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First Pitch: The Pittsburgh Pirates Have a Serious Problem on Offense

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the worst hitting teams in the majors this year.

Their wOBA of .289 ranks 28th in baseball. Their 84 wRC+ also ranks 28th. They rank bottom five in the league in average (.227), on-base percentage (.296), and slugging (.358).

In the minors, there’s a similar issue. The Pirates aren’t developing hitting prospects, with many players performing the exact opposite of their scouting reports. While the 2023 draft has been graced with Paul Skenes first overall, and the emergence of 13th rounder Charles McAdoo at the plate, the draft also points to the biggest area of concern in the organization.

Mitch Jebb was drafted in the second round last year for his pure hitting ability, and his plate patience. Jebb is currently batting .196/.269/.288 in High-A, with a 25.4% strikeout rate. This is not the college hitter who was projected on draft day, raising questions about both the drafting and development of position players.

Jebb is a microcosm of a common development issue in this system.

When you look at each position, from the perspective of MLB short-term and long-term needs, the situation becomes more dire. What you notice is that many players in Pittsburgh are having the worst seasons of their MLB careers, with zero help on the way from the minors.

This is not the outcome you expect to see in year five of a very deliberate tear-down and rebuild.

Catcher

Current MLB Option: Yasmani Grandal/Jason Delay
Internal Long-Term: Endy Rodriguez/Joey Bart
2024 Depth: Henry Davis
Upgrade Path: Internal Development

The Pirates invested a lot of resources into the catching position early in the rebuild under General Manager Ben Cherington. They acquired Endy Rodriguez in the Joe Musgrove trade, drafted Henry Davis first overall, and made a few minor trades for catching depth. Despite these moves, they had a need in 2024, and may have made their best move when they traded for Joey Bart.

The remainder of the 2024 season should see Bart as the primary catcher, with Yasmani Grandal possibly serving as the backup. Davis is currently on the IL, and has struggled with his hitting in the majors. Endy Rodriguez is the best long-term option once he returns from Tommy John, and a platoon of Rodriguez and Bart next year would look promising, with Davis as depth.

The Pirates need Bart’s surge this year to be real. Otherwise, they’re going to be banking on the duo of Rodriguez and Davis in season six of this rebuild. I like the long-term potential of Rodriguez, but this is not a stable current situation for a position that received so much attention early in the rebuild.

First Base

Current MLB Option: Rowdy Tellez
Internal Long-Term: N/A
2024 Depth: Seth Beer
Upgrade Path: External Addition

First base is a black hole in the Pirates system. They have prospects who could shift to first base and develop at the position, but they chose to move all of those candidates around. They also have lower level power hitters who don’t project to hit enough in the upper levels. The lack of prospects led them to 33-year-old Jake Lamb in Triple-A this year, with 27-year-old Seth Beer taking his place from Double-A after Lamb requested his release.

The lack of help at first base is why Wake Forrest slugger Nick Kurtz is my current favorite scenario for the Pirates in the first round of the 2024 draft. Kurtz would give them a true first base power hitting prospect, which is something they lack in their system. Even if they moved a current prospect to first base, there would either be serious questions about the defense, or a lack of offensive upside.

There’s a reason the Pirates are sticking with Rowdy Tellez. There is no alternative in this system. Tellez is currently hitting .370/.420/.543 during the month of June. If he keeps hitting, the Pirates should stick with him for the remainder of the year. They will need a first base option in 2025 and beyond, and there are no internal candidates.

Second Base

Current MLB Option: Nick Gonzales
Internal Long-Term: Nick Gonzales
2024 Depth: Jared Triolo
Upgrade Path: Current

Nick Gonzales has emerged as the best second base option from within the system, batting .279/.311/.450. There are some concerns with Gonzales that he’ll have to work through. His walk rate and resulting on-base percentage are low. He’s chasing a high rate of pitches out of the zone, with a lower contact rate on those pitches.

The 2024 season has seen Gonzales take a big step forward with his offense, and this has come from being one of the most aggressive swinging hitters on the team. His bat-to-ball abilities are some of the best in the organization, and he should continue making quality contact.

The upgrade path here is just letting Gonzales work through his new swing, and get to a point where he’s further eliminating the bad offerings. The Pirates have Jared Triolo as a backup, with Liover Peguero in Triple-A. Long-term, Termarr Johnson could challenge Gonzales for the spot. There’s good depth at this position, but Gonzales might be locking down the starter role for the long-term.

Shortstop

Current MLB Option: Oneil Cruz
Internal Long-Term: Oneil Cruz
2024 Depth: Alika Williams
Upgrade Path: Reality

Oneil Cruz is not a good shortstop. He ranks among the worst in the game in almost every defensive category this year. The appeal of Cruz at shortstop is that he hits for power that the shortstop position doesn’t often see. This can allow the Pirates to pretend they’re developing an elite star at the position, when the reality is they’ve got a bad defender whose offensive output is averaged, limited to power. There’s a dream of Cruz being a five tool player, but right now he’s a two-tool player, with power and arm strength leading the way.

The problem is that the Pirates don’t have a better option internally. Alika Williams has better defense than Cruz, but doesn’t have the bat to be an average starter. Peguero could have the overall skills to be an average starter, but he’s not there yet. Gonzales can play the position, but not well. The Pirates don’t have a shortstop prospect who can project for good enough results to separate them from the dream of Cruz at short.

This is the first full season for Cruz in the majors. He’s got average offensive results and some of the worst defense at his position. There’s a chance he could improve on both sides of the ball. Improving his offense to above-average, while getting out of the basemen defensively would be enough to justify keeping him at the position beyond 2024.

Third Base

Current MLB Option: Ke’Bryan Hayes
Internal Long-Term: Ke’Bryan Hayes
2024 Depth: Jared Triolo
Upgrade Path: Current

The Pirates have Ke’Bryan Hayes under contract through the 2029 season, with an option for 2030. He won his first Gold Glove last year, while showing flashes of potential with his bat. This year hasn’t been a good season for Hayes. He’s having the worst offensive output of his five years in the majors, and his defense has slumped.

I’m not concerned about the defense. Hayes has shown his skill at third base his entire career, and I trust the ability going forward. I am concerned about the hitting, though that is more a concern with the Pirates in general. Hayes had his best results at the plate last season while working with Jon Nunnally, rather than working internally with Pirates hitting coach Andy Haines.

Hayes is one of many Pirates hitters who is having one of the worst seasons of his career. In his case, we know that his preferred option led to results. The Pirates responded to his preference in development by firing Nunnally and throwing full support behind Haines. How much of that statement is having a negative impact on their long-term third baseman? The handling of Haines/Nunnally is probably the biggest blunder of Cherington’s time with the Pirates.

Left Field

Current MLB Option: Bryan Reynolds
Internal Long-Term: Bryan Reynolds
2024 Depth: Jack Suwinski
Upgrade Path: Current

Reynolds is on a heater this month, with a current 20-game hitting streak that has his season line at .275/.343/.466 with 12 homers. He’s still behind his 2021 offensive results that led to a 6-WAR season, but the results this year match his 2019 debut and his 2022 totals, which were both above-average.

The Pirates have Reynolds under contract through 2030, with a club option for the 2031 season. He’s the long-term corner outfielder, though he might benefit with a move to first base. He’s in his age 29 season right now, and the contract covers his 30-35 seasons, with an option for age 36.

Reynolds doesn’t have bad defense at the corners, but he doesn’t have good defense either. His defensive value is driven by range, which will reduce as he gets older. He could be the best internal option for the long-term first base position, allowing him to focus on his offense more throughout his 30s. The only downside to this is that the Pirates don’t really have a replacement for him in the outfield.

Center Field

Current MLB Option: Michael A. Taylor
Internal Long-Term: Matt Gorski
2024 Depth: Matt Gorski
Upgrade Path: External Addition

The Pirates have a one-track approach in center field this year. Michael A. Taylor is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, and has been playing that way between two below-average defenders at the corners. Taylor is another Pirates hitter having his worst offensive season. This is alarming, as Taylor has had 11 seasons with a fairly consistent offensive floor that he’s plummeted through.

Internally, Matt Gorski is the best depth option for this year, and the best long-term replacement. Gorski can play the position, but is more offensive minded. He doesn’t project to hit enough to comfortably project him as a starter, with swing and miss concerns from a disconnected swing. Right now I have him as a future bench player who can start occasionally.

This is another position that could use external help. A lot of trade talk has been centering around adding a center fielder. I don’t know if this is the most urgent position to upgrade, but there is justification for adding a long-term center field option who can hit.

Right Field

Current MLB Option: Jack Suwinski/Edward Olivares
Internal Long-Term: Lonnie White Jr.
2024 Depth: Matt Gorski
Upgrade Path: External Addition

The Pirates looked like they had a win during their rebuild process with Jack Suwinski. He was acquired at the 2021 deadline for Adam Frazier, and combined for 45 home runs in his first two seasons, with above-average offensive results in his sophomore campaign last year.

Suwinski is another hitter who has seen the bottom drop out this year. He’s gone down to Triple-A, but that hasn’t led to better results in his return to the majors. The Pirates took a chance on Edward Olivares this year, after he had impressive power numbers for Kansas City last season. Olivares is another hitter putting up some of the worst numbers of his career, rather than building on the promise of last season.

This would probably be the cheapest area of the team to upgrade with a hitter, without having to break the prospect bank. Internally, the best outfield candidate is Lonnie White Jr., who is in his first full season in pro ball, playing at the High-A level, and he’s only hitting for power. There’s no immediate help here, meaning the Pirates need a turnaround from Suwinski, or they need external help.

Designated Hitter

Current MLB Option: Andrew McCutchen
Internal Long-Term: Andrew McCutchen
2024 Depth: Henry Davis
Upgrade Path: Offensive Focus

Andrew McCutchen was one of the best hitters on the Pirates last year, leading the team in on-base percentage by a wide margin. He had a slow start this year, but is once again one of the best hitters on the team, with above-average results. The Pirates have made a commitment to having McCutchen on the team until he retires, and his offensive performance still warrants a spot in the game.

The interesting thing about this move for McCutchen is that it came from owner Bob Nutting, and not Cherington. In a way, McCutchen is imposed on whoever is running the team, though with the lack of offense throughout this organization, McCutchen is far from an imposition.

Long-term, Davis might be the best fit for this spot. If the Pirates get to a point where they have excess depth at the catching position, they can push the extra players to first base or the DH role. This would require that Davis hit in the majors, which is currently what is holding him back at the big league level.

Internal Options Are Thin

The biggest recurring theme is that the Pirates have MLB hitters who are largely struggling to career lows, combined with zero help available from the upper levels of the minors.

Most of the help in Triple-A profiles as bench options. The best candidate to start is Liover Peguero, but that would require a position change for Oneil Cruz. The Double-A talent isn’t much better, and neither is the High-A talent for what the Pirates need.

The top position player prospects in the system are middle infielders. Termarr Johnson is a second baseman who might be an upgrade one day over Nick Gonzales. Right now, he’s in High-A, and just starting to hit after a slow start to the year.

Tsung-Che Cheng can play shortstop well, and has good contact abilities. He profiles as an average starter, at best, and is more a depth/bench option out of Altoona. Jack Brannigan can play shortstop and third base, while hitting for power, but he’s working on his swing in High-A.

Lonnie White Jr. is the other position player at the top three levels of the minors who I’d give a shot at becoming a starter. As mentioned above, he’s hitting for power in High-A, but not hitting for much else.

That’s all.

The Pirates have five position players between High-A and Triple-A who project as starters in the big leagues.

The Pirates have done an abysmal job during this rebuild of adding and developing offensive talent. They’ve finalized this rebuild with questionable coaching in the majors that is leading to many of the worst offensive results the Pirates’ Major League players have ever seen.

The biggest change the Pirates could make is a system-wide adjustment that reverses this bad teaching from the majors down throughout the minors. Otherwise, they’ll have to trade all of their pitching talent to build an offense from the outside, with hopes that Andy Haines doesn’t ruin those hitters as well.

Paul Skenes is Looking Elite

He didn’t get help from the offense on Sunday, but Paul Skenes had another great outing for the Pirates. The top young pitcher in the game allowed one run in seven innings, with the lone run coming on a solo homer on the first pitch. The rest of the game, Skenes allowed five hits, one walk, and struck out eight.

On the season, Skenes has a 2.14 ERA in 46.1 innings, with a 61:8 K/BB ratio. These are elite numbers.

Skenes arrived in the majors on May 11th. Out of 88 qualified pitchers since that date, Skenes ranks 11th in ERA, 7th in FIP, 5th in K%, and 3rd in K/BB%.

Interestingly enough, the pitcher with the best ERA during this span is Mitch Keller, with a 1.65 ERA in 43.2 innings.

There couldn’t be a bigger contrast between the pitching and hitting development in this system. The Pirates have long been more talented at identifying and developing pitchers over hitters. Their biggest issue under former General Manager Neal Huntington was that they didn’t get the most out of some of the best young pitchers in the game.

The results from Skenes and Jared Jones, plus the continued year-over-year development of Keller, shows that this issue might be gone.

They still have the massive issue of developing hitters. However, there’s a reason the Pirates are being called a Pitching Factory. Not only is this the only thing their system can produce, but they now do a great job identifying, developing, and transitioning MLB pitching talent to the big leagues. There are more upper-level pitching prospects who you could dream about having good results in the majors, compared to the hitting side.

This puts more emphasis on the need to fix the hitting. The pitching from Skenes, Jones, and Keller would be a horrible thing to waste.

David Bednar to the Injured List

The Pirates placed David Bednar on the injured list on Sunday, retro to June 20th. The team went without Bednar in a save situation on Saturday, knowing he was dealing with a strained left oblique muscle.

Aroldis Chapman got the save on Saturday, and will continue working as the closer with Bednar out. Colin Holderman will step up as the setup man. Holderman pitched in the eighth inning on Sunday, but allowed two runs to take the loss. That doubled his run total on the season.

The seventh inning will be the big question with Bednar out. The Pirates were looking good with Bednar leading the duo of Chapman and Holderman. With Bednar out, the Pirates will hope that someone like Kyle Nicolas can step up and replicate what Holderman was doing in the middle innings.

Pirates Prospect Watch

The Pirates had one of their affiliates clinch the post-season last week. In the latest Pirates Prospect Watch, I looked at how every other team in the system was doing, along with all of the results from Sunday’s games.

Pirates Prospect Watch: Checking the Standings of Each Pirates Affiliate

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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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