Joe, Priester making early statements in Pirates' camp

February 28th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It may have been wind-aided and had just a .030 expected batting average, but got that first Spring Training home run out of the way Wednesday in the Pirates’ 5-3 loss to the Tigers at LECOM Park.

It was a quality swing from a hitter whose acquisition was a bit under the radar last year, but wound up being one of the more impactful bats in the lineup. Joe’s 31 doubles was tied for the team lead, while his .760 OPS lengthened the team’s lineup.

It’s why Joe went into the offseason with something he isn’t exactly accustomed to: peace of mind knowing where he was going to be next year.

“It was really nice to get the business side of things handled early, settled,” Joe said. “It was cool. It was the first time in my career that I've been in that situation. Obviously coming into camp, you still come in with the same mentality of you're competing. Whether it's for a job you're competing for, at-bats, an opportunity. So nothing really changes in that sense.”

Joe downplayed that sense of security a bit, focusing instead on his drive to earn playing time with this Pirates team. But Derek Shelton has seen what that sense of comfort that having a roster spot brings, and thinks it will be beneficial to him.

“Last year he came into the organization, (hitting coach) Andy [Haines] went out to San Diego, and they made a swing change,” Shelton said. “This year, to be able to build off of what he had done, but to kind of be secure. He’s a guy who has grinded his whole career. He was originally drafted here and has been different places, but I think the fact that you know where you’re going to be, you know what your role’s gonna be, it gives you a little more comfort in terms of your day-to-day.”

Joe excelled against left-handers last year, posting an .820 OPS against them, but he is aiming to be more than just a platoon in 2024. The right field spot is very much up for grabs this camp, and he could claim either the starting job or a good chunk of that playing time.

He’s looking beyond just those platoon numbers, and while he recognizes Shelton’s selective usage of him last year helped his stats, he thinks he can turn some of those doubles he hit last year into more home runs.

“I want to be in there every day,” Joe said. “I want to play every day. In my mind, I think every pitch is a good matchup, but obviously numbers don't lie."

Priester's tweaked slider
looked sharp in his first Grapefruit League action of the year Wednesday, tossing two perfect frames, striking out one.

The most interesting development is Priester’s slider velocity was noticeably up, averaging 88.7 mph compared to 85.3 mph last year.

"When I turned around and saw 88, that's exactly what we want, man,” Priester said. “That's it. The swings were telling me it was good too. So I was just really pleased with that pitch for sure."

Priester’s slider has always had a little cutter in it, and while he acknowledged it is moving a little closer to a cutter now, he still considers it a slider. It got eight fewer inches of vertical break for that extra velocity, but the early returns were encouraging, getting four whiffs on six swings. That’s partly because it plays well off his sinker.

“I felt today getting those 'is it a sinker' kind of swings, we're willing to sacrifice that depth for velo,” Priester said.

The kids are all right
Perhaps the most encouraging part of this first week of games is how the prospects have performed. Jared Jones lit up radar guns again Wednesday, topping out at 99.6 mph, over his 1 2/3 scoreless innings. Termarr Johnson roped another double following his two-homer game on Monday.

Those good vibes could keep going when Paul Skenes takes to the mound Thursday to take on the Orioles and the 2022 No. 1 overall pick, Jackson Holliday.

“It’s fun,” Shelton said. “We’ve talked about over the last four years building our system. We’re talking about three guys we drafted fairly high. So it’s good to see those guys. You had Henry [Davis] on the field yesterday. I think we’re starting to see the depth of our system, which is really important. These guys are getting close to Pittsburgh.”