Williams: The Worst Injury Risks on the 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates

Over at FanGraphs today, Dan Szymborski released his 2023 ZiPS projected standings for the National League. The Pirates were projected last in the NL Central with 68 wins.

I typically do a ZiPS-based analysis to get a feel for the team’s expected win total. This year, I’ve been going a bit more in-depth with that process. I’m a big fan of the amount of detail that goes into the ZiPS simulations.

One bit of detail was highlighted today in the NL Central writeup, when Szymborski explained the projections of the Cardinals over the Brewers:

“When it comes down to it, the NL Central isn’t that fierce and none of St. Louis’ competitors have been that aggressive. The Brewers come the closest, and they have a very high “perfect health” upside. ZiPS just doesn’t like Milwaukee’s depth anywhere near at much as St. Louis’.”

I thought the term “Perfect Health” was interesting, because I think the Pirates would need near “Perfect Health” to get into the 80+ win range.

I’ve previously been focusing on the 20th percentile projections for the 2023 Pirates. I covered the hitters and the pitchers separately in previous columns on this subject. Overall, this seems like a very safe roster. Ben Cherington has done a lot this offseason to raise the production floor of several weak areas from the 2022 roster.

Finding a position on paper where the 2023 Pirates might end up among the worst in the majors in production is a difficult task.

Paper can sometimes hide the potential for injuries, which can rock a player’s projection and cut a team’s win total drastically.

I don’t personally like projecting injuries, because they’re unpredictable. The discussions around health tend to be discriminatory. For example, it’s seen as more likely that a player in his 30s is going to get hurt than a player in his 20s. The Pirates have added several players in their 30s this offseason.

Those players aren’t necessarily injury risks just because they’re over 30 — just like a player in his 20s wouldn’t be guaranteed to stay healthy for a full-season. It all depends on the individual player and their usage.

Andrew McCutchen, for example, is in his age-36 season this year. McCutchen won’t be able to do the things he did at age 26, when he had an 8.1 WAR and led the 2013 Pirates to the playoffs for the first time in two decades. With a full-season at age 36, I could see him putting up 1-2 WAR. He just needs to stay healthy and on the field.

McCutchen has never really been much of an injury risk, though they’re unpredictable for any age.

In this article, I won’t try to predict injuries for specific players. Instead, I’m going to focus on how the Pirates are set to handle the randomness of injuries — from the areas where they have the most impact.

The Veterans

Andrew McCutchen – McCutchen has averaged around 500 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons. The Pirates have so many outfield options that they can use McCutchen as the designated hitter a lot of the time. I’d be surprised if he gets more than 50 games in the field.

Carlos Santana – Santana is in a similar situation to McCutchen. He’s in his age-37 season, but is coming off a year with 500 plate appearances, and has never been an injury risk. The Pirates have 162 games with a designated hitter. They could split that between Santana and McCutchen. The presence of Connor Joe and Ji-Man Choi allows them to keep these two veterans fresh with the designated hitter spot.

Ji-Man Choi – Choi is already dealing with an elbow injury, though it’s only serious enough to prevent him from playing in the World Baseball Classic as a precaution. He and Connor Joe are the other side of the 1B/OF/DH depth. They seem more likely to stay healthy due to age, though that’s not guaranteed. It should keep them on the field more often. What I like is that the Pirates have two first base options before they need to turn to Santana as a regular first baseman.

Austin Hedges – Hedges is only 30-years-old, but he is a catcher expected to handle the bulk of the workload. He played 105 games last year, and the Pirates gave 52 games to 31-year-old Tyler Heineman last year. They need those two to stay healthy until Endy Rodriguez arrives — although Jason Delay gives a good short-term option if the Pirates want to delay Endy’s service time in the face of an injury. The catching depth seems thin early in the season — unless you think Rodriguez will be ready sooner.

Rich Hill – He made 26 starts last year and 31 the year prior. Hill put up a 1.7-1.8 WAR in those seasons, but only threw 124.1 innings last year. This is a special situation. Hill’s usage will be more like a fifth starter to keep him fresh, but his role on the team is more of a leader. He only pitched beyond five innings in seven of his starts last year. At best, the Pirates can hope for five solid innings every time. The Pirates have rotation depth if Hill goes down, but they might have a different problem that I’ll discuss next.

The Pitching Depth

The Pirates have eight starting pitchers who project for 1.5-2.5 WAR on their 80th percentile projections, while also projecting around replacement-level in their 20th percentile projections.

What that means is the Pirates have eight starters who will almost certainly produce positive value, if healthy. There are enough starters in this group that they negate the risk of injuries tanking the overall rotation.

There might be a concern with the bullpen, especially with Rich Hill likely leaving four innings each start for the relievers. I’ve written about how the Pirates could use a veteran reliever to pair with David Bednar. His usage on a 62-win team was strained, and will only be increased as the team wins more.

Wil Crowe, Duane Underwood Jr., and Robert Stephenson all could eat innings and help to provide stability. Beyond these three, the bullpen doesn’t have the same depth as the rotation. In order to have that depth, the Pirates would need to move starters to the bullpen — depleting the rotation depth.

They could do that with minor league starters like Kyle Nicolas, Carmen Mlodzinski, and Cody Bolton. In his article today, Dejan Kovacevic wrote about how Johan Oviedo could make the move to the bullpen. I’d rather see Oviedo as a starter, though it would be interesting to piggyback him with Hill.

In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad approach to ease some of these younger starters into the majors in that type of extended relief role.

This would save Bednar and the rest of the bullpen for at least one night a week, and would limit the workload for Hill.

The Pirates do have bullpen depth, but they will need to get creative. The best way to boost the depth is to add someone near the top of the depth charts and move everyone else down a spot — while keeping the best reliever protected.

The Prospects

A lot of the Pirates depth comes from the prospect ranks. Or, there are some cases where current starters become depth options once a prospect arrives.

Endy Rodriguez and Quinn Priester will probably have the biggest impact on the depth charts by pushing everyone else down.

There are two positions that are relying on prospects more than others. The Pirates have a lot of young options at second base and in the outfield. Anthony Murphy wrote about the battle at second base the other day. We’ll likely see a churn at that position and in the outfield this season, with the hope that a younger player will settle into the role.

In the event that Choi and Joe get injured, the Pirates can turn to Malcom Nunez at first base rather than burning out Santana. If Nunez isn’t ready, they could shift someone else to the spot.

The biggest depth weakness comes from the positions where the Pirates are expecting a full season from their anchor players. Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Oneil Cruz are cornerstones of the lineup. The Pirates have some depth behind these guys in the event of an injury.

Jared Triolo can back up Hayes with Gold Glove worthy defense. The Pirates would need Liover Peguero to step up in a big way to replace Cruz. They could also turn to Triolo, who has played the position. In fact, Triolo’s versatility could be huge for the depth. The same goes for Ji-Hwan Bae, who has played short and center field. Cruz might be a bit harder to replace than Hayes right now, and you’re not replacing his impact unless Peguero reaches his upside this year.

The hardest to replace would be Reynolds. The Pirates have a lot of outfield options, but none have shown his upside. Then again, Reynolds wasn’t really expected to be this player until he broke into the majors and started living up to some of his loftier projections in the minors. With all of the options the Pirates have, they could see someone break out.

The outfielder to watch for a breakout, according to ZiPS, is Travis Swaggerty. The outfield would look a lot better if a productive Swaggerty were paired with Reynolds, rather than replacing him.

Check back next week as I give my 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates win projection.

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.

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Dejan Kovacevic is an idiot. Im sorry but the Pirates brought Johan Oviedo in to be a SP. They spent the time last season to stretch him out and he had more than serviceable results. To move him back to the bullpen, even in a long relief role, would be a step backwards in the 24 year olds development. No chance.

The Cobra

It’s been mentioned by many…but the rotation looks like – Hill, Keller, Cont, Bru and either Oviedo or Velasquez. I don’t know if anyone knows for certain whether VV was promised the 5th spot to start the year or not. That may be the only way Oviedo starts the year in the bullpen. I agree that he SHOULD start, but I can see a path where he doesn’t, at least to start the season. Unless of course…injuries.


I don’t think many teams actually promise or guarantee their fifth spot in the rotation. They may slot you in there based on depth, but it’s more like…you have an opportunity to compete for it or it’s your spot to lose. I believe they brought him in as a veteran to “compete” and ultimately push the other guys, ALL of the other guys. They’ve created a lot of depth this off-season, and it appears as though they want to see how some of the younger guys respond to competition and effectively earn playing time.


If VV wins the 5th rotation spot I’d be willing to bet Oviedo starts off in AAA. Again, Pirates brought him into a be a SP. I can’t see them moving him back to the bullpen(even in a long relief role).

Oviedo had huge upside as a SP coming through the Cardinals system too. He was thought to have # 2-3 SP upside.

And the Cardinals always had success starting their SP prospects or moving them to the bullpen before making them a full time SP. A lot of Cardinals fans were bummed to trade Oviedo and were completely against it in the past.

Listen to this video(you can start at 40 seconds):


And look at the replies to this tweet:


Last edited 1 month ago by pittsburghbob69

VV was horrendous as a starter last year, they mercifully pulled him from of the rotation after 7th or 8th start. Pitched pretty decent out of the pen. The issue agreed upon was his usage
Relief- no deal
Start- chance to compete, I think no matter what he does in the spring they will give him the benefit of the doubt. If he is still getting hit around as a starter, they will keep sending him out there at least until Oviedo is stretched out enough. I see zero reason to start screwing around with up and back starter relief etc. Thats what they did wrong with Clay Holmes, other teams knew he had the stuff. Pirates were too busy playing games while not paying attention to how good the stuff was…

IMO, I think its VV’S job to lose sadly and who knows how long they will drag it on into the season


I like DK, he’s a great writer and very passionate, he often captures the emotional feeling of fans very well. But he’s a little like Stephen A Smith in a sense (not the same but hear me out) – Stephen A is very entertaining, great emotional takes, content day in day out. But the quality of their actual sports insight and analysis is rather pedestrian in my opinion. Its just not expert incisive analysis, their points basically live in the realm of fan opinion, with the cavaet that they do have relationships with people in the game, so sometimes its a more informed opinion – but its primarily a fan’s opinion. And they’ll latch on to one emotional point and write article after article after article forever. They act like they are sports experts based on long careers in journalism but they are aren’t. They’re not doing any in depth statistical analysis, they rely on gut feelings. Not everyone could do what they do creating their media empires and putting out quality, entertaining content, but any fan could have more informed and researched sports opinions.

Last edited 1 month ago by clemo83

Per Statcast and Baseball Savant, his expected percentile rankings were the best on the Pirates of all qualified pitchers.


Speaking of numbers – Mitch Keller in ’22 compared to ’21

29 Starts from 23
159 IP from 101 IP
20.1 K% from 19.6%
8.7% BB% from 10.4%
.79 HR/9 from .89
.320 BABIP from .388
3.91 ERA from 6.17
3.88 FIP from 4.30
2.1 fWAR from 1.2

We are the Pirates and we have been so bad that we tend to take some of these guys for granted – especially pitchers who get the privilege of carrying around a 5-12 record for a team playing sub .400 baseball. A great year of improvement and I hope he keeps moving in the right direction. The other 29 teams will notice!


Just being devil’s advocate; if WAR is a counting stat, MK’s 60% increase in IPs would translate into a 1.9-ish fWAR. So, the overall improvement from 21 to 22 is only 0.2 fWAR. His actual improvement seems to be almost entirely correlated to IPs.

With that being said, I wonder what the fWAR splits look like after he made his adjustments. I would assume they’re night and day. I’m hoping the MK we saw in the back half of 22 is the real MK bc the Buccos desperately NEED someone the lead the rotation.


Jameson TaI 12-5 with the same numbers as MK


Excellent points. Oviedo has always been a SP. Last year the Cardinals needed him in the BP and he pitched 25 innings for them in their BP prior to his trade to the Pirates. As you said, the Pirates stretched him out as a SP over 7 Starts, throwing 30.2 IP, with a 3.47 FIP.

In his first 4 starts he threw 77, 57, 74, and 84 pitches. In his 5th Start he pitched 7 shutout innings (82 pitches) against the Cubs with 8 K/0 BB. In his 6th Start he pitched 6 innings (102 pitches) against the Cardinals, giving up only 2 runs, 4 K’s/2 BB. His 7th Start was the last game of the season where he only went 4 innings (61 pitches). A very positive start to his Pirate career.

Oviedo will turn 25 just before the beginning of the season, and he could be a major step forward for the Pirates. We need to see he and Contreras on a regular basis pitching out of the Rotation in 2023.


If VV wins the 5th rotation spot I’d be willing to bet Oviedo starts off in AAA. Again, Pirates brought him into a be a SP. I can’t see them moving him back to the bullpen(even in a long relief role).

Oviedo had huge upside as a SP coming through the Cardinals system too. He was thought to have # 2-3 SP upside.

And the Cardinals always had success starting their SP prospects or moving them to the bullpen before making them a full time SP. A lot of Cardinals fans were bummed to trade Oviedo and were completely against it in the past.

Listen to this video(you can start at 40 seconds):


And look at the replies to this tweet:


Last edited 1 month ago by pittsburghbob69

To get to 80 wins will take more than perfect health. It will also take numerous players significantly outperforming expectations. For example Cruz and Hayes both becoming 5-6 WAR players, while Keller, Roansy, & Bru all pitching at or above their 80% projection due to Hedges defense/game calling abilities.

Is there a path to .500 ball club this year? Most definitely. Is it probable? Hardly.

Getting off to a good start (a winning record on May 1), seems essential for any hope of playing meaningful games in September.


The time has come that we only use oWAR when discussing Key. The problem is I can’t find dWar anywhere in fangraphs or BRef to subtract from WAR to arrive at oWAR, but I’m sure it’s buried somewhere. We need 2 oWAR from Key, that would be nice.


If he’s healthy for all of ‘23, I say that’s his floor.


This is worrisome, need to click for resolution…

Last edited 1 month ago by Anthony

Is this 2022 actual results or 2023 forecast results?


2022 expected results, blue is bad, which makes me think they outperformed their expected results, i.e., there could be some regression.

Also, when I pull up the Brewers and four out of their five starters are in red, it makes me cringe.


Don’t worry, this year Cruz & Cutch will make 5 of 5 Brewers starters see red!

Let’s Go Bucs!

Wilbur Miller

Considering that the lineup had its best stretch in 2022 in June, when all the veteran deadenders were hurt, “injury risk” isn’t such a straightforward concept with this team.


That was actually a fun stretch to watch last year

Wilbur Miller

Yeah, it was. But Hodge ‘n Podge put a stop to that!

b mcferren

pls dont throw Bednar´s arm off again this year


ZIPS has us at 68 wins? Who knew that I could be called optimistic with my 72 win projection?

As for our bullpen, yes we have depth, but is it any good?

Starting Hill and piggybacking with Oviedo sounds good, but
I’d rather see Oviedo stretched out as a SP.


The FG blend of ZiPS and Steamer says 73 wins. feels about right.



Right on TSwqags. Hope he gets it right this year.


Swaggerty had 400 at bats in AAA last year with a .348 OBP. Want to know who had a .348 obp or higher on our team last year ? No one. Not even “Soto return” Reynolds. (.345)

Imagine Swaggerty and Bae as table setters followed by Reynolds, Cruz , Hayes and some pretty good platoon splits that follow ? That could be fun

Not sure this front office agrees though

Last edited 1 month ago by Cobra

I have been pulling for him for some time. At the very least, I hope he can be a quality 4th OFer. I’m not sold on Vilade one bit.


I don’t understand my fascinaton with TSwags, but his potential blend of speed, defense, and EXB power intrigues me. A productive TSwag really changes the dynamic of the OF.


If you squint real hard one might be able to see a Darin Erstad type player in Sawggerty.


It’s the defense (with a plus arm) at a premium position and ability to get on base, plain and simple. Below average bat could still yield a 2-3 WAR player, think Ke’ or Ke’-lite.

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