It’s not difficult to find areas where the Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the worst teams in baseball in 2022. As such, there will be plenty of opportunities to upgrade this team over the offseason.
One of the cheapest upgrades available is still defense. It’s not a sexy upgrade. It’s hard to see the value. Good defense is an expectation, and not seen as something you go out and pursue. Teams pay for offense, but aren’t willing to pay as much when some of that offense is sacrificed for defense.
The Pirates need both. And pitching. So far this offseason, they’ve been addressing the defense, while also adding to the offense.
Ben Cherington has been active in the early days of this offseason in filling the hole at first base. Pirates first basemen in 2022 ranked 30th as a group in WAR. They also ranked last in UZR/150, displaying horrible range and fielding abilities. They didn’t make up for it on offense, with a .252 wOBA that ranked last in baseball. I’ll note that they were one behind Houston in this category, so it’s not like an offensive mashing first baseman is the key to a championship.
In the case of the Pirates, first base represents a huge area for potential improvement. The Pirates seem to be focusing that improvement on both sides of the ball.
Their addition of Lewin Diaz wasn’t exciting offensively. He’s got a lot of raw power, but hasn’t put up offensive numbers to stick in the majors. Defensively, he’s a huge upgrade. If the Pirates just went with Diaz as their first baseman, they would see an upgrade over the 2022 team just on defensive value alone.
The Pirates need a more significant upgrade to their team than just a defensive boost at first base. The addition of Carlos Santana should give them both. Santana is skilled on defense and can provide an impact on offense. His addition alone, considering how bad the 2022 first basemen were, would upgrade this team by a few wins.
Furthermore, Santana (and Diaz as a wild card option), help to anchor what is becoming a talented infield defense.
The Pirates are led in the infield by Ke’Bryan Hayes, who was a Gold Glove finalist, and had the fifth best range at the position last year. They have question marks up the middle, with Oneil Cruz and Rodolfo Castro looking like the Opening Day combo. Those two both come with questions about their ability to provide defense value, along with skills that warrant them each getting a shot. In the case of Cruz, his size gives the chance for range.
I bring up range, because I think it will be important with the new MLB shift changes. Starting in 2023, teams will no longer be allowed to implement extreme defensive shifts. The rule says that two infielders need to be on either side of the second base bag.
The Pirates could still “shift” with Cruz. If you put Oneil Cruz right next to second base, on the shortstop side, he’s going to have the range to cover up the middle, and into the right side of the infield — with the option of going to his left. There, he is covered by a very rangey third baseman.
Even without the attempt at a subtle shift, the solid defensive bookends at first and third might help the younger Cruz and Castro. Hayes can pick up some slack for Cruz to his right, making it so he can focus more on balls hit up the middle and toward Castro. Santana allows Castro to cheat a bit to his right, with a solid defender (albeit without range) anchoring first base. The combined result of Hayes and Santana helps to shrink the infield, making it easier for Cruz and Castro to have success.
Cruz and Castro have had a strong playing relationship up the middle. Having those two friends working together could be another added benefit as they both work on adjusting in their young MLB careers.
The upgrade at first base on defense probably won’t be heavily noticed — at least not as much as the home runs from Santana. That upgrade will make the infield smaller for the two more questionable defenders, which might create the circumstances for an overall upgrade to the infield defensive unit.
THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.