Projecting the Bucs' 2023 Opening Day roster

March 18th, 2023

BRADENTON, Fla. -- There’s a Danish proverb that goes something along the lines of, “Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.” The originator of said proverb likely didn’t have Spring Training roster predictions on their mind, but the sentiment certainly applies here.

Predictions are merely educated guesses, placeholders until reality unfolds. Today’s predictions are often tomorrow’s freezing cold takes. Yet, we predict on.

A lot can happen over the next two weeks, but the Pirates’ Opening Day roster is coming into focus. With nine games remaining, here’s the latest 2023 Opening Day roster prediction for the Bucs.

Catcher (2): Austin Hedges, Tyler Heineman
With the Pirates optioning Endy Rodriguez to Triple-A Indianapolis, the backup catcher competition will officially come down to Tyler Heineman, Kevin Plawecki and Jason Delay. Plawecki has the best bat of the three, but Heineman gets the nod because of his defensive prowess and existing relationship with the pitching staff.

First base/designated hitter (2): Ji-Man Choi, Carlos Santana
The Pirates cycled through first basemen last season, but between Choi, Santana and Connor Joe, the Pirates should have some stability at the position. Santana left Thursday’s game against the Yankees with left knee discomfort, but he went through a full workout the next day and should be fine.

Second base (1): Rodolfo Castro
No one in the second-base competition has separated themselves from the pack performance-wise. As of Saturday, Castro has a .527 OPS, Ji Hwan Bae has a .526 OPS and Tucupita Marcano has a .538 OPS. Manager Derek Shelton said that recently acquired infielder Mark Mathias will be in the competition as well. Still, Castro remains the Pirates’ starting second baseman in this latest roster projection.

Shortstop (1): Oneil Cruz
Cruz is the Pirates’ starting shortstop of the present and future. He exhibited his raw potential in 2022, and this season, he has his eyes set on joining an exclusive club.

Third base (1): Ke’Bryan Hayes
Hayes dealt with left thumb soreness that kept him out of a few games, but the 26-year-old, barring the unforeseen, will be ready for Opening Day. Hayes is posting a 1.035 OPS across 22 plate appearances as of Saturday with a ridiculous average exit velocity of 95.2 mph. Hayes won’t sustain that average exit velocity -- Aaron Judge led the league last year at 95.9 mph -- but his ability to consistently make hard contact has been very encouraging nonetheless.

Outfield (3): Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen, Jack Suwinski
The Pirates have primarily played Reynolds in left field and Suwinski in center field, but this does not mean a full-time position change is in store for either player. Shelton said the organization still views Reynolds as a center fielder, adding that Suwinski has been spending time at center field so he can get further acclimated with the position. As far as the fourth outfield spot, see below.

Bench/utility (3): Ji Hwan Bae, Connor Joe, Travis Swaggerty
The competition for Pittsburgh’s fourth outfield spot has intensified since the last roster prediction. Swaggerty is hitting a blistering .400/.423/.760 with three home runs. Canaan Smith-Njigba is hitting .267/.371/.500 with two (technically, three) home runs. In the voice of Steve Kornacki, that race is too close to call. For now, however, Swaggerty gets the nod over Smith-Njigba.

Starting pitchers (5): Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Rich Hill, JT Brubaker, Vince Velasquez
Nothing has really changed on the starting pitching front. Shelton announced earlier this week that Mitch Keller will be the Pirates’ Opening Day starter, and while the Bucs have yet to officially announce the rest of the rotation, the other four spots will go to Contreras, Hill, Brubaker and Velasquez.

Relief pitchers (8): David Bednar, Wil Crowe, Chase De Jong, Colin Holderman, Jose Hernandez, Duane Underwood Jr., Robert Stephenson, Dauri Moreta
The bullpen took a blow as Jarlín García, the only established left-handed pitcher in Major League camp is in “no-throw status” for the foreseeable future, per director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk. Now, the Pirates must figure out how they fill his spot for Opening Day and beyond. The Bucs have said they don’t want to add a lefty for the sake of adding a lefty, though Hernandez is the only left-hander in the 'pen now. If they go the meritocracy route, Moreta has had a great spring, throwing 5 2/3 scoreless innings with six strikeouts to one walk.