The Pittsburgh Pirates are in need of better days. 42-78 overall, 36 games under .500, patrolling the NL Central basement, third-worst record in baseball. The last three-plus seasons have been a continuous nightmare yet to be woken up from. Let’s project those better days.
Appearing on AT&T SportsNet before last Wednesday’s Pirates-Cardinals matchup, MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo predicted the Bucs’ 2023 starters and defensive alignment.
Mayo’s picks include four of the Bucs’ top seven prospects before the site re-ranks the organization this week, with Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Jacob Stallings the only holdovers from the current roster.
The projection included a look at these players’ defensive positioning as well, with infielders Tucupita Marcano and Oneil Cruz manning outfield corners.
Seeing Mayo’s opinion on the potential 2023 club, let’s break down what I think the roster could look like including the batting order, defensive alignment, and pitching rotation after the 2023 All-Star Game. All ETA’s are provided by MLB Pipeline.
Catcher: Henry Davis (ETA not provided)
Like the Pirates to begin this pro career, I choose the aggressive route when facilitating when Davis will factor into the team’s plans at the Major League level. Davis doubled and hit a two-run home run in two of his first three at-bats playing for the FCL Pirates, already being promoted to the Bucs High A affiliate in Greensboro. Davis should produce offensively to quickly advance through the system, opening the door for a potential Gerrit Cole scenario and be promoted less than two years after being drafted.
1st Base: Mason Martin (ETA 2022)
Martin has the most power of anyone in the organization and perhaps the big-league club included, with Bryan Reynolds (and potentially Davis) the only challenger to give Martin a run for his money. High strikeout totals and limited to first base defensively are two frequent knocks on Martin’s game, working diligently on improving his defense and staying in the field, with a DH role not out of the question. Martin won’t rank high on any prospect lists, but don’t bet against the former 17th-round pick to have a solid chance at securing the first-base job.
2nd Base: Nick Gonzales (ETA 2022)
Ben Cherington’s first pick as general manager of the Pirates, Gonzales battled mid-season injuries that have kept him from leaping to Altoona. Mashing the ball as of late, Gonzales has improved from a season-low .214 average on July 15 to .280 recording 9 home runs and 27 RBI over the course of the season. 2022 may be out of reach, but Gonzales should be manning second base after the 2023 All-Star Break if he stays healthy and produces strong at-bats.
3rd Base: Ke’Bryan Hayes
Hayes has already shown gold-glove caliber plays at the hot corner and is penciled in at the top of the lineup. An inconsistent offensive output post-injury has been lost in the shuffle of an overall poor offense and will need to improve over the course of 162 after an impressive showing to close 2020. It’s still too early to be concerned about Hayes’s long-term offensive output, but driving the ball more frequently will be a plus down the road. It’s still easy to forget Hayes is in the process of his first full season as a rookie.
Shortstop: Liover Peguero (ETA 2023)
The Pirates’ No. 4 prospect, Peguero patrols the middle infield with Gonzales in what could be the next double-play combo to take the field at PNC Park. Peguero changed up his swing and has created more power in his game because of it, hitting 13 doubles and 11 homers in 66 games. Only 20, Peguero has stolen a career-high 18 bases and walked 22 times as well. Like Gonzales, it may take a year or more to see Peguero, but his potential continues to grow.
Left field: Travis Swaggerty (ETA 2022)
After missing most of the 2021 season with a dislocated right shoulder, Swaggerty still has the potential to be an impact Major Leaguer with his plus speed and defensive ability. Swaggerty’s range will be needed in a spacious left field, with the bat a little behind and in need of more consistent at-bats resulting in a higher average. Marcano or Cal Mitchell are also possible options moving forward in left.
Center field: Bryan Reynolds
An MVP candidate having a breakout season after a disappointing short-2020 season, Reynolds is slashing .309/.391/.586 with a .927 OPS, 26 doubles, 21 home runs, 71 RBI, and a 4.3 WAR according to Fangraphs, good for ninth-best in baseball and second in the National League behind the L.A. Dodgers infielder Max Muncy (4.5). Under contract through 2025, Reynolds could anchor down a young ball club and be a leader to the Pirates’ young talent looking to make their mark at PNC Park.
Right field: Oneil Cruz (ETA 2022)
Playing consistently at shortstop throughout his career, the 6’7” Cruz is likely to move off the position due to his large frame despite showing limited flashes of defensive potential and range. Analysts across baseball almost unanimously agree Cruz will play elsewhere, with right field his most likely home. First base could also be an option, but the Bucs should want to take advantage of his strong arm and strong raw power at a key offensive position. Cruz has legit 20-20 potential with plus speed and the ability to drive the ball better than almost anyone in the organization.
DH: Cal Mitchell (ETA 2022)
In the event that a DH is implemented after a new CBA deal is reached, the Bucs could go in a number of directions with an extra bat in the lineup. The left-handed-hitting Mitchell is an unknown to some Pirates fans, lost in the shuffle of an Altoona team with Cruz, Martin, Ji-hwan Bae, newly acquired Diego Castillo and Jack Suwinski, along with recently promoted Matthew Frazier. A former second-round pick, Mitchell is a solid contributor who will put together good at-bats. The Pirates could also follow a similar routine as they did in 2020 with giving guys off days from the field but still utilizing their bat in the lineup as the DH.
- SS: Liover Peguero
- 2B: Nick Gonzales
- CF: Bryan Reynolds
- RF: Oniel Cruz
- 3B: Ke’Bryan Hayes
- 1B: Mason Martin
- C: Henry Davis
- DH: Cal Mitchell
- LF: Travis Swaggerty
The lineup has potential to move right, left, right, left through the middle and back half, with Swaggerty acting as a second leadoff man in the No. 9 spot in the order.
Quinn Priester (ETA 2023)
Roansy Contreras (ETA 2022)
Omar Cruz (ETA 2023)
The rotation is much tougher to predict who will be slotted in as the Bucs' top-five starters. Preister and Contreras have front-line potential and Cruz has been solid for both Greensboro and Altoona since being acquired in the Joe Musgrove deal. A quick synopsis on the rotation, injuries, trades, free-agent signings, and breakouts like we’ve seen from Contreras makes this the most difficult to predict, as with a fresh start Wilson could succeed, or Keller continues to struggle. Once the time comes, don’t rule out Cherington acquiring a solid-veteran No. 3 starter to hold the group together and mentor a young group of pitchers.
Overall, the prognosis of the Pirates' future core is in the hands of team coaches and development. A failure to develop players like Gregory Polanco, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Tyler Glasnow, and now Mitch Keller makes any projection like this irrelevant.
Fate is in the Pirates' hands to make this projection a reality. The talent is there, now it’s time to make it work in the majors. They’re all having Minor-League success, with a translation to the Majors putting the puzzle together piece-by-piece.