Pittsburgh Pirates: Injuries Have Greatly Exposed Weaknesses in Players

Injuries have forced Pirate players to spread thinner than expected, exposing weaknesses in their game.

San Diego Padres v Pittsburgh Pirates
San Diego Padres v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin K. Aller/GettyImages

Many Pittsburgh Pirates players have had weak spots, and deficiencies in their game exposed because of a significant amount of injuries that have forced them to take on much larger than expected roles

The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the 2023 season with high hopes, and the first weeks of the year skyrocketed said hopes. But then they came crashing down, especially during June. However, while it wasn’t expected for the Pirates, and their early April hot streak wasn’t wholly sustainable June really exposed this team in a horrible way. But it’s reasonable to suspect that some injuries have exposed some players’ weaknesses.

For example, let’s take a look at the middle infield situation. Going into the year, the Pirates had Oneil Cruz entrenched at shortstop. That wasn’t going to change, except for maybe a day at DH here and there just to keep him fresh, but his bat in the line-up. That meant that second base would be occupied by some mix of Rodolfo Castro, Ji Hwan Bae, and Tucupita Marcano. However, when Cruz went down with an injury in the team's 10th game of the season, it forced their second base options to take on a greater-than-expected role.

Castro would be forced to play more shortstop than he was originally expected to play, and both Bae and Marcano would be playing more often as well. Castro is most effective against left-handed pitching, and even with his recent cold spell, he still has an outstanding .263/.306/.600 triple-slash and 148 wRC+ against lefties. However, against right-handed pitching, he has an abysmal .220/.295/.347 slash, .286 wOBA, and 83 wRC+.

Even worse is that not only has Castro been forced to play every day, but Cruz’s injury has forced him to play a lot of games at shortstop. Castro is not good at shortstop, with -5 defensive runs saved and -6 outs above average in just 234 innings. That puts him on pace for -17 DRS and -20 OAA in 800 innings. His defense at second base is much better, with +2 DRS and zero OAA.

Marcano and Bae produced better numbers against RHP compared to LHP prior to their recent slumps. That would be expected, given that both are left-handed batters. However, Cruz’s injury has forced Castro to face more righty pitchers and Bae/Marcano to play more often against lefty arms. Hopefully, the Pirates can mitigate the issues once again, as Nick Gonzales has arrived, with Jared Triolo following him.

This isn’t the only example of injuries stretching depth thin to the point weaknesses are being heavily exploited by other teams. First base is another position the Pirates could have gotten much more production out of had it not been for a major early-season injury. Carlos Santana and Ji Man Choi likely would have shared the position, but Choi suffered an injury in just the second week of the year and has been out ever since.

Santana is a known lefty masher. He is hitting .282/.373/.451 with a .359 wOBA and 126 wRC+ against Southpaws. Choi, on the other hand, is a career .244/.352/.451 batter against righties. Choi’s injury has forced Santana to play every day, lefty, righty, or otherwise. The only other option the Pirates have been able to deploy at first base to give Santana a day off is Connor Joe, who also is a lefty masher with major struggles against right-handed pitching.

Another much smaller injury exposed other weaknesses. Josh Palacios is clearly more comfortable in a part-time fourth outfielder/pinch-hitter role. He has five hits as a pinch hitter and six hits in late and close games. However, Bryan Reynolds’ short injury list stint made Palacios play every day, and he had a .421 OPS during Reynolds’ absence.

Injuries have also cratered the pitching staff. Vince Velasquez’s injury forced the Pirates to promote Luis Ortiz. Then Roansy Contreras seemed to lose his fastball, which caused the Pirates to call upon Osvaldo Bido. Ortiz still needed to work on his change-up and sinker at Triple-A, and Bido was considered organizational depth going into the year, so what happened to the Pirates’ other options?

Well, one option underwent Tommy John surgery right before the season started, that being JT Brubaker. Losing Brubaker meant losing one potential starting pitching option. But then, in mid-April, top prospect Mike Burrows underwent the same surgery, eliminating a second pitcher who was on the 40-man roster for the rest of the season. If it weren’t for Brubaker, Burrows, and Velasquez all undergoing season-ending surgeries within a month of each other, the Pirates are likely in a much better spot.

So how can the Pirates fix these issues? Well, some are fixing themselves. The Pirates promoting Gonzales and Triolo can help cover some of the issues with Castro and Marcano (now that Bae is on the IL).

Choi is very close to returning to action. However, the Pirates can’t do much with their current pitching situation. Having three guys who were projected to play regular roles all go down with season-ending surgeries is something you really can’t prepare for. The only thing the Bucs could do is promote Quinn Priester, which isn’t a terrible option.

Hopefully, the Pirates can figure out some of these problems going into the second half. While they may never reach the highs of April, I am optimistic that they can recover from a rough mid-late June and find some middle ground between the two extremes.

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