MIAMI – Henry Davis fouled off a 97 MPH fastball to stay alive at 1-2. The pitch was the best strike he would get the entire at-bat. He looked a bit frustrated. It would also be his final swing. Jesus Luzardo went with three offspeed pitches below the zone. Davis offered at none of them. After the final, Davis flipped his bat down, clapped at the Pirates dugout in a College World Series meets the Major Leagues move, and ran down to first base. As if the clap didn’t express his intentions to spark life into the offense, Davis proceeded to steal second base on the very first pitch from reliever Jesus Luzardo. He almost looked a bit frustrated that he didn’t get to take third as the throw rolled away from second base into the outfield.
Ji-Hwan Bae called time after swinging at a slider to go 1-2. The pitch wasn’t the worst pitch Bae would swing at during the entire at-bat. With Davis on third, and two outs, the best pitch that Bae saw was the first pitch strike that he took looking. The next four pitches were out of the zone, and Bae struck out. After swinging at a low and away 97 MPH fastball for strike three, Bae instinctively and frustratingly jerked in a motion that looked like he was going to throw his bat to the ground. He held the bat, dropped it, and walked directly down the first base line, still frustrated by the moment. Bae handed his batting gloves off to someone and kept walking, knowing that someone in the dugout would have his gear when he got to the outfield.
I always thought this was going to be a team that was going to be better in the second half.
We’re seeing this now with the additions of Henry Davis and Nick Gonzales. Regardless of their performances, these are two players with the attitude of everyday starters. No matter the slump, nothing will get them down. You will rarely see them visibly frustrated, and when they are frustrated, you will see them find a way out of their slump.
This has been true in the minors. The stats haven’t been pretty. The development hasn’t been linear. But Davis and Gonzales are ready for the Major Leagues right now — as ready as any player could be.
They each have the enthusiasm and the attitude from the start of the game to the end of the game. They each approach the game knowing they belong, and knowing that any mistake is something they can overcome. They both have the talent to impact a game on any given night.
Henry Davis and Nick Gonzales have a real chance to be 50-grade starters, at the least, right now. They both have a chance to be more, both this year and in the future. I’d put Gonzales at 55, which would equate to a few All-Star appearances and a guy the Pirates can definitely build around in the middle infield. Davis has power potential that has been rare in Pittsburgh, and the attitude to use that power which hasn’t been seen by previous power hitters. The deep right-center field in PNC Park will steal some home runs, but they won’t prevent him from being a 40 home run hitter in the future.
In the midst of a horrible month, the Pirates are starting to introduce their future. These are the prospects who, if the Pirates are going to win, it will be with them.
The Pirates have been giving a lot of opportunities to guys who are 45-grade, hoping to be 50-grade. When you add injuries to the mix, there are very few starters on this team. Here is a quick rundown:
First Base – Carlos Santana has started all but two games this month. Connor Joe had the other two starts. Take a deep breath. This calm stability will not last as we go into the other positions around the diamond.
Second Base – Ji Hwan Bae has gotten most of the starts this year and this month. Rodolfo Castro, Mark Mathias, Tucupita Marcano, and now Nick Gonzales have rotated with Bae. It’s hard to say who will rotate with Bae at this point, due to the third base situation…
Shortstop – The Pirates have been rotating between Tucupita Marcano and Rodolfo Castro this month. Nick Gonzales got the start tonight, with Castro shifting over to third. Marcano is the primary shortstop, but there have been eight games where he hasn’t started. Castro got those starts.
Third Base – Ke’Bryan Hayes has been similar to Santana at first. Prior to Sunday’s game, he had started all but one game this month. Castro got the other start. If Hayes misses extended time, that would shift Castro off shortstop. Gonzales would split with Marcano at shortstop. This might facilitate the need for Liover Peguero to come up from Altoona to help the middle innings. The Pirates could also call up Jared Triolo to work into the third base mix and keep Castro at short, which would keep Gonzales at second. This was one of the few stable positions the Pirates had, so hopefully Hayes doesn’t miss any time.
Left Field – Since the injury to Bryan Reynolds, the Pirates have rotated with Connor Joe and Josh Palacios going two starts in a row. Palacios became the first to start a third game with tonight’s contest, and robbed a home run.
Center Field – Jack Suwinski has some of the most consistent playing time on the team this month. The Pirates have started Bae in center five times, but only twice since June 7th. He’s been a late replacement often. Suwinski doesn’t profile as an everyday bat, but the Pirates don’t have many alternatives here. Bae is the top backup option, and a common defensive replacement.
Right Field – Henry Davis will hopefully stabilize this position. He’s started five games in a row. Prior to his callup, the Pirates started Palacios and Joe in right. Davis has replaced Reynolds, with Palacios and Joe moving to the other side of the outfield.
Designated Hitter – Andrew McCutchen has been the guy here. Henry Davis got two starts after his callup, but has been a primary starter in right field. Bryan Reynolds got a few starts before getting hurt.
Ji Hwan Bae forgot to take off his shin guards. He stopped beyond first base, took those off, dropped them in the grass in foul territory, and continued his slow walk — turning and slowly proceeding without any gear into center field. The first base umpire pointed to the dugout. The bat boy, who already retrieved Bae’s gear, ended up making a late run to retrieve the shin guards next to first base. Connor Joe brought Bae’s hat and glove out, meeting him in shallow center field. Each outfielder got one warmup throw before the bottom of the eighth inning when the Pirates were down 1-0. The first hit went to Bae, and he fielded the routine single in standard fashion. The rest of the inning stayed in the infield. The Pirates won in the 9th on Friday June 23rd, thanks to offense from Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Santana, and Josh Palacios.
On Tuesday June 27th, Ji Hwan Bae was ejected in the bottom of the sixth inning after looking at a 1-1 strike. This pitch was inside, and called a strike. Bae held up three fingers and questioned the umpire — immediately getting ejected for his instinctual reaction. He had a point. There was a high strike two in his second appearance. He ended up swinging at a high strike three. His second strikeout of the day was set up by a borderline call on the outside corner for strike two. While Bae had a point, what he showed was that his mind wasn’t in the current at-bat, but was still lingering on the previous two strikeouts. He wasn’t riding on the sacrifice fly from the first inning, and trying to recreate that. The Pirates were up 8-4 at this point, so it didn’t matter much that Bae was ejected, or that Tucupita Marcano came on cold to strike out.
Being an everyday player is more than the talent to hit the ball to the bushes at the center field wall.
It’s about forgetting those times when you are reminded that failure happens 70% of the time for even the best in this game. If a player dwells on the failure, they’ll end up wondering what they need to do right in Triple-A. If they treat every inning, every at-bat, every pitch as if “This is the one”, they will no doubt remain in the Majors, and will likely get regular playing time.
There’s nothing wrong with a 40-45 grade player. Sometimes you want a specialist bat off the bench, like Rodolfo Castro against lefties. Sometimes you need Josh Palacios to rob a home run while your best player is injured. He might not show a 50-grade route to the ball, but he’s got the determination that he’s not going to give up and let it go over the wall.
The Pirates severely lack everyday guys right now. Palacios, Castro, Bae, Marcano, Suwinski, and Joe are all 40-45 grade guys. The good thing is that most of them are 45-grade guys, where you could feel comfortable starting them a few times a week. The Pirates have needed more than that.
This is starting to change. In the second half, I expect the following to emerge as regulars, which will push the 45-grade guys to the situational roles where they can thrive.
Henry Davis – At this point, Henry Davis should be an everyday player. I think he already is there. He’s got an .812 OPS and has shown good, yet raw defensive metrics in right field. With Davis in the outfield, the Pirates can mitigate the loss of Reynolds.
Bryan Reynolds – Reynolds went on the 10-day injured list with lower back inflammation. You hope this is only temporary and they can open the second half with Davis and Reynolds as everyday guys, anchoring the Joe/Suwinski tandem.
Nick Gonzales – I can tell you exactly why I think Gonzales will struggle right now with his swing plane against breaking pitches. I can also tell you why he will still destroy pitches like he did last night and be an immediate upgrade over anyone else in the middle infield. And I promise you that he’s a guy who will only improve upon his mistakes.
Ke’Bryan Hayes – Hayes and Carlos Santana could anchor this infield like Reynolds and Davis in the outfield. I’ll add that the return of Ji-Man Choi should help to spell Santana at first. The middle infield is still going to be a question mark for a bit…
Oneil Cruz – After the trade deadline, the biggest splash the Pirates will get would be the addition of Cruz. With the corners anchored, the Pirates need to find a way to shore up the middle of the field. Cruz’s return, paired with Nick Gonzales at second, will be a huge upgrade over where the team has been to date.
The middle of the field is weak right now. The catching position is all defense and all strategy. The middle infield has gotten a potential 50-grade boost from Gonzales, but still has questions until Cruz returns. Center field is Suwinski and Bae. When Reynolds returns, he can factor into that mix.
Suwinski entered Tuesday’s game against the Padres with zero hits in his previous 34 plate appearances. He’s been playing daily, which isn’t the best role for him. Even on days off, he’s the top pinch hitting option. I would argue that Monday was the first true day off for Jack Suwinski in a long time. He responded on Tuesday with a home run.
Bae entered Tuesday’s game with zero hits in his previous 23 plate appearances. Spanning back to match Suwinski’s streak, he was 2-for-34 in the same amount of games. Like Suwinski, he’s rarely had a day off, being used as a defensive replacement or a pinch hitter on days where he hasn’t started. He’s been visibly frustrated on multiple occasions, to say the least. After the off-day, he was productive, but the frustrations won out.
Meanwhile, Bryan Reynolds gets closer to a return. Oneil Cruz gets closer to a return.
Two of Bae, Castro, Palacios, and Marcano will go down when that happens, as the Pirates upgrade their lineup from 45 grade bench players to 50+ grade regulars. In this case, the Pirates are getting 55-60 grade starters. Reynolds and Cruz solve the depth up the middle, which means the most reliable from that group of Bae/Castro/Palacios/Marcano will remain.
Meanwhile, Liover Peguero, with a 50+ upside, was watching everything from behind home plate, taking advantage of a rare Tuesday off in Altoona — where he’s hitting .295/.367/.545 this month. Check back tomorrow for my look at the prospects who could impact this second half team.
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.