PITTSBURGH — Jose Osuna is making things hard on the Pirates.
Osuna, the Pirates’ 25-year-old, first baseman, third baseman and right fielder, was called up last week in order to provide for a designated hitter while the Pirates visited the Chicago White Sox.
A week later, the Pirates have been back in National League ballparks for quite some time, but Osuna remains, mostly thanks to him hitting nearly everything in sight while he’s been in the majors this year.
He started in right field and batted second in the series finale against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday and went 2 for 4 with a double, increasing his season-long hitting line to .375/.375/.813 — good for an absurd 1.186 OPS and a 224 wRC+.
There are a couple of red flags there, including the 0.0 walk rate and Osuna’s .333 BABIP. Some normalization in the latter portion might bring things down into a more-normal stratosphere.
But still, it’s hard to take much fault in what Osuna’s done since he’s been in Pittsburgh and it will be even harder for general manager Neal Huntington to tell him he has to go back to the minors — if that’s the decision he eventually makes.
The Pirates have carried eight relievers with a four-man bench for most of this season. When Osuna was called up, it was at the expense of No. 5 starter Nick Kingham, who wasn’t needed for a couple weeks.
The team will need a No. 5 starter this Saturday, and Kingham is expected to be recalled to take that place. Huntington could send down a reliever at that point, but it seems that he prefers, the eight-pitcher, four-man-bench dynamic.
“That’s becoming the new norm,” he said. “It used to be, you did it for a short period of time. Half the National League, I think, is at 13 pitchers. … We may fluctuate. We may go back and forth, and that’s hard, because Jose Osuna has done everything you could possibly ask of a young player to do to stay on a major league club.”
But even if the Pirates do decide to send down a position player, Huntington hinted that Osuna isn’t necessarily at the top of the list.
“David Freese and Sean Rodriguez and [Elias] Diaz, they’re not going anywhere — they’re established major leaguers,” Huntington said. “There could be an argument maybe somebody else should go out and maybe try to get re-established. That’s a consideration for us when we get to that point in time.”
So, by process of elimination, that means that Adam Frazier and Max Moroff could also be sent down. Frazier has been mired in a season-long slump, with a .231 batting average that’s down 45 points from a year ago the biggest culprit. He’s also walking less, striking out more and hitting with less power, so a chance to go down and get right could do Frazier some good. He has options remaining.
Moroff is also struggling a bit at the plate in limited opportunities. He’s striking out nearly half the time (48.4 percent), but has at least shown some pop, with two homers and a double in 31 plate appearances.
If the Pirates are going back to a four-man bench, two of those three will have to be sent down sooner or later, as injured second baseman Josh Harrison is nearing a return, as well.
For Osuna, coming up for limited opportunities of unknown scope and fashion meant that he had to put everything that was out of his control out of his mind, and that includes whether or not his stay in Pittsburgh will last beyond the next couple of weeks.
“The only thing I can control now is to play and be ready for the opportunities that they give me,” Osuna said.
Osuna added that the extra year of experience under his belt — particularly with regards to pinch-hitting — have helped. He’s 1 for 3 with a home run while pinch-hitting this season. Last year, they were quite a drag on his overall numbers, as he hit .120/.154/.200 in 52 pinch-hit plate appearances.
The other factor that helped Osuna this season was the timing of his call-up. When the Pirates brought him up from Indianapolis, he was killing the ball. He had a 1.037 OPS when he was recalled.
“I had a good start over there,” he said. “I tried to keep doing what I was doing over there. I tried for it to be the same.”
So far, that’s worked, and Osuna is also getting rave reviews on his work ethic and the dedication he’s put into improving defensively at right field and third base in order to be a better option for manager Clint Hurdle.
“He’s a tough man,” Hurdle said. “He believes in himself. He’s a really good worker. So, he’s going to be ready, he’s going to be prepared and then the game opportunities are real and he’s moving on them in a very strong fashion right now.”
From the eye-popping numbers to the praise being heaped on by his manager and general manager, it seems that Osuna has made quite the impression so far in 2018. The Pirates are going to have a tough decision in the near future.