Pirates turn to prospects to help struggling offense

The Pittsburgh Pirates finished June at 39-42, a record that puts them on pace for 78 wins over 162 games. I and others had them pegged as a 75-win team in 2023, so their record stands about where expected. However, after a 20-8 start, watching them get to 39-42 hasn’t been much fun for Pirates fans forced to watch a futile offense for most of May and June.

Through the end of April, at which point they were 20-9, the Pirates’ offensive attack was based on the notion that a walk is as good as a hit, and a few hitters with high on-base percentages could string together enough baserunners to produce enough runs to win. Beginning in May, however, this observer saw opposing pitchers adjusting. More of them started Pirates batters with strikes, leading to chases when behind in the count.

During March and April, the Pirates hit .264/.343/.449 with 113 walks in 29 games. In 26 games in May, they walked 83 times; in June they walked 88 times in 26 games. The June total is even uglier if one throws out the June 5 game, when Oakland A’s pitchers walked 10. It’s no wonder, then, the team’s slash line now stands at .242/.318/.392 at the close of Friday’s action.

“You have to produce.”

Manager Derek Shelton, normally reluctant to criticize his players publicly, had had enough after a 2-0 loss in Miami on June 25, during which the Pirates managed only five hits and drew one walk. “At some point, guys getting the opportunities have to produce,” Shelton said during his postgame press conference. “That’s essentially what it comes down to. It’s the big leagues. You have to produce.” Shelton didn’t name names, but he didn’t have to. Ji Hwan Bae, Rodolfo Castro, Tucupita Marcano and Jack Suwinski had all been mired in deep slumps for 13 games, 12 of which were Pirates losses.

Catcher Austin Hedges, he of the .168/.223/.226 slash line, has been the favorite target of Pirates fans. He’s heard the boo-birds at home lately from a fan base holding him personally responsible for the Pirates’ hitting woes. But Hedges is the ninth-place hitter and was brought to Pittsburgh for his pitch-framing skills, not his bat.

Big Data Baseball, Travis Sawchik’s fine book about the 2013 Pirates, discussed the value of pitch framing at length. Although an imperfect science, the data on pitch framing is revealing. According to studies cited in the book, good catchers save their teams around 15-30 runs per season, while bad catchers cost their teams approximately 15 runs in a season. That’s a possible 30-45 run swing over a season. Whether you subscribe to the theory that pitch framing is valuable is irrelevant. General manager Ben Cherington surely does. Hedges is going nowhere.

So when your team is struggling offensively and your top prospect in triple-A is a catcher, what do you do? Why, you convert him to a right fielder and call him up from the minors!

Clap hands, here comes Henry!

Apologies to the late, legendary Ella Fitzgerald for that heading. Henry Davis, the first overall pick in the 2021 June Amateur Draft, was called up from triple-A Indianapolis on June 19. Shelton immediately inserted him into the lineup in right field against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park. Pirates fans get frustrated with the Cherington regime and see a lot of the same old same old. But Cherington’s predecessor, Neal Huntington, never would have called up a prospect after only 10 games in triple-A, especially if said prospect was learning a new position.

Big, handsome and clean-cut, Davis, 23, looks like he came out of Central Casting to play the role of a baseball hero. Polite, thoughtful and humble yet confident of his abilities in his dealings with the media, Davis is sure to be a fan favorite for years to come, as long, of course, as the performance lives up to the hype.

So far, so good. In 11 games with the Pirates, he’s 13-for 41 with 1 HR, 6 RBIs. He’d hit safely in seven consecutive games before a rough night on Friday during which he struck out three times. Even so, he walked and scored a run in that game. He’s acquitted himself quite well in right field, too. Since his call-up, the Pirates are 5-6. They need to do better than that to stay in the playoff race. But it’s a big improvement over their 14-27 record from May 2 to June 18.

Nicky Go-Go?

That’s what Pirates broadcaster Neil Walker dubbed Nick Gonzales after he legged out an infield single against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday night. I doubt that nickname will stick. Even so, indications are Gonzales, 24, a first-round June draft pick in 2020, may become a significant contributor. After an 0-8 start to his major-league career, Gonzales is 4-for-14. He’s hit the ball hard when he’s hit it. On Tuesday against the Padres, he belted a long triple high off the 21-foot right field Clemente wall, narrowly missing a home run. He followed that up with a long homer to deep center later in the game.

Last year, there were concerns about Gonzales and his high strike-out rate (194 times in 593 at-bats over 2021-2022). Drafted as a second baseman, the Pirates had recently been trying him out at shortstop and third base in triple-A. I saw that as a kiss of death, as though the Pirates felt his future was as a utility man.

I was wrong. Shelton has been employing Gonzales as a shortstop as well as a second baseman. Judging by the defensive replacements made late in games with the lead, Shelton considers Marcano his best defensive shortstop. But it’s becoming clear in terms of all-around play, Shelton feels Gonzales is his best option there. Gonzales has justified Shelton’s faith by fielding the position well.

Jared makes it a trio(lo)

Hey, not all of these headings can be gems. A third prospect, Jared Triolo, 25, a 2019 second-round pick, was called up on June 28. He’s a third baseman by trade. Unfortunately, the Pirates’ current third baseman, Ke’Bryan Hayes, is under a long-term contract, complicating Triolo’s future with the organization. He’s learned other positions in the minors to hasten his trip to the big time. His recent call-up has everything to do with Hayes going on the injured list. Still, he’s been inserted into the every-day lineup at third base, where Shelton feels he’s obviously his best option there.

In three games thus far, Triolo has responded by going 3-for-10 with a walk. It’s his glove work, however, that has spectators raising an eyebrow. On Thursday against the Padres, he made a spectacular play against Fernando Tatis Jr., backhanding a hard grounder at the line and gunning him out from nearly the third base coaches box. Undoubtedly, Hayes is the best defensive third baseman in baseball. But with his sure hands and strong, accurate arm, surprisingly the Pirates don’t seem to be missing much with Triolo.

The Pirates ended June with a four-game winning streak, during which they had 46 hits and six homers, albeit only 10 walks. How these three rookies fit when Bryan Reynolds, Ji Man Choi, Hayes and Oneil Cruz eventually make their way back from the injured list will be interesting.

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