What the Pirates’ new outfield alignment means

In late February, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton announced the team would be experimenting with a new outfield alignment in spring training. Jack Suwinski, who hit 19 home runs as rookie in 2022, mostly as a corner outfielder, would be tried in center field, a position where he has little experience in professional baseball. Bryan Reynolds would move to left field and Andrew McCutchen would play right field.

Explaining the move to the assembled media, Shelton said, “I think that’s something we could see, depending on what we do with ‘Cutch’ in terms of being on the field but I definitely think we could see Jack in center and Bryan in left.” Asked what he likes about Suwinski as an outfielder, Shelton replied, “The way he moves. I think we saw, and we talked about last year that he became a better outfielder as the season went on at the major-league level.”

Analyzing the moves

We haven’t seen much of this alignment yet, however, with McCutchen nursing some minor injuries and sitting out spring games. Regardless, the alignment is interesting on a couple of levels. Right field is the shortest field in PNC Park. Although McCutchen still possesses above-average speed, the new alignment is obviously a concession to his 36-year-old legs. Clearly the hope is preserving him over the long season. This tells me the Pirates see McCutchen an every-day player in the field. Last year with the Milwaukee Brewers, he was primarily a designated hitter, seeing action in the outfield in just 50 games.

It also tells me Suwinski is a virtual lock to make the team. Why else would two former All-Stars be moved so he could be tried in the most important outfield position? I had him in the regular lineup in my preseason projections, too. However, I thought he could be unseated if one of the Pirates’ many outfield prospects had a hot spring. After all, along with the 19 homers, Suwinski’s batting line was .202/.298/.411 along with a high 30.7 percent strikeout rate.

Who’s left out?

Barring injuries, Reynolds may not sit out many games. Neither might McCutchen, who is being clearly being counted on a gate attraction. That didn’t seem to bode well for prospects like Calvin Mitchell or Canaan Smith-Njigba making the team. Both profile as corner outfielders. The Pirates may prefer them playing every day in the minors, as opposed to sitting and waiting for Reynolds or McCutchen to take a day off, especially with Connor Joe on hand as a fourth outfielder. I would give better odds to Travis Swaggerty, the seemingly forgotten first-round draft pick in 2018 who has played plenty of center field, which would be valuable should Suwinski falter. For Mitchell, Smith-Njigba or even Swaggerty to make the squad as a fifth outfielder, he would have to have the greatest spring training since Jim Opie in 1984. (Look it up.)

Well, guess what? Mitchell has been sent down to triple-A but Smith-Njigba and Swaggerty are having Opie-like springs. As I write this, Smith-Njigba is slashing .267/.371/.500, 2 HR and 7 RBIs, while Swaggerty is hitting .400/.423/.760, 3 HR and 9 RBIs, both showing the on-base skills the Pirates covet. I had projected Ji-Hwan Bae and Miguel Andujar as part of the final roster. However, neither is hitting well in the spring. Both men could be lose out to these hot-hitting outfielders, although Bae has an edge with his ability to play in the middle of the infield.

Higher expectations

Speaking of Shelton, it’s the final year of his contract. As noted on these pages previously, the Pirates added some experienced players in a busier-than-usual off season. Some of their hot prospects are expected to land in Pittsburgh at some point in the summer, too. Expectations hang in the air like the pollen in a Pittsburgh summer.

In three seasons at the Pirates’ helm, Shelton’s record is 142-242. His teams lost 101 and 100 games, respectively, in 2021 and 2022. The pandemic was the only thing that prevented a 100-loss season in 2020. With general manager Ben Cherington deciding to gut the team and rebuild when he arrived in 2019, Shelton couldn’t have been dealt a worse hand had he gotten into a poker game with Sgt. Bilko.

This is an important year for Shelton, as the team is expected to turn the corner and surpass last year’s win total by 10-15 and perhaps stay in the thick of the wild card race until at least late summer. Shelton surely wants to be the manager who will lead the team when it “gets good,” as opposed to a caretaker-type manager like John Russell, who managed the Pirates from 2008-2010, only to be dismissed when it was deemed the team was on the verge and it was time for a more experienced manager in Clint Hurdle.

Following the money

Given the veterans added to the team, what should be an increased urgency to win on the part of Shelton and my belief that the experimentation of 2020-22 is over, I expect some improvement in the win column. The betting world agrees, according to Max Meyer at Caesars Sportsbook. In late February he reported, “There has not been an MLB win total bet that has drawn more money than the over for the Pirates.” Betting opened with the Pirates’ win total at 61.5. It was later increased to 67 because of all the action on the Pirates’ over.

My own prediction for the 2023 Pirates is 75 wins. I have a bet with a friend. Over 75.5 wins, he buys me food and drink at the next Duquesne University basketball game next season. Under 75.5 and I’m buying. Apart from participating in office pools at Super Bowl or NCAA Tournament time, that’s the extent of my gambling. As a teenager, I had a job in a hamburger joint where a few shady characters hung out. I was just barely smart enough to notice the bookies wore rings of gold and diamonds and the guys placing the bets wore the same work clothes every day. That cured me of any potential gambling habit at a young age.

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