At Spring Training's midway point, here are three Pirates observations

March 27th, 2022

SARASOTA, Fla. -- At the halfway mark, the Pirates' time in Florida has been a source of mild — and, in some cases, not so mild — optimism.

There’s been blazing velocity. There’s been light-tower power. They’ve even had a walk-off home run. Here are three observations at the halfway mark of Spring Training:

1. Mitch Keller looking better than advertised

When 's bullpen session at Tread Athletics went viral, the hype machine was turned all the way up. The big question was whether the velocity, the stuff, would translate against actual in-game competition. So far, the answer is yes.

Keller’s Spring Training sample size has been small — he hasn't allowed a run in 4 2/3 innings — but the excitement stems from how his stuff has played, not just the results.

In two games, Keller's fastball has an average velocity of 97.3 mph. By comparison, Keller’s average fastball velocity last season was 93.8 mph, the slowest of his young career. When Keller's heater touches the mid-to-high 90s, if not triple digits, his secondary pitches, which now includes a slurve, plays much better. As Keller said after his start against the Phillies, “when I throw hard, it’s harder to hit.” While it’s early, Keller’s dominance in Spring Training could serve as the foundation of a breakout season.

“Really, really happy with where he was at, because he worked really hard in the offseason,” said manager Derek Shelton. “I think he was probably our most visible guy on Instagram. To be able to see it and see it translate in, because they ran the top end of their lineup out, it was some pretty good pitches, and he executed pitches pretty well."

2. Oneil Cruz’s eye-popping power? That’s the norm, not the outlier

Barely two hours into his Major League career,  hit a single with an exit velocity of 118.2 mph. It was the hardest-hit ball any Pirate has struck since Statcast began tracking in 2015. There’s no faking that strength. If anyone, for some reason, thought it was an aberration, the Pirates' No. 3 prospect has continued to generate jaw-dropping exhibitions of power.

In his first game of the spring, Cruz golfed an ankle-high breaking ball beyond the right-field wall. In his second game, Cruz obliterated a no-doubter into the Port Charlotte afternoon that banged off a building beyond the boardwalk. There was no exit velocity for the latter blast, but given the majestic trajectory, no advanced numbers were truly necessary.

Along with the homers, Cruz has twice generated exit velocities of 113.4 mph. It’s safe to assume that Cruz is one of a handful of humans capable of hitting a home run on a ball destined for the dirt, then blasting another to the moon. When Cruz makes his debut this season, expect these outliers to become the norm.

"I think that anytime guys hit the ball that hard, it always stands out,” Shelton said. “He's continued to take good swings and have consistent at-bats. When he hits the ball, he hits the ball hard."

3. A rotating rotation

With Cruz likely destined for Triple-A Indianapolis, the biggest question that remains for the Pirates is how the starting rotation looks and operates. Keller and are just about locks with not being too far behind. From there? The Pirates have a lot of options, but not a lot of clarity.

Among those who could potentially be in the rotation come Opening Day are Wil Crowe, Zach Thompson (who pitched three innings in Saturday's 14-5 loss to the Orioles), Dillon Peters and Bryse Wilson. Miguel Yajure and Max Kranick, who have yet to pitch this spring, are also possibilities once they’re ramped up. Expect the rotation, especially early, to be a work in progress.

“I think our rotation will always be fluid,” said manager Derek Shelton. “It’s one of those things, with the short ramp up, with the fact that we have a lot of guys who could pencil in and potentially start or cover innings and not even look at them as starters but just people who cover innings or pitch different parts of the game.”