Pittsburgh Pirates: What Has Improved, What Still Needs Improving

Division Series - Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners - Game Three
Division Series - Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners - Game Three / Rob Carr/GettyImages
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The Pittsburgh Pirates have finally had a fairly active offseason, so what areas have they improved so far, and what needs improving?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have had a fairly active off-season for once. They’ve added a handful of major league veterans who bring something of value to the table. The line-up is starting to resemble a respectable major league starting nine, and the rotation is showing glimmers of hope. But there is still more work that needs to be done.

The off-season is far from over, but the Pirates have already put in more work than you’d expect them to. So today, let’s look at all the improvements that have been made and what they could still do to improve the team. 

Improvements

First Base

Going into the offseason, the man who was listed atop the team’s depth chart at first base was Zack Collins. After designating Michael Chavis for assignment in the final weeks of the ‘22 season, the team was left with Collins and Diego Castillo to handle first base. As a unit, Pirates’ 1Bs produced a horrid .196/.256/.313 triple slash and 59 wRC+. It was the worst wRC+ a team has put up at first base since the Boston Red Sox in 1968. Many of those plate appearances were taken by Yoshi Tsutsugo and Josh VanMeter. Chavis also registered just an 80 wRC+.

The first major addition to first base depth was Ji-Man Choi. The long-time Tampa Bay Ray was acquired in a one-for-one deal for minor league reliever Jack Hartman. Choi slashed a solid .233/.341/.388, along with a 116 wRC+. It was a down year for the first baseman, but he still had a quality 13.8% walk rate and above average .154 isolated slugging percentage. Choi had a great first half and, after his recent surgery, could be a nice addition to the Pirates. He also did outstanding when the shift wasn’t on, and with the new shift rules, he might be one of the biggest beneficiaries of it.

Soon after acquiring Choi, the team signed Carlos Santana to a one-year deal. Santana only hit .202/.316/.376 last year, coming out to a 102 wRC+. On the plus side, he still hit 19 home runs with a .174 ISO in 506 plate appearances, had a 14% walk rate, and a strong 17.4% strikeout rate. Santana also hits left-handed pitching well and was the most shifted batter in 2022. He and Choi will likely be part of a platoon at first base.

Although he’s primarily an outfielder, Connor Joe is another guy who is capable of playing first base. Over the last two seasons, Joe has batted .252/.351/.393 with a 98 wRC+, making him a roughly league-average hitter. On the plus side, he doesn’t strike out often (20.4% K-rate) and draws his fair share of walks (11.9% walk rate). Joe had a down year in 2022 after a breakout 2021 campaign, but he was much better in the first half. Joe is primarily a left fielder but has over 250 innings at first base.

The defense at first has also improved with the likes of Joe, Santana, and Choi. Last year, this trio combined for +4 Defensive Runs Saved and +6 outs above average. Last season, the Pirates' first basemen had -1 defensive runs saved and -2 outs above average. If these three keep playing as they did in 20222, the Pirates will save five runs and make eight more outs on average at first base. Even if next year's group of first basemen produce just a +1.0 fWAR, that is still four wins better than last year's unit.

Relief Pitching

Relief pitching was a massive need when the off-season started. The Pirates felt the lack of depth in the second half of 2022 when all three of David Bednar, Yerry De Los Santos, and Colin Holderman hit the injured list. Two of the three didn’t return during the year. With many uncertainties and young guns, the bullpen needed some stability, and the Pirates have done some due diligence to add to the bullpen.

The first major addition was Dauri Moreta. The Pirates got Moreta in the one-for-one Kevin Newman swap. Moreta’s rookie season had its ups and downs. In 38.1 innings, he owned a 5.40 ERA and 5.80 FIP, and 2.35 HR/9 rate. However, he had a decent 24.4% K-rate, 8.1% walk rate, and 1.17 WHIP. After getting recalled in June, he had a strong 2.92 ERA and 3.92 FIP. Most of Moreta’s struggles can be traced back to his sinker, but he displayed an outstanding fastball/slider/change-up combo. He needs to either drop his sinker completely or at least significantly reduce its usage, but there’s a lot to like about Moreta.

The Pirates had zero left-handers on the roster after trimming down the 40-man but then added one in Jarlin Garcia. Garcia has been a solid left-handed reliever for the past handful of seasons for the Miami Marlins and San Francisco Giants. Last year, he posted a solid 3.74 ERA, 4.27 FIP, and 1.20 WHIP in 65 innings. This marks the fourth year in a row he’s had an above-average ERA. His 20.7% K-rate isn’t great, but it’s still about 1% better than his career average. His 6.7% walk rate however ties his single-season best. The downside is that he had a 1.38 HR/9. Garcia had a mediocre second half, so he’ll look to regain form next season. 

During the Rule 5 draft, the Pirates selected Jose Hernandez from the Los Angeles Dodgers, giving the team a second left-handed pitching option out of the bullpen. Ranked as the Dodgers’ 45th-best prospect, Hernandez is coming off a season in which he had a 3.32 ERA, 4.50 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP across 59.2 innings at High-A and Double-A. Hernandez struck out 27.8% of batters faced with a so-so 10.1% walk rate and 1.21 HR/9. Hernandez throws hard, averaging out in the mid-90s and hitting triple digits. His slider is also considered a plus pitch, and his change-up has shown decent potential. 

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