Welcome to my new weekly piece called “Bucco Blasts.” In this space, I’ll take a weekly look at some of the pressing issues, storylines, triumphs, and more dealing with the Pittsburgh Pirates. This week’s edition focuses on the Pirates spring training thus far. If you’re unfamiliar with the Pirates’ offseason before reading this, let’s catch you up to speed.
Franchise legend Andrew McCutchen is back on a one-year deal in the Steel City. The Pirates added veteran first basemen Carlos Santana and Ji-man Choi as well as catcher Austin Hedges. Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez are now veteran pieces of the pitching staff for what will be an otherwise young rotation. Bryan Reynolds, despite tons of trade talk, remains a Pittsburgh Pirate. Oneil Cruz and Ke’Bryan Hayes will be on the left side of the infield again this season. The Pirates have an open competition for the second base spot.
Theoretically, things can’t get much worse for the Pirates after a 62-100 campaign in 2022. The roster contains more major league talent this season, which will hopefully lead to an improved record. Without further ado, let’s get into the first edition of Bucco Blasts.
Pirates Spring Training
Time for Hayes to Prove His Worth
Just after the Pirates finished up spring training last season, they hashed out an extension for Ke’Bryan Hayes. The third baseman is the highest paid player in franchise history with an eight-year, $70 million deal. Most fan bases will laugh out loud upon hearing that total. That’s just the way the Pirates are. While the financial guarantee isn’t all that large in comparison to most teams, it is a signal that the Pirates believe in Hayes and his abilities. That is certainly a step in the right direction. There have been a litany of players to come through the Pirates organization, many better than Hayes. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is time for Hayes to justify being the highest paid player in Pirates history.
Hayes made his debut in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. In just 24 games, Hayes batted .376 with a 1.124 OPS. He hit five home runs and drove in 11 runs. He managed to rack up a 2.0 WAR in those 24 games and finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting. His offensive results since then haven’t come close to what made him a top prospect in the Pirates’ organization. For his career, Hayes is a .261/.326/.386 hitter with just 18 career home runs across 256 games. For a corner-infield position, that lack of power isn’t good enough for a team that doesn’t have much to begin with. However, in 10 spring training games this year, the Pirates’ 26-year old third baseman has popped three home runs. That much is encouraging.
Hayes is certainly a premier defender at his position as he finished second behind Nolan Arenado in last year’s NL Gold Glove vote. The Pirates can get great value out of that contract on that principle alone. They would love the bat to come around. Back and wrist injuries have sapped Hayes of power in recent seasons. A clean bill of health could go a long way toward helping Hayes become a great player instead of just a good one.
One of the Pirates’ better pitchers this spring training has been right-hander JT Brubaker. The 29-year-old debuted in the same season that Hayes did, making nine starts for the Buccos. He pitched to a 4.94 ERA across 47 1/3 innings that season and assured himself a spot in the 2021 rotation. Brubaker did not pitch well in 2021, but he took a small step forward in 2022 with a 4.69 ERA, a career best.
Turning 30 in November, Brubaker is not a prospect by any means. He likely isn’t going to be a guy who gets much better than what he is at the current moment. Still, that doesn’t mean he can’t find his footing and become a reliable back end starter for the Pirates.
Spring Training Strikeout Leaders:
26 – JT Brubaker (OppQual 7.9)
24 – Gerrit Cole (OppQual 7.2)
23 – Luis Severino (OppQual 7.7)
21 – Matthew Boyd (OppQual 7.3)
21 – Brent Honeywell Jr. (OppQual 7.0) pic.twitter.com/9YOme9gslT
— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) March 22, 2023
Most people outside of Pittsburgh likely don’t even know who Brubaker is unless their team has beaten up on him the past few seasons. But maybe they should take a look, as Brubaker currently leads all major league pitchers in strikeouts during spring training. Spring stats don’t always predict regular season performance. However, he has a 7.9 “OppQual” rating on Baseball Reference, which stands for opponent quality. This indicates that what Brubaker is doing to this point isn’t a fluke and that’s important for confidence as the season approaches.
Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, and Rich Hill have guaranteed rotation spots. Brubaker and Velasquez are two guys on short leashes with their opportunities, with young starting pitching knocking on the door in Triple-A. Continued success, especially with striking hitters out, is certainly a way for Brubaker to become a contributor to the backend of the Pirates rotation out of spring training.
Catchers Provide Bridge to Future
Over a career spanning eight years, Austin Hedges is a career .189 hitter. His spot in the batting order is there because it has to be. Even so, he has had four double-digit home run seasons, so there’s hope he can provide a smidge of power to a Pirates lineup devoid of it. Where Hedges thrives is working with pitchers and playing sound defense behind the dish. He is the literal definition of replacement player in terms of WAR, as he sits at exactly 0.0 in his career. Honestly, that’s quite impressive because his batting stats are drastically below average while his defense is what keeps getting him a job at the major league level. Hedges and backup Tyler Heineman are slated to be the catchers for the Pirates on Opening Day. Kevin Plawecki is also on the roster for depth.
Catcher was not a position of much priority for the Pirates this offseason. They believe they’ve got two studs capable of taking the reins as soon as later this season. Henry Davis was the Pirates’ first overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft. He played catcher at Louisville and has a very capable bat compared to many catchers in the majors currently. He can hit for power and has a cannon behind the plate. Much of his problem early in his career has been staying healthy. Davis is a batter that stands close to the plate. He’s also had some concussion problems that have slowed him from getting to Pittsburgh quicker.
Endy Rodriguez was acquired from the Mets as part of a three-team deal that sent Joe Musgrove to the Padres. Rodriguez had a breakout season in the minors last year. He started in High-A ball, finishing out the season with six games at Triple-A. Rodriguez hit .323 with 25 bombs and a .996 OPS across all three leagues. The more athletic of the two prospects, Rodriguez is going to be used at other positions around the diamond as well to allow room for both players in the lineup. It’s a good problem for the Pirates to have as spring training comes to a close.
Main photo credits: Kim Klement- USA Today Sports
Players mentioned: Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Santana, Ji-man Choi, Austin Hedges, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, Bryan Reynolds, Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Nolan Arenado, JT Brubaker, Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Tyler Heineman, Kevin Plawecki, Henry Davis, Endy Rodriguez, Joe Musgrove