Bucco Blasts: Pirates Lead National League Central

Heading into 2023, the Pittsburgh Pirates gained steam nationally as a team that would at least be fun to watch. Through one month of the season, no one could’ve seen this coming. At the end of April, the Pirates stand alone at the top of the National League Central. They’re the only team in the NL with 20 wins. They won both ends of a doubleheader by a combined score of 22-4 over the Washington Nationals.

Pittsburgh now sits at 20-9, 11 games over .500. They are having fun. Regression eventually will hit. It’s early to start looking into this type of thing, but the Pirates are setting themselves up well to finish above .500 for the first time since 2018. It would only be the fifth time since 1993 they would do that. If you haven’t noticed, there are currently low standards in the Steel City as far as baseball is concerned.

Fans are enjoying what is happening for the time being because a collapse feels sadly inevitable. For now, though, let’s dive into more positive thoughts in this edition of Bucco Blasts.

Bucco Blasts: Pirates Lead National League Central

Contract Extensions Signal a Plan

For the better part of three decades, it seems like there isn’t much of a plan regarding the construction of the Pirates’ roster. Owner Bob Nutting pulled a fast one on everyone by signing third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes to an extension on Opening Day in 2022. There weren’t many rumors on that deal before it got done. It came out of nowhere and, to the delight of the Pittsburgh faithful, the team locked up a player for longer than two seasons.

This season, the Pirates extended manager Derek Shelton amidst the hot start. While that move seemed fairly obvious as his contract was expiring at season’s end, it was nice to see commitment.

Nutting and Co. then set a soft deadline for Opening Day on the rumored Bryan Reynolds contract extension. The day of, both sides made a hard push and even reportedly agreed on the $106 million that eventually was the final figure. Reynolds wanted an opt-out clause that held up the deal. On Tuesday, the Pirates and Reynolds agreed on an eight-year deal with a team opt-out at the end.

A quick look at the Pirates’ payroll beyond this season is quite funny. They have just two guaranteed contracts for next season – Hayes and Reynolds – at just $17 million committed. Reliever Jarlin Garcia, who has yet to throw a pitch for the Buccos this season, has a club option for $3.25 million. Other than that, every other player is either arbitration eligible or a free agent.

On the bright side, however, the Pirates showed some initiative and signed two good, young players to long-term deals. It’s a step in the right direction as the Pirates look to contend in the National League Central for the foreseeable future.

Jack Suwinski Becoming the Real Deal

Part of the Pirates’ equation to becoming more competitive was the emergence of Jack Suwinski. It’s safe to say that, through the first 29 games, Suwinski is breaking out in a big way.

One of the biggest differences in Suwinski this season is his patience at the plate. In 2022, Suwinski walked just 11% of the time. Fast forward to 2023 and that number is up significantly to 16.7%. According to StatCast, Suwinski’s chase rate is in the 99th percentile across Major League Baseball. He’s more selective at the plate despite striking out at a similar clip. Mathematically, the strikeouts should come down a bit as the season goes on if he can keep the eye refined. Suwinski ranks in the top 10 percent of the league in exit velocity with a 92.7 MPH average. He’s hitting the ball hard. Dating back to last season, Suwinksi now has 25 home runs across just 394 MLB at-bats.

It’s easy to forget that the 24-year-old was promoted straight from Double-A Altoona, so his lack of Triple-A experience certainly showed last season. Now, Suwinski is batting .279 with a 1.011 OPS in 22 games. He’s 2-for-13 so far this season against lefties and is a career .122 hitter against southpaws. That’s unfortunate because it’ll limit Suwinski to playing against mostly righties. For now, Suwinski’s improved approach at the plate is enough of a development in itself. Improving slightly against lefties would go a long way toward making Suwinski a big piece of the Pirates’ future. He certainly has the pop to stick around the major leagues. Now it’s time for him to continue to stay with his approach.

Drew Maggi’s Dream Comes True

It’s easy to get discouraged in any walk of life. Everyone has a bad day at work or a rough time in their life that they’ve got to push through. That’s exactly what Drew Maggi has done to this point in his career. That perseverance is now being rewarded.

Maggi got the call last Sunday afternoon to the big leagues. In 13 years, he’s spent two days on a major league roster but didn’t get into any games. That all changed Wednesday evening. Maggi entered the game as a pinch-hitter for Andrew McCutchen with the Pirates leading 8-1. He enjoyed an awesome standing ovation in front of the PNC Park crowd. While he struck out, he finally made his first appearance.

Things got even better for Maggi on Saturday evening in the second game of the Pirates’ doubleheader. Maggi entered the 16-1 rout in the seventh inning and laced a single up the middle for his first major league hit. He received another at-bat later in the game and poked a ball down the third-base line to plate a run. In what could be his final MLB game, he went 2-for-2 with an RBI. He probably won’t complain about that.

Before the game, the Pirates optioned Maggi to Double-A Altoona but then announced him as the 27th man for the doubleheader. He got to stick around for those two games before going back down, and he got his shining moment in the sun. Maggi lived out a dream that the average person will never get the chance to do. If that is in fact it for his major league career, he has to be content with the outcome.

Andujar Provides Intriguing Depth

Miguel Andujar was one of the more intriguing prospects for the New York Yankees not too long ago. While in New York, he had an awesome rookie year in 2018, but never quite got back to that production. With about two weeks left in the 2022 season, the Yankees designated him for assignment. The Pittsburgh Pirates, way out of contention at that point in the season, took a flier on him. Andujar had nine RBI and batted .250 across nine games for Pittsburgh to end the year. He was good enough to receive a non-roster invite to spring training. He put together a solid spring but was still sent to Triple-A Indianapolis in favor of Canaan Smith-Njigba. Smith-Njigba struggled mightily to open the season and was optioned this week. Andujar is now back in Pittsburgh.

In three games so far, Andujar has three home runs and six RBI bringing his Pittsburgh career total to 15 RBI in just 12 games. That’s some pretty good production. Before his recall, he was slashing .284/.364/.500 in Triple-A with three home runs in 23 games, so the recall was warranted. Currently in Pittsburgh, Reynolds, Suwinksi, Andujar, and Connor Joe are handling the outfield spots. It’s been a good year so far for the four of them combined and it has allowed Andrew McCutchen to focus primarily on being a designated hitter, especially with Ji Man Choi out long term.

What’s Next?

Here’s a sentence you didn’t expect to read this season. The Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays will meet on Tuesday in a battle of the teams with the two best records in the major leagues. That series takes place Tuesday through Thursday at Tropicana Field in Florida. Pittsburgh will return home for a weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays. If the Pirates can play good baseball against the Rays, PNC Park might be as packed as it’s been for a May regular season series in a long time. The Pirates will look to extend their National League Central lead as the season chugs along into May.


Photo Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Players Mentioned: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Bryan Reynolds, Jarlin Garcia, Jack Suwinski, Drew Maggi, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Andujar, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Connor Joe, Ji Man Choi

Managers Mentioned: Derek Shelton