Pirates' early injuries 'an opportunity for guys to step up'

April 12th, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- In many ways, it has been a very encouraging beginning to the 2023 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, with an unexpected hot start fueled by positive contributions from the team’s young players.

However, when you turn the corner from the PNC Park clubhouse to the training room, that’s where a couple of the team’s expected major contributors currently reside.

Right-handed starter underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Wednesday and will miss the 2023 season. Fellow right-hander Mike Burrows, the Pirates' No. 9 prospect who was expected to be one of the team’s top depth options in the starting rotation, is also out with a right forearm/elbow injury and is seeking a second opinion.

Then the biggest blow came on Sunday, when budding star shortstop suffered a fractured left ankle during an awkward slide into home plate.

The Pirates sincerely hope that the run of major injuries won’t impact their ability to capitalize on the hot start to the season. Whether that works will largely come down to the way their replacements are able to play.

To replace Cruz at shortstop, slid over from second base to play the first two games at short after Cruz’s injury. Ji Hwan Bae got the start at shortstop for Wednesday’s finale against the Astros. Castro had just 19 games of MLB experience at the premium defensive infield position coming into 2023. Bae had none.

“It’s an opportunity for guys to step up,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “Both Castro and Ji Hwan Bae played a big role in [Tuesday] night’s game. There will be other opportunities for other guys.”

Those other guys could eventually include at Triple-A Indianapolis and No. 6 prospect Liover Peguero, who started the season at Double-A Altoona. But at least for now, it doesn’t seem likely that there will be help coming from outside the team.

“We focus first internally,” Cherington said. “You never close your eyes to guys who are not already in the organization, but this time of year, I think most teams are focused on what they already have internally. I’d say that’s where we are right now.”

The same is true in the rotation, where has replaced Brubaker and is 1-0 with a 3.18 ERA through two starts. The Major League rotation seems stabilized for now, but the team’s depth has certainly taken a hit for when the next injury inevitably crops up.

“Coming into Spring Training, we anticipated Bru being in the rotation and Burrows being part of that first line of defense, likely in Indy,” Cherington said.

Luis Ortiz, Pittsburgh’s No. 8 prospect, remains the franchise’s top depth option in Indianapolis. The hope is that the opportunity will allow another player to make a jump like Ortiz did in 2022, when he went from having never pitched above Single-A to the Majors.

“Last April, I certainly wasn’t anticipating Luis Ortiz making starts in the big leagues for us and he eventually did,” Cherington said. “That means there can be another guy that we’re not thinking about totally right now that has a chance to emerge. There really is that opportunity.”

If that can happen, and the Pirates on the roster can hold down the fort at the Major League level, the team just might be able to keep its early injury issues from wrecking a promising 2023.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that I’m willing to take,” Castro said through an interpreter. “I’ve been working hard to get better. I’m going to be ready for whatever the organization needs.”