Suwinski a frontrunner for starting OF spot

March 20th, 2023

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Manager Derek Shelton didn’t outright say on Monday that will be one of the Pirates’ three starting outfielders. Read between the lines, however, and Shelton’s stance on Suwinski is clear.

"Jack's in a good spot,” Shelton said prior to the Pirates’ 7-5 win over the Red Sox. “I think the big thing is … there's a lot of competition. There's also a lot going on [with] what you did previously. I think we all know Spring Training stats can be inflated very quickly, especially playing the back half of games when it's guys that are going to be in the Minor Leagues. So, we have to be aware of what has been done and what he's done. The fact that Jack came to the big leagues last year, hit 19 homers, got better defensively [matters].”

Translation: Suwinski played well enough last season that he's still a frontrunner for a starting outfield spot.

Among the young primary outfielders on the Pirates’ 40-man roster -- Suwinski, , , and -- Suwinski is the only one who has consistently produced at the Major League level. In 106 games last season, Suwinski finished with a 100 wRC+ and was worth 1.8 fWAR. By comparison, the rest of the pack lags behind. Mitchell played 69 games and hit five home runs in 2022, but he ended the year with a 79 wRC+ and -0.6 fWAR and was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis on Sunday. As for Swaggerty, Smith-Njigba and Vilade, they have played 11 combined Major League games.

Shelton has repeatedly emphasized the element of competition during Spring Training, and purely in terms of production, Suwinski (.785 OPS) falls behind Swaggerty (1.109 OPS) and Smith-Njigba (.939 OPS). As Shelton mentioned, however, Suwinski is on track to be an Opening Day starter because of his résumé. He might not end the spring with better numbers than Swaggerty or Smith-Njigba, but Suwinski’s performance last season affords him a cushion.

“You want to stay in the present and stay clear-minded,” Suwinski said. “That way, you’re going to be loose and your unconscious ability is going to come out.”

Suwinski’s numbers this spring -- .226/.333/.452 slash line, one home run, two steals in 14 games -- are solid enough, but the outfielder’s 18 strikeouts across 39 plate appearances (46.2% K rate) are cause for some concern. Some of those struggles might be attributed to Suwinski’s altered batting stance; compared to last season, he is noticeably more upright and slightly more open. Suwinski described the new stance as a “work-in-progress,” but he remains positive about the change overall.

“There’s still some [parts] of it that we’re working with setup and approach-wise, but that’s going to be a something every day kind of thing,” Suwinski said. “But, for the most part, it feels good and feels like it’s getting better.”

"I think it's been a little fluid throughout Spring Training,” Shelton added. “He came in a little more upright, a little more closed off, and now I think he's started to open up a little bit more and get closer to where he wanted to be. The one thing that's interesting and challenging as a hitting coach at the start of Spring Training is guys work all winter on certain things, and you have to give them time for you to be able to see what they're doing and time for them to feel it in game competition.”

While Suwinski projects to receive a healthy amount of consistent playing time, , a fellow incumbent, doesn’t quite enjoy that same advantage.

Castro entered Spring Training as the favorite to assume a role in Pittsburgh’s Opening Day lineup. In 2022, Castro hit 11 home runs in 71 games with a 103 wRC+. Like Suwinski, Castro owns a much stronger résumé compared to Ji Hwan Bae, Tucupita Marcano and the recently acquired Mark Mathias, all of whom are in the second-base competition as well. While Suwinski will have a clearer role heading into the season, Castro could be one of several second basemen instead of a definitive starter.

"I think it definitely could be a rotation, and I think you could see us have a rotation at a couple spots because we're built a little bit differently than we have been in the past, in terms of what we've added and how we function left to right now,” Shelton said. “We have some ability to play some matchups. But it doesn't necessarily have to be one person. It could be, but it doesn't necessarily have to be one person."