Opening day is here.
The Pittsburgh Pirates begin the regular season at 4:10 p.m. Thursday when they meet the Reds at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati in a matchup of teams that tied for last place in the National League Central with 100 losses in 2022.
The Pirates should be better if for no other reason than it is hard to lose 100 games for three consecutive seasons. Even the Pirates have never had a stretch of futility quite that bad.
With hopes of better days ahead for a franchise that hasn’t won a postseason series since 1979, let’s make five predictions for the 2023 Pirates.
Ke’Bryan Hayes will have breakout season
The third baseman made a memorable major league debut during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He hit .376/.442/.682 with five home runs in 24 games and 95 plate appearances.
Obviously, Hayes was never going to hit like that during a full season. However, his OPS+ has been just 87 over the past two seasons, meaning he was 13% below MLB average offensively.
The Pirates were expecting more than that when they signed Hayes to the most-lucrative contract in club history last April, a $70 million deal over eight seasons.
Injuries hampered Hayes more than he would ever care to admit during those two seasons. It was a hand problem in 2021 and a cranky back last year.
Hayes is stronger this year after changing his off-season workout regimen. If he can hit 35 doubles and 20 home runs while playing his normal outstanding defense, then the 26-year-old is a valuable player.
The ball jumped off Hayes’ bat throughout spring training and he is at the age where players historically make a big jump in performance. Everything is set up for Hayes to have a breakout season.
Rotation will be better in September
If there is a reason for concern, it is the Pirates’ starting rotation doesn’t seem strong enough to give them a good chance to win on a nightly basis.
Mitch Keller showed much promise as last season progressed and Roansy Contreras is still just 23 and has a chance to be a star.
However, the Pirates will miss JT Brubaker, who will begin the season on the injured list. He has more upside than most 29-year-old right-handers.
While Johan Oviedo has intriguing talent, he has yet to have much success at the major-league level. Left-hander Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez are true pros but also back-of-the-rotation types who are placeholders.
However, the Pirates should have an interesting rotation at Triple-A Indianapolis that could include five legitimate prospects Luis Ortiz, Mike Burrows, Quinn Priester, Kyle Nicolas and Carmen Mlodzinski.
At least some members of that quintet should surface in the big leagues this year. That is why the rotation will be better at the end of the season than it is now.
Ji-Hwan Bae gets 400 at-bats.
The Pirates say they don’t necessarily have a starting second baseman to begin the season. However, it seems likely Rodolfo Castro will get the bulk of the early playing time.
Castro is an intriguing player. He is just 23 years old and has the potential to hit 20 home runs. Castro is also the preferred double-play partner of shortstop Oneil Cruz.
However, Bae is also 23 and seems to be overlooked by many people. However, for me, he is intriguing.
For openers, Bae can fly and is an exciting player who stole 30 bases for Indianapolis last year in 108 games. He also has a lifetime .294 batting average over four minor-league seasons with a .373 on-base percentage.
Major League Baseball’s rule changes will likely cause teams to emphasize speed more and Bae has plenty of it. Look for him to earn increased playing time as the season progresses.
Bob Nutting’s pockets will be stuffed
Forbes is a very respected financial magazine that does a fine job of valuing professional sports franchises every year. Forbes pegs the Pirates’ worth at $1.32 billion.
That’s an amazing number for a franchise that has pretty much been a laughingstock for the better part of three decades. The Pirates haven’t won a division title since 1992.
However, even more amazing is Forbes reported the Pirates finished last year with $54.5 million in operating income. It almost defies believability that a business entity could produce a product as bad as the 2022 Pirates yet still make a huge profit.
No wonder Nutting was smiling so much during his visit to spring training. It must be nice to be able milk a cash cow like that without putting in much effort.
Buccos will be better
The Pirates will be better this season if for no other reason than it would be hard to be worse after four straight last-place finishes in the National League Central.
General manager Ben Cherington did a good job of fortifying the roster with some much-needed veteran players in the offseason. At least, the Pirates will field a representative lineup in 2023 – unlike the last two years.
The Pirates won’t be a contender or have a winning season.
However, they will finish with a 75-87 record. That will be a sign of progress for a franchise that seems to never be able to get out of its own way.