Opening Day is less than one week away as the Pittsburgh Pirates prepare to embark north from Bradenton, Florida, to Cincinnati on March 30 to begin the 2023 MLB season.
Position battles are not as prevalent as in years past, with the Pirates beginning to find long-term solutions at multiple positions. Some spots are still up for grabs as manager Derek Shelton and the Bucs prepare to face the PNC Park crowd for the first time on April 7. Who could be the 26 men making the trip to Ohio?
Catchers (2): Austin Hedges and Tyler Heineman
Signed as a free agent for his experience and success working with various pitching staffs, 30-year-old Austin Hedges is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. He spent the previous two and a half seasons in Cleveland after being traded from San Diego, where he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2019. A .189 career hitter, Hedges is keeping the seat warm for top prospects Endy Rodriquez and Henry Davis, who both may be ready for big league action this summer and can be assisted by Hedges’ veteran leadership. Heineman also profiles as a defensive-first catcher and has the edge over Jason Delay.
First Base/Designated Hitter (2): Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi
New additions to the Pirates clubhouse, veterans Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi bring left-handed power to the Bucs lineup. Both likely splitting time between first base and DH, Santana should benefit greatly from banning the shift. The 36-year-old switch hitter totaled a .202 batting average in 20222 but a .316 on-base percentage, walking 71 times in 131 games between the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, slugging 19 home runs, and driving in 60. Choi and the Pirates have gotten off on the wrong foot since he was acquired from Tampa Bay early in the offseason. The two sides went to arbitration over his contract status and the Pirates did not allow Choi to play in the World Baseball Classic due to an elbow injury. Choi said he was “deeply hurt” by the decision and while relations are not ideal, he should still crack the lineup against the Reds.
Second Base (1): Rodolfo Castro
Does anyone want the starting job? Entering Spring Training, Rodolfo Castro’s name was penciled in as the likely starter at second but hasn’t done anything to separate himself from the competition. The 23-year-old switch hitter has 11 hits in 46 at-bats (.239 avg) with two homers and nine runs batted in. Moving around the diamond at three different positions, Castro recorded two errors in six games so far at third base and has struck out 17 times at the plate. Tucupita Marcano and Ji Hwan Bae bring versatility and a lack of experience to the field as well but not a defining characteristic compared to Castro’s power to have an inside track on grabbing the opportunity.
Shortstop (1): Oneil Cruz
The tallest and most unique shortstop in recent memory returns to the infield’s most popular position looking to mold his overall game to stick at short. 6-foot-7 Oneil Cruz begins his first full season with few questions about his ability to perform at the plate - looking to strikeout less often - while conversations surround his defensive abilities. Cruz committed 17 errors in 79 games last year and will be given plenty of opportunities to prove himself before a position switch is made.
Gotta hit it a little higher than that pic.twitter.com/7G8cJNYkNQ— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) March 21, 2023
Third Base (1): Ke’Bryan Hayes
The National League Gold Glove runner-up at the hot corner, Hayes - who led all MLB players in defensive runs saved (24) - has added muscle and has driven the ball well in spring games. Hayes owns three home runs in 11 games after only hitting seven in over 500 at-bats last year. An offensive uptick for the Pirates’ highest-paid player would create protection for Bryan Reynolds in the lineup and significantly improve the team’s offensive output.
107.1 mph laser from Ke'Bryan Hayes pic.twitter.com/SCFskfW1pf— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) March 18, 2023
Outfield (3): Jack Suwinski, Bryan Reynolds and Andrew McCutchen
The Pirates outfield is the strongest of any position group. Suwinski smacked 19 home runs in his rookie season despite an average teetering the Mendoza Line, potentially benefiting from the shift banned while needing increased contact. Former All-Star Bryan Reynolds remains with the Pirates despite requesting a trade leading up to the Winter Meetings. Reynolds and Suwinski have flip-flopped spots in the outfield between left and center field compared to last year and it remains to be seen where both will stick, if it doesn’t continue into April. Bringing McCutchen back rejuvenates the fan base and locker room near the end of his career. Cutch will likely also DH and open the door for a prospect to man a corner outfield spot.
Bench (4): Heineman, infielder/outfielder Ji Hwan Bae, utilityman Connor Joe, and outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba
Bae brings speed and versatility to the club, being able to play most positions. A natural middle infielder, the Pirates have given Bae runs in the outfield to experiment with further position flexibility that helps his case down the stretch. The Pirates originally drafted Joe and remained interested in him enough to acquire the right-handed bat from Colorado. The final outfield spot is a battle between Canaan Smith-Njigba and Travis Swaggerty. Both posting tremendous springs, the lefty hitters have both positioned themselves for playing time in Pittsburgh with one spot seemingly up for grabs. Smith-Njigba is hitting .324 with two homers and 10 RBIs in 37 at-bats and Swaggerty has produced even better, totaling three homers, 10RBIs, and a .379 batting average in 29 at-bats.
Rotation (5): Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Rich Hill, JT Brubaker, Vince Velasquez
Keller and Contreras man the top two spots in the Bucs rotation. The Pirates Opening Day starter, Keller drastically improved following a stint in the bullpen and adding a sinker to his repertoire. Velasquez signed to compete for a rotation spot and likely moves Johan Oviedo out of the fifth spot. Now in Triple-A, Luis Ortiz will also crack the rotation at some point following a strong showing to close 2022.
The moment Mitch found out is everything. pic.twitter.com/oZJgThZjP2— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) March 15, 2023
Bullpen (8): David Bednar, Wil Crowe, Colin Holderman, Duane Underwood Jr., Chase De Jong, Robert Stephenson, Yerry De Los Santos, and Jose Hernandez
The bullpen will look relatively similar to the group that concluded last season. Bednar returns to camp after pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, allowing one run in four innings pitched including a scoreless outing in the championship game. Health will play a major factor in the success of the young group including a full year in the system for Holderman and Stephenson. Rule-5 selection Jose Hernandez is the only lefty in the ‘pen with Jarlin Garcia injured and has an inside track to make the team. Johan Oviedo could join the bullpen as a long reliever or in a six-man rotation role, bumping De Los Santos back to Triple-A.