Pittsburgh Pirates Prospects Who Could Develop MLB Roles in 2023

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First Baseman Malcolm Nuñez

The Pirates acquired Malcolm Nuñez at the trade deadline in the Jose Quintana trade. Nunez had a handful of middling seasons but turned in a breakout in 2022 after making some adjustments to his swing. This helped him take advantage of his incredible raw power. But given the veteran first base options the Pirates have, will he eventually become the Pirates’ first baseman?

In 493 plate appearances, Nuñez turned in a quality .262/.367/.466 triple-slash. Nunez has always displayed good plate discipline, and that continued this year. The powerful batter had a 15% walk rate, but he wasn’t a three-true-outcomes hitter either. He struck out in just 20.9% of his plate appearances as well.

In terms of power, he had a .204 isolated slugging percentage, a massive improvement from the .119 mark he had in 2019-2021. Between his plus power and excellent plate discipline, Nuñez had a .370 wOBA and 117 wRC+.

Another positive is that Nunez was great for the Pirate Double-A and Triple-A affiliates. It was only 143 plate appearances, but the slugger batted .280/.385/.475 with a .378 wOBA and 134 wRC+. This included six dingers (25 home run pace over the course of 600 plate appearances), a .195 isolated slugging percentage, as well as a 14.7% walk rate. The only downside was his K% saw a slight uptick to 22.4%, which is still above average. Nunez also caught fire after the start of June, owning a .913 OPS, .396 wOBA, and 136 wRC+ from the sixth month of the year through September.

Notably, Nuñez did all of this in just his age-21 campaign. The average age of Double-A batters was about 24, while the average age for pitchers was 24.5 years of age. He was the third youngest position player for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate and the second youngest position player to appear for Altoona last year (Liover Peguero was slightly younger). He was also the youngest player to appear at Triple-A Indy (Quinn Priester was slightly older). Not only has he made the adjustments as a batter to hit upper-level pitching despite being so young, but he’s also made significant strides as a defender.

Nuñez taking over a regular role could be decided by how other players perform and how the season plays out. If the Pirates are somehow in contention for the last Wild Card spot, and both Ji-Man Choi and Carlos Santana are playing well, it might be hard for Nuñez to get regular playing time. But those are some significant “if’s.”

Both Santana and Choi are coming off of down seasons. While many factors are working in their favor, such as more favorable platoon splits and the new shift rules (they were two of the most shifted on batters in baseball last year), it’s still not a guarantee either will perform exceptionally well. It’s also an even longer shot the Pirates are in NL Wild Card contention, both Santana and Choi are playing well, and the Pirates do not trade either as they are both on one-year deals.

But Nuñez could see time as the designated hitter. The Pittsburgh Pirates are running out a fairly unproven player in left field, that being Ji-Hwan Bae. Bae has done well throughout the minor leagues, and after another good season at Triple-A, he has nothing left to prove as a hitter. He’s still relatively new to the outfield but has seen his time in the grass increase. Still, if Bae struggles, Andrew McCutchen, who is projected to get the bulk of playing time at DH, could move out to left field and give Nuñez some regular MLB playing time.

There are three ways for Nuñez to find major league playing time; the first is that one or both Choi and Santana underperform. The next is that the Pirates are out of contention, and they trade Santana and/or Choi. The last is that Bae struggles and forces McCutchen to the outfield more often, opening up more opportunities for DH. In all likelihood, one of the three will happen and open the door for Nuñez to get some regular major league plate appearances.