Bucco Blasts: Reynolds Hot, Cruz Hurt

Thanks in large part to Bryan Reynolds and Oneil Cruz, the Pittsburgh Pirates are off to a 6-3 start to the season. Unfortunately, the Pirates won’t have Cruz’s services for a while.

The Buccos went into Fenway Park and proceeded to sweep the Boston Red Sox. Over the weekend, they came home for their opening series at PNC Park. It took a rubber match, but the Pirates picked up a series victory over the Chicago White Sox with their win on Easter Sunday. The victory, while nice in the standings, came at a cost. Cruz made an awkward slide on a play at the plate. Seby Zavala, the White Sox’s backup catcher, took exception to the slide. Despite Cruz lying on the ground, writhing in pain, Zavala had something to say. Pirates first baseman/designated hitter Carlos Santana took exception. The benches cleared, making for quite the scene.

Pirates manager Derek Shelton said postgame that Cruz fractured his ankle on the play. All things considered, that might be better than a knee injury which was initially feared. Still, it was a winning week for the Pirates and they sit in second place early on in the National League Central. There were lots of positives to go with the bad news on Cruz. Without further ado, let’s discuss it all.

Bucco Blasts: Regular Season Week 2

Reynolds Makes Case for Extension

One of the bigger stories in baseball leading into the season was the contract negotiations between the Pirates and Bryan Reynolds. Fans of other teams patiently awaited a resolution to see if they’d have a chance to acquire the 28-year-old outfielder. A contract was not hammered out by the Opening Day deadline. Talks are not officially off, but reading between the lines of general manager Ben Cherington’s comments, it doesn’t seem like a resolution will be coming any time soon.

Reynolds might be thankful for that. All he has done through nine games is bat .405 with five home runs and 14 RBI. He’s gotten a hit in every single game so far and had six RBI in the home opener Friday afternoon. The original $106 million that was reportedly agreed on might not stand very long if he keeps this up.

There are likely few people outside of Pittsburgh taking the Pirates seriously. Three decades of losing will do that to your outside perception. Still, it’s a bit early for anyone to judge if the Pirates are for real. Only nine of 162 games have been played. But if they do anything big this season, it’ll be because Reynolds carried them through. They seem to go as he goes over the past few seasons.

Losing Cruz Could Have Massive Impact

The first nine games this season showcased a more patient Oneil Cruz at the plate. It’s an absolute shame that this injury happened. His slide wasn’t very graceful but the lack of sportsmanship and respect from Zavala was rather distasteful as well. Regardless, the Pirates are now without a guy capable of playing at an All-Star caliber level for them. Cruz set his sights on a 30/30 or 40/40 season this year. With his combination of size and talent, those ambitions definitely could have been met. We’ll have to wait another season to find out.

Whether or not Cruz will need surgery is still unknown. No timeline has been given either, but he’ll certainly go on the 60-day IL in order to open up a roster spot. Cruz leads off against righty pitching and batted lower against lefties but started hitting them a little better so far this season. His speed on the base paths as well as his power and laser arm will all be missed sorely by this team.

The injury presents an opportunity for Ji Hwan Bae, as the electric youngster now will have a chance to play at shortstop every day. Rodolfo Castro should have a stronghold on second base now despite his ugly start to the season at the plate. In turn, an outfield spot will open up now as most of Bae’s reps will likely come at short instead of the outfield. Cruz’s injury will evidently have ripple effects all the way down the lineup. He’s impossible to replace with his skill set. The Pirates are going to miss him, but they’ll hopefully remain in the race if he’s able to return later this season. Given Bryan Reynolds’ hot start, he could help fill some of the offensive void that Cruz is leaving.

McCutchen’s Return A Huge ‘W’ for Both Sides

Any Pirates backer overreacts when the team has a winning streak. Those tend to be few and far between in Pittsburgh. Nine games is obviously enough sample size to make a rational point, right? Maybe not. But anyone who’s watched the Pirates so far can tell that Andrew McCutchen’s reunion with his original team is a move that greatly benefits both sides. McCutchen played his best ball with the Pirates. While he’s been serviceable since he was traded following the 2018 season, he’s never reached the heights he did in Pittsburgh. Cutch was a constant NL MVP candidate and even broke out to win one in 2013. He’s 36 years old now, so his best baseball is certainly behind him. That doesn’t mean he can’t be productive.

Early on, McCutchen is batting .375 with a home run and three RBI. He’s stolen two bags on three attempts. His .515 on-base percentage is vintage McCutchen, as he’s always had a great eye for the strike zone and works walks often. He likely won’t become an MVP-caliber player again at his age but he’s certainly still a productive player. Not only are the Pirates getting solid production, they’re getting a leader on and off the field for a club that sorely needs one. They’ve got some veterans on the team that are capable of that role. However, McCutchen has been there and done that for the Pirates already at one point in time.

Cutch doesn’t have to be an everyday player, and that’s okay. He can serve as a fine designated hitter as well as the occasional right fielder. He’s back in Pittsburgh in a role that should see him continue to thrive over the course of the season. He’s certainly rejuvenated and that’s evident in his clubhouse attitude and on the field.

Hill, Velasquez May Have Short Leash

If the Pirates want to continue to succeed this season, they can’t keep getting into 13-9 type baseball games as they did Friday. Two pieces of their rotation, Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez, have struggled out of the gate. Hill is 43 years old and Velasquez has yet to establish a great major league track record. The Pirates aren’t required to give them any sort of major leeway.

Sure, Hill is still an innings eater at this stage of his career, but those innings also need to be valuable. He has given up a major league-leading five long balls in two starts. His ten earned runs are also a league-high at the moment. That’s certainly not ideal. If Hill shows any signs of age, the Pirates need to cut bait. It isn’t worth letting him give up a ton of long balls, forcing the offense to score double-digit runs every five days.

Velasquez actually pitched well in his outing on Saturday until the fourth inning, when he lost command and gave up four runs. He’s another guy that shouldn’t be given 15-20 starts to prove himself if he struggles. If he isn’t pitching well, trim the fat and rid him from the roster. Luis Ortiz seems to be major-league-ready. He pitched well enough in a handful of outings last year. Quinn Priester should be ready soon. Mike Burrows is another guy knocking on the door.

Hill provides a lot of wisdom as a guy his age should. He fills a mentor role and that’s important, but the Pirates also can’t afford to let him pitch batting practice for $8 million a season.

What’s Next?

The Pirates continue their homestand against the defending World Series champion Houston Astros for a three-game set starting Monday. They’ll then travel west for a four-game weekend series against their NL Central foe St. Louis Cardinals. In honor of “Batman,” A.J. Burnett throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day at PNC Park Friday, let’s meet back here next week. Same bat time, same bat place.


Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Players Mentioned: Bryan Reynolds, Oneil Cruz, Seby Zavala, Carlos Santana, Ji Hwan Bae, Rodolfo Castro, Andrew McCutchen, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester, Mike Burrows, A.J. Burnett

Managers Mentioned: Derek Shelton