I’ve been waiting for the Pirates to make a discernable change at the Major League level, and I think it has finally arrived.
I am not a source for the vibe of the current Pirates team. The last time I wrote daily for this site, Jason Mackey was covering hockey. In the last two years, I’ve been paying close attention to the vibe shift in the minor league system, and have reported on the individualized approach the Pirates are taking with development.
The MLB team had largely been ignored the last few years as the Pirates worked on overhauling their system. A lot of work they’ve been doing behind the scenes has been creating an overall atmosphere that is different from the one in the past. I’ll leave it to Jason Mackey to describe how this is reaching the MLB level.
I’ve been in a lot of quiet and frustrated Pirates clubhouses over the years. What’s going on with them right now is the polar opposite. Vibe is sky high in there right now.
— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) April 5, 2023
It’s easy to have a sky high vibe when you’ve started the season 4-2 after sweeping the Red Sox in Boston. It doesn’t even matter if the Red Sox aren’t meant to be a good team — a sweep is an accomplishment for any team. Red Sox fans now have to wonder if their team is horrible, or if the Pirates are just good.
There are 156 games remaining to answer that question. I’m personally looking forward to every one of them, because that vibe in the clubhouse is infectious, and permeates through MLB.tv’s digital steams.
It can be seen with the dancing and relaxed attitude after wins, as promised in the signing press conference by Carlos Santana.
It can be seen in every energetic play that Andrew McCutchen makes, making you think he’s found a time machine that allows him to tap into some of that 2013-15 energy.
It’s the way that younger pitchers like Mitch Keller are starting to pitch with confidence that is starting to lead to results.
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of clubhouses in Pittsburgh that had the former vibe Mackey described. That’s not to say there weren’t fun, energetic teams. The energy around the early 2017 team was fun. It was very easy for that to disappear, and that vibe did disappear as the team continued to toil with no direction and no clear plan to win at the MLB level.
The Pirates haven’t had a great plan to win at the Major League level since, and you can imagine how the clubhouse has lacked a positive vibe in that time period.
What I’ve seen in the minors is a shift in how players are treated. In the past, a player would get drafted and would almost be treated like a high school or college player in perpetuity. They weren’t seen as mature enough to take charge of their careers, and prospects were infantized in a way as part of a teaching system that always taught down on the young players.
The new system has empowered the players with more individuality. I would say that the players in the A-ball levels are treated more like college students or young professionals who are just getting used to living on their own and working a career in the world. The upper level prospects are treated more like MLB players who just don’t have the experience yet. In the past, the majors was treated as more of a mythological dragon to slay, even if you were having success in Indianapolis. The Pirates see Altoona and Indianapolis as the same talent level now, and I think the biggest impact from that is the symbolic factor of getting players thinking they’re close to the majors when they reach Double-A — rather than reserving that mindset for when they make the jump to the majors.
What does this have to do with the MLB club? Nothing directly.
Indirectly, the Pirates are treating their players like human beings. They have a better understanding now of how to establish a positive environment. That is starting to translate to the big league environment with the same relaxed and positive vibes you’ll find on a daily basis in the minors.
In the past, there was a shift in the vibe from the minors to the majors. I followed players from the moment they arrived in pro ball to the moment they arrived in the majors. When they made that final jump, it entered them into a more relaxed environment where they could finally dress how they wanted, take control of their careers how they wanted, and finally feel like a real MLB pitcher.
Now, I don’t think I need to explain why it’s a problem that players were getting this experience at the Major League level. At best, they got a taste of the experience in Spring Training. The Pirates are now giving tastes with temporary MLB callups, and they’re empowering players in the minors with the MLB attitude, so there’s little adjustment when the time eventually arrives.
With prospects starting to arrive, the Pirates added key veteran players who could instill that positive vibe that they’ve been building in the minors. I don’t think the plan was drawn up this way, but the fact they brought in Andrew McCutchen — one of the most high profile prospects to come through this system — is going to be huge for young players who are arriving in Pittsburgh this year just as McCutchen did in 2009.
It’s great to see the positive vibe right now in the clubhouse, though it’s expected from the winning. I’m interested to see how this vibe impacts the minor leaguers arriving this year. In theory, it should allow for a more comfortable transition, with a similar relaxed and positive vibe that has been instilled in the minors over the last few years.
**Kyle Nicolas is a sleeper to help the Pirates rotation this year. He’s pitching out of Double-A, where he aims to see better results with his control. Nicolas gave up three earned runs in 4.2 innings in his debut last night, with his damage coming in the second after walking three batters in a row. His stuff and frame projects as an MLB starter, but the control is the thing holding him back.
**It was good to see Matt Gorski getting his first homer of the year. He had a big first half last year, before missing a lot of time with an injury. Gorski has some of the best raw power in the upper levels. He told me this spring that he’s been making an adjustment that allows him to see the ball better with both eyes. His issue in the past has been strikeouts. If he can cut down the plate patience and maintain the power, he could emerge as a candidate for the MLB outfield.
**Speaking of that MLB outfield, Travis Swaggerty hit a home run and a triple last night. Offense is the big thing holding him back. He did well in MLB Spring Training this year, but hasn’t had enough consistent minor league time in his career to make progress with his game. He would be the best center field option in the system, with Gorski as a sleeper candidate behind him. Seeing both players homer last night is an encouraging sign.
TODAY ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
With a full schedule of minor league games kicking off today, we picked our sleeper prospects to follow in the system. If you missed it from yesterday, check out our minor league previews:
Triple-A: Indianapolis Indians
Double-A: Altoona Curve
High-A: Greensboro Grasshoppers
Single-A: Bradenton Marauders
**Ethan Hullihen broke down the Pirates Opening Day payroll, putting them at around $75 million for the start of the 2023 season.
**In his latest daily article, Anthony Murphy looks at the two sides of Kyle Nicolas on the mound.
**The Pirates got several mentions among the best tools in the minors, and John Dreker breaks it all down.
**If you missed yesterday’s column, I looked at three prospects I’m following in the Pirates’ system this year.
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.
It’s good to hear that the presence of some veteran leadership and positivity is having the desired effect. Now how about a manager who knows how to reinforce and encourage this in order to build a winning and confident long-term environment. Stoicism and blandness are hardly motivational.
Yeah I can’t wait to see tomorrow’s lineup as said manager benches the guys who did the most today like Joe and Bae, and makes sure guys like Choi, Castro and Smith-N get to play!
Hopefully the games are still meaningful at the trade deadline and the vets can stick around. I am just going to enjoy it as long as it lasts. Especially when some of the other prospects get the call to the MLB.
The incredible power of actually f*cking trying!
Long, slow, tanking rebuilds are such an insidious, awful influence on an organization that simply putting in the minimum amount of effort to build a real baseball team has an incredible impact.
You truly do love to see it.
I think it was Santana who alluded to this the other day:
Santana has it right and I’m in more of a wait-and-see mode.
I dont think its a coincidence that this change is being seen this year with how many vets known for leadership they brought in. As much as people want to sh*t on santana’s slow start, etc., there is clearly a wave of change coming in to the club from somewhere
Santana finally woke up in the last two games, playing great defenses and some key hits including two homers. I so much would rather see older vets like him and Cutch to help the young players, as opposed to that parade of Quad A rejects life Van Meter and ………uh……….uh…..See I already forgot most of the guys who got significant playing time last year!