The Pittsburgh Pirates have shown promise in the first week-plus of the 2023 season. They’ve started with a 5-3 record, including a sweep of the Boston Red Sox.
As I wrote yesterday, the offense is clicking on multiple levels. The top of the lineup is stacked with Oneil Cruz, Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Santana. From there, the Pirates have a playmaker emerging in Ji-Hwan Bae, who is providing a spark for their Middlegame.
I wrote about the concept of a Middlegame as it relates to an individual baseball game. What about the Middlegame of the season? That’s where the Pirates might have an advantage.
My pre-season prediction for this team was 79 wins. That wasn’t because I thought they would begin the season hot. It was because I thought they would get a boost in the middle of the season.
The Pirates have depth in the upper levels of their farm system, which should help stave off negative effects from injuries or poor performance. Today, I’m going to highlight three areas where that prospect depth could give the MLB team a boost in the win column during the summer.
The Pirates are getting outstanding production out of Bryan Reynolds right now. Their offseason additions of Andrew McCutchen and Connor Joe are also providing the outfield with a boost.
I’ve seen a lot of focus on Jack Suwinski and his high strikeout rate — currently at 35%. What makes that strikeout rate worse is that Suwinski isn’t getting hits. He’s walking at a 17.6% rate, and it’s only four games, so there is hope. Canaan Smith-Njigba is striking out in about 62% of his plate appearances, providing more struggles in the outfield.
The Pirates are hoping for one of these guys to emerge as a starter. If that doesn’t happen, they have several options in the upper levels of the minors.
Travis Swaggerty has the best chance of emerging as a starter. He plays solid defense in center field, but needs to show better offense. That could come from consistent playing time and staying healthy. Cal Mitchell is another depth option out of Triple-A this year, on a similar level as Suwinski and Smith-Njigba. In Altoona, the Pirates have Matt Gorski as a standout, along with Lolo Sanchez, Connor Scott, and Matt Fraizer hoping to break through.
Swaggerty is the only one of this group who you could comfortably give a potential 50-grade or higher. There isn’t a standout from the rest of the group, which doesn’t mean that no one will stand out. The outfield is an area where the Pirates will really explore the word “depth”, rather than waiting for one guy. If Swaggerty starts hitting in Indianapolis, he could emerge as that guy.
The Pirates have gotten rough starts from free agent additions Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez. Eventually, they will turn to Quinn Priester, and hopefully Mike Burrows, if he’s healthy. Luis Ortiz is another depth option, and the Pirates have already tapped their depth with Johan Oviedo taking over for JT Brubaker.
Don’t count out Kyle Nicolas as a sleeper option from Altoona, though he would need to fix his control issues. Jared Jones has a lot of upside at the Double-A level, but any appearance in the majors from him this year would be unlikely.
The depth has already taken a hit here with the injury to Brubaker, and Burrows going down last night. The fact that the Pirates could promote Quinn Priester to their rotation this summer gives them the potential for a huge boost, in addition to the depth from anyone else.
We’re all waiting for the arrival of Endy Rodriguez. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what the Pirates do when Rodriguez and Henry Davis both arrive. I don’t expect Davis to arrive this year.
Endy will arrive first, and will likely provide the biggest impact from the farm system this year. The Pirates have three defensive options ahead of him. Jason Delay is off to a good start offensively, but it’s early, and his career doesn’t support these numbers.
Rodriguez could give the Pirates a big offensive boost at a position where their lineup is the weakest — while starting to ease in as a catcher of the future in Pittsburgh.
**I wrote yesterday about how the Pirates were getting production from the bottom of their lineup. That’s not to say they haven’t been getting production from the top. Yesterday, the top four hitters combined to go 8-for-16 with all of the scoring for the Pirates. What I like about the production from the bottom of the lineup — even if it doesn’t show up in every game — is that it seems like that production rarely showed up in 2022. The Pirates have a more well-rounded offensive group.
**I wrote about the strikeout issues with Jack Suwinski and Canaan Smith-Njigba above. Ji-Man Choi brings me a bit more concern right now, striking out 43.8% of the time with no walks and one hit. Connor Joe is playing well, which gives the Pirates an alternate option at first base to spare Carlos Santana if Choi continues to struggle. As with the outfielders, it’s only been a week of games.
**Mike Burrows and Cal Mitchell both left the Indianapolis game yesterday with injuries. No word yet on their situations, but that could be a blow to the depth for two positions. Burrows is one of the top pitching prospects who could arrive and help the Pirates in the rotation this summer. Mitchell could factor into the early season outfield mix, especially if Suwinski and Smith-Njigba continue to struggle.
TODAY ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
**Jason Gindele looks at the prospects who bring the best hitting skills into the 2023 season. Abrahan Gutierrez ranked high on the list, as if the Pirates need more catching depth. Gutierrez is starting in Greensboro, with Henry Davis in Altoona and Endy Rodriguez in Indianapolis.
**Anthony Murphy writes about the encouraging day at the plate from Maikol Escotto. The infielder, acquired in the Jameson Taillon trade, struggled last year in his first trip to Greensboro. He made some strides in the Dominican this offseason, and as a result is one of the deep sleepers that I picked to follow at the start of the year.
**John Dreker has the latest Pirates minor moves, with Braxton Ashcraft and Kent Emanuel joining Bradenton.
**Check out the recap from yesterday’s Pirates loss, as well as our nightly Prospect Watch with all of the nightly minor league action.
**In my column yesterday, I looked at the Pirates of the Middlegame.
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.