The Pittsburgh Pirates have been busy early in the 2022-23 offseason. They’ve addressed their first base and DH holes with the additions of Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi, and they don’t seem to be stopping.
The Pirates have been connected to starting pitching options, most notably Kyle Gibson. With the winter meetings coming up next week, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a few more additions to the team coming soon.
Last season, the Pirates finished with the third-worst record in baseball, at 62-100. It would take a lot of additions to go from there to the post-season — which required 86-87 wins at least this past season. But for this week’s Roundtable, we’re focusing on whether the Pirates can get to a winning season, and how they can get there.
I can see the Pirates getting to 82 wins by remaining somewhat competitive during the first half of 2023, then adding on throughout the season with top prospects. The Pirates will have a majority of their top prospects in Indianapolis this season. Some could need a short time to make the majors, some might show up during the middle or end of the season. History of prospects will tell you that not all will make it up to the big leagues, or perform when they do, but there are enough of them who are close to ready to make a difference in the second half. So for a season total of 82 wins to happen, the Pirates need to stay somewhat close to the .500 mark through the first 100 games.
The lineup is going to be better, with Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi; Oneil Cruz for a full season; and even players like Roldolfo Castro having added experience. Plus, you would expect/hope for better offense from Ke’Bryan Hayes. The team still needs to add a legit starting catcher, not a backup taking regular playing time. A quality starting pitcher would also help out tremendously. The other thing I would suggest is not making a move for a backup infielder or marginal outfielder. If a quality one is available in either spot, then that works, but otherwise I would give Ji-hwan Bae regular at-bats split between the infield and outfield. Don’t bring in someone just because they have big league experience, so we can watch them put up a negative WAR, while their eventual replacement already has Triple-A success and big league experience.
The basic summary is that I see 82 wins as possible, and probably the peak of possibility, if they add players who would be a starting catcher and a starting pitcher on a good team. I’d add a quality outfielder/backup infielder as my third move. I’d then roll with everyone else they have, adding in top prospects as they are ready throughout the season. I expect the second half of 2023 to be a real turning point towards contending, so I could see a winning record after the All-Star break, which brings them to 82 wins this season.
Personally, I see little to no chance of the team finishing above .500 next season. To me, history is on my side in saying that, as teams just don’t make 20 game improvements year-over-year very often. For that to happen, they would not only need to see continued improvement across the board from their most important internal players (Keller, Contreras, Cruz), they would need to shore up some of their biggest holes—starting pitcher, bullpen, outfield—with legitimate options, such as Rodon, Bassitt, Robertson, and Benintendi. Of course, if we do see these positions upgraded, it will be with more of the likes of Carlos Santana, which, while better than what they had, aren’t going to result in the team improving by 20 games.
There are no simple answers if the Pirates want to try to have a winning season. They were an awful team in 2022. While losing 100 games, they finished 27th in runs and 28th in preventing runs. That left them with MLB’s second-worst run differential. It was a team effort; here are their ranking in OPS at each position:
C – 30th
1B – 30th (by a mile)
2B – 9th
3B – 27th
SS – 17th
LF – 22nd
CF – 9th
RF – 27th
DH – 22nd (despite a decent showing by Dan Vogelbach)
PH – 26th
The pitching wasn’t any better. The starters ranked 22nd in xFIP, the relievers 29th.
So the short answer to what the Pirates need to have a winning team is, a new team. That can come in a lot of different forms, but the inescapable fact is that they have to have substantial improvement from a lot of their young guys. Adding one or two or three players, by itself, won’t be nearly enough. They certainly have good candidates to take some big leaps forward, starting with Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Roansy Contreras. And there are a lot of other players who could provide some added improvement, if they get chances and if they take advantage of them.
Acquisitions could give the team a boost. The logical approach is to focus on the spots where a good player would provide the most improvement. First base, which was historically bad in 2022, is the most obvious, but the Pirates passed on the chance for a big improvement by adding two high-risk, low-reward players. Catcher is another obvious one, but the best chance there is Endy Rodriguez, who’s a near-lock to be unavailable until mid-season due to the team’s standard service time manipulation. Roberto Perez is still the rumored short-term solution here, but he’s not going to be that dramatic an upgrade. The Pirates’ catchers were actually pretty good defensively in 2022 and Perez – like the new first basemen – is more likely to improve the hitting from horrendous to just poor.
That leaves the pitching staff. If the team is trying to win games for the first time in years, this is where it could make the most headway. According to Rob Biertempfel, they’re interested in adding both Jose Quintana and Kyle Gibson. With the starters already on hand, and assuming they get over their experiments with Bryse Wilson and Zach Thompson, that’d give them a potentially very solid rotation with a lot of depth, some upside and promising reinforcements in the near-term pipeline. But it wouldn’t likely be a dominant rotation, so they’d need to upgrade the bullpen dramatically. That means adding a couple of legitimate, shutdown relievers. No Heath Hembree, no Wil Crowe, no Duane Underwood, Jr. It’s nice to think that Yerry De Los Santos and Colin Holderman could be setup men, but they’d be better as guys who stop rallies in the 6th and 7th innings. The Pirates need to aim high here and try to replicate what they had in Neil Huntington’s successful years, when they just didn’t lose games from the 8th inning on.
I think that reaching 82-wins this upcoming season isn’t likely to happen, as a lot would have to happen in order to get there. Reaching a winning record would have to result in an increase of 20-wins over this past season, and the way the current roster is set up, while there is some upside there, isn’t made to make that kind of jump.
While the Pirates shore up one glaring hole on the team, there is still plenty to cover on offense just to make that kind of turnaround a plausible outcome. This is a team that finished 27th in scoring, while allowing the third most runs, that’s a lot of work to be had.
That’s a lot to overcome in one offseason, and a lot to expect internally from your top young players to make that kind of jump in unison.
Even if winning 82-games isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a realistic goal, that doesn’t mean they should just punt away the season. This season should be more about taking the competitive, winning atmosphere they have preached so much in the minors, and bringing it to the major league level.
This upcoming season, there should be at least somewhat an improvement to where if this question comes up next offseason, things are close enough there is a more clear answer as to what the missing piece should be.
I feel the ultimate answer is: “Baseball”
The Pittsburgh Pirates tackled first base, which has been a long-standing issue for the club. This should pay instant dividends offensively and defensively. Upgrading defensively at first base provides a domino effect around the diamond.
The biggest remaining areas that need to be addressed are catcher, pitching, and outfield.
As I’ve made known, I’d like to see a true center fielder who pushes Bryan Reynolds back to left field. They would be upgrading two positions rather drastically with one addition.
Finding a catcher should be atop the priority list. One that is defensively sound and will produce better than the collection of Quad-A catchers the Pirates ran out in 2022.
Acquiring — whether through free agency or trade — two starting pitchers would be optimal, but I think one solid starting pitcher acquisition would lengthen the depth. The Pirates lack a true front-end starter for the time being, but could have a rotation that in the least keeps them in games provided they receive run support.
As for the bullpen, it’s always a fascinating phenomenon. The Pirates have a basket of intriguing arms that could provide a bullpen that is anywhere from atrocious to excellent. Relievers are fungible. Jorge Lopez is an example of a struggling starter turned closer for the Orioles, who was then flipped at the deadline (along with cash) to the Minnesota Twins for four players in return.
An area I’m intrigued by that isn’t seen on stat sheets is the acquisition of international veteran players. Ji-hwan Bae will be a young South Korean rookie in 2023, and they acquired veteran South Korean Ji-man Choi. They have a slew of young Dominican athletes in Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, Roansy Contreras, and eventually Endy Rodriguez. Ben Cherington brought in Dominican veteran Miguel Andujar who experienced success and being ran through the ringer while in the New York market. Signing Dominican Carlos Santana provides another respected veteran voice in the clubhouse.
All that being said, my short summary is that with the addition of a catcher, starting pitcher, and an outfielder I believe the Pirates could surprise with a winning season if the cards fall right cause, “Baseball”.
The Pirates need a lot to go right to get to 82 wins. They would need help from the outside, as well as a universal boost from their young players. Ultimately, I think that the Pirates will end up pushing north of 75 wins, with a winning record in the second half, even if veterans are traded.
This assumes that the Pirates aren’t finished adding. They need at least one veteran starting pitcher, and I think they could benefit from two. They need a catcher who can stabilize the position behind the plate, much like Carlos Santana stabilized the first base position. They could also use a center fielder who could push Bryan Reynolds to left field.
Even if you add all of that, you need improvements from the younger players on the roster. The Pirates could strategically add veteran pillars to their team to boost certain players. For example, Santana anchors the infield defense at first base, which will benefit Oneil Cruz and Rodolfo Castro. Those two might also benefit from a veteran backup middle infielder.
The entire pitching staff would benefit from a veteran catcher. However, the starters would see an additional benefit with the addition of one or two veterans. Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, and Roansy Contreras could all start for the next contending Pirates team. In order to develop into that type of starter, it would probably be beneficial to all three pitchers if they’re not one of the main starters in 2023.
I also think the Pirates could use some relief pitching help to spare the arm of David Bednar. They’ve made a few moves that could boost the middle relief depth, but they need a late inning guy to alternate with Bednar.
Two starters, a center fielder, a catcher, a late inning reliever, and a veteran backup middle infielder.
With all of that, the Pirates could have a winning season, but only if that massive influx of veteran presence around the field pays dividends through improvements from the younger players. Most of those players would be one-year rentals, and that would be a lot to invest to improve a 62-win team.
One thing I think the Pirates have been missing in the past is the ease of passage to the majors for young players. As long as I’ve followed this team, the farm system has been a huge focus, and Pirates fans in Pittsburgh are always waiting for the next young player to arrive. Yet, that young player is always expected to come up and lead the team.
Even right now, the team is reliant on Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz, and other players who wouldn’t be leading a playoff team. This isn’t to say those players can’t be that type of on-field leader. But you’re asking those players to manifest the performances needed to lead their team to the playoffs. None of these players know how to do that, because no one has ever taught them. They’ve never played on a contending team, and they’ve never played on a team loaded with winning veteran presence.
If the Pirates have an outside shot of winning in 2023, it would be loading their team up with key veterans who can fill two roles: Stabilizing bad positions and relieving the pressure on the younger players. Maybe even teaching some of those younger players how to lead the influx of talent coming from the minors.
They probably won’t win in 2023. I do think it will be a fun season to watch.