Pirates’ 2023 lineup coming into focus after deals

It hasn’t even been a month since the end of the World Series, but a flurry of activity has the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2023 lineup suddenly coming into sharp focus. There was the November 10 trade for Ji-Man Choi, which has already been covered here extensively. Then there was the trade of Kevin Newman to the Cincinnati Reds on November 18, also covered here. Then, in the space of four days, first baseman Lewin Diaz was claimed off waivers from the Miami Marlins, last year’s opening day second baseman Hoy Park was dealt to the Boston Red Sox and veteran first baseman Carlos Santana was signed to a guaranteed $6.725 million for one year.

I read the news today, oh, boy

The big news is the addition of Santana, who split last season between the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners. The 36-year-old switch-hitter hit 19 homers in each of the last two seasons. He’s never posted high batting averages, hitting as high as .281 only once in 13 seasons. However, his career slash line of .242/.359/.432 indicates a high walk rate and he’s hit as many as 34 homers twice, most recently in 2019. These things, along with his well-known leadership qualities, are surely what made him attractive to the Pirates.

It’s been said Santana’s leadership was a major factor in pushing the Mariners over the finish line and into the 2022 postseason. Former Pirate Adam Frazier, who played with Santana in Seattle, spoke to Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Santana. “[Santana] is the man. Took our clubhouse to another level. Really smart player and a great leader,” allowed Frazier, omitting his pronouns, the latest annoying trend in baseballspeak. “He’s a big addition for the Pirates in a lot of ways.”

 Like Choi — and every other hitter in baseball, actually — Santana will benefit from the 2023 rule change regarding the infield shift. Santana faced more shifts than anybody in the majors in 2022. (Incidentally, it’s been erroneously reported that the shift is banned in 2023. It’s not. What’s been banned is positioning three infielders on one side of second base. Nothing prevents a middle infielder from playing close to second base without crossing over to the forbidden opposite side.)

Who’s on first?

When Choi was acquired, it was obvious general manager Ben Cherington’s work wasn’t done. If he was serious about shoring up the offense from his first basemen, Cherington needed to acquire a right-handed platoon option. The early speculation says Santana will be Choi’s platoon partner. His platoon splits, for 2022 and his career, indicate a better hitter from the right side. Even so, sorry, early speculators, but at $6.725 million, Santana isn’t coming to Pittsburgh to play only against left-handed pitching. I see Santana in the everyday lineup somewhere, either as a first baseman or a designated hitter. My educated guess is Choi, Santana and righty batter Miguel Andujar will rotate between the first base and designated hitter spots, resulting in a platoon between Choi and Andujar.

As I considered possible first base candidates for the Pirates, I didn’t have Santana due to his age. (I didn’t have Choi, either, not realizing the Rays were shopping him.) Also, frankly, for me Santana flew under the radar. When I think of the name, I think of the guitarist who appeared at Woodstock and had a few hit records. (I wonder if his walk-up song will be “Evil Ways” or “Oye Como Va?”)

Odd man out?

Where does Diaz fit in all of this? Diaz, 26, is a former top prospect of the Minnesota Twins who was dealt to the Marlins in 2019. His last three minor league seasons produced 66 home runs. His hitting skills haven’t translated on the major-league level, however, where he has a stat line of .181/.227/.340, 13 HR and 27 RBIs in 112 games over three partial seasons. What he brings to the table is elite defense. He’s been credited with an astounding 16 Defensive Runs Saved and nine Outs Above Average over his brief career. Diaz is out of minor league options, meaning he has to make the Pirates’ team or risk being lost on waivers.

Diaz’s acquisition was met with a collective yawn from Pirates fans. However, given his youth, glove work and power potential, I can see why the Bucs were interested in him. What I can’t see is him making the team out of spring training barring an injury to Choi or Santana. With only 13 non-pitchers allowed the final active roster, there doesn’t seem to be room for three first basemen/designated hitters (assuming Andujar is also going to play some outfield). If I were Diaz, I’d get real familiar with the outfield, and quickly.

Who’s on second?

The trade of Newman was mildly surprising to me, if to nobody else, because I thought he might be in the mix to start the season as the second baseman. By trading him, the Pirates are putting all of their eggs in Rodolfo Castro‘s basket. Switch-hitting Castro, 23, has power, having swatted 16 homers over 102 career major-league games. But he may be lacking in maturity. In 2022, he was hastily dispatched to the minors after an incident of non-hustle and later had to be quietly admonished by manager Derek Shelton about an exaggerated bat flip after hitting a homer in a loss against the New York Yankees. Maybe he’ll benefit from the counsel of fellow Dominican Republican Santana and settle down a bit without affecting his play.

Another option at second base could be left-handed-batting rookie Ji Hwan Bae, who played there and in the outfield in the minors. Given a brief look by the Pirates at the end of last season, he went 11-for-33 in 10 games and stole three bases. Bae has stolen 91 bases over four minor league seasons. With rule changes taking effect to encourage more base-stealing — larger bases and limits on the number of times a pitcher can disengage from the rubber — Bae could be an important part of the Pirates’ offense. Based on his usage with the big club last year, Shelton might see him as more of an outfielder.

It wasn’t a shock to see the Pirates part ways with Park. He’s shown good on-base percentages in the minors but never really established himself with the Pirates. As a result, he kept moving further and further down the food chain as other middle infielders emerged.

More work to be done

The Pirates still need to find a regular catcher. For now, by default the catchers will be Ali Sanchez and Jason Delay. Sanchez’s minor league record indicates he may be the better hitter of the two. There’s talk Roberto Perez would like to return and the Pirates would be open to it.

It’s clear the Cherington/Shelton regime sees the catcher position as a defense-first spot. Whether it’s Perez, Sanchez, Delay or somebody else, it’s unlikely there will be significant offensive contributions from the catcher in 2023. That could change mid-season if top prospects Henry Davis or Endy Rodriguez are deemed ready for prime time.

In any event, it would behoove Cherington to pick up an experienced outfielder who can hit and play every day, but wouldn’t mind stepping aside should a younger outfielder earn playing time. Two of the outfield spots will go to Reynolds and probably Jack Suwinski, who hit 19 home runs last season as a rookie. However, Suwinski struggled at times, too, and may not be a slam dunk out of spring training. The remaining outfield spot could be a competition between Andujar, Bae, Calvin Mitchell and Travis Swaggerty. Unless a veteran outfielder is acquired, I’ll lean toward Bae getting the spot.

Choosing walks over power

Pirates fans hoped Cherington would bring in a first baseman with better power numbers than Choi or Santana, but I believe he got who he wanted. The Pirates apparently weren’t looking for big sluggers. This small market team will model its offense more like the Tampa Bay Rays or the Oakland Athletics, stressing on-base percentage even from traditional power positions. We may see Choi at the top of the order, much like the Pirates did last season with Daniel Vogelbach.

It’s fair for Pirates fans to wonder whether any of these new acquisitions will be around come the trade deadline. I feel there will be more urgency to win in 2023, believed to be the final year of Shelton’s contract. (Cherington’s contract status is unknown.) I feel like Cherington will keep the team intact if they’re close to sniffing a wild card spot in July. On the other hand, he’s hard to read, and the usual July exodus wouldn’t surprise me either. For now, this Pirates fan will be optimistic. When dealing with the future, one’s choices are optimism or pessimism. I always choose optimism. It’s better for one’s health.

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