Pirates must replace Cruz, Garcia to contend

After an astounding 20-8 start, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ current stretch, which has seen their record sit at 22-19 as I write this, has their fans crying in their Iron City Beer. Miraculously, the Bucs remain within sniffing distance of first place, just a game and a half behind the Milwaukee Brewers. Pirates general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton are on record as saying the expectations for 2023 are high. Specific goals, such as making the playoffs, have not been set, at least not publicly. However, it’s clear with the addition of several veterans and the belief that the young core is ready, there is an expectation of marked improvement.

As things stand now, the idea of the Pirates in the 2023 playoffs isn’t so far-fetched. After all, the National League Central Division isn’t especially strong. The Brewers are the favorites to win the division because somebody has to be. Despite spending big money in the offseason, the Chicago Cubs are in reset mode. The Cincinnati Reds are clearly rebuilding. In St. Louis, Willson Contreras is finding all-too-true the old sports axiom that says it’s tough to replace a legend. Disgruntled Cardinals fans see their team in unfamiliar territory in last place at 16-25.

It’s become time

If the Pirates expect to seriously contend for a playoff berth with Oneil Cruz and Jarlin Garcia out for most of the season, it’s become time to acquire a shortstop and a left-handed reliever. I’m not talking about waiver wire discards. I’m talking about legitimate, proven major-leaguers. It would probably happen via the trade route, perhaps giving up valuable prospects in return. Why wait until the trade deadline when the need for help is so obvious? In 2021, the Brewers had a need at shortstop and saw themselves as contenders. So they acquired an important piece in shortstop Willy Adames from the Tampa Bay Rays on May 21. They finished in first place at 95-67 before losing to the eventual world champion Atlanta Braves in the Division Series.

Pittsburgh sports fans love to call the talk shows and propose ridiculous package deals. Somehow, they believe other teams will trade one of their stars for three or four underperforming Pirates reserves. I won’t uphold that yinzer tradition with this article. I won’t pretend to know who is available, who the Pirates might trade, or if this is even possible. After all, with expanded playoffs, in May there are likely more teams that consider themselves contenders than not.

A matter of trust

Since Cruz’s injury, the majority of the starts at shortstop have gone to Rodolfo Castro. Although Castro is primarily a second baseman, he’s seen plenty of action at shortstop in the majors and minors. At the time, Shelton told mlb.com his confidence in Castro was “high.” Said Shelton, “Obviously, losing Oneil is a blow because he’s a big part of what we do on both sides of the ball. The flip side of that, because of the depth we’ve created over the last couple years, we’re probably in a better spot to handle it than we have been previously.”

That was then and this is now. After a critical error against the Rays on May 2 and another error on May 7 in a 10-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, Castro has not started a game since. Shelton, who I suspect is more stern a manager than he’ll allow the public to see, has clearly lost confidence in Castro as a shortstop. Baseball Reference has Castro “worth” minus five Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop in 2023, which translates to either minus 35 or minus 34 per 1,200 innings under two separate metrics employed by the site. (For all the analytics geeks out there, 1,200 innings translates to a little over 133 nine-inning games. It’s used as a measure of Defensive Runs Saved Above Average because . . . just because.)

Water under the bridge

Chris Owings, acquired in the offseason, was recalled on May 8 to “stabilize” the shortstop position. Owings wouldn’t be in his 11th major-league season if he didn’t have some value. However, with all due respect to Owings, he’s a journeyman with a career slash line of .239/.286/.365 who hasn’t seen regular action since 2018. Perhaps the “depth created over the last couple years” isn’t as thought when it comes to the shortstop position. Owings has been sharing the position with Tucupita Marcano, another versatile infielder/outfielder, since being recalled. Judging by the defensive replacements made late in Sunday’s 4-0 win at Baltimore, Shelton feels Owings is his best shortstop.

Although the Pirates were able to acquire a gem in Dauri Moreta when Kevin Newman was traded to the Reds, I had advocated keeping Newman as an insurance policy against a Cruz injury. Don’t you hate it when I’m right? Newman as the Pirates’ shortstop would be just what the doctor ordered at this point. That’s water under the bridge now. But the Pirates do need to go after a Newman type. They need somebody who’s recently played shortstop every day and played it well, with the ability to hit around .270.

The kid is all right, but . . .

Similarly, without Garcia, the Pirates bullpen could use a left-hander with experience in the so-called “high leverage” situations. As matters stand now, the lone lefty in the bullpen is Rule 5 draftee Jose Hernandez. In 15 games covering 16 and 1/3 innings, Hernandez, 25, has acquitted himself quite well for one who hadn’t pitched above double-A. He currently has a 3.31 ERA, 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings, 5.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 1.102 WHIP and 3.36 FIP. Lately, however, he’s given up four runs in his last five outings over three and two-thirds innings, including a blown save on Friday in Baltimore. (The blown save is an unfair stat in this case. Hernandez had pitched in the seventh inning and certainly wasn’t going to finish the game. But he still lost the lead.)

Alternatively, when Vince Velasquez returns from the injured list, perhaps veteran lefty Rich Hill can be bumped to the bullpen. Hill, 43, has pitched well at times as a starter this season but has been inconsistent. He has plenty of major-league experience pitching in relief. His sharp curve, a “sweeper” in today’s parlance, would be an effective weapon against left-handed batters. So far in 2023, lefties are hitting a mere .231/.259/.346 against Hill. It’s a small sample size (26 at-bats) because opposing managers stack their lineups with right-handed batters against Hill. As Pirates broadcaster Bob Walk says, when you’re a starting pitcher, the opposing manager decides who you’ll face, but when you’re a relief pitcher, your manager decides who you’ll face. Hill might better serve the Pirates out of the bullpen facing primarily left-handed batters.

For all I know, Cherington may be working the phones looking for help in these areas. It will interesting to see how, if at all, these issues are addressed.

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