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Three early Pirates Spring Training observations to close February

Power for Hayes, position flexibility, catchers corner

MLB: FEB 27 Spring Training - Phillies at Pirates Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Spring Training 2023 is well underway for the Pittsburgh Pirates as games begin to reveal subtle answers to pressing questions. The Pirates look to turn the corner on back-to-back 100-loss seasons and create a new identity leading into the regular season.

As February comes to a close, here are three observations from spring ball worth mentioning as March begins on Wednesday.

Hayes Honed In on Power Increase

Ke’Bryan Hayes has not produced the type of power many hope from a corner infield position but is working his way into a change of state. Over the offseason, Hayes was looking to add “10 or 15 pounds” of muscle to become stronger and drive the ball more consistently, according to Kevin Gorman of TRIB Live.

Hayes totaled 18 home runs over his first three seasons, spanning 256 games, and hit a career-best seven out-of-the-park shots last season. He dealt with a lingering back injury for a long portion of 2022, playing through it, and arguably should have won the NL Gold Glove at third base. He accumulated +24 defensive runs saved to pace all players but fell short of the crown to Nolan Arenado, who has won a Gold Glove every season.

During the Bucs’ matchup against the Philadelphia Phillies Monday, Hayes crushed a fastball off of Seranthony Dominguez - the Phillies closer during the World Series. Seeing power translate to quality at-bats against solid pitching provides a glimmer into what Hayes could become in 2023. It’s obviously way too early to know if this will be the case, but the way the ball jumped off his bat and the sound of the swing is promising.

Suwinski in Center

Bringing Andrew McCutchen back to Pittsburgh is one of the best moves the Pirates have made in the past decade, especially for his impending and already impactful guidance on young players. One young Buc affected by Cutch’s return is Jack Suwinski. He crushed 19 home runs in 106 games last season but only it .202 while manning a corner outfield spot.

The Pirates are experimenting with Suwinski in a new position… center field. Bryan Reynolds - Pittsburgh’s mainstay in center and a former All-Star - played left field Monday in a subtle turn of events. It’s definitely worth noting and raise an eyebrow to as Reynolds and the Pirates remain gridlocked in contract extension talks.

Reynolds can surely handle the position and has experience roaming PNC Park’s spacious left field during his debut season. Showing that the 2021 Gold Glove finalist can play left and center at a high level increases his value and marketability for opposing clubs if a contract is not agreed upon. Switching positions in February is also something not to over react to, but worth taking a deeper dive into if Reynolds in left and Suwinski in center starts to become more of a pattern than a trend.

Catcher Competition

Austin Hedges has a firm grasp on the starting catcher job as March begins… but the players in the minor league system draw much more intrigue. Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis both have their own unique qualities to them that stand out and position them for potential debuts this season.

Rodriguez was acquired as part of a three-team trade headlined by the Pirates sending starter Joe Musgrove to the San Diego Padres. The Bucs received David Bednar and prospects from San Diego, but the New York Mets may have gifted Pittsburgh the deal’s best young prize. Rodriguez was named the Pirates’ Honus Wagner Player of the Year - honoring the Pirates' top minor leaguer - last season. Ranked as high as No. 23 by Baseball America on prospect lists, Rodriquez hit 25 homers and drove in 95 runs while slashing .323/.407/.590 in 125 games between High-A and Triple-A.

Davis was selected No. 1 overall in the 2021 MLB Draft and has consistently dealt with injuries. He was plunked 20 times by pitches in 255 plate appearances and caused a wrist injury that sidelined Davis for a considerable amount of time. Injuries have slipped Davis down prospect charts - No. 73 overall on Baseball America and No. 57 according to MLB Pipeline - while a healthy season could bring everything together. Davis hit 10 home runs and 42 RBI in 59 games between four levels but only 22 games at Double-A.

Watching Rodriguez and Davis progress and learn from Hedges in spring ball creates optimism for the Pirates behind the dish. Rodriquez has moved around the diamond with vast position flexibility while the bat is there for Davis but his defensive abilities still need molding. Keeping an eye on Hayes, Reynolds, Suwinski, and the catcher position creates the best looks into how the Pirates 2023 season will take shape.