Pittsburgh Pirates: Managing Shortstop & the Lineup Without Oneil Cruz
By Noah Wright
Oneil Cruz will be out for an undetermined amount of time, but how will the Pittsburgh Pirates manage until his return?
The Pittsburgh Pirates will be without talented shortstop Oneil Cruz for an undetermined time. It’s a very large blow to the lineup, as he was seen as maybe the second most integral bat behind Bryan Reynolds. So now with Cruz out, how will the team manage until his return?
Let's get one thing out of the way first: the Pirates will not be able to replace Cruz. No team will just find a guy who has the potential to hit 40+ homers just lying around. They'll have to find a way to manage through it until he is back, but the Pirates certiantly have some options until Cruz's return.
As of right now, they are recalling utility man Mark Mathias. Mathias had an OPS over .900 (.940), and wRC+ approaching 150 (149) at Triple-A last year. He's also gotten off to a great start at Indy with nine hits and four walks in 28 plate appearances. Though Mathias does come with some strikeout risk. He struck out in 24.1% of his plate appearances at Triple-A last year, had a 33% strikeout rate in the big leagues last year, and has so far went down on K's seven times at Indy.
Mathias does have some decent projected numbers, as per FanGraphs' ZIPS. Mathias is projected to bat .240/.325/.393 with a .316 wOBA, and +1.8 fWAR in only 357 plate appearances. That means he would be about a league average batter, and put him on pace for about +3.0 fWAR in 600 plate appearances. That's pretty decent production for a utility man.
Mathias likely will see some games at second base, though Ji Hwan Bae and Rodolfo Castro will likely handle the bulk of time up the middle. I am fully confident in both Bae and Castro's ability to hold down the fort for now. Castro hasn't gotten off to a great start but had a strong August-September last season, and has shown signs of heating up at the plate in recent days. Bae has done nothing but hit so far this season. Though I'd take both their 2023 numbers with a grain of salt. There are less than 50 plate appearances between them right now.
The Pirates aren't devoid of options on the 40-man roster. Tucupita Marcano has crushed Triple-A pitching so far this season. The Bucs also have Liover Peguero, but he is at Double-A and has played just a single game above Altoona. One option that isn't on the 40-man right now is Nick Gonzales. He hasn't looked bad at Indy and could see the major leagues later this year. One player that is currently injured and will return later this year is Jared Triolo, who has experience at shortstop. He is potentially an option if he returns before Cruz does.
The Pirates likely aren't going to scour the free agent or trade market for a player. The only free agent that's worth mentioning is Andrelton Simmons. While Simmons may still be a great defensive infielder, he has an OPS below .550 in 2021-2022. Yankee infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa is the only shortstop on the trade market, but we have previously gone over why the Pirates should avoid pursuing a trade involving him.
The one thing the Pirates must avoid is having a black hole in the lineup. Sure, replicating Cruz's production or potential production is impossible. But they can't fall into the trap of repeating 2022 Josh VanMeter or 2020-2021 Kevin Newman.
They already have a black hole at catcher until Endy Rodriguez is in the big leagues. Even with Cruz out, there's still Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen, Connor Joe, Carlos Santana, Bae, and Castro. Hopefully, both Jack Suwinski and Ke'Bryan Hayes can start turning the heat up. Sure, the lineup is taking a hit, but they're still not a bad group of players.
The Pirates just need to find a semi-productive player until whenever Cruz is ready, whether that be later this year or next season. Castro and Bae are okay options for second base and shortstop with Mathias also an option at second base.
You also have some decent names at Triple-A waiting in the wings. The big thing the Pirates need to do is not run out a sub-replacement level players. Get a guy who they can rely on on a semi-consistent basis, and they'll be okay for now.