January 29, 2023

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Pirates will try to balance veterans, youngsters in lineup

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PITTSBURGH — The Pirates’ starting lineup in Friday night’s 8-6 loss to the D-backs at PNC Park featured four consecutive young players: Rodolfo Castro, Jack Suwinski, Diego Castillo and Tucupita Marcano. Yerry De Los Santos pitched in relief. Cal Mitchell came in as a pinch-hitter. That’s essentially five rookies (Castro does not have rookie status). The youngsters are enjoying the party that is life in the Major Leagues. But is this party meant to last?

The Pirates have a laundry list of players on the injured list. Ben Gamel. Greg Allen. Kevin Newman. Jake Marisnick. Yoshi Tsutsugo. Josh VanMeter. Heath Hembree. They won’t all come back at the same time. There could be unforeseen circumstances, yes, but, on paper, the Pirates will need to eventually clear space for those veterans. For now, general manager Ben Cherington is kicking those cans down the road as long as possible.

“Wait until the last possible minute because things change all the time, until someone’s actually ready to come back and be activated,” Cherington said Friday. “My experience is you spend too much time worrying about what’s going to happen 10 days from now, and something else is going to happen anyway, so let’s not worry about it.”

In due time, the Pirates will have to figure out the logistics. Gamel, Newman and Tsutsugo have been starters. Allen likely would’ve been a starter had he not been injured right before the season. Most of the youth will be demoted, in all likelihood, to make room for the aforementioned injured bunch.

At the same time, the Pirates still want to give prospects opportunities — once they deem the timing to be right. Even with the sheer quantity of players who have been called up and who have made their debuts, there will likely be even more in the next couple months.

“We want to promote young players. I think we have and will continue to do so. There won’t be any stopping that in the future,” Cherington said. “But, in the moment, we’ve got to do it on a case-by-case basis and look at all the factors we’ve talked about before. Where’s the player right now in his performance and skill development and the off-field stuff? What’s the opportunity? Is there an opportunity to actually play a lot if he comes up here? What’s the impact on the 40-man roster?

“All that stuff has to be weighed, and we try to make the best decisions we can. Generally, we want to see young players get opportunity and expect that that will continue to happen.”

One of those players, of course, is Oneil Cruz, who continues to heat up following an underwhelming first several weeks. Cruz, the No. 22 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline, finished May on a seven-game hitting streak, batting 11-for-31 (.355) with four home runs. The mild right ankle sprain that hindered Cruz last week does not project to be an issue. As has been the case with Cruz all season, it’s a matter of when, not if.

“We know we can hit the ball hard, but the consistency of the hard contact has been improved,” Cherington said. “Earlier in the year, we were seeing the max exit velocity but not consistent hard contact. He’s showing more of that consistently lately along with good walk rate, and the strikeouts are coming down. That’s all trending in a positive direction and he’s in a good spot offensively.”

There’s also the matter of Mason Martin, who cooled down in May following his red-hot stretch. The Pirates briefly had an opening at first base when Tsutsugo hit the injured list and Michael Chavis was banged up, but the team opted to keep Martin in the minors.

Some viewed the acquisition of Yu Chang from the Guardians as the first base fill-in, blocking Martin from being called up, but Cherington noted Chang’s ability to play first base was an “ancillary factor” and that the team has liked him in the past. Martin isn’t the same lock to make the Majors as Cruz, but Martin’s time could potentially come this season as well.

“He’s working his tail off on every element of the game, and it’s just fine-tuning and getting into a little bit more progress on recognition and contact on certain pitches,” Cherington said. “He’s got huge power, we’ve known that. He’s a dangerous hitter, and we believe Mason could be a really good Major League player. He has that capability and just feels like for right now, the things he’s working on that he’s in a good spot, and we’ll see where that goes.”

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