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 is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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