Pittsburgh Pirates: Projecting the 2023 Opening Day Bench

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 26: Tucupita Marcano #30 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after hitting a double to right field in the eighth inning during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park on April 26, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 26: Tucupita Marcano #30 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after hitting a double to right field in the eighth inning during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park on April 26, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

While the bench is typically a second thought, the Pittsburgh Pirates current bench could look like this at the start of 2023

The bench is typically off the frontlines of team priorities, and it’s usually an afterthought for a reason. There’s usually not a defined ‘bench’ role most of the time outside of a fourth outfielder or backup catcher. But while the bench isn’t an integral concern, what could the Pittsburgh Pirates bench look like next season?

As things stand right now, the team does not have a defined starting catcher. Unless Endy Rodriguez starts the year out in the major leagues, the Pirates re-sign Roberto Pérez or another starting-caliber catcher, it looks as if Tyler Heineman and Alí Sanchez will make up the catching tandem, at least during the season’s outset.

Delay nor Heineman did not do much with the bat. The former had a .536 OPS, .243 wOBA, and 53 wRC+, while the ladder had a .531 OPS, .244 wOBA, and 54 wRC+. They had nearly identical offensive numbers, and their strikeout rate was the only thing separating them. Delay struck out 29.9% of the time, while Heineman struck out 8.2% of the time. However, they combined for +8 defensive runs saved and +7.7 framing runs.

The Pirates have multiple potential backup infielders. Diego Castillo provided a solid bat vs. left-handed pitching, posting a .788 OPS, .332 wOBA, and 114 wRC+ when he faced southpaws. He could be in line for semi-regular reps at the keystone, along with Tucupita Marcano. While the utility man did not have a great debut with the Pirates, he did show plenty of talent and provided the Bucs with +3 outs above average at second base. Marcano also did well for Altoona and Indianapolis this season. Hoy Park is also a potential bench utility option but is likely behind Castillo and Marcano on the depth chart.

The outfield situation looks to be handled by Jack Suwinski, Ji-Hwan Bae, and Bryan Reynolds. The Pirates were so confident in Bae that they gave him some reps in center field at the end of last season and pushed Reynolds to left field. As the 40-man roster and depth chart look right now, the Pirates have three options when it comes to the 4th outfield option.

The first is Cal Mitchell. While Mitchell managed just a .635 OPS, .281 wOBA, and 79 wRC+, he ended his rookie campaign positively. After recalling the rookie outfielder in September, Mitchell would go on to post a .734 OPS, .329 wOBA, and 112 wRC+. Mitchell also did exceptionally well for Triple-A Indy. He put up a .937 OPS, .406 wOBA, and 146 wRC+ at the Pittsburgh Pirates highest-level minor league affiliate. The downside is Mitchell is a corner outfielder only and is probably best suited to handle left field. Mitchell had -4 defensive runs saved, outs above average, and -11.9 UZR/150 in right field.

The second option is Canaan Smith-Njigba. Acquired in the Jameson Taillon swap, Smith-Njigba did quite well at Triple-A, batting for a .795 OPS, .361 wOBA, and 118 wRC+. Also, from the last days of April through mid-June, the outfielder had a 150 wRC+. This earned Smith-Njigba a promotion to the major leagues, and he collected one double and a walk through seven plate appearances. Unfortunately, a collision left him with a broken wrist, which eliminated him for the rest of 2022. Smith-Njigba may have experience at all three outfield corners but grades out as a below-average defender and is better suited for LF/DH duties.

The last option is Travis Swaggerty. Swaggerty brings the speed and defense that both Smith-Njigba and Mitchell do not. However, his offensive ceiling doesn’t quite match the ladder duo. Last season, Swaggerty had a .747 OPS, .338 wOBA, and 102 wRC+. While those numbers may not be terrible, they aren’t the best either. One positive is he did have a .803 OPS, .357 wOBA, and 115 wRC+ through the first half of his season but fell off to a .703 OPS, .322 wOBA, and 92 wRC+ after the Pirates recalled and re-optioned the prospect.

Neither Smith-Njigba nor Mitchell can play center field, and while all three of Reynolds, Bae, and Suwinski can, it’s better to have a guy who can handle arguably the most important defensive position on the diamond outside of catcher. Swaggerty has more power than the numbers state. One of Mitchell or Smith-Njigba will still likely make the bench as a DH/LF option. The team’s best designated hitter option is Miguel Andujar, so they could carry two of the three young outfielders.

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Unless the Pittsburgh Pirates sign or claim a guy who will assuredly make their bench, the current projected major league backups I would list are Delay/Heineman, Marcano, Castillo, Mitchell, and Swaggerty. The Pirates get plenty of utility carrying both Marcano and Castillo on the roster, but also get some offensive potential with Mitchell. The Pirates would get the best defense with this combination of players as well.