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Bucco Blasts: Is This The Same Old Buccos?

What a difference a week can make, am I right? In this space last week, the Pittsburgh Pirates were flying high sitting atop the National League. Monday morning, the Pirates were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. Through all of this, the Pirates still find themselves in first place in the National League Central. We live in a wild world.

The injuries that the Pirates have sustained so far eventually were going to catch up to them. It seems they’re starting to take a bit of a toll. Shortstop Oneil Cruz is out indefinitely with a broken leg, although he is beginning to lightly rehab. Starting pitcher Vince Velasquez is having a delightful start to the season. He clutched at his elbow in a start this past week and went to the injured list. First baseman Ji-Man Choi and starting pitcher JT Brubaker suffered injuries before the season really even got going. Currently, utility man Ji-Hwan Bae and designated hitter Andrew McCutchen have minor injuries they’re dealing with.

Combine all that with the seven-game losing streak and the Pirates are starting to trend down. Losing is all too familiar around the Steel City when it comes to the baseball club. So it’s time to ask the question: Is this the same old Buccos or can they get the Pirate ship righted?

We look to answer that question in this week’s “Bucco Blasts”.

Is This The Same Old Buccos?

Pirates struggled against quality opponents

No games in sports are “guaranteed” wins. However, you can look at a series going into it and feel like you should win it. For the first handful of series this season, the Pirates weren’t facing high-quality opponents. In Pittsburgh’s first 29 games this season, they faced a handful of bottom-feeder teams. It’s a common misconception that you can’t get a true feel for a team’s performance through a schedule like this. It is still a series against a major league team. Good teams beat those bottom-feeders. The Pirates did that early on.

However, they did face their stiffest week of competition yet with a road series in Tampa and a three-game home set with the Toronto Blue Jays. They lost all six of those games.

It is certainly possible that the Pirates got too big and weren’t ready for MLB’s elite teams yet. After all, outside of veterans Carlos Santana, Rich Hill, and McCutchen, the team is fairly young. They’ve never been in a position of this kind of success in a big league uniform. They needed to be humbled. The bounce-back is going to really show what the 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates are made of.

They’ve got the Colorado Rockies, whom the Pirates have already swept this season at Coors Field, coming to town for three games. An off-day Thursday leads to a weekend series in Baltimore, another young team off to a hot start. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Pirates punch back.

The Pirates averaged 27,115 fans at PNC Park this past weekend for that Blue Jays series. That’s one of the highest marks for a home series in recent memory. To keep that number high, they’ve got to get back to their winning ways.

Time for Keller to be The Stopper

Good teams always have that guy in the rotation they look at to get them back on track. Mitch Keller has to be that guy on Monday night for Pittsburgh. Keller’s Pittsburgh career got off to a rocky start but he seems to have found it as of late. He bounced between the majors and Triple-A for a few seasons until putting together a full season of solid pitching in 2022. He’s been even better in 2023 finally reaching the potential he once seemed to possess.

In the month of April, all five starts Keller made qualified as quality starts. His start against Tampa Bay last week was a good one. He allowed five runs but only one of them was earned. The defense behind Keller failed him. He struck out eight in that game. He pitched more than well enough to stop the streak before it snowballed. The Pirates, as a whole, didn’t allow for that.

Keller did not see the Rockies earlier this season but he’ll face them Monday night. The Rockies are 14-21, good for last in the National League West. Keller and the Pirates need a win in the worst way to settle things down before the Pirates’ hot start becomes nothing more than an early season feel-good story.

We’re nearing Endy Rodriguez time

If the losing ensues, the Pirates should consider calling up top prospect catcher Endy Rodriguez. Rodriguez hasn’t played a lot in Triple-A but he’s been very good in the early going of the season. He destroyed Double-A pitching in 2022 and found himself getting the late-season promotion for the final week of the season to Triple-A. He’s close to finding his way to the big leagues as well.

Offensively, the Pirates have a black hole offensively at the catching position. The team gave Austin Hedges a $5 million contract to be the stopgap before Rodriguez and 2021 first-overall pick Henry Davis get to the big leagues. Hedges and his .188 career batting average have been a disaster. He’s batting .140 on the 2023 campaign and hasn’t been all that good defensively which is supposed to be his calling card.

Jason Delay is having a great season at the plate but he is a 28-year-old. He is a perfect backup for a contending team but not the guy you want starting 120+ games behind the dish. His .383 average through 47 at-bats has been huge for not making the Pirates’ catching position a complete void thus far.

The switch-hitting Rodriguez is athletic enough to play the outfield or even be a designated hitter as well. His positional flexibility would theoretically make the Pirates better as a whole.

Service time shouldn’t be much of an issue with Rodriguez. The Pirates need to be smart and get him up to the big leagues here soon. He seems ready and would be of use to a Pirates’ lineup that’s batting a collective .175 over the seven-game losing streak.

Main photo credits:

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Players mentioned:

Oneil Cruz, Vince Velasquez, JT Brubaker, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Santana, Rich Hill, Mitch Keller, Endy Rodriguez, Austin Hedges, Henry Davis, Jason Delay


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