Examining Pittsburgh Pirates Storylines to Follow

The Pittsburgh Pirates 2023 campaign is nothing but taking a step toward contention. They’ve been downright embarrassing for far too long and it’s time for that to change. Just like any season, there will be guys who surprise people with their play and others who disappoint. Someone who may have been seen as a clear piece on a winning team might struggle to find his footing and suddenly face questions about his status on the 26-man roster.

Surely, this will happen for the Pirates. As the season approaches, however, there are a handful of storylines to follow regarding the National League Central club. We’ll whittle them down to three for the sake of time and point out what will likely affect the Pirates’ season the most.

Pittsburgh Pirates Stories to Watch

Is Oneil Cruz Due For A Big Season?

There are countless exciting players throughout the major leagues. Oneil Cruz might be towards the very top of the list. It’s not very often you see a 6’7″ shortstop on a major league roster. Cruz will have to cut down on some errors this season if he legitimately plans on staying there for the foreseeable future. I’d bet against it simply because of the depth the Pirates have up the middle in their minor league ranks.

While his fielding might be a small cause for concern, Cruz is a must-see every time he steps into the batter’s box. Everyone saw Aaron Judge annihilate baseball last season. He did so while smoking them out with 110+ MPH exit velocity. Statcast recorded Judge’s Yankees teammate Giancarlo Stanton at 119.8 MPH on a hit last season. Who was the only player in baseball to exceed 120 MPH last season? That would be Cruz who recorded a 122.4 MPH exit velocity on a single in an August game against the Cubs last season.

The man hits baseballs very hard and often turns into more home runs if you find the right launch angle. Cruz came into his first full season in 2023 setting a lofty goal: joining the 30/30 or even 40/40 club. 43 players have recorded 30/30 seasons while only four have been able to join the 40/40 club. Those are lofty goals but he’s enough of a unicorn that it might not be that far-fetched.

The Pirates’ season very well could go as he goes this season and having a season like that would go a long way toward accelerating the Pirates’ contention timeline.

Mitch Keller must build upon his 2022 success

Mitch Keller entered 2022 as a social media darling. He posted videos of him consistently touching 100 MPH in his off-season bullpen sessions. This had fans excited that he’d take the step forward that they’d been waiting to see the previous three seasons.

Keller pitched to a 4.55 ERA in the first half of the season which was still lower than his career ERA but had fans worried that maybe he was officially a bust. He decided to scrap-throwings hard as he could and added a sweeper to his arsenal. His ERA in five July starts with a cool 2.61 and saw him get his ERA down to a sub-4 as he finished at 3.91. Despite that, his career ERA still sits at exactly 5.00. That figure has to continue to come down but the signs that Keller is a more polished pitcher are there.

The Pirates’ offence has been suspect for a few years now so run support is at a premium. Keller limited the long ball and posted his best career BB/9 last season. That went a long way in taking the next step.

Roansy Contreras is the only top-end pitcher the Pirates currently have and he’ll be entering his first full season of major league ball and surely will have his innings monitored. Luis Ortiz and Quinn Priester figure to eventually find their way to Pittsburgh from Triple-A this summer. Vince Velasquez and Rich Hill were signed to take a spot in the rotation as well.

Theoretically, the Pirates’ offence should be better in 2023. If they expect to be taken seriously, they need solid performances from their starters and bullpen guys alike. Keller might be the most important piece to that equation.

Jack Suwinski is a potential Wild Card

Father’s Day was Jack Suwinski’s true “I Made It” moment in the major leagues. The 24-year-old hit three home runs, including a game-winning walk-off home run to lift the Pirates to a 4-3 win over the Giants.

Suwinski had arrived straight from Triple-A when the Pirates needed a quick replacement on the active roster. He happened to be the closest readily available player for the Pirates. Suwinski was able to parlay that into making 386 plate appearances for the big league club. He clobbered 19 home runs in the process. The youngster showed he’s got some power in that lefty swing, something that plays perfectly at PNC Park with the shallow porch in right field. The problem is that PNC Park is the only place he had much success.

There might not have been a player in the major leagues with wilder home/road splits. Take a look at the comparisons.

Home: .282/.373/.609, 16 HR, 31 RBI

Road: .112/.211/.184, 3 HR, 7 RBI

Incredible how much of a difference there is here.

Suwinski will undoubtedly need to find a way to be more successful in places that aren’t the friendly confines of PNC Park. His 30.7% strikeout percentage unquestionably has to be lowered. Hitting for power is one thing but if you are striking out at that alarming clip, you might not make it in the show.

Suwinski is going to be one of the three starting outfielders. He’ll play with Bryan Reynolds and some rotation of Andrew McCutchen, Cal Mitchell, and Ji-Hwan Bae. Suwinski could certainly be replaced if his power is sapped and his strikeout woes continue.

Overall, the Pirates have some promising young talent mixed with veteran leadership that could surprise some people this season. It remains to be seen if they can compete in a very competitive NL Central division, but fans should have reason to be hopeful for the future of this team.

Photo Credit: © Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Players mentioned:

Oneil Cruz, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester, Vince Velasquez, Rich Hill, Jack Suwinski, Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen