PITTSBURGH — When opportunity called Monday night, Josh Palacios didn’t have an immediate answer.
“My phone is dead,” Palacios said with a laugh.
When the Pirates rang Palacios’ cell phone to tell him he was being promoted to the majors, the calls went to voicemail. Unaware of what happened, Palacios had dinner with a couple of his Triple-A Indianapolis teammates at a hibachi joint in the Mall of America.
“We joked around like, ‘Hey, imagine if they called me today and my phone was dead,'” Palacios said. “Well, it really happened.”
How long did the Pirates let Palacios’ phone ring before hanging up and dialing another outfielder?
“Our people are consistent,” field director John Baker said, laughing. “You’ll find us wherever you go, especially if you go to the big leagues.”
Eventually, Indy’s manager Miguel Perez texted another player and tracked down Palacios.
“I realized I needed to charge my phone quickly,” Palacios said. “Lesson learned, for sure.”
It’s been a busy two days for the Pirates. Palacios, an outfielder acquired last winter in the Rule 5 draft, was called up by Pittsburgh one day after infielder Chris Owings was promoted from Indy.
Reliever Cody Bolton returned to Triple A and reliever Chase De Jong was designated for assignment. Right-hander Luis Ortiz was brought up to start Tuesday against the Rockies, filling injured right-hander Vince Velasquez’s spot in the rotation.
Nearly six weeks into the season, the Pirates have gone on a seven-game winning streak and ended a seven-game losing skid. The rotation is solid, the bullpen not so much. The offense is scrappy and opportunistic, but can also be prone to funks.
The sample size for measuring players is no longer small. With the team’s strengths and weaknesses more apparent, it’s a good time to revamp the roster.
“I don’t think it’s as much of a wake-up call as this,” manager Derek Shelton said, referring to the comings and goings of the past 72 hours. “The fact that we went into a player-heavy position was based on the ability to have a more available roster.”
Shelton does have a point. After Wednesday’s series finale against the Rockies, the Pirates will be out for three of the next eight days. Righty Mitch Keller put the bullpen in a good place Monday by tossing a complete game.
However, there is more to it than that. There are a couple of interesting series ahead against the surprising Diamondbacks and the AL West-leading Rangers, followed by a West Coast swing against the Mariners and Giants. The Pirates will need a well-rounded – and flexible – roster to build momentum into June.
In short, the next few weeks could be a good test of the Pirates’ organizational depth.
“Not that it’s more important than last year, but we in PD (player development) feel responsible to give Shelty plug-and-play players who know how to play,” said said Baker.
Often over the past few seasons, some Pirates call-ups have been unable to do the little things, such as throwing to the right cutoff man, running the bases, taking a bunt down, and getting out. on the bench to deliver a clutch hit.
“Those are the things that run differently at the ends of development,” Baker said. “But a big focus for the organization last year was improving tactical baseball, looking forward to winning here in Pittsburgh and making sure we have players that can meet all the demands of the game.”
The Pirates often time call-ups to coincide with good pitching matchups, so Shelton can easily get the new guy in the lineup. Miguel Andújar, a right-handed hitter, joined the team on April 29 and started the first game of that day’s doubleheader against lefty Patrick Corbin. Palacios, a lefty hitter, was in right field on Tuesday against right-hander Connor Seabold. He went 0-for-2 with two groundouts.
“It was a matchup we wanted, so when we started talking about (Palacios), it was, ‘If we’re going to bring him in, we’re going to bring him in,'” Shelton said. “That’s not to say he won’t play every day, but what he’s done gives us leverage, platoon advantages like we did earlier in the year. We’ll try to maximize those as much as possible.”
Palacios is adept at all three outfield spots, which helps, plus he hit a combined .368/.433/.598 with four homers this year with Indy and Double-A Altoona.
“It’s a big win for the acquisition process,” Baker said.
The Nationals chose to expose Palacios in the Rule 5 draft after he hit .213/.245/.255 in 29 games in the majors last season. What is behind Palacios this season? He credits a combination of personal growth, the Pirates hitting coaches and … his optometrist.
“I started wearing contacts — shout out to all the eye doctors out there,” Palacios said. “They were uncomfortable, but in the end I made a sacrifice to wear them. I started to see the ball better. Every little helps.”
So far, the Pirates have made mostly complementary moves with their call-ups. The marquee prospects – Endy Rodríguez, Henry Davis, Quinn Priester and Nick Gonzales – won’t be done for a while.
Baker pointed out that Rodríguez wasn’t a full-time catcher until the second half of last season, a sign that he’s nowhere near the end of his learning curve. Davis has been playing well — he went 3-for-4 with two solo homers Tuesday and raised his batting average to .316 — but he’s still in Altoona and may be there for a while.
“Henry likes to make things difficult, that’s for sure,” Baker said with a smile. “That’s the hardest part. There are only six games a week, and we want both of them to catch four, five or sometimes six of those games just for their development. They will affect Pittsburgh in the not too distant future.
Death, taxes, Henry Davis smashing baseballs. pic.twitter.com/uhCx8fIv5a
— Young Bucs (@YoungBucsPIT) May 9, 2023
That means catcher Austin Hedges (who is batting .151) and backup Jason Delay are safe. At the moment.
With Ortiz on the big league club and Mike Burrows recovering from elbow surgery, Priester was Indy’s top pitcher prospect but was 2-3 with a 5.96 ERA. Baker said he still has to “find himself” at the highest level of the minors.
“Triple A presents a unique challenge to veteran hitters. You have to think about at-bats a little bit more,” Baker said. “It’s a blessing to have that opportunity. But for smart people like Quinn, sometimes it can be a curse. He can sometimes overthink some of the things he does and not just trust his abilities.
The Pirates expect to reveal in the next day or two how long Velasquez will be out, which could help determine how long Ortiz will stay.
Tuesday, Ortiz worked the first five innings of a 10-1 loss against the Rockies and gave up five runs (two earned). Ortiz allowed seven hits, walked one and struck out one.
According to Baseball Savant, only 16 of Ortiz’s 74 pitches registered as four-seam fastballs — a low number for a guy whose heater can reach 99 mph. He threw 19 sliders, including one that Jurickson Profar hit for a solo homer in the second inning, and 31 sinkers.
“I used the sinker from pitch one,” Ortiz said through a translator. “It worked really well and I threw it with a lot of confidence. I kept the ball in the zone and got a lot of groundballs.
(Photo by Josh Palacios: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)