David Bednar should be the Pirates’ All-Star (and other thoughts)

In 2021, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Adam Frazier and Bryan Reynolds started in the All-Star Game, deservedly so. However, during the recent lean years, which encompass most of 1984 to the present day, being the Pirates’ All-Star representative often has been the equivalent of being the sixth-best guitarist in Billings, Montana. In many of those years, the Pirates may not have been represented at all if not for the rule requiring each team to have at least one representative.

The choice is clear

In 2022, there is a clear choice for the Pirates’ All-Star representative. He would be a worthy candidate even without the rule. In fact, he’s arguably been the best relief pitcher in all of baseball so far. I’m talking about the hard-throwing right-hander David Bednar.

As I write this, the Pirates have just completed a four-game series with the Chicago Cubs that saw them win three games and improve their record to 29-40. At this point, Bednar is 3-1 with 11 saves and a 1.30 ERA. More importantly, he’s not somebody who enters the game only in the ninth inning with his team ahead.

Bednar is often used earlier in situations where manager Derek Shelton feels the game is in the balance. Thus, he’s also been credited with four holds. Of his 27 appearances, he’s entered the game in the seventh inning three times and the eighth inning 13 times. Bednar has three two-inning saves, a four-out save and recently a glorious eight-out save in St. Louis. He’s also blown two saves. Fortunately, he did enough damage control on those occasions that his team was able to come back and win. At a stocky six-foot-one and 250 pounds, he looks more like a catcher or a linebacker, making him an imposing presence on the mound.

Finally, Bednar is not a Don Stanhouse-type closer who constantly has to pitch out of self-inflicted trouble. His WHIP sits at 0.78 and has never been more than 1.00 all season long. In 34-2/3 innings, he’s struck out 48 batters and walked only six for an astounding 8:1 ratio. Bednar belongs in the All-Star Game. If he’s not there, there should be an investigation.

At last, Oneil Cruz

Meanwhile, the Cubs series began with the moment Pirates fans have been clamoring for all year: the recall of Oneil Cruz. The six-foot-seven, 220-pound shortstop bats left-handed and has power, speed and a rocket arm. He’s the most exciting Pirates prospect to come along since Andrew McCutchen. However, I’m reminded more of the 1973 debut of a young six-foot-five, 230-pound Dave Parker, of whom then-Pirates shortstop Dal Maxvill famously said after glimpsing him enter the locker room the first time, “I don’t know who he is, but I’m glad he’s on our side.”

In Monday’s game, Cruz went 2-for-5 with four RBIs, including a three-run double to deep center. His first difficult fielding chance resulted in him nailing the batter at first base with a 96.7 MPH throw, reportedly the hardest throw by a major-league infielder all year long. Cubs fans had to be reminded of their own cannon-armed former shortstop Shawon Dunston. Cruz also easily but improbably scored from third base on a shallow sacrifice fly. If there’s a major-league record for covering 90 feet in the fewest strides, I’d bet he broke it there.

On that evening, Pirates fans, hungry for any positive developments, cheered Cruz’s every move. Of course, as a raw 23-year-old, Cruz will have his ups and downs. After the four games, he’s just 4-for-18, but with seven RBIs. Talk of putting him in the Hall of Fame is more than a bit premature. However, if he can handle shortstop — and so far he has dazzled with the glove — the Pirates will have someone special on their hands. I’ll go out on a limb and predict he’ll be a superstar.

Captain Bligh

On that same Monday, the Pirates recalled lefty-hitting, 26-year-old outfielder Bligh Madris. “Madris” is pronounced by accenting the last syllable. I catch myself pronouncing it the opposite way, as I can’t help thinking of the Deadbeat Poets’ song, “Madras (A Blues in 3/4 Time.)” But if he continues playing as he has in these four games, before too long nobody will be mispronouncing his name.

Without any fanfare surrounding his arrival, Madris quietly outplayed Cruz in the four games, going 5-for-17 with one home run and six RBIs. This includes three hits and a stolen base in his debut and a three-run double of his own on Wednesday evening. He’s played well defensively at the corner outfield spots, showing a strong enough arm for right field and the speed and instincts for PNC Park’s spacious left field.

The Pirates have several outfielders in their system that they rank higher than Madris. To their credit, however, the Pirates are giving everybody a shot who deserves one, rather than anoint certain players as future regulars. So the question becomes whether “Captain Bligh” can stick with the team in the long term. He clearly earned the promotion, slashing .304/.385/.519 at triple-A before being recalled. During his first game, the Pirates’ TV crew interviewed his mother from the stands. She said of her son, “He’s always flown under the radar, but eventually he gets noticed because of how hard he works.” So, perhaps Madris is not one who should be underestimated.

So far this season, the Pirates’ weak offense has been offensive to nobody but their fans. Two more good hitters can make a difference. In the Cubs series, the Pirates scored 32 runs in the four games. Yes, it was “only” the Cubs and a bigger test comes with a series in Tampa Bay next. It will be interesting.

Knapp sacked

In these days of high-salaried players represented by powerful agents and a players association, it’s thought that the days of the no-nonsense manager like Leo Durocher or Gene Mauch have passed. A couple of recent incidents got me thinking that the analytically hip Shelton may be more “old-school” than we might realize.

On May 7 at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, Andrew Knapp, the Pirates’ only backup catcher, foolishly got ejected from the game after yelling at the umpire from the dugout. This seemingly innocuous event became critical in the eighth inning, when starting catcher Roberto Perez exited with an injury. As a result, Josh VanMeter was pressed into service as the emergency catcher for the first time in his career. Although VanMeter did a creditable job there, his presence seemed to affect the pitching of the usually reliable Wil Crowe. The consequence was a disastrous seven-run inning for the Reds and a loss for the Pirates.

To take Roberto Perez’s place, the Pirates recalled Michael Perez, the previous year’s backup catcher. Despite having been designated for assignment before the season, Michael Perez got the bulk of the playing time over Knapp. This struck me as odd, given he evidently was not considered a better option than Knapp in the spring. Finally, Knapp was designated for assignment on May 16, gone for good. He’s now in the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system.

Castro cast off

Then there was the case of infielder Rodolfo Castro on June 4 at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks. During this latest recall, Castro had vowed to his manager at triple-A that he was never coming back. But he sure had a funny way of going about it. Batting under .200 with six errors in his 20 games, Castro came to bat in the second inning with no outs and teammate Michael Chavis on first. He popped up weakly to first baseman Christian Walker, then went into a slow jog, bat still in hand. With the infield fly rule not in effect, Walker, near the bag, alertly let the ball drop and stepped on first to retire Castro, after which Chavis was retired in a rundown.

Asked about Castro’s lack of hustle after the game, Shelton tersely replied, “It’s not acceptable. That’s not how we play.” That evening, Castro was optioned to triple-A and Travis Swaggerty was recalled.

Neither Knapp nor Castro was playing well at the time of their departures. Maybe it was just performance issues rather than the aforementioned transgressions. But Shelton has been patient with other under-performers and the timing of the moves was curious. It remains to be seen how he’ll handle insubordination from a star player. In any event, Pirates fans should be happy with the culture this regime is trying to establish, if not the won-lost record so far.

Related Articles

Back to top button