Welcome to The Nine Innings, a new weekly article in which I will be, you guessed it, spewing out some Bucs-related takes! They might be hot. They might not be. I’m working with a blank canvas so we shall see. This article won’t be married to takes alone. I may write about general observations or big-picture questions related to the organization that we all know and love, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The possibilities are endless.
Let’s get into it!
Bryan Reynolds needs to be PAID
And he deserves it, too. To start the season, the extension-hopeful Reynolds has been nothing short of blazing hot. He has four home runs and 24 total bases over 24 at-bats. Last season, Reynolds didn't hit his fourth home run until May 8. None of his hits have been cheap either. Among his 17 batted balls this season, six have been barrels (35.3 percent).
Obviously, Reynolds won’t be this awesome all season. A 1.000 slugging percentage might be difficult for one to sustain over an entire season. That said, Reynolds has started the season looking a lot like his 2021 self. Remember him? The guy who recorded an fWAR of 6.2 and hit .302/.390/.522 over 646 plate appearances? If the Pirates have that guy again, they will need to pounce on getting an extension done quickly, because the price will only get higher.
Oneil Cruz has been unimpressively impressive
When we think of Oneil Cruz, we think of a player with bigger-than-life tools. We think about how he routinely hits balls well over 110 mph, of his laser arm and elite foot speed. We think of what we got on Opening Day, a screaming home run in which he turned on a 101 mph letter-high fastball. Oh, how I loved that home run.
Over the first week of the season as a whole though, Cruz hasn't been otherworldly. He has six hits and three walks over 27 PA, with one other extra-base hit (a double). That said, Cruz has had a quiet demeanor at the plate to start the year. He’s only struck out five times and is seeing more pitches (out of the leadoff spot, too). He isn’t chasing as much. He’s looked competent against lefties. Overall, Cruz has begun the 2023 season with a more professional-looking approach. When his hot streak inevitably comes and he starts getting locked in, Cruz will be a nightmare for the rest of the league.
I should also note that defensively, Cruz has been solid. He’d be perfect if it weren't for one choked-into-the-ground throwing error.
Veteran stability in the middle of the lineup
It’s been a real breath of fresh air having guys like Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Santana hit in the middle of this Pirates lineup. And don’t worry, Ji-Man Choi will soon figure things out too. In previous years of the Ben Cherington era, fans had to endure lineups consisting of guys like Michael Chavis, Yoshi Tsutsugo and Phillip Evans. At one point or another, all of those guys hit fourth in the lineup.
In 2023, the Pirates finally added some real Major League bats to help bridge the promising top of this lineup to some of the more inconsistent hitters toward the end. McCutchen and Santana have been grinding out at-bats, seeing pitches, drawing walks and overall making life more difficult for opposing pitchers. Connor Joe has been too. This lineup looks much better when guys like Jack Suwinski and Rodolfo Castro are hitting seventh and eighth respectively, instead of fifth and sixth.
Speaking of the inconsistent bottom of the lineup...
The way I see it, there are currently two starting jobs up for grabs in this starting lineup: second base and an outfield spot. Ji-Hwan Bae, Rodolfo Castro, Cannon Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski and Connor Joe are all vying for plate appearances.
Bae has had the most impressive start to the season. Defensively, he has made splashy plays at both second base and the outfield. Here’s another look at his awesome catch in centerfield Tuesday night.
JI HWAN BAE WITH THE PLAY OF THE DAY! pic.twitter.com/YBk1GNt3zv— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) April 5, 2023
Offensively, he can slap the ball all around the yard while wreaking havoc on the bases.
Smith-Njigba and Joe have shown disciplined approaches at the plate. Suwinksi does everything well on a baseball field other than making consistent contact. Castro has obvious pop but can get a bit overexcited at times leading to noncompetitive strikeouts.
As of right now, Bae has an early lead on deserving consistent playing time. That said, nothing is close to being sorted out.
Is the bullpen good...?
Arguably the biggest surprise of the very early season so far:— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) April 5, 2023
The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen.
25.6% K rate
It is way too early to tell whether or not this bullpen resembles anything close to good. That said, the best remedy for making a bullpen solid is the starting pitcher going deep into games. The less a bullpen is worked, the better. Wil Crowe should never have to appear in 60 games in a season as he did in 2022.
From what I’ve seen this year, David Bednar looks like his normal elite(ish) self as the closer. In the eighth inning, Colin Holderman has been solid as well. Dare I say, he’s giving me Clay Holmes vibes? Perhaps he’s the ghost of Pirates-version Clay Holmes, I’m not sure.
In the middle, “Big Bank” Dauri Moreta has impressed. Is he any good? Who knows? Is he entertaining as hell? YES.
Duane Underwood Jr. is fine. Wil Crowe is fine. Jose Hernandez has legitimate Major-League stuff but has been limited in action. Rob Zastryzny has been a pleasant surprise thus far. Chase De Jong is an arm.
As time goes on, I think this bullpen can be maybe, decently, not terrible...?
Mitch Keller is this team’s most important player
On Opening Day against the Reds, Keller was mostly solid until he wasn’t. He was one pitch away from grinding out five innings of two-run ball. That didn’t happen though as his outing ended on a two-run triple hit by Jason Vosler. His outing ended at 4.2 innings with four earned runs given up. Not great.
In start number two though, Keller was flat-out elite, going seven innings while allowing just one earned run. In today’s starting pitching climate, getting anything close to six innings is huge. Pitching seven or more innings is rare. For Keller to go seven innings in his second start of the season really spoke to me. I believe he is ready to anchor this rotation and give the bullpen a tad bit of rest every fifth day. If he can consistently go six innings while keeping his ERA in the mid-threes, the pitching staff has a chance to greatly improve.
Roansy Contreras is also immensely important
Contreras had a splendid first start of the season going 5.2 innings while allowing just one earned run. Like Keller, his 2023 success will heavily tie into the Pirates’ overall 2023 success.
With JT Brubaker on the 60-day IL, the depth of this starting rotation took a hit. To be honest, I’m not sure how trustworthy the trio of Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez and Johan Oviedo can be over an extended period of time. Personally, that trio worries me. Because of that, it is paramount that both Keller and Contreras keep the starting rotation afloat with consistently longer outings, at least until help from AAA arrives.
This first week has me excited and I don't care
I don’t know how good the 2023 Pirates will be. Before the season, I optimistically predicted that the team would go 79-83. At that moment, I predicted with my heart more than my brain.
After a week of Pirates baseball, I feel better about my prediction. Cruz and Reynolds are stars. They just are. Keller might be a star too. The veteran presence has been felt and stability has been added to this team. Success isn't dependent on young and inexperienced players coming through. But when they do, it adds a huge boost to the team.
The energy with this team seems different. The arrow finally feels like it is pointing up. Perhaps a month from now, these words will look foolish. Right now though, I don’t care. At this exact moment, 4-2 feels like 40-20.
I’ll see Yinz at the blackout
Friday is the home opener. Get those black shirts out. PNC Park may not get as loud as it did during the 2013 Wild Card Game, but it will surely be the loudest it's been in years.
The legend @gbrowniepoints was highlighting how nice it would be to see a blackout on opening day. It’s the cities day 412 & We could give @TheCUTCH22 @wudeydo34 & @russellmartin55 the welcome home they deserve. @robkinger91 get ready to look like Johnny Cash! #PNCBlackout412 pic.twitter.com/yce1c91lXi— Michael McKenry (@theFortMcKenry) April 6, 2023