Pittsburgh Pirates: Blake Sabol Could Start at DH in 2023

(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Blake Sabol should start the 2023 season as the team’s designated hitter given the lack of options at the position.

Beneath the likes of Henry Davis and Endy Rodriguez, the Pittsburgh Pirates have Blake Sabol. Sabol has become somewhat of a forgotten name in the system, having a great in 2022, and is MLB-ready. Sabol is Rule 5 Draft eligible and will demand a 40-man roster spot, but with his remarkable campaign, Sabol should open the year in the major leagues as the Pirates’ starting designated hitter or first baseman.

Sabol played with both Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indy and is coming off a year in which he batted .284/.363/.497. Sabol drew his fair share of walks with a 10.7% walk rate and hit 19 home runs. Sabol’s .213 isolated slugging percentage was the fourth-best among Pirates prospects. Between his power and plate discipline, Sabol produced a .373 wOBA and 131 wRC+.

There were two red flags about his offensive performance, though. The first is he struck out 25.1% of the time. While that is far from the worst in the league, it definitely isn’t good, either. Sabol also had a .353 batting average on balls in play, which is a tad high and could be a sign of luck. But Sabol has consistently had a high batting average on balls in play. In 2021, he had a .420 mark; in 2019, he clocked in with a .336 BAbip. But as FanGraphs states, “you typically want to adjust your expectations toward that player’s career average rather than league average.” So Sabol’s high BAIP might not be as big of a problem as it may seem.

But why start him at designated hitter? Sabol is not considered a very good defender behind the dish, projected as just a 45-grade defender by FanGraphs. Even if Sabol brings above-average offense, I believe the Pirates would instead go with Jason Delay, given his defensive expertise. He also only has a 40-grade arm. He’s played a decent amount of left field, but with just 30-grade speed, is that a preferable option to start in the cavernous PNC Park grass?

The Pittsburgh Pirates also do not have much in the way of designated hitter. If the regular season were to start right now, the Pirates could give Rodolfo Castro time at the position to make room for Ji-Hwan Bae and Tucupita Marcano at the keystone. Alternatively, they could let Canaan Smith-Njigba take the position over. The Pirate options are limited, to say the least, and they could go in multiple directions, so why not go in Sabol’s direction?

Sabol will need a 40-man roster spot one way or another, so why not give him the opportunity to start the year in the big leagues? The Pirates should give him a shot to prove himself before the likes of Endy Rodriguez, Henry Davis, and Malcom Nunez potentially push him out. It’s also not as if he is super young, either. He’ll turn 25 years old on January seventh. On top of that, he did great at Triple-A with a .969 OPS, .424 wOBA, 158 wRC+, and cut his K% down to 21.8% in the 101 plate appearances he received.

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Sabol has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, at least hitting-wise. He’s put up a 115 or greater wRC+ at every level of the minor leagues and performed well at Triple-A. The Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have much in the way of Sabol at designated hitter and first base, and it’s not like they’re going to find a much better option on the free agent market, given the bare-bones thinness of the 1B/DH market. It’s time the Pirates reward Sabol and let him start the 2023 season in the major leagues as the team’s starting DH.