The Pittsburgh Pirates should make these small lineup and roster tweaks, which could end up making a more significant impact than it may seem
We’re still in the first week of May, and the Pittsburgh Pirates have somehow clinged onto a 1.5-game division lead. In spite of a six game losing streak, the rest of the National League Central has played just as poorly as the Pirates have the last week. Dating back to April 30th, the NL Central is a combined 5-26. The Pirates, Brewers, and Cardinals are each on a six-game losing streak, at the time of writing this.
Regardless of how poorly the Pirates or the rest of the teams in their division have done, it gives the Bucs an opportunity to take the Central by surprise. There are plenty of ways right now the Pirates can improve, both the lineup and pitching staff, and the easiest way is to put Austin Hedges into a reserve role.
Now this doesn’t mean promote Henry Davis or Endy Rodriguez. While I would love to see Davis, Rodriguez, or both, the bare minimum needs to be to take Hedges out of the starting catcher role. Hedges’ hitting has been bad, even for his rock-bottom standard. So far this year, he’s batting .149/.245/.170 line, .204 wOBA, and 23 wRC+.
The Pirates knew that they were getting next to zero offensive value when they signed Hedges, but this is still well below the .171/.231/.278 batting line, .226 wOBA, and 41 wRC+ he had in 2021-2022. That is an 18% difference in wRC+.
Meanwhile, Hedges’ supposed back up, Jason Delay is blowing him out of the water when it comes to batting. The late-bloomer is slashing .372/.417/.581 with a .424 wOBA, and 168 wRC+. Now sure, the sustainability of Delay’s start to 2023 is questionable, though even if he were to reproduce his 2022 numbers, those would be better than anything Hedges has put up since 2018. Even then, Delay has a .343 xwOBA, which if he were to replicate that, he would be the starting catcher on many teams.
Hedges was brought in for his defense, but Delay is, at the very least, on-par with Hedges. Hedges has zero defensive runs saved, +2.2 framing runs, and +3 blocking runs. Delay, meanwhile, has +2 DRS, +2.5 framing runs, and +1 blocking runs. Hedges has the edge over Delay in blocking, but we’re still talking about a small difference, and Hedges has 28.2 more innings caught over Delay.
The second thing they could do this month to improve the team is to figure out the middle infield situation. The Pirates knew they would have a mess to deal with when Oneil Cruz landed on the injured list until August. Rodolfo Castro has been the go-to answer at shortstop in the meantime. Castro has given the Pirates decent offense, delivering a .267/.368/.422 slash line, .351 wOBA, and 120 wRC+, though his defense at shortstop has been lackluster, to say the least. In just 167.2 innings at the position, Castro has -2 DRS and OAA. Over the course of 800 innings, that’s about -10 DRS/OAA.
The Pirates have started to give Tucupita Marcano some reps at shortstop, which would definitely be a defensive upgrade. Marcano has less than 30 innings logged at shortstop, spending most of his infield time on the other side of second base at the keystone. In 273.1 innings at second, Marcano has +3 DRS and an impressive +7 OAA count. It doesn’t hurt either that Marcano is batting .256/.370/.359 with a .333 wOBA and 108 wRC+ though his first 48 plate appearances of the 2023 MLB season.
The third thing the Pirates could do to improve the roster is stop giving Miguel Andujar starts. At the very least, he needs to be moved into another role. Andujar has had four starts in the outfield (five after the game on Saturday). The reason the Pirates sent Canaan Smith-Njigba back to Triple-A is because he wasn’t getting regular reps in the outfield. Smith-Njigba had just nine starts in the grass, and Andujar is over half of the way there.
Since Andujar’s explosive double-header against the Washington Nationals, he has zero hits, two strikeouts, and one walk in his last 12 plate appearances. 12 plate appearances is a small sample size, but we’re talking about a guy who had a .581 OPS, .252 wOBA, and 58 wRC+ in the four seasons prior to 2023. He also made a costly mistake in the outfield during the Tampa Bay Rays series during the second game, which was part of a nightmarish inning.
If a .600 OPS and 60 wRC+ is the bare minimum to replace Andujar, they might as well promote Travis Swaggerty. He might not be the next Mike Trout, but at the very least you know you’re getting sound defense and he could likely replicate those offensive numbers. Again, the bare minimum they need to do is move him back into a once-a-week starter role. Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, and Connor Joe can handle the outfield.
These things are small in hindsight. Though after a while, things start to add up, positively if you make the changes, or negatively if these issues persist. Hedges starting over Delay might mean that you’re leaving yourself out of two or three more hits a week. Andujar consistently getting reps in right field might mean an extra run or two every few games might score that could have been prevented by a more competent defender. Meanwhile, Marcano might save another run or two that Castro may not have.