Pirates' Early Season Fate Hinges on These 3 Players

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Meaningful baseball is back!  That's right, Spring Training is officially over and Opening Day has finally arrived.  After all of the talk about the new rules and seeing the players adapt to them all preseason, we can now see them in regular season games.  

The Pittsburgh Pirates open on the road Thursday against the Cincinnati Reds at 4:10 PM.  After a disappointing 2022 season, fans are looking for the Pirates to make strides this year to being relevant once again. We are especially looking for these strides from a few players that I feel are catalysts to this team's success.

The beginning of the baseball season is always an exciting time of the year.  Not only does it signal that warm weather is on the horizon, but it's also great to see the sport I loved to play growing up on my TV yet again.  The best part, however, is that the Pirates "technically" still have a good chance to be good.  It's nice to feel that, even if history says it is typically fleeting.

The big headline of the offseason, along with the rule changes I mentioned, was the return of fan-favorite Andrew McCutchen.  Nearing the end of his career, it was a move that made sense for him and the team.  Upon agreeing to return, both sides agreed that he would see the majority of his playing time as a Designated Hitter.  

However, after a poor showing by a good portion of the Pirates' outfield in Spring Training, we could see that role elevated to more time in the outfield.  While it's a fun storyline, and will draw some fans back to the ballfield, I don't anticipate Cutch playing a major factor in this team's success or demise.  Rather, I'm looking at three other players that this team's fate hinges on.

The first guy is third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes.  With everything else going on with the league and this team in the offseason, I feel like Hayes has hardly been talked about.  And there might be a reason for that.  After signing him to an 8 year, $70 million contract prior to the season, Hayes was easily the team's biggest disappointment in 2022.  In his second full season as a Pirate, he hit .244 with 7 HR and 41 RBI.  Those are stats you'd expect to see from someone who missed most of the season, not a guy with 560 plate appearances.  While he did play very well defensively and was in the running for the Gold Glove at third base, that's not why the Pirates signed him to such a big deal.  Rather, this team needs him to hit.  

The Pirates aren't known for investing long-term in young talent, so when they do, they need them to provide offense, and that just wasn't the case last year.  By the end of the season, Hayes was hitting towards the bottom of the lineup.  Lucky for him, after such a poor season, there seemingly is nowhere for him to go but up.  And he's off to a good start as he's shown flashes of the Ke'Bryan Hayes this team expected in Spring Training.  

He hit .341 and led the team with 4 home runs.  While Spring Training is by no means indicative of a having a good regular season (how could I forget Kevin Newman last year), it's certainly a good sign and a step in the right direction.  The Pirates need his production in their lineup and for him to be one of the best players on this team.

The next guy is starting pitcher Mitch Keller.  It feels like we've been hearing about Keller's potential for years now.  After all of this hype, we finally get to see Keller start on Opening Day as he'll take the mound tomorrow afternoon.  You could argue this is a combination of his success last season with a bit of lack of other options, but nonetheless, the time has finally come for Mitch. 

Last season, he finished with a 3.91 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and 138 strikeouts in 159 innings.  (For the people that still like to see a pitcher's record, he was 5-12, but I don't feel like this is a good stat to truly measure a pitcher's effectiveness.)  The numbers might not jump off of the page but it was certainly overall improvement for Keller.

However, the major gripe about Keller is his inconsistency.  There was a period of time last year when Keller looked like one of the best pitchers in the MLB.  However, outside of that stretch, there were many times when it felt like Keller would never make it to the 5th inning ever again.  It's those ups and downs that can't happen when you're being viewed as a team's ace.  With that title, he needs to become the guy that can be relied on every 5th game.  Keller must be someone who can make it deep into games and give this team a chance win every time he takes the mound.  I'm not asking him to be great.  Just good will suffice.  But what the Pirates need most out of him this season to have some success is consistency and reliability.

Lastly, I wanted to discuss offseason signing Carlos Santana.  If you pay attention to the MLB, this is a name you've seen in the big leagues for many years now.  This will be his 14th season in the MLB and I think he can be a key contributor to the Pirates and any early success they may have.  He's expected to platoon between first base and Designated Hitter and if the final Spring Training lineup is any indication, he will most likely be the Pirates' cleanup hitter to start the season.  That's very crucial for a team that hasn't had a true cleanup hitter in I don't even know how long.

Santana is known for his plate discipline.  For the majority of his career, he's been atop the player standings in walk rate.  That's huge for a Pirates' team that needs steadiness from their top hitters.  Also, Santana was statistically the most-shifted-on player last season.  Now the shift is being banned for the first time.  That could lead to a huge uptick in hits for a guy that has seen his average dip with the more prevalent the shift became.  Add in the fact that his veteran leadership and hitting approach could be helpful for a young Pirates roster and I think Santana could be very impactful for this team in all facets.

Now, clearly a baseball team is more than just three players.  Obviously, I could have talked about Oneil Cruz but I think we all know what he is capable of and how important he is to this team.  However, I think these three guys will play a major factor in the Pirates' early successes/woes.  I wouldn't be surprised one bit to see a hot start by these three players lead to a hot start for the team.

This goes visa versa, as well.  I'm excited to see what the team, as a whole, looks like because this is an important season for this team's growth.  Their young guys need to take steps forward for this team to have future success.  We'll see how it all plays out but for now, I'm just happy to see the Pirates back in action once again.