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The Nine Innings: Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen an All-Star?

We’ve reached the middle of April and the Pirates remain over .500.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates are maintaining their steady start to the season, going 8-5 in the team’s 13 games.

Here are nine takes stemming from the last week of play for the Buccos:

I think Andrew McCutchen can be an All-Star this year

McCutchen currently looks like his Pirates self from a decade ago. His plate discipline is off the charts (21.3 percent walk rate). He’s hitting well (.324/.468/.500 over 47 plate appearances). Defensively, he’s made some nice plays. And most impressively to me, McCutchen hasn't lost a step speed-wise. His sprint speed is in the 80th percentile of the sport (28 ft/s).

I'm not here to say that McCutchen will win another MVP, but he does seem rejuvenated now that he’s playing for his original club. As of right now, McCutchen has a 0.5 fWAR (34th among all position players). Can he finish the season as a three to four-win player? I don’t see why not. I can imagine it now, Andrew McCutchen representing the Pirates in this summer’s All-Star Game. How electric it would be.

I miss Oneil Cruz

This isn’t much of a take. I just miss the guy. As we know, Cruz will miss at least four months after fracturing his ankle. I personally would be surprised if we saw him again this season. Talk about taking the wind out of the sails. A total vibe killer. The buzz around this team would be off the charts if he were still playing this season. Said buzz is still solid at the moment, but it’s still not the same.

To make matters worse, Cruz’s replacement has been a complete zero since his call-up. Literally. Mark Mathias is 0-10 since joining the Pirates and has struck out five times. It’s too early to tell just how good or (probably) bad he’ll be, but wow, the Josh VanMeter vibes are off the charts with Mathias.

How high is the Ke’Bryan Hayes panic meter?

Right now, I’d put it at a five out of 10. Hayes will always have an immensely high floor considering he’s the best defensive third baseman in the sport. He’s a true artist at the hot corner.

But the bat has been awful. On the surface, the numbers are pitcher-like (.157/.204/.235 over 54 PA). That said, he is still making hard contact. His average exit velocity is in the 79th percentile among all position players. His hard-hit rate is in the 70th percentile. Hard contact has never been a problem for Hayes though. Barreling up the ball has been the problem. Hitting too many ground balls has been the problem. In the spring, it looked as if Hayes was attempting to pull the ball more. To start this season, he’s pulling the ball less rate-wise than he has in any other season.

I don’t know if Hayes will ever figure it out with the bat. The Pirates don’t need him to be a bopper though. They just need average. If he can do that, the defense is good enough to make him an All-Star caliber player.

Time is ticking for these two

The two are Jack Suwinski (.130/.250/.261 over 28 PA) and Canaan Smith-Njigba (.167/.238/.333 over 21 PA). Obviously, the sample size is minuscule, but with Ji Hwan Bae emerging as a plus defensive outfielder, there may be one less spot for one of these two. Travis Swaggerty is also knocking on the door from AAA.

I do feel for these guys though. It’s tough to be productive when playing just a few times per week. That’s the life of a young major-league non-blue-chip prospect though. Someone has to step up.

Interestingly enough, if Bae continues his success in CF, the Pirates could be in need of a second baseman, especially if Mathias continues to struggle. Is that Tucupita Marcano’s music I hear? Or perhaps Nick Gonzales?

I don't know how to feel about the starting pitching

Mitch Keller is solid. That much we know. Over his last two starts, he’s allowed just three runs over 13 innings. Great.

After that, um.

Roansy Contreras got crushed in his last start but was awesome the start before. Vince Velasquez was superb last night but was terrible in his two starts before. Johan Oviedo will look to build off of the gem thrown in his last start but we actually have to see it. Rich Hill was fine his last time out I guess. But, was he?

That's the thing. After Keller, the Pirates have four wild cards. The hope is that Contreras can bounce back and provide stability. I think he will, but we still need to see it.

I like the backend of this bullpen... but I don't love it

David Bednar is awesome, that much is certain. His nearly 35 percent strikeout rate is elite especially when considering he doesn’t walk hitters often. With the exception of one blown save, Bednar has been lights out.

I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Colin Holderman stuff-wise but more strikeouts need to follow. A 4.2 percent K-BB ratio isn't going to cut it long-term. That said, Holderman is the only remaining pitcher on this team who has yet to allow a run this season. Props to him. I apologize in advance for the jinx.

Duane Underwood Jr.’s changeup looks nasty and he has yet to walk a batter this season. As we know though, Underwood Jr. is often prone to giving up the big inning. I don’t hate him as the seventh-inning guy though.

All three in this trio have ground ball rates of at least 50 percent. We love to see that. As of this exact moment in time, if the Pirates have a lead after six innings, I feel fairly confident that they will finish the job.

Here’s to hoping Rodolfo Castro can remain at shortstop

Look, I get it. Castro isn't the greatest fielding shortstop out there. For him, it’s a work in progress, to put it nicely. But the bat plays, especially at that position.

After a slow start offensively, Castro has picked it up recently and his overall line looks great (.292/.433/.458 over 30 PA). I’ve always liked Castro’s ability to get on base. For his career, Castro has had an eight percent walk rate. This season, it is at 13.3 percent. Castro’s ability to draw walks paired with his above-average power makes him a potentially nice offensive player. If he continues to hit while playing a slightly below-average shortstop, he will be a plus player.

Let’s give Connor Joe some love

Earlier in this article, I commented on how difficult it is to be productive while getting limited playing time. That has not affected Joe in the slightest. With half as many plate appearances as the regulars, Joe is third on the team among position players in fWAR (0.4). His .391/.481/.652 slash line over 27 PA has put a real jolt of energy into the lineup.

How long until this man is the everyday left fielder? I’m not sure. Perhaps Derek Shelton deserves a tad bit of credit for putting Joe in favorable matchups. I don’t know. I wouldn't mind seeing this guy in the everyday starting lineup for the foreseeable future.

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