In conjunction with this installment in our Offseason Outlook series, Steve Adams will be hosting a Pirates-centric chat today at 1pm CT. Click here to ask a question in advance, and be sure to check back to participate live!
The Pirates’ blistering start to the season gave way to another year of losing baseball and deadline selling. With many members of their vaunted farm system now on the cusp of their first full season in the Majors, they should be set for a more active offseason than in recent years.
- Bryan Reynolds, OF: $100MM through 2030 (includes buyout of 2031 club option)
- Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B: $50MM through 2029 (includes buyout of 2030 club option)
2024 commitments: $17MM
Total future commitments: $150MM
The beginning of the offseason is often a time for changes in the front office or in the dugout, particularly among losing clubs, but there’s no real risk of that among the Pittsburgh brass. Manager Derek Shelton was extended earlier this season, with his new deal beginning next year. There’s been no indication that general manager Ben Cherington is in any kind of jeopardy after a third losing season. Cherington was hired to embark on a full-scale rebuilding effort, and ownership knew from the start that it’d be a lengthy process.
The first and most straightforward decision of the winter will come on lefty Jarlin Garcia’s $3.25MM club option, which will surely be declined after he missed the year due to injury. There’s no buyout on the option, so the Bucs will let him go after a season spent on the injured list.
A larger and more pressing issue for Bucs fans pertains to franchise icon Andrew McCutchen. The former National League MVP returned to the organization that drafted him last offseason, signing a one-year deal worth $5MM. McCutchen has been vocal about the fact that the Pirates and Pittsburgh feel like home to him, and with his 37th birthday just two weeks away as of this writing, he’s made clear that he has little appetite to continue his career elsewhere.
Cherington has been candid about his desire to bring McCutchen back in 2024, stating earlier this month that the two parties would discuss a new contract this offseason. McCutchen’s 2023 campaign ended early due to a partial Achilles tear, but he picked up his 2000th career hit and 400th career double this year in black and gold. The overwhelming likelihood is that he’ll return to the Pirates on another short-term deal in 2024, this time taking aim at his 300th career home run — he’s currently at 299 — and again serving as a veteran mentor for a young Bucs club. Of course, Cutch brings more than just leadership to the table; he batted .256/.378/.397 with a dozen homers and 11 steals in 112 games this year.
Assuming McCutchen is back, he’ll be the primary designated hitter. The Pirates gave him just 64 innings in right field this year, and that was before the aforementioned Achilles injury. He’ll be locked into a largely regular lineup role, joining third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and outfielders Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski in that regard. Hayes had a rough first half but continued to provide elite defense through his struggles at the plate. And, in the second half of the season, he’s erupted with a .307/.345/.556 slash line. Suwinski strikes out too much to hit for a high average but draws tons of walks (14.6%) and has thus far swatted 26 homers and swiped 13 bags. Reynolds’ bat is down a bit from peak levels, but he turned in his third straight season of 20-plus homers and was still a well above-average offensive performer.
At least one other spot on the diamond seems all but solidified. It’s been a lost year for Oneil Cruz, who suffered a fractured ankle in a home plate collision with White Sox catcher Seby Zavala in early April. The 6’7″ Cruz has long been lauded as one of the top prospects in the game due to his near-unparalleled raw power and plus speed. Losing his entire age-24 season to injury is a blow to his development, but he’s still controllable for five years. In his first 410 MLB plate appearances, he’s batted .237/.302/.449 with a jarring 33.7% strikeout rate, but Cruz has some of the loudest tools in the game and possesses star potential. He’ll treat the 2023 season as a mulligan as he looks to realize his upside.
As far as position players go, the Pirates don’t necessarily have anyone else firmly entrenched just yet. Top catching prospects Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis both made their MLB debuts this year, but both struggled at the plate. Davis saw the vast majority of his time in right field, and a move out from behind the plate has long been viewed as a possibility for the 2021 No. 1 overall pick. The Bucs only gave him two big league innings at catcher, though they’ve not yet said he won’t play the position at all in the future. Still, it seems that Rodriguez could well be the preferred option there, with Davis sliding into an outfield/first base/DH/part-time catcher role if the bat picks up.
Both Rodriguez and Davis will play big roles with the Bucs next year, but it might still be prudent to bring in some veteran competition, even if only on a minor league deal. Jason Delay is a fine backup catcher, but if one or both of Rodriguez and Davis wind up needing time in the minors, having another backstop (e.g. Curt Casali, Sandy Leon, Luke Maile) on hand would hold value.
In the outfield, Connor Joe and Alfonso Rivas are options if Davis needs some Triple-A time. But Joe is likely to be arb-eligible and saw his bat wilt after a torrid start to the season (.217/.309/.351 in his past 356 plate appearances). Rivas, 27, has huge Triple-A numbers but has yet to carry them to the Majors in parts of three seasons. Miguel Andujar is a non-tender candidate, and Joe could be as well. There are plenty of affordable corner outfielders on the market if the Bucs want to go outside the organization to provide some competition for Davis. Randal Grichuk, Hunter Renfroe and David Peralta will all be free agents, as will Travis Jankowski and Michael A. Taylor, if the preference is for someone more defensive-minded.
As far as areas that are in clear need of work, the right side of the infield stands out. Last offseason’s first base acquisitions, Carlos Santana and Ji Man Choi, were both traded at the deadline. The previously mentioned Joe wound up playing a significant amount at first base but has seen his season-long batting line dip below the league average despite his hot start to the year. Rivas presents another option here.
Rookie Jared Triolo is a third baseman who’s gotten a few brief looks at first base. He could be an option, but his .292/.382/.385 slash seems bound to regress when his .419 BABIP comes back down to Earth. And given his 29% strikeout rate, it’s fair to harbor some concerns. Prospect Malcom Nunez had a tough showing in his Triple-A debut this year, though he’s still just 22. Garrett Cooper and C.J. Cron are among the short-term options available in free agency,
At second base, none of Ji Hwan Bae, Liover Peguero or Nick Gonzales have forcefully staked their claim to the position. All three are former prospects of note who have minor league options remaining, but second base is another area where the Bucs could at least bring in some veteran competition to steady the position in 2024 and serve as a bridge to top prospect Termarr Johnson. The free agent market at second base is thin behind Whit Merrifield, but the trade and non-tender markets could open up additional avenues.
Turning to the pitching staff, there’s some degree of a foundation in place. Mitch Keller will be back to lead the staff. There could be trade rumors surrounding the righty, as has been the case for much of the past two years, but Keller has stepped up as a solid mid-rotation arm over the past two seasons, often showing flashes of an even higher ceiling. With two years of club control remaining, he could well be an extension candidate. (More on that in a bit.) Keller and fellow righty Johan Oviedo — acquired from the Cardinals alongside Nunez in exchange for Jose Quintana — have cemented themselves on the staff. It’s been a rollercoaster season for Oviedo, but the end result will be 175ish innings with an ERA in the low 4.00s. He’s currently at 172 2/3 frames with a 4.12 mark and one start remaining.
There are both depth options and rising prospects who can factor into the starting pitching mix. Righty JT Brubaker will return from Tommy John surgery at some point early next summer. Deadline pickup Bailey Falter has had a tough year but logged a 3.86 ERA in 84 innings with the 2022 Phillies. He’ll be out of options next year, so he’ll have to make the club as either a fifth starter or long reliever — or else be traded or designated for assignment. Right-hander Roansy Contreras entered the year looking like a rotation building block but has struggled in Pittsburgh and in Triple-A. He’ll get additional opportunities in the future, though it’s always possible they come in the bullpen.
Prospects like Quinn Priester and Luis Ortiz have already gotten their feet wet, and there’s more help on the horizon. Anthony Solometo, Jared Jones and 2023 No. 1 overall pick Paul Skenes could all debut next year. Skenes’ eventual arrival will be one of the most eagerly anticipated pitching debuts since Stephen Strasburg first took the mound for the Nationals in 2010.
In-house options notwithstanding, the Bucs figure to add at least one arm this year. They’ve added a low-ceiling veteran stabilizer in each of the past three offseasons, bringing Tyler Anderson, Jose Quintana and Rich Hill aboard on one-year deals — and trading all three at that season’s respective deadline. There’s merit to making a similar play for some bulk innings this winter, with Kyle Gibson, Wade Miley and Martin Perez among the options who’d fit that bill.
Even if the Pirates do make such an addition, however, it’s quite arguable that the time has come for them to do something a bit more on the pitching front. A long-term play for a young ace like Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto isn’t going to be in the cards for a club with such a modest annual payroll, and no one is going to predict the Pirates to sign Blake Snell on the heels of a Cy Young-caliber season. But the market offers plenty of upside plays, be it a multi-year pact for a still-young pitcher like Jack Flaherty or a shorter-term pickup of a pitcher looking to rebound from injury. Frankie Montas and Luis Severino both fit that description and would both bring substantially higher upside to the Pirates than their prior offseason pickups.
The bullpen, outside of David Bednar, is lacking in household names but not in quality. Bednar is a star and one of the game’s best bullpen arms, but Pittsburgh also got strong results out of less-heralded names like Colin Holderman, Dauri Moreta, Carmen Mlodzinski and even waiver/DFA pickups like Ryan Borucki and Thomas Hatch.
Some of the rotation candidates who don’t stick as starters will inevitably end up here, but there will also be injuries and regression among 2023’s quietly solid group. There’s certainly room to bring in a veteran arm here, though any veteran seeking closing opportunities will likely look elsewhere, as Bednar won’t be displaced — nor (to the chagrin of other fan bases) will he likely be traded with the Pirates hoping to emerge from their rebuild sooner than later. Phil Maton, Keynan Middleton, Ryne Stanek, Michael Fulmer and Brent Suter are among the many, many relief options available this winter.
Of course, repeated suggestions of the Pirates spending money will be met with anything ranging from skepticism to jokes and mockery. But the Pirates have just two players under contract beyond the current season, Reynolds and Hayes, and they’ll pay that pair a combined $17MM in 2024. There are a handful of players due raises in arbitration, but the prices figure to be modest. Keller will be due a raise on this year’s $2.375MM salary and figures to be the most expensive of the bunch. Brubaker will likely repeat last year’s $2.275MM salary after missing the year due to Tommy John surgery. Bednar is in his first trip through arbitration, and Borucki won’t cost much as a minor league signee.
Even after those arb raises, the Pirates could have under $30MM on the books. That doesn’t include league-minimum players to round out the roster, but it’s nevertheless a gap of more than $40MM from where their 2023 payroll began. And with increased expectations, it’s eminently plausible that ownership will give Cherington & Co. a bit more latitude in terms of spending (albeit not too much more).
Just as there’s room to look into free agency more extensively than in seasons past, there’s also payroll space to consider locking up key long-term pieces. Keller hasn’t reached ace status but holds a strong 3.82 ERA in 54 starts and 318 innings since incorporating a sinker into his repertoire in May 2022. That includes a poor finish to his 2023 season, which will surely be a factor the Pirates consider, but Keller’s workload is at career-high levels and the overall body of work the past two seasons remains strong. He’s logged better-than-average strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates in that time (23.5%, 7.5%, 46.1%) and is just 27 years old.
There are plenty of parallels between Keller and Twins righty Pablo Lopez, who inked a four-year, $73.5MM deal with Minnesota earlier this year when he was in the same service class that Keller will be in this coming offseason. Perhaps Keller’s slightly lesser track record and shaky finish will prevent him from quite reaching that annual value, but it’s certainly a relevant comparison.
Bednar, too, stands as a possible extension candidate — though multi-year deals for relievers are rare, particularly once they’ve reached their arbitration years. He has a healthier track record and more saves than Rays righty Pete Fairbanks, who back in March signed a three-year, $12MM deal that bought out his arbitration seasons and gave Tampa Bay control over one free agent year. Bednar is poised to do quite well in arbitration and might command close to double that commitment to put pen to paper, but it’s a concept worth exploring for an excellent reliever who’s popular with his hometown fans.
The Bucs could also look into a long-term deal with Cruz, though that’ll be a tall task as Cruz might want to put this year’s freak injury behind him and prove himself on the field before talking years and dollars.
It’s been a long time since Pirates fans got to follow a playoff-caliber club in Pittsburgh, but the latest rebuilding effort under a still relatively new front office regime is likely moving toward a conclusion. A lot rides on the continued development of high-end prospects like Davis, Rodriguez, Skenes, Jones, Solometo and Priester, but everyone from that group could contribute as soon as next season. Hayes, Reynolds, Suwinski, Cruz, Keller and Bednar give some immediate optimism, and they’ll be joined by that group of promising prospect as well as some veteran additions in an increasingly competitive NL Central next year.