For the first time in several years, hope is a word associated with the Pittsburgh Pirates. While I don’t think they’ll improve much on last year’s 62-100 margin, 2023 is a critical year for the Pirates’ rebuild as young players continue to develop and prospects move through the minors. Here are my five predictions for the upcoming season.
Travis Swaggerty and Endy Rodriguez are Called Up Soon
Both Swaggerty and Rodriguez lit it up in spring training, notching an OPS of 1.160 and 1.000, respectively. They didn’t do it against marquee competition, admittedly. Baseball Reference rates spring training opponent quality on a 1-10 scale, with Swaggerty and Rodriguez clocking in at 6.8 and 6.3. That means that on average, the pitchers they faced played at a level lower than Double A in 2022.
It’s impossible to know whether the Pirates legitimately think their young players need to spend more time in the minors, or if they simply want to prevent them from accruing a year’s worth of service time in 2023 by keeping them down for the first few weeks of the season (or if it’s a convenient combination of both). Either way, I expect Swaggerty and Rodriguez to arrive in Pittsburgh by mid-June.
Bryan Reynolds Remains on the Team…
This isn’t a very bold prediction, as the Pirates aren’t likely to trade a player they’re still trying to work out a long-term deal with. It’s important to the long-term success of Pittsburgh’s rebuild, however, and they don’t want to go through another false start by trading their best player. He’s still under contract for three more seasons, so even if the two sides aren’t able to find common ground, there’s no rush to get a return.
…Jack Suwinski Doesn’t
With one more spring training game to go, Suwinski is striking out nearly 46 percent of the time. He’s a solid defender, but he’s out of place in center field and will become the odd man out in the outfield, especially when Swaggerty is called up from Indianapolis. Suwinski has at least two option years remaining, so he’s got some time to figure things out in Triple A if needed. The bottom line is that he needs to make better contact, especially if he isn’t able to maintain his power numbers: nearly 30% of his hits went for home runs in 2022.
General Manager Ben Cherington hasn’t been shy about churning through the roster, even when there isn’t much talent to go around. I’d expect a short leash for Suwinski this season, especially if the homers prove to be an outlier.
Pirates Improve from 2022, But Their Record Doesn’t Show It
MLB adopted a schedule change this offseason that dropped the number of division games played from 76 to 52. Given how bad the National League Central has been in recent years, that’s a significant handicap to start out with.
The Pirates’ improvements will come from younger players like Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Roansy Contreras continuing to establish themselves as major leaguers, developing for potential better years ahead. Free agent signings like Carlos Santana and Rich Hill will help a young locker room mature, but they’re not going to pay tangible dividends on the field.
2023 will be a critical season to set the table for the completion of the Pirates’ rebuild, but I don’t expect their record to improve much (if at all). The scheduling shakeup is a big reason why.
Oneil Cruz Joins 30-30 Club
Cruz said he’s aiming for a 30-30 or 40-40 season at the start of spring training. Only four players in league history have managed to swipe 40 bases and hit 40 home runs, but he’s got a great shot at hitting 30-30.
One reason why is the larger bases, which will make it easier to steal with. It’s already difficult to catch runners stealing, with roughly 30 percent of would-be base thieves thrown out in recent years. The added pitch clock (and limits on pickoff attempts) also make it easier to time up steals. Per Codify Baseball, players have stolen 275 more bases in spring training this year than they did in 2021, compared to just 15 more instances of being caught stealing.
Cruz only attempted one steal during spring training, so perhaps he’s trying to lull opposing catchers into a false sense of security after making a bold statement to begin the year.
He was on pace for 32 home runs across a 162 game season last season, so 30-30 is an attainable (but difficult) margin. I think he’ll get there.
On Monday, Cody Potanko released his five Pirates’ predictions for 2023.