Takeaways from the Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Series in St. Louis

Photo credit: AP

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The Pittsburgh Pirates officially completed their first series of the 2022 season yesterday afternoon with a win against the St. Louis Cardinals.  While there was supposed to be a fourth game of the series that may have led to a series tie, it was postponed due to rain.  Therefore, the Pirates officially lost their first series of the 2022 season 2-1.  However, there were several positives that came out of the series loss, along with some negatives.

Let’s start with the positives.

Several Young Stars

There was a lot of hype around several young Pirate hitters, but due to small sample sizes, it wasn’t known if these players were good or not.  The two in particular coming out of Spring Training were third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and infielder Diego Castillo. 

The hype was bolstered by Hayes signing an 8-year, $70 million contract which was announced pretty close to the first pitch of the season on Thursday.  Once officially signed on Tuesday it will become the largest contract in Pittsburgh Pirates franchise history.  It was an awesome start to the season.

However, Hayes then experienced a left forearm cramp and was pulled from the game.  It was a downer after the excitement of the contract announcement, but Hayes quickly brought that excitement back with his play Saturday and Sunday.  On Saturday, Hayes went 2 for 4 with a double and a run scored.  Then on Sunday, he had another two-hit game, an RBI, and another run scored. 

Also, on both days he made plays at third base that at least half the league’s third basemen could not make.  And he made these plays look as if they were routine.  It was even further emphasized when Cardinal third basemen, Nolan Arenado, misplayed a few grounders yesterday.  Arenado is known for his glove and Hayes is quickly passing him by at a young age.  If healthy, it’s clear Hayes will easily win multiple Gold Glove Awards in his career.  He is an emerging superstar.

After earning a spot on the roster out of Spring Training, Diego Castillo came in for Hayes when he was pulled with the cramp on Thursday.  He didn’t record any hits in 3 at-bats on Thursday, but he did get a pinch hit double on Saturday, the first hit of his career.  Then Castillo finally was given a start at second base on Sunday afternoon.  He made the most of it, going 3 for 5 with two runs scored.  It was a start deserving of many more to come this season.

Hayes and Castillo are emerging stars, and Pirate fans should be excited about both of them in the Pirates lineup.

Starters Performing Well in the ‘Pen

Wil Crowe and Miguel Yajure were designated to start the season out in the bullpen.  Crowe started 25 games for the Pirates last season and was largely unsuccessful.  He had a 5.48 ERA and a staggering 1.57 WHIP.  Yajure started three games last season and had an 8.47 ERA, and was not much better in his one game out of the bullpen.

However, Crowe may have found his niche in the bullpen.  In the opener on Thursday, he pitched two scoreless innings against a Cardinals lineup that appeared to be firing on all cylinders.  He then followed that outing up with two perfect innings in relief to help secure the Pirates first win yesterday.  Crowe looks remarkably better out of the pen than he did as a starter.

While I think Crowe belongs in a bullpen role full-time, I hope to see Yajure still earn a spot in the rotation.  His sample size overall is much smaller than Crowe’s.  Yajure also had a 2-inning, shutout outing Sunday afternoon, with a walk being the only blemish on the day.  He also received the win for his efforts.

If both Crowe and Yajure can continue to be productive out of the bullpen, it will greatly exceed the very low expectations for this Pirate bullpen coming into the season.

Tucker May Just Never Find It

Now to the negatives.  I know it is only two games, but Cole Tucker’s two games so far are really just a microcosm of how his major league career has went.  Tucker finished the series 0 for 7 with two strikeouts.  He also struggled some in the field. 

I am not going to harp on the first two games because that is such a miniscule sample size.  However, the once young and inexperienced Cole Tucker now has 413 career plate appearances, and his numbers continue to get worse.  Aside from a great end to last season, we haven’t really seen Tucker perform well at all.  His career OPS is a staggeringly low .591 and he strikes out entirely too much.  This is especially concerning with the low amount of times he walks, further displaying his poor approaches at the plate. 

While two games is not enough to condemn a player to the minor leagues, it won’t take long this season for the Pirates to move on from Cole Tucker.

Mitch Keller Still Isn’t An Ace

While Keller did somewhat limit the damage during his start Saturday, he still gave up four earned runs in just four innings pitched.  These runs came on six hits and two walks.

Keller’s fastball was faster, and he didn’t totally crumble under the pressure with men on base, but he still didn’t turn in a start that set the Pirates up for a win.  

And that’s what aces need to do.  Aces are supposed to give the team their best opportunity in a 5-game span to win a ballgame.  That’s not going down 4-2 by the 4th inning. 

So while this certainly was not Keller’s worst start of his career, and he did show improvement in several pitches, he still does not have that ace-type talent the Pirates will need out of him to see any sort of sustained success this season.

Derek Shelton Constructs Bad Lineups

I'm not entirely sure what Pirates manager Derek Shelton is thinking when he's putting the lineups together.  On Thursday he had shortstop Kevin Newman in the 5th spot and then had second baseman Josh VanMeter in the 5th spot on Saturday.  Neither should ever be in "the meat" of a Major League Baseball lineup. 

He also had Daniel Vogelbach in the leadoff spot two out of three games.  While Vogelbach does see a lot of pitches, and did get an infield single this weekend, he jams up the base paths too much to be a leadoff hitter.  I am a huge Vogelbach fan, but I'd like to see him batting 4th or 5th instead of 1st.

Also, after winning the ballgame yesterday 9-4, with Diego Castillo in the 5th spot and Ke'Bryan Hayes leading off, each collecting 2+ hits, the lineup that was supposed to play today was completely different.  Ben Gamel was leading off instead of Hayes, and Castillo was out of the lineup with Tucker starting again.  Also VanMeter was again batting 5th.  

Had this game played, that would mean Tucker had started 3 of 4 games while Castillo only 1 of 4.  Plus, why not keep Hayes in the leadoff spot after it worked so well yesterday?  Or reward Castillo's 3-hit effort with another start?

I'm confused by how Shelton is constructing these lineups and he needs to be held more responsible for losses if he is going to continue to handle his lineup cards this way.