The Pittsburgh Pirates will have multiple options to utilize at designated hitter when they go into the 2023 campaign.
The Pittsburgh Pirates opened 2022 with a regular designated hitter option, Daniel Vogelbach. Until Vogelbach was traded, the Pirates mostly used him at the DH spot. As the 2022 season comes to a close, we are already seeing some potential DH options for next season. But how will the Pirates utilize this still new line-up spot?
If the Pirates feel that Ji-Hwan Bae is the best option at second base, then Rodolfo Castro could be slotted into DH. Since the Pirates recalled Castro in early August, he has been slashing .261/.316/.529 with a .359 wOBA and 132 wRC+. Although he has just a 7.6% walk rate and 29.2% strikeout rate, Castro has given the Pirates a big power bat down the stretch. His .268 isolated slugging percentage since August 10th is tied with Atlanta rookie Michael Harris 8th best mark. Only Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Lars Nootbar, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Daulton Varsho, and Shohei Ohtani have hit for more power than Castro.
But Castro’s defense has not been great. He has -2 DRS and -3 outs above average at the keystone. While he does have +4 DRS and a +3.0 UZR/150 at the hot corner, the Pirates aren’t moving Ke’Bryan Hayes off of third base. They also aren’t going to move Oneil Cruz off of shortstop just yet for a far inferior defender in Castro.
Castro might seem like the automatic answer, but the Pittsburgh Pirates do have a few other potential options. The next is Miguel Andújar. The Pirates claimed Andújar off waivers from the New York Yankees earlier this month. It’s been a few years since Andujar was considered a potentially crucial piece of any team. The former top prospect had a phenomenal rookie campaign in 2018, finishing the year with a .855 OPS, .361 wOBA, and 129 wRC+, earning him second place in AL ROY voting. However, he would go on to play just 78 games across the next three seasons, missing a ton of time because of injury.
Andújar has made a decent first impression, collecting four hits, including two doubles, along with a walk and 4 strikeouts through 13 plate appearances. Andújar has transitioned from third base, where he had -21 DRS in his rookie campaign, to the outfield. But with a crowded outfield mix, the Pirates could benefit from placing Andújar at DH. It’s not as if the Yankees haven’t had chances to play Andujar regularly, so this will be the first time since 2018 that Andújar will get an opportunity.
Another outfielder who could see time at DH next season is Canaan Smith-Njigba. Acquired in the Jameson Taillon swap, Smith-Njigba likely would have been part of the active roster this year had it not been for a shoulder fracture. Before his unfortunate injury, Smith-Njigba was batting .277/.387/.408 through 218 plate appearances at Triple-A Indy. His 23.9% strikeout rate may not have been great, but with a 15.1% walk rate, it was the second season in a row he drew walks at a 15%+ pace, and the third season in a row, he had a 14%+ walk rate.
Smith-Njigba isn’t considered much of a defender in the grass. While he’s swiped over a dozen bases in 2019 and 2021 and was on pace to do so again in 2022, he’s not a fast runner. He should hit for more power than he has. He’s severely capping his home run potential with the number of ground balls he has hit. Last year he had a 52.8% ground ball rate at Altoona and put up a 60% ground ball rate before his injury. Not only could the Pirates use the DH to slowly reintroduce Smith-Njigba at the beginning of the year, but they could also do this in order to give Jack Suwnski, Cal Mitchell, Ji-Hwan Bae, or Travis Swaggerty playing time alongside Bryan Reynolds.
The Pittsburgh Pirates could find multiple ways to platoon these players as well. They could platoon Smith-Njigba and Castro at DH and let Ji-Hwan Bae take over second base. They could platoon Bae and Castro at second base, DH Andújar, leaving Smith-Njigba at Triple-A or a platoon outfield option.
The team has a few options for next season and they could all provide a solid bat at the designated hitter role.