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Pirates pitching depth on thin ice; first base play still shaky

A look at some of the Pirates weaknesses as they look to remain in first place in a winnable division.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Tampa Bay Rays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates went into camp with the depth of the starting pitchers as something of a strength. Mitch Keller, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, J.T Brubaker, Roansy Contreras, Johan Oviedo, Luis Ortiz, Priester, and Michael Burrows. Fast forward to June 14 and that depth is looking like a weakness.

Brubaker was the first go down, he went on the IL during spring and eventually needed Tommy John, Burrows was next, also Tommy John. Vince Velasquez — while it wasn’t Tommy John surgery — had season ending elbow surgery and is going to be on the shelf for 12 months.

What’s going on with Ro is its own can of worms, but he’s really struggled and is moving to the pen indefinitely and the team called up Osvaldo Bido to make Wednesday’s start. I doubt they’ll have him start again unless they feel he’s ready to move back or it’s truly an emergency start.

So, who’s next? Well, there’s Quinn Priester who many expected to get the call over Bido. Past that though, Caleb Smith? With all due respect to Caleb Smith, if you’re looking to him to get you through a few MLB starts you’re probably looking in the wrong place.

It would have been unreasonable to expect 43-year-old Rich Hill to make 30+ starts at the beginning of the season, and even after his 119-pitch magnum opus of the season in his last start, it remains that way. And the idea of nobody turning an ankle coming off the mound, tweaking their hamstring covering first, getting a bad blister or any number of things the rest of the way is downright preposterous.

They need more depth and it’s probably going to have to come from outside the organization as the Pirates look to win in a weakened NL Central.

Alex Stumpf, Pirates beat writer for DK Pittsburgh Sports, reports that the Pirates are looking to buy at the deadline, while it’s not fair to speculate on any specific additions or what they would have to give up for them, it's a safe bet that pitching will be a big part of the conversation.

First base has been a revolving door of sorts for the Pirates for years now, they haven’t had a true long-term solution at the position since they traded Josh Bell to the Nationals in the 2020 off-season.

MLB: New York Mets at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

From Colin Moran to Will Craig and Michael Chavis to Yoshi Tsutsugo, from simply sub-par to disastrous, the Pirates knew with an emphasis on improving headed into the 2022 offseason they had to avoid the disastrous end of that spectrum in 2023.

The solution was to trade for Ji-Man Choi from the Rays and to sign Carlos Santana in the off-season. While disaster has been successfully avoided, it’s been far from ideal. Ji-Man Choi missed some of camp after having a minor procedure on his right elbow and appeared in only 9 games before an Achilles strain landed him on the 60-day IL.

And while Santana’s defensive performance has been one of the best in baseball, a welcome change of pace, and his importance to the clubhouse rivals that of Andrew McCutchen, his offensive output is not among the league's best. His WRC+ of 89 ranks 25th of the 29 qualified first baseman in MLB and second worst in the National League. Among the players starting on a regular basis for the Pirates only Austin Hedges has a lower OPS than Santana’s .680.

He’s also spent the majority of his games, 52 out of 57, hitting fourth, and he’s slugging a meager .339 from the cleanup spot. If the Pirates are to truly be competitive for even the undistinguished NL Central in 2023, improvement from the fourth spot in the order and first base would certainly help.

At the very least, he needs to be moved down in the order. Suwinski against RHP and Castro for LHP could be a useable option to fill the role.

While Santana’s production has trailed off in recent years, posting OPS numbers under .700 each of the last three seasons, it may help to get him more rest than they have been.

Connor Joe plays a competent, if unremarkable first base with an OPS over .1000 versus southpaws, and the lefty Choi is eligible to be come off the 60-day on June 20. With Endy Rodriguez’s call up potentially on the horizon that adds another option, as he may see playing time at first when he’s not catching.