Hope Springs Eternal

There is a magical time every year after the Super Bowl ends while we wait to see what the Steelers will do as free agency and the draft loom. Likewise, this coincides with the long slog of the NHL and NBA seasons as teams (hopefully including the world-weary Pens and my Indiana Pacers) prepare for the second season, that is, the playoffs. As we watch for our neighbors in Oakland to try to make some noise in the NCAA tournament, we turn our longing eyes down south, to warmer climes, to the eternal promise of the spring, to the crack of the bat and the sound of horsehide walloping perfectly into the steer hide of a glove. That is right — it is spring training.

This intrepid reporter made his first sojourn to the Grapefruit League in Florida, after two previous trips to Arizona’s Cactus League in years past. There is nothing quite like spring training, where baseball seems closest to its essence: small crowds in folksy ballfields, local residents greeting you as you enter, and countless stories of young kids hoping to catch on to the big league club while older battle-scarred veterans do whatever they can for one more shot, thankful to still be playing a kids game.

I spent several days following the Pirates and came away with some strong impressions as the team tries to build upon its youthful foundation and woeful record on the heels of two 100+-loss seasons. I was fortunate to spend some time at Pirate City, the minor league baseball academy. The team operates out of a former Holiday Inn resort that has a distinctly collegiate atmosphere, only this institution of higher learning evaluates more than just balls and strikes. I was hosted by Kinza Baad, one of the Bucs’ eight pro scouts, and currently the only woman in that position in all of baseball. Kinza showed me some of the cutting-edge technology the team is employing beyond spin rates and launch angles. Kinesiology experts and programmers from Amsterdam use special Oculus goggles that track eye movement as batters track the ball in an attempt to train the eyes to recognize different pitches. Everywhere I looked, I saw evidence of the new baseball paradigm that provides a more holistic approach to baseball development, from counseling and language lessons to baseball history classes and media coaching. The team seems to really care about training these young players to thrive on and off the diamond. And the results are starting to show.

Over at LECOM Park, the big league Bucs have some fierce battles for roster spots as the minor league cavalry of prospects reaches the majors and pushes the vets for playing time. I will concentrate on a few of the players’ stories and who impressed me and who failed to do so.

The team is turning a corner, and hopefully, a .500 season is in sight, setting up potential playoff runs in 2024 and beyond. This team is being constructed from the bottom up, and it is exciting to see those foundational pieces reaching the top levels. PNC Park may soon field a team worthy of its beautiful vistas and sightlines and bring the glory days back to the North Shore.

Spring training baseball results are secondary to player development. That should be a hint that the Pirates went 1-3 in games I saw, where they were matched up against the Yankees, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Tigers. But on to the players, because that is what I went to see.

Part of the reason I traveled to Florida to watch spring training games was to see certain pitchers, namely Luis Ortiz, Colin Holderman, Mike Burrows, Osvaldo Bido, and Carmen Mlodzinski. Luis Ortiz is the #1 pitching prospect in the Pirates organization and was very disappointing during his start against the Yankees. In this game, Ortiz pitched a scoreless first inning but ran into a lot of trouble in the second inning, where he recorded zero outs. His final line was one inning pitched, seven hits, one walk, one strikeout, and five earned runs — abominable. This was a small sample size, but this may be telling that he needs to develop a third pitch. Then again, spring training comes with a lot of caveats.

The approach, intent, and intelligence Holderman and Burrows bring to pitching are impressive. They harbor expectations for 2023 — Holderman as a potential breakout candidate in the bullpen and Burrows likely the first of several young talented pitchers expected to make their MLB debuts this season. More than anything, Holderman and Burrows could be linked by what they did this offseason, each diversifying his pitch mix by incorporating sliders. These were not offerings just for show but legitimate major league pitches. While both of these guys struggled when I saw them, I am confident they will be pieces of our future.

Osvaldo Bido surprised me. He does not look pretty; Bido’s delivery is a bit janky. He's what I would look like if I were six inches taller, visibly clumsy, and attempting to throw lefty. With all that said, if he can pitch, he can pitch. Bido set down the Tigers in his lone inning of work in 1-2-3 order — well done. Mlodzinski was selected by the Pirates in the five-round 2020 COVID draft and has been one of the more welcome surprises in major league camp this year. He has yet to surrender a run in five appearances and has posted a 0.83 Walks and Hits Per Inning Pitched, or WHIP. He looked excellent against the Blue Jays. While it is clear that the sample sizes are small, it shows how strong Mlodzinski’s pitch metrics are. Stuff+ is another way to break down a pitcher’s game and try to quantify just how good they are throwing. Like other "+" metrics, "100" is considered league-average, so overall, Mlodzinski is grading out 38 percent better than league average among all pitchers who have thrown at least ten pitches — impressive.

Transitioning to the position players, Drew Maggi was drafted by the Pirates in the 15th round in 2010, and he remained in the organization until he was released in March 2015, rising as high as Double-A Altoona. The truly incredible angle here is not necessarily where Maggi has played. It is more where he hasn’t — in the big leagues. He was there once, promoted from the Minnesota Twins’ taxi squad onto their active roster on Sept. 18, 2021, but Maggi never played in a game. He was returned to Triple-A St. Paul two days later after sitting on the bench for two losses. With 1,045 minor league games and 4,075 plate appearances under his belt, Maggi refuses to let his dream die. He does not have a wife or kids and is not ready to think about either one. His greatest joy remains coming to the ballpark every day, working on getting better, and doing whatever is necessary to help his teammates and hopefully win a game that day. He is a guy that would run through a wall for a team. Maggi has had a great spring. I hope Maggi can make it to the MLB level. Someone could use his service.

For second-basemen prospect Nick Gonzales, a 2020 first-round pick, we have almost reached the now-or-never point. He is getting up there in age (25 years old) and is not in the majors yet. But boy, does he look good or what?! Gonzales made a few nice plays at the 4th spot and swung the bat like a sixth-overall pick would. There was a certain aggressiveness in his approach that was great to see. He was not reaching base via bloop hits and dinks (like Ji-hwan Bae only seems capable of doing); these were hard-hit balls. I am thrilled to see improvement from Gonzales. There is now a real logjam in the infield; we now have loads of talent.

Okay, do not laugh. I have a top-five list (it changes every year) of my favorite players currently on the Pirates: Andrew McCutchen, Endy Rodriguez, Mitch Keller, Rodolfo Castro, and Cal Mitchell. Cal Mitchell seems like a weird choice for a guy who might not make the roster, but I love watching the guy play baseball. Although he is limited to the corner outfield spots because of his lackluster abilities with the glove, he really impressed me last week. Mitchell sees the ball out of the hand so well. He has a great stroke. He truly personified the age-old saying of see ball, hit ball. It is a real battle for the fourth outfield spot between Mitchell, Travis Swaggerty, and Canaan Smith-Njigba (he looked very good, too).

I know I sometimes geek out over analytics, but sometimes you have to stop reading Baseball America and close the Safari tab of Baseball Savant. Jack Suwinski is a ballplayer. I expect big things out of the second-year outfielder. He is who I look to surprise everyone and make the biggest jump.

While there were other players I was hoping to see, namely Matt Gorski, I saw quite a few players in just four days.

It is a great time to be a Pirates fan. We have a talented roster, one that could win nearly 80 games, which would be an big jump. I know the Pirates have been a dumpster fire in the eyes of many fans since our dearly beloved Andrew McCutchen was sent to San Francisco, but the light is at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the days of getting tickets for the price of a Carnegie Mellon meal block are over. It looks like McCutchen’s return to Pittsburgh and the team’s inevitable success will make it harder to find those bargain deals. But hey, I am willing to cough up more money if it means raising the jolly roger more often. It will not be long before the Pirates are once again a competitive force in the league. So, Pirates fans, get ready to see some exciting baseball and to cheer on a team that is more committed than ever to winning both on and off the field.