Spring Training Trends: The New Guys, Rodolfo Castro’s Power, Early Hayes and Keller Looks

We’ve got two weeks of Spring Training games in the books, and I’m guessing we’ll see the first moves of this roster taking shape in the next week. Each week, I’m going to highlight three Spring Training trends that stuck out to me in the organization. Let’s take a look at this week’s trends.

The New Guys

The Pirates have added a few pitchers recently, acquiring Duane Underwood Jr. via trade, and signing Trevor Cahill to a one year, $1.5 million deal, with up to $1 million in performance bonuses.

Underwood is out of options, which makes it seem likely that he’ll make the Opening Day roster in some form. My guess is that he’d stay as a reliever, where he’s spent most of his big league time already. That playing time has featured a high strikeout rate and a decent walk rate, but a lot of home runs.

Cahill’s performance bonuses are all contingent on him being a starting pitcher, which makes it seem like he’s a lock for the Opening Day rotation. He had a 3.24 ERA and a 4.48 xFIP last year with the Giants. I can see him being an innings eater with average starting numbers, and a chance to be good enough to land some type of trade return at the deadline.

With the addition of two guys who will almost certainly be on the Opening Day roster, I could see the Pirates carrying 14 pitchers and 12 position players. This would almost make Rule 5 pitcher Luis Oviedo the 26th man, which is not a bad use for the 26th man for a team like the Pirates.

Rodolfo Castro

The last time Castro played in real games, he put up a .679 OPS. That was in 2019 in High-A. He was added to the 40-man roster this past offseason, in large part to the work he put into his game during the lost 2020 season.

Castro has been on our prospect radar for years due to his raw power from both sides of the plate, and the power he can provide from a middle infield spot. Castro has been displaying some of that power lately, with three home runs recently, if you include the Little League variety. Here’s a good look at all three.

Here’s another video of Castro from the 2019 season, showing some differences in his approach:

From the left side, Castro has a more upright stance now, with better hand position to lift the bat off the shoulder. He also cuts down on the bat wiggle before the pitcher starts his delivery, which probably leads to a cleaner and more consistent swing through the zone.

Here’s a video from 2018 for the right side:

Again, he looks more upright, with less of a bat wiggle from the right side. I wonder if he might benefit from removing that initial move that transfers his bat from a resting spot on his shoulder to the ready position, thus getting him into reaction mode from the moment when the pitcher starts his delivery, rather than getting into position right when the pitcher begins.

This move could be a timing technique for Castro. It’s not helping to reduce his strikeouts so far. Castro has seven strikeouts in 17 at-bats this spring. I’d expect him to be overmatched at this stage, considering the jump from High-A to the majors. I’m not overly concerned about that right now, since the contact issues and strikeouts are the biggest thing Castro needs to work on in the minors. What I do find encouraging is that his power is showing up more often, with some adjustments to his approach that may have led to improvements.

Hayes and Keller

If the Pirates are going to win in the near future, they’re going to need some good results from Ke’Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller. So far, the results have been mixed.

Hayes is off to a good start this spring, hitting for a .381/.435/.667 line in 21 at-bats, with four doubles and a homer. There’s no question that Hayes will be the starting third baseman, and the only time he’ll be replaced is when he needs a day off. The only question is whether he can repeat his debut.

Last September, Hayes broke into the majors with a .376/.442/.682 line in 85 at-bats. It was the best offense Hayes had shown in his career, while also matching up with his tools that had been unrealized to that point.

Right now, we’re looking at barely over 100 at-bats, with most taking place in the final month of a very strange season, and the rest taking place in Spring Training. All of this is only to say that there should still be some caution mixed in with the optimism that comes with Hayes. The Pirates can really use an impact hitter, and Hayes has shown himself to be that in a very limited sample size.

On the other side of the ball, Mitch Keller is the guy with the best chance of leading the future pitching staff. Unfortunately, Keller hasn’t had the best start this spring. He gave up two runs in an inning in his first appearance, and gave up two more with two walks in two innings the next time out.

Keller has shown some promising signs, but they’re lost in a sea of bad results. This is an incredibly small sample size of three innings, but it matches what we’ve seen so far from his small sample sizes in the majors.

As an example, there were the final two starts last year. Keller combined for one earned run and zero hits in 11 innings, but also had a 9:10 K/BB ratio. We all know he’s not going to have success walking a batter an inning, but he’s also not going to bust when he’s unhittable.

The Pirates have a good pitcher in Keller, and anyone who watches him can see that shine through.

Unfortunately, this has been a common story for the Pirates, where they have a very talented pitcher who for some reason doesn’t show that talent in the majors (at least, while in Pittsburgh). Keller is going to be the litmus test to see if Ben Cherington has fixed that glaring development problem in the organization.