If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition. (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.) Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper! This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams. Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper! If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!
To me, it feels like things are starting to feel different around Pittsburgh. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they are going to jump up and contend in the next year or two, but it is starting to feel like things might be going in the right direction and there could be a plan in place to make things better. That’s a casual, long-distance view, though. Let’s see what the people on the ground think!
C70: For the first time since 2019 the Pirates didn’t finish fifth in the division, tying the Reds for fourth instead. Is that more a function of the Pirates improving or the Reds falling back? How are you feeling about the team and where they stand coming into 2023?
Marty: It was probably a bit of both. Looking ahead to 2023, there are reasons for some buzz and excitement. You get a full season of Oneil Cruz and Roansy Contreras. Mitch Keller appears to have turned a corner, and highly touted starting pitching prospects Quinn Priester, Mike Burrows, and Luis Ortiz should all solidify rotation spots this season. Additionally, the lineup is much deeper. The offseason additions of Ji-Man Choi and Carlos Santana help with that a lot. The reunion with Cutch does as well. You also have Endy Rodriguez, who is probably the best catching prospect in baseball not named Francisco Alvarez, set to join the team once the dreaded Super 2 date passes in June.
That said, the bullpen could be the worst in the National League. David Bednar is awesome, but the rest of the bullpen is a huge question mark. There is also not much position player depth. With one or two injuries, the lineup could really be screwed. It’s also a lineup that will strike out too much and struggle to get on base enough.
When the dust settles I fully expect this team to finish ahead of the Reds. It’s not a slam dunk, but I would predict them to finish ahead of the Cubs as well. If young players take a step forward and prospects graduate then find MLB success, they could enter the offseason with some serious optimism entering 2024.
C70: Andrew McCutchen is back in the black and gold. As a Cardinals fan, watching Albert Pujols last year in a similar situation was a delight. Are you excited about the return of McCutchen and what do you think he’ll bring to the team?
Marty: There are no words to describe how excited Pirate fans are to have Cutch back. He’s on the Pirate Mt. Rushmore. Clemente, Wagner, Stargell, McCutchen, that’s our Mt. Rushmore. The fact that he will now get his 400th double, 300th home run, and 2,000th hit in a Pirate uniform just feels right. This spring his swing looks the best it has in awhile. He’ll never have the bat speed he did in his prime, but the swing looks violent. McCutchen should bring a solid on-base percentage and 15+ home runs to the Pirate lineup.
I also think it’s possible that he being back where he wants to be can help improve his production. McCutchen reached out to the Pirates to make this happen. He turned down more money from the Mets. This is where he wants to be. Pittsburgh has become his home and he’s become a yinzer. That can not be overestimated.
C70: The Pirates signed a number of veterans to one year deals. Who do you think is most likely to get traded at the deadline?
Marty: Rich Hill is an obvious choice here. His career track record tells you that come July he’ll be pitching well and net a nice package, maybe similar to what José Quintana landed, last year. If he’s pitching well, Vince Velasquez will likely be moved as well. Ji-Man Choi will be a prime trade candidate as well. Of course, all of this is if the Pirates are out of contention in July.
I could see a scenario where Austin Hedges is kept through the end of the season to work with the young pitchers, as well as Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis who are two of the five best catching prospects in baseball. Due to the leadership he can provide and what he can teach some of the young Latin players, I could also see Carlos Santana being kept throughout the season.
C70: Ownership did lock up Ke’Bryan Hayes to a long-term deal. Will he take another step forward offensively this season?
Marty: I *think* Key will. He’s always been among the league leaders in exit velocity and hard hit rate, but he has always put too many balls on the ground. He spent the offseason working on his swing to generate more lift on the ball and the results in the spring have been positive. No offense to Nolan Arenado, but Key is the best defensive third baseman in baseball. Heck, he might be the best defensive player in baseball regardless of position. If he can become an even average offensive player in 2023 he’ll become a 5+ WAR player.
C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?
Marty: Best case scenario is the young pitchers all take a step forward, the lineup stays healthy, and this team finish around .500. Possibly even slightly over .500. Worst case scenario is the young pitchers all flop, lack of position player depth is exposed, and the bullpen is a disaster, leading to another 95+ loss season. The most likely scenario is somewhere in between. Personally, I have this team finishing 74-88, which would be a big step in the right direction.