Opening weekend has come and gone around the major leagues. Thus, the first in-season edition of “Bucco Blasts” is here. The weekend wasn’t entirely fruitful for the Pittsburgh Pirates as they lost two out of three against the Cincinnati Reds. However, the Pirates did get their first Opening Day victory since 2018 on Thursday. Despite a 1-2 record through the first three games, there is plenty to dive into regarding the team. Without further ado, let’s dive into Bucco Blasts.
Bucco Blasts from Opening Weekend
Cruz Off to Hot Start
24-year-old Dominican shortstop Oneil Cruz is hoping for a breakout season in 2023. He was good last season but now has aspirations for a “30/30” season in his first full campaign in Pittsburgh. Cruz wasted no time getting started, homering in the opening game of the year. He is hitting .400 with three RBI and the one Bucco blast through nine plate appearances. He’s drawn two walks and, perhaps most significantly, has only struck out once in the early going.
OPENING DAY CRUZ MISSILE! pic.twitter.com/nIxDodAScA
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) March 30, 2023
Cruz’s biggest Achilles’ heel last season at the plate was his penchant to chase pitches. Pitchers picked up on that tendency and started avoiding his sweet spots. Instead of being patient and content with a walk, Cruz swung at ugly pitches, ramping up his strikeout numbers. It’s a three-game sample size so his one strikeout so far isn’t the final tally. Still, it could be a sign that he’s developed some patience which would make him a better hitter overall.
Cruz did not hit left-handers well last season and typically gets dropped in the lineup against them. However, he is usually in the top four in the lineup against righties, whom he hits well against. Cutting down on strikeouts and improving against lefties could help make Cruz a feared hitter across the league. That would be big for a Pirates lineup that is going to have to hit well for the team to be successful.
Bullpen Impressive Outside of DeJong
Starting pitchers covered 14 1/3 innings for the Pirates in the first three games, leaving a nearly identical amount for the bullpen to cover. Heading into the year, the Pirates’ bullpen was a clear weakness. After having a miserable bullpen last season, general manager Ben Cherington did seemingly very little to improve that unit. His most significant addition, Jarlin Garcia, is out indefinitely with an injury.
David Bednar is a top-10 closer in the league when healthy, but health was a struggle for him for much of last season. Outside of Bednar, the Pirates’ bullpen is constructed of mostly younger, inexperienced pieces. Journeyman Rob Zastryzny has pitched two scoreless innings so far for the Buccos. Returning pieces Bednar, Wil Crowe, and Duane Underwood Jr. have pitched one scoreless inning apiece. Colin Holderman, acquired last season in the Daniel Vogelbach trade, is scoreless in his inning of work. New additions Dauri Moreta and rule-5 pick Jose Hernandez are also in on the scoreless fun.
Chase DeJong, another holdover from last season, can not claim the same fame as the rest of his bullpen buddies. DeJong pitched in the Pirates’ loss on Saturday and allowed three earned runs in two innings of work. He pitched to a 2.64 ERA in 2022 and looked efficient in doing so, earning him a chance to stick with the Pirates this season. Hopefully, DeJong’s inaugural outing of 2023 was an anomaly and he can find what made him successful last season. Pittsburgh’s rotation doesn’t boast many guys who go deep into games, so the bullpen is going to have to pick them up. Early returns indicate that could happen.
Bae Earns Three Surprise Starts
In a bit of a surprise, manager Derek Shelton started Ji-Hwan Bae at second base on Opening Day. It had been assumed Rodolfo Castro would take the majority of the reps at second, at least in the early portion of the season.
Bae showed in game one why he belongs in Pittsburgh. He showed his lightning speed and ability both at the plate and in the field. Bae’s star shined a bit less bright across the next two games, but it is telling that he got the start in all three. Entering the season as the 13th-ranked prospect in the Pirates’ system per MLB’s official website, Bae can play both middle infield spots as well as center field. He got the start at second base on Thursday and Sunday while manning center on Saturday in place of Jack Suwinski.
Suwinski’s splits between road games and PNC Park are drastic, so the Pirates opted to hold him out of both weekend games after he received the Opening Day start. There is a chance that Bae could receive a lot more playing time this season than initially anticipated. The Pirates have a litany of middle infield prospects, so Bae’s positional versatility certainly won’t hurt him. He’ll need to hit a bit better and find his way on base so his speed can come into play more often.
Brubaker Headed to 60-day IL
Pittsburgh received unwelcome news before the season began, as starting pitcher JT Brubaker headed to the injured list. Brubaker was penciled into the back end of the Pirates’ rotation. Initially, Brubaker was placed on the 15-day IL. During the game Sunday, he was transferred to the 60-day IL to open a roster spot. The Pirates then claimed RHP Edwin Uceta off waivers from the Tigers and optioned him to Triple-A Indianapolis.
Brubaker put together a decent, yet not eye-popping campaign last season. He led all pitchers in spring training with 26 strikeouts and looked prepared to take another step forward this season despite being nearly 30 years old.
The Pirates have already sent Mitch Keller, Rich Hill, and Vince Velasquez to the bump this season. Johan Oviedo and Roansy Contreras will start for the Pirates on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Oviedo is set to take Brubaker’s spot to open the season, as the current severity of the latter’s injury isn’t fully clear. Shelton has said that the Pirates should know more this week regarding his status. There are rumbles that Brubaker could be shut down for the season. Oviedo will get the first crack at replacing him, with prospects Luis Ortiz and Quinn Priester in the minors waiting for their chance as well.
The Pirates head to Fenway this week for a three-game set against the Boston Red Sox. They will then head home to PNC Park for the first time this season to take on the Chicago White Sox next weekend. Join us after that series for another edition of Bucco Blasts.
Photo Credit: Phil Didion/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK
Players Mentioned: Oneil Cruz, Jarlin Garcia, David Bednar, Rob Zastryzny, Wil Crowe, Duane Underwood Jr., Colin Holderman, Daniel Vogelbach, Dauri Moreta, Jose Hernandez, Rodolfo Castro, Jack Suwinski, JT Brubaker, Edwin Uceta, Mitch Keller, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, Johan Oviedo, Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester
Managers Mentioned: Derek Shelton