The Athletic

Biertempfel: 9 fearless predictions for the Pirates’ 2023 season

PITTSBURGH — We’re at that time within the Pirates’ offseason when the roster strikes are just about all shaken out, spring coaching is across the nook and a season filled with surprises awaits.

Final January, no one knew what to make of José Quintana or when Oneil Cruz would arrive within the huge leagues to remain. Ke’Bryan Hayes’ sunflower seeds and Rodolfo Castro’s cellphone have been merely issues they carried of their pockets, not the causes of social media kerfuffles. Going 5-1 towards the Dodgers appeared like a million-to-one shot.

Who may have predicted all that? Not me. Who can say what 2023 will convey?

OK, I’ll give it a shot.

Andrew McCutchen’s story may have a contented ending

Andrew McCutchen (Charles LeClaire / USA Immediately)

The lacking ingredient within the Pirates’ alchemy for achievement isn’t a part-time outfielder/DH who’s produced a complete of 4.8 fWAR over the previous 5 seasons. Nonetheless, bringing McCutchen again to Pittsburgh may have plenty of tangible and intangible upside.

Final season, Pirates proper fielders hit .210/.290/.350 with 0.0 fWAR. Even at 36 years outdated and with a surgically rebuilt left knee, McCutchen can do higher than that over 40 or 50 video games on the market.

The Pirates had dropping information in six of McCutchen’s 9 seasons right here. There additionally was a three-year stretch once they have been the most effective golf equipment within the Nationwide League. Via all of it — whether or not it was the 98-win season in 2015 or the 105-loss season in 2010 — his demeanor by no means modified.

“You at all times catch him with a smile on his face,” stated pitcher Jeff Locke, who performed with McCutchen from 2011 to 2016. “Even when issues acquired robust, he went about his enterprise the proper method. At all times on time. At all times works arduous. I assume that is a type of phrases that will get thrown round a bit of bit and brought without any consideration, however he’s a real skilled.”

McCutchen by no means has been a rah-rah or get-in-your-face kind of chief, however his voice carries weight with teammates. In that sense, he’ll fill a void within the clubhouse — not solely has McCutchen been there and performed that, but in addition he’s performed it in Pittsburgh.

If this seems to be his closing season, McCutchen deserves to delight in a summer-long victory lap at PNC Park. The Pirates want that good karma as a result of …

Bryan Reynolds might be traded

After talks a couple of potential contract extension acquired hung up, Reynolds requested the workforce to commerce him. This information got here out 48 hours earlier than the Winter Conferences final month and put administration in an embarrassing spot.

Since then, Reynolds and his camp have been silent, common supervisor Ben Cherington has stated all the proper issues about wanting to maintain the standout outfielder, and everybody else has been ready for the subsequent shoe to drop.

This may finish one in all 3 ways, and none of them are significantly simple to swallow.

The 2 sides may put apart any arduous emotions and hammer out the richest contract in franchise historical past. (That sound you simply heard was proprietor Bob Nutting hitting the ground after fainting.)

Reynolds may play this season for the $6.75 million he agreed to final spring, play out the subsequent two years right here by means of the arbitration course of, then stroll away as a free agent.

The Pirates may discover a taker for Reynolds someday earlier than the commerce deadline — after that, his worth virtually actually will begin to diminish — and gather one other bundle of prospects.

My cash is on the third choice.

Supervisor Derek Shelton will get an extension

Derek Shelton (Tommy Gilligan / USA Immediately)

Shelton is coming into the fourth and closing season of his unique contract. The Pirates misplaced 100 video games in every of the previous two years and doubtless would’ve misplaced 100 in his debut if the season hadn’t been truncated to 60 video games.

But I don’t suppose Shelton is on his method out. Don’t be stunned if the workforce quietly offers him an extension.

In November 2009, the Pirates, coming off a 99-loss season, added one other yr to then-manager John Russell’s contract. The workforce didn’t announce the transfer till June 2010, most likely as a result of it figured the followers wouldn’t react warmly to Russell’s return after such a dismal marketing campaign.

When phrase lastly acquired out, the workforce was mired in one other dropping funk and the information didn’t go over effectively. Russell was sacked 4 months later, however that probably had extra to do together with his lack of ability to attach with and lead the gamers than his lack of success with a rotten roster.

Shelton, alternatively, relates effectively to his guys. On the finish of the 2022 season, Cherington gave the skipper a vote of confidence.

“Regardless of the troublesome instances we’re going by means of, the trouble has been there on the sphere,” Cherington stated. “The workforce is taking part in arduous, competing till the final pitch. That isn’t to be taken without any consideration as a result of it doesn’t at all times occur on groups which are on this troublesome time. That displays effectively on ‘Shelty’ and the workers, actually.”

Shelton has endured rising pains over the previous three seasons. Because the workforce’s expertise degree slowly ticks up, he’ll be beneath extra strain to supply. It will likely be attention-grabbing to see how he handles the Reynolds scenario, too.

The systemic modifications that might inevitably include a brand new supervisor and workers may stall among the progress the Pirates have made. Completely different teaching types, completely different methods, completely different relationships.

Extending Shelton would appear to make sense. The query is, will or not it’s one other four-year deal or will the entrance workplace hedge its bets and provides him a shorter time period?

Tyler Heineman will catch extra video games than Endy Rodriguez

Selfishly, that is one prediction I hope doesn’t come true. It was enjoyable watching snippets of Rodriguez’s crackling 2022 season play out with Double-A Altoona. He’ll gentle up Pittsburgh, too … every time he will get right here.

Persistence, persistence. Rodriguez has performed a complete of 37 video games above Class A. He gained’t flip 23 years outdated till Could. Rodriguez, like Oneil Cruz, seems to be to be the type of franchise-altering prospect whose growth needs to be dealt with completely.

Rodriguez will open the season at Triple-A Indianapolis and keep there till not less than mid-June. Administration will say that’s about checking off bins, and it will likely be right about that, however it’s additionally about protecting his service time clock from ticking.

Finally, Rodriguez will grace the grass at PNC Park. However he most likely gained’t be a full-time catcher from the outset. Shelton loves versatility and Rodriguez has oodles of it. So he’ll most likely get a while within the outfield — hmm, perhaps there’ll be a emptiness there after July — and at second base and because the designated hitter.

If starter Austin Hedges is banged up for even per week or two, Heineman may get sufficient video games behind the plate to construct an insurmountable lead earlier than Rodriguez is promoted.

Subsequent yr, nonetheless, the scenario should be very completely different.

Administration might be smarter with David Bednar

David Bednar (Charles LeClaire / USA Immediately)

Bednar produced 19 saves, a 2.61 ERA and 1.5 fWAR over 45 appearances final yr. He additionally missed 45 video games due to a sore decrease again. “Very irritating to be on the shelf for that lengthy,” he stated.

After lastly coming off the injured record, Bednar made 5 appearances over the ultimate two weeks of the season. This winter, he’s been centered on strengthening his again with exercises and yoga.

“It’s not a type of issues that’s not simply going to go away like that,” Bednar stated final month earlier than a workforce operate at PNC Park. “Every day, it will get a bit of bit higher. I’m pleased with how I used to be in a position to end the season and I’m positively in a greater spot proper now. I’m trying ahead to coming into spring coaching robust and able to roll.”

It’s administration’s job to maintain him that method, which suggests his utilization sample can’t be the identical because it was final season. The Pirates rode Bednar arduous — particularly in June, when he threw 75 pitches and acquired 14 outs over two outings. By the top of that month, his decrease again was barking and he was unavailable for a few video games.

Bednar will report back to spring coaching a few days early as a result of he’s set to play within the World Baseball Basic. The Pirates actually have instructed the Crew USA teaching workers to watch out with Bednar’s workload. That strategy ought to remain in place throughout the common season, too.

Hayes lastly will play a full season

Ke’Bryan Hayes (Charles LeClaire / USA Immediately)

Does Hayes deserve the eight-year, $70 million extension he signed final April? It’s arduous to say for sure as a result of we’ve got not seen an entire image of who he’s as a participant.

Hayes made his major-league debut midway by means of the shortened 2020 season and performed 24 video games. He hit like a Corridor of Famer — .376/.442/.682 with 5 homers — however, once more, it was 24 video games.

Wrist accidents restricted him to 96 video games in 2021. Final season, a forearm muscle spasm pressured him out of a sport after one inning on the day his new contract was revealed. Hayes performed 136 video games, batted .244/.314/.345 and stated in late September that he’d been hampered all season by a sore hip and again.

“It’s irritating,” Hayes stated. “Actually, 2020 was the final time I felt regular.”

Two years of aches and subpar performances needed to inspire Hayes to hear fastidiously to his physique this offseason. He’s attributable to catch a break and keep away from fluke accidents. A full, wholesome season would give Hayes an opportunity to show the Pirates did the proper factor by handing him that large contract.

The brand new schedule gained’t do the Pirates any favors

Starting this yr, MLB may have a revamped schedule format. There are nonetheless 162 video games, however for the primary time every workforce will play all 29 different golf equipment within the common season. The change was made partially as a result of increasing the playoff discipline lessened the significance of division video games.

For the previous couple of many years, almost half of the Pirates’ schedule consisted of video games towards its NL Central foes. Final yr, they confronted the Cubs, Reds, Brewers and Cardinals 19 instances every.

The Pirates this season will play 13 division video games, which is about one-third of their whole schedule. They gained’t see the Cubs and Brewers for the primary time till the center of June.

The NL Central was terrible final yr and appears to be weak once more this yr. From the Pirates’ perspective, swapping 18 matchups towards the Reds, Brewers and Cubs for video games towards American League golf equipment isn’t a good commerce. Yeah, they’ll get to face the stripped-down A’s and rebuilding Royals, however they’ll additionally should tackle the Yankees, Astros, Blue Jays and Mariners.

Nutting will break his silence and clarify every little thing!

Bob Nutting (Philip G. Pavely / USA Immediately)

I nonetheless have that subscriber-generated record of two dozen chosen questions able to go, in case the franchise’s media-shy principal proprietor ever once more pokes his head into an interview room.

Numerous stuff has transpired for the reason that final time Nutting talked to reporters. There was the hellscape that was the 2019 season. The Pirates forged a “yea” vote for the brand new collective bargaining settlement, which provides no new assist to small-market golf equipment. Franchises misplaced tens of millions of {dollars} throughout the pandemic. The Pirates posted back-to-back 100-loss seasons for under the second time in franchise historical past.

Via all of it, Nutting, who 16 years in the past seized the function of steward of this century-old civic treasure that’s the Pittsburgh Base Ball Membership, has ignored repeated requests for remark. Perhaps this yr, lastly, he’ll provide the followers some explanations.

Hey, a man can dream, proper? And talking of dreaming …

The Pirates won’t lose 100 video games*

Yeah, I do know, that is the third straight yr I’ve typed these phrases. Name me Mr. Jinx.

In equity, although, my prediction final yr was made throughout the lockout and got here with a disclaimer: “If MLB performs a typical 162-game season, then overlook most of what I simply stated. The Pirates will go 62-100.”

There was a full season regardless of the lockout and the Pirates collected 62 wins. I’m going to assert victory on that prediction.

This time round, we all know there’s a full season forward. I’m once more bullish on forecasting a loss whole that’s solely in double digits (though nonetheless a painfully excessive quantity).

The Pirates will get a full season of Cruz within the majors. The restrictions on the shift ought to assist them create a bit extra offense. The bullpen might be extra settled than final yr. “Cutch” is again! Perhaps Wealthy Hill will pitch like a child once more and Vince Velasquez will rebound. And because of Carlos Santana, first base gained’t be a black gap of despair.

My optimism isn’t reckless sufficient for me to foretell a .500 report. That will require a 20-game enchancment from a roster that’s solely a bit higher than it was a yr in the past. However is 69-93 inside attain? Certain. So there ya go.

Wait … is that an asterisk up there within the subheadline, like there was on my prediction on this area final season? Uh oh …

*Observe: If Reynolds is traded earlier than Opening Day, then overlook most of what I simply stated. The Pirates will go 62-100.

(Prime photograph of Andrew McCutchen: Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Immediately)

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