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Williams: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

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One of the things I like about the FanGraphs ZiPS projections this year is the inclusion of the 20th and 80th percentile estimates.

The typical projections each year give the 50th percentile estimate. Players can perform above and below these projections, and my ZiPS analysis each year tries to explain where I see the potential for players to exceed or fall short of simulations.

The 80th/20th Percentiles allow us to see what ZiPS is projecting in those simulations where the player is exceeding or falling short of his average. This is especially helpful, because it allows you to dream about some players, while isolating where the concerns are on the roster.

I wanted to focus on the range of expectations for each position in the Pirates’ lineup, getting an idea of the risks and upsides for the Pirates’ 2023 season. I’ll repeat this with the pitchers next week.

I’m mostly interested here in the 20th percentiles, wondering what is the worst that could happen at each position.

Catcher

Austin Hedges is projected for an 0.8 WAR. His 20th percentile is at replacement level, while his 80th percentile is a 1.5 WAR.

Interestingly enough, Tyler Heineman is rated slightly higher. His standard projection is an 0.9 WAR, with an 0.4-1.4 split on the 20/80.

Hedges has some intangible value with his leadership and experience. Both of these guys look better as backups. There’s a chance either one could perform to the high-end of their projections and boost the production behind the plate.

The Pirates had the 21st best catching production in the majors last year, with their group being around replacement level. If Hedges and Heineman both perform to their 20th percentiles, they’d be on par with the 2022 production.

The payoff here is Endy Rodriguez, who ZiPS loves. The top prospect in the system has a 20th percentile WAR of 1.3. The low-end expectations for Endy are the high-end expectations for Hedges and Heineman.

The Pirates will get an upgrade when Rodriguez arrives, per the ZiPS projections. I would have to agree.

First Base/Designated Hitter

The Pirates had horrible production at both first base and designated hitter last year. I’m grouping these two together here, though I expect some of the outfielders to get into the DH mix.

If Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi were able to make it through the entire season healthy, just performing to their 20th percentiles, they would represent a 4-win upgrade over the 2022 1B/DH positions.

That’s oversimplifying things a bit, but it shows how the Pirates don’t need much production from these spots to improve.

Santana is projected for an 0.3 WAR on the low end, with a 2.6 WAR upside on the high end. I think he ends up closer to the high end, especially if the Pirates can use their depth to reduce his workload on the field.

Choi is projected for a -0.2 WAR on the low end, with a 1.8 upside on the high end. He’s got an 0.9 WAR in his standard projection.

I couldn’t find a projection for Connor Joe, but most projection systems have him in the 0.7 WAR range. In the last two years he’s had 0.0 and 1.1 WAR seasons. I think his projection ends up just below Choi, and the Pirates could use Joe to reduce the workloads for the two first basemen who are over 30.

There’s not a ton of upside here, but the Pirates have stabilized these two positions with players who can play at least replacement level. I’d imagine that some outfielders get into the DH mix as well, with similar projections.

Second Base

This position looks like it will rely on prospect upside all year. My guess is that Rodolfo Castro and Ji-Hwan Bae will be the starting candidates on Opening Day.

Castro has a 20th percentile of -0.5 WAR. Bae is at 0.2 WAR. They both have an 80th percentile of just over 2 WAR.

I think that Nick Gonzales ends the year as the starting second baseman, but ZiPS doesn’t agree. It has Gonzales at an 0.1 low end and a 1.6 high end.

The Pirates will hope that one of these three can step forward in 2023 and provide multiple-WAR production at the position.

Shortstop/Third Base

I’m combining the left side of the infield only because it has the safest floors on the team. It also shows an interesting way to look at the percentiles.

The 20th Percentiles have Oneil Cruz with a 1.3 WAR and Ke’Bryan Hayes with a 1.6. For some of the previous positions, this has been a 50th-80th percentile projection.

Both Cruz and Hayes are projected by ZiPS with a 2.7 WAR in their 50th percentile projections. Cruz has more upside in the 80th percentile, with a 4.3 WAR to the 3.7 from Hayes.

Hayes gives you a slightly higher floor, and Cruz gives you a slightly higher ceiling from the same 50th percentile projections. The Pirates will be hoping for the ceilings from both players.

Outfield

Bryan Reynolds is the surest thing here, with a 2.1 WAR in his 20th percentile projections. ZiPS only projects three players on the roster with a higher 50th percentile range — Cruz, Hayes, and Rodriguez. You can start to see how this team is coming together on the high end.

Reynolds has the 80th percentile of a 5.2 WAR, with a standard projection of 3.5. The Pirates don’t get anywhere close to that with their other outfielders.

Jack Suwinski has one of the best 80th percentiles on the team, with a 2.5 WAR. However, he’s got a -0.4 20th percentile.

Andrew McCutchen is in a similar situation. He’s got a -0.3 WAR on the 20th percentile, but a 1.9 WAR on the 80th. I’d expect McCutchen to get more time at designated hitter, which could push him closer to the 80th percentile from his 0.7 WAR standard projection.

Cal Mitchell has the most bust potential of the Opening Day guys, with a -0.7 WAR on the 20th percentile. He has a 1.6 WAR on the high end.

ZiPS loves Travis Swaggerty, who has a 0.1 WAR on the low end and a 2.2 WAR on the high end.

As I mentioned in the DH section above, Connor Joe’s projections couldn’t be found, but I can’t imagine they’re much different from the rest of these guys.

The Pirates could get creative with platoons here, which could push guys closer to their 80th percentiles. Ji-Hwan Bae could factor into this mix, which gives another similar player with average upside.

At best, the Pirates would hope for another 5+ WAR season from Reynolds, flanked by average production at the other two positions. At worst, Reynolds still performs in an otherwise replacement level outfield.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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