Behind two dazzling starts from Johan Oviedo and some exciting moments from Ji-Hwan Bae, the Pittsburgh Pirates still hold a winning record 16 games into the season. At 9-7, they sit tied for second in the National League Central. They played to a 3-4 record this week in their first week without Oneil Cruz in the lineup.
They’ve gotten contributions from other guys in the lineup including the guy tabbed as Cruz’s replacement, Rodolfo Castro.
We’ll discuss this and more in the latest “Bucco Blasts” edition.
Bucco Blasts: Oviedo Shines for Young Pirates, Bae Excites
Oviedo becoming a potential breakout candidate
JT Brubaker was slated to open the season in the Pirates’ starting rotation. Unfortunately for him, he underwent Tommy John surgery this past week and will miss the remainder of the season. The recovery likely will leak into next season as well. No one wants to win a job in this fashion but the injury has benefitted Johan Oviedo.
Oviedo was acquired by the Pirates along with Malcolm Nunez for Jose Quintana at the trade deadline last season. He’s got good stuff if he can control it. Up until this year, Oviedo struggled to control his pitches. He may have taken a step towards doing that this season.
Oviedo owns a 2.45 ERA through 18.1 innings pitched this season. He’s struck out 19 while walking five in the early going. Three starts isn’t a huge sample size but it’s enough to think he may have taken some steps forward. He’s allowed three home runs so far so that is a number he’d like to neutralize going forward.
The St. Louis Cardinals had been using Oviedo as a bullpen piece last season. Upon his arrival in Pittsburgh, the Pirates decided to convert him back to a starter. The decision has paid off as he’s pitched to a 2.94 ERA in 10 starts over the past two seasons.
Oviedo pitched 7.0 innings allowing just one run and struck out ten batters against his former employer on Friday evening. Three of those hits came from Nolan Arenado so he virtually shut down most of the Cardinals team.
Bae becoming an exciting young player
If you’re not a Pirates fan, you’ve likely seen Ji-Hwan Bae’s name come across baseball social media pages lately.
His flashy defense:
JI-HWAN BAE IS ELECTRIC pic.twitter.com/Cw3s97PmBB
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) April 14, 2023
Continual flashy defense:
Ji-hwan Bae tasted some wall to save two runs pic.twitter.com/EFXfLyQvaA
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) April 14, 2023
His walk-off homer against the defending World Series Champs:
Ji-Hwan Bae walk off home run Greg Brown call pic.twitter.com/kDa88DeJIj
— waffles (@CAWafflez) April 12, 2023
It’s safe to say Bae has been doing his fair share of flashy, exciting things for the Pirates. A quick look at his stats, however, might suggest he isn’t a totally complete player just yet.
Batting .217 with a .670 OPS isn’t anything to write home about. The 23-year-old has slugged two home runs and driven in six runs to go along with four stolen bases. He’s an absolute menace on the base paths and is a threat to steal every time he’s on.
The Pirates typically don’t promote players at such a young age. You typically don’t see their prospects until they’re 24 or 25. A lot of that has to do with service time manipulation but a renewed vision under Ben Cherington coupled with the service time rules could change that philosophy.
The Pirates have themselves a potentially really fun player in Bae. He’s got the ability to play the middle infield positions as well as some experience now in center field. If needed, he could probably step into a corner outfield spot. He’s the ultimate utility spark plug similar to the way Josh Harrison was for the Pirates in the not-too-distant past.
If he can work on getting the on-base percentage up, there’s room for him on winning Pirates teams.
Castro coming into his own
Another piece of the ‘Young Bucs’ potential core is Rodolfo Castro. Castro is infamously remembered for the cell phone falling out of his pocket while sliding into third base last season. This year, after a slow opening week, Castro is starting to make more contact with pitches.
Castro is batting .333 with a .914 OPS in his first 15 games. This is a huge development for him after his debut last season.
Castro was promoted straight from Double-A Altoona last season to the big league club when injuries struck. His first five hits in the major leagues were home runs. It was quite the electric first few weeks for him. The problem was that he wasn’t making much contact outside of the pitches he did send over the fence. He finished last season with 11 bombs and a .233 batting average which was rather high considering his early-season struggles.
So far this season, Castro’s strikeout percentage is down almost three percent. His walk percentage is up nearly five percent. These are both encouraging figures despite only having a fifteen-game sample size. One thing that could slow him down soon is his expected batting average. According to Statcast, Castro’s XBA sits at .177, a sign that potential regression could be on the horizon.
With Oneil Cruz out, the Pirates have turned to Castro to man the shortstop position for the time being. Castro has looked a bit shaky defensively despite spending a lot of his time in the minors at that spot. If he continues to hit well and keep the strikeouts and chase rates down, his offense will keep him in the lineup to outweigh the average defensive positional ability.
McCutchen continues to fill the stat sheet in Pirates reunion
I touched on McCutchen in this same space last week. However, he’s also continued his last career resurgence into this week.
At 36 years old, McCutchen likely wouldn’t have an everyday role on most teams. In Pittsburgh, it’s a perfect fit. They need a leader and he’s got experience in that exact role from the early days of his career. To this point, he’s got a .298 average with a .915 OPS with three steals. The speed that he’s always had still sticks with him despite a torn ACL a few seasons back.
His two home runs and six RBIs have been good for the Pirates’ middle of the order. His second home run was a big one as he hit the first leadoff, two-run homer in Pirates history. It came in the tenth inning Saturday with the runner on second base rule helping push the Pirates to a big win over the Cardinals.
His .426 on-base percentage is by far tops on the Pirates among their everyday guys. That can be attributed to his awesome eye for the strike zone and his 11 walks in 58 plate appearances.
His value continues to be massive for a Pirates team that clearly has some youthful energy that he’s feeding off of. It’s a pretty awesome feel-good story for the league.
The Pirates will look to run up their home run numbers this week as they travel to Coors Field to take on the Colorado Rockies in a three-game set. They will return to PNC Park for a four-game weekend series against the Cincinnati Reds, their first repeat opponent of the season. They enter the week two games off the pace in the National League Central.
Main photo credits: Jeff Curry-USA Today Sports
Johan Oviedo, Ji-Hwan Bae, Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, JT Brubaker, Johan Oviedo, Malcolm Nunez, Jose Quintana, Nolan Arenado, Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Josh Harrison, Andrew McCutchen