable writers here is that they have not historically done this when it would take only a passing interest (in MLB money terms) to accomplish being decent every year.

“I’m gonna catch a rabbit. I’m gonna catch him and cut his tail off!”

-Wabbit

Anthony

It was the sale of the remaining 15% of BAMtech, a media streaming technology. And no, it is not the cause of recent FA spending. They were already tracking to spend a similar amount this off-season.

Last edited 1 month ago by Anthony
Wilbur Miller

They sold their web operation (not sure what it encompassed). To Disney, maybe?

b mcferren

yes, that became the streaming broadcast power of Disney+

RAS TN

The Pirates have added to their depth, whether it’s an improvement TWT…

leefieux

As I said above, just newer deck chairs in all probability.

roberto

A nice deck chair, a sea breeze. and a pleasant cocktail make for an enjoyable voyage.

leefieux

The Pirates keep making me sea sick.

Wilbur Miller

I want the Dramamine concession at PNC.

leefieux

The line would be really lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng!!

jaygray007

I dont think we talk enough about suwinskis platoon splits. They could definitely use another RH OF option.

Cutch shares some characteristics with Santana Hedges and Joe, and could platoon with Joe vs LHP and chip in at the other corner and at dh vs most RHP.

leefieux

Andujar, except his splits are backwards?

roberto

As are Mitchell’s.

Wilbur Miller

Which points to a problem with taking a young guy and just deciding at the start that he’s gonna be a platoon player. I know from following it all these years that MiL splits are hazardous.

b mcferren

perfect DH platoon partners

jaygray007

It’s a little weird that this article is written like Vogelbach was a 1b.

He played 5 innings there

Wilbur Miller

Yeah, but it was a long five innings.

JimEastTennessee

Depth was my thought when I read about Bryce Wilson. Looking forward to continued development and strengthening as 2024 is befinning to look QUITE intriguing.

leefieux

The guy was obviously reacting to a 1-2-3 Wilson inning.

SBRO

The fact that they’ve collected NINE outfielders is kind of a giveaway of their intentions: tryouts!!! I don’t think an OF signing is at hand, at least not of the major league variety.

The silver lining of having tryouts is at least this year they no longer have a bunch of surplus infielders they feel obligated to plug in RF, so at least the tryouts will be among those who actually play outfield.

I’m actually having a tough time figuring out how guys like Swaggerty, Vilade and Smith-Njigba even get into games.

Aurorus

Smith-Njigba should get his opportunities. If the guy can stay healthy, he should be an on-base machine, against lefties as well as righties. He should provide adequate (though not great) defense at either corner OF position as well. I would be surprised if he is not a starter by the end of the season… again.. if he can stay healthy.

NMR

Not to oversimplify it, but either some combo of Jack/Joe/Andujar/Mitchell/Bae stink and the opportunity presents itself to the others, or they don’t and the need for the others to step up and fill a void no longer exists.

I might snap if I see Tucu in the outfield tho.

leefieux

Your last sentence: That might be a good thing? And I was once bullish on TS.

Last edited 1 month ago by leefieux
Scrappy2499

During spring training I suppose get Reynolds some “get your timing down games”, the rest you rotate between MLB spring training games and backfield games as well. Best other two and a bench guy go north…

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