Pirates’ youth movement is officially underway

After a startling 20-8 start, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ record after 102 games stands at 45-57. A season that began with so much promise, with Pirates President Travis Williams stating a goal of playing in the postseason, has seen the Pirates turn once again to a youth movement, partly to inject some life into a struggling team, partly necessitated by injuries.

The kids are all right

In recent days, the Pirates have recalled pitchers Osvaldo Bido, Carmen Mlodzinski and Quinn Priester, catchers Henry Davis (who is playing right field) and Endy Rodgriguez, and infielders Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Jared Triolo and Alika Williams. This list includes five of their top 10 prospects and three first-round draft picks. On many evenings, there are as many as six rookies in the starting lineup.

General manager Ben Cherington denies there’s a youth movement going on. On July 17, he told the media, “The intended message is that we’re trying to get better. We believe there are players in [triple-A Indianapolis] that had done enough to earn the call-up and help us be better. That’s all it is. Nothing intended beyond that … We’re trying to get good as fast as we possibly can and that will guide our decisions.” But it’s clear with the Pirates now sitting in last place in the National League Central Division below the disappointing St. Louis Cardinals, they’ve punted on the 2023 season.

Hello, good-bye

With so many call-ups, of course there are casualties. Respected veteran Carlos Santana was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday. Pitcher Wil Crowe was designated for assignment and outrighted to triple-A after coming off the injured list. This was mildly surprising, given Crowe has demonstrated he can be an effective, versatile reliever in the majors.

Travis Swaggerty, the former first-round draft choice who failed to make the 25-man roster despite an outstanding spring, was released on July 20. The outfielder was drafted by Cherington’s predecessor, Neal Huntingdon, and never seemed to be a favorite of the current regime. Swaggerty is now out of a job as he suffers from migraines and vertigo while his wife recovers from a rare blood disease after having been bitten by a raccoon. Baseball can be cruel sometimes.

Drew Maggi, 34, the 13-year minor leaguer whose brief stay with the Pirates in April was the feel-good story of 2023, was released four days later. Baseball can be as unsentimental as it is cruel.

More trades may be forthcoming as the August 1 trade deadline nears. Ji Man Choi, Austin Hedges and Rich Hill are candidates to be elsewhere. However, none are expected to yield a great return, so it’s also possible they might remain in Pittsburgh.

Idiot wind

The usual trade rumors swirl around Pirates closer David Bednar. Hard-thinking media types and talk show callers reason, why does a bad team need a closer when save opportunities are so infrequent? That’s backward thinking. A team’s best relief pitcher should be out there every time he’s available, except for games that are out of hand. He shouldn’t be sitting in the bullpen for a week waiting for a save opportunity. Nothing says he can’t enter a tie game or a game when his team is losing but within reach. Perhaps he needs to be used the way he was used last year before his back injury.

Who’s on third?

I’d recently written of Davis, Gonzales and Triolo. There’s no need to discuss them again, except to say Triolo’s performance presents an interesting dilemma for the Pirates. As I write this, in 23 games Triolo is hitting .274/.326/.298, with 9 RBIs, has fielded well at third base and has shown the poise of a 10-year veteran. Ke’Bryan Hayes, the incumbent at third, is hitting just .252/.290/.393, 5 HR and 32 RBIs in 75 games. Furthermore, Hayes has left a ton of batters on base, as evidenced by his -1.1 WPA. Triolo is outperforming him and deserves to play. Unfortunately, in today’s baseball, it’s salary, not performance, that dictates playing time. Hayes is currently playing under a $76 million contract. It will be interested to see who plays third base when Hayes returns from the injured list.

End(y) of the Hedges era?

Salary is certainly not dictating the catching situation. Rodriguez has been behind the dish since he arrived, with Hedges playing day games after night games or vice versa. The Pirates took a long time to get there. In justifying Hedges’s playing time, they spoke of his valuable pitch-framing skills. But those skills have translated to a 4.52 team ERA, 10th best in the 15-team league. On one hand, there have been no obvious benefits to having Hedges behind the plate. On the other hand, maybe the Pirates’ analytics show the ERA would be far worse without Hedges. In any event, the team wasn’t winning and it became time to try something else.

As for the other youngsters, the sample size is small but they’ve flashed some major-league ability. Priester has a five-pitch mix that has looked impressive at times, but not often enough. He’s 1-1 with a 9.28 ERA, 1.5 WHIP and 1.2 strikeout/walk ratio in two starts covering 10-and-two-thirds innings. Peguero and Williams have shown they can provide solid defense at shortstop while handling the bat well enough to justify their places on the roster.

Their wings have got rusted

After a disappointing 1-5 home stand after the All-Star break, the Pirates just finished a west coast trip where they split six games with the Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres. It’s hard to know what to make of it, however, given those team are disappointing underachievers. In the Pirates’ 3-0 win at Anaheim last Saturday, manager Derek Shelton used an opener and a bullpen game to ensure Shohei Ohtani faced a lefty whenever he came to bat. Stop Ohtani and you stop the Angels. Losing Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon to injuries hasn’t helped them. Then again, neither has a healthy Rendon. His $245 million contract is one of the dumbest in sports history.

Money for nothing

Watching the Pirates take two of three from the Padres brought to mind the Dire Straits song “Money For Nothing.” Bob Melvin, the highly regarded manager who was allowed to leave the Oakland A’s to take over a team with a better chance at winning, must be going crazy watching his team waltz around the diamond. To these eyes, only Jake Cronenworth, Ha-Seong Kim and Fernando Tatis Jr. seemed to be playing hard for nine innings. When Peguero hit his first major league homer on Monday, left fielder Juan Soto looked like he was shying away from the wall despite playing in his home ballpark. For the year, the Pirates took five of six from the Padres.

Really, really …

A final, unrelated observation from watching a couple weeks of baseball: I must say I like the rules that have sped up the pace of the game. If baseball could adopt one more rule along those lines, I suggest it prohibit the mound visit by the pitching coach every time a pinch hitter is announced, presumably to give a scouting report on the hitter, simply because I find it annoying to no end. The pitchers already go over the opposing starting nine batters in the pregame meeting. It’s hard for me to believe pitchers who have reached the top of their profession can’t also go over the other four hitters who might enter the game. I just hate it. I mean, I really, really hate it.

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