The Bucs’ bid to compete in 2018 fell flat, but the team’s mid-season acquisitions were also designed to keep the window open for the two ensuing seasons. As ever, building out the roster will likely mean a search for cost-efficiency for the Pittsburgh front office.
- Gregory Polanco, OF: $28.5MM through 2021 (includes buyouts on 2022 & 2023 club options)
- Felipe Vazquez, RP: $18MM through 2021 (inclues buyouts on 2022 & 2023 club options)
- Starling Marte, OF: $13MM through 2019 (includes buyouts on 2020 & 2021 club options)
- Francisco Cervelli, C: $11.5MM through 2019
- Chris Archer, SP: $9.5MM through 2019 (includes buyouts on 2020 & 2021 club options)
- Ivan Nova, SP: $8.5MM through 2019
- Jung Ho Kang, INF: $3MM through 2019 (re-signed)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
It’s easy to overlook the Pirates, particularly given the developments elsewhere in the National League Central. The Brewers proved a shocking rival to the Cubs, who still have designs on the top spot. Meanwhile, the Cardinals still have plenty of talent and ample motivation. And the Reds see themselves as prepared to begin climbing the ladder.
It could all end up being quite the rumble, particularly if Pirates GM Neal Huntington proves able to sniff out some buried treasure on the player market this winter. There’s no reason to think he’ll have substantially more payroll capacity to work with than in past seasons, after all, though it’s possible there’ll be some leftover coin to spread around. With all their arb-eligible players included, the Pirates have around $65MM in salary committed to ten players. That only leaves about $20MM of daylight, as against last year’s ~$86MM Opening Day payroll, and of course the club will also need to account for salaries to league-minimum members of the roster. That said, the organization has pushed right up to (but not yet past) the $100MM line in Opening Day payroll in the not-so-distant past, which could suggest there’s a bit more wiggle room to work with.
Supposing the Pirates do see a way to fit some more salaries into the budget, it’s still questionable whether they’ll show much interest in the kind of lengthy commitments that are generally required to land the top-available free-agent talent. The Pirates have focused instead on aggressively pursuing contract extensions with existing young players while pursuing quality veterans on more limited pacts that don’t go past three seasons in duration. (Don’t believe me? Check out this list of Pittsburgh free agent deals of at least three guaranteed years.)
Dipping into the prospect pool to facilitate a trade remains a possibility. Top prospect Mitch Keller is one of the best-regarded pre-MLB hurlers in baseball, and there are enough quality chips surrounding him to enable the club to make a run at about just about any trade target it might like. There’s quite a lot of infield talent, in particular, much of which is at or near the MLB level. Of course, it’s arguable that the 2018 deadline moves reduce the appeal of further sacrificing farm assets. And those infielders, especially, figure to come in handy right now.
There’s a line change underway at the 4-5-6 positions on the diamond. Veterans Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, David Freese, Sean Rodriguez, and Adeiny Hechavarria are no longer on the roster, leaving plenty of playing time up for grabs. Bringing back Kang indicates that the Pirates feel he’s likely to bounce back, at least to some extent. He figures to represent a right-handed-hitting complement to Colin Moran at third and perhaps also Adam Frazier at second. Meanwhile, the club recently graduated well-regarded middle infielders Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer, though each struggled at the plate in limited MLB action. With Pablo Reyes and Max Moroff representing other youthful options who have reached the majors, and intriguing prospects Ke’Bryan Hayes and Cole Tucker steadily marching north (both spent all of 2018 at Double-A, at third base and shortstop respectively), there’s an abundance of possibility.
It’s possible in theory that the Pirates will simply roll with that group of talent into Spring Training, then see how the chips fall. But they may also choose to pursue a veteran piece to supplement the mix. In particular, adding a trustworthy player capable of handling shortstop would seem to make good sense. Beyond Mercer and Hechavarria, open-market options include Jose Iglesias and Freddy Galvis. The Pirates could also hang back and see if any intriguing value propositions present themselves.
To an extent, of course, the infield situation blends into that in the outfield. That’s due in no small part to the clear organizational preference for having a few players on the roster who can transition from dirt to grass. Frazier has done so quite a bit, as has Reyes in the minors, and Jose Osuna is a corner option in either area. Josh Bell will presumably continue to hold down the first base position, while Starling Marte is entrenched as the everyday man in center, so the real focus is on the corner outfield.
Corey Dickerson turned in a quality campaign and seems likely to see most of the action in left field. He’s most productive against right-handed pitching, though he was certainly plenty playable against lefties last year. The same can be said of Gregory Polanco, who was polishing off a breakout campaign before he was felled by an unfortunate injury. It’s possible he’ll recover steadily and be at full health for much of the 2019 campaign. But given the significance of the surgery he required and the uncertainty of his rehab timeline, it’s impossible to assume that’ll be the case.
The optimal solution, it seems, would be to find a quality right-handed-hitting outfielder who can cover for Polanco and then integrate with the lefty corner pieces once the club is at full health. It’s certainly possible the Bucs would like such a player also to feature as an infield option. Steve Pearce could in theory be a match, though at this stage of his career he’s a better fit for a team that can offer him ABs at first base and DH. There’s an argument to be made that a short-term veteran — Adam Jones, Cameron Maybin, or even old friend Jose Bautista are among the open-market options — would be the most sensible addition. Avisail Garcia of the White Sox could be a target as well, though perhaps it’s likelier he’d be pursued on a cheaper deal if non-tendered.
Most intriguingly, though, is the idea that the Pirates should consider a piece that would be around for years to come, helping to cover for the impending departure of Dickerson via free agency and bridge to players being developed. Tempting though it may be to draw a line back to former franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen, the best righty-hitting corner outfielder available, that feels unlikely. There are quite a few more possibilities via trade. Controllable players such as Steven Souza, Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, Michael Taylor, Aaron Altherr, Hunter Renfroe, Franmil Reyes, Manuel Margot, Albert Almora, and Kevin Pillar could conceivably be made available. Whether any would truly pique the interest of the Pirates, or come at a palatable price, remains to be seen. Osuna and Jordan Luplow each share some characteristics with the aforementioned players and are pre-arb options already on hand. Of course, neither has hit much in early MLB chances. It’s possible that the right acquisition could check several boxes in one fell swoop.
That brings us to the battery, where two of the team’s most interesting possible trade chips lie. As with Dickerson, the Bucs owe significant but manageable sums to catcher Francisco Cervelli and starter Ivan Nova. Each of these players would draw outside interest and could certainly be shopped around. With the team’s buy-side 2018 trade deadline moves, it’d be surprising to see an important veteran shipped out for a pure prospect haul (at least, without corresponding additions). But perhaps there could be an opportunity to move an established, short-term asset in a way that doesn’t hurt too much in the near term, clears some payroll space, and improves the long-term outlook.
Doing so with Dickerson or (especially) Cervelli, though, would mean opening holes that can’t easily be filled. Of that trio, Nova seems the likeliest to move. Of course, he’s also not a particularly exciting hurler so much as he is a steadily valuable back-of-the-rotation presence. Nova has not sustained the breakout he showed upon moving to the Pirates in the middle of the 2016 season, but has given the organization sixty starts of low-4 ERA ball over the past two campaigns. He’d help shore up quite a few rotations around the game if the Pirates decide to move him, but he also continues to fit on a Pittsburgh staff that will go without Tommy John patient Chad Kuhl for the 2019 season.
It’s arguable, really, that the Pirates are best suited simply holding pat in all respects with regard to the rotation. Picking up Chris Archer in late July hasn’t yet paid dividends, but the hope remains that he’ll find his form and represent a tremendous bargain at the top of the staff alongside excellent youngster Jameson Taillon. If he can sustain his eye-opening 2018 effort, Trevor Williams would round out a strong top trio of starters. The hope is that Joe Musgrove will recover from a recent procedure and be ready to contribute more solid frames alongside Nova in 2019. Out-of-options right-hander Nick Kingham could yet emerge as a rotation piece despite a poor debut showing, while southpaw Steven Brault is a depth piece who can also contribute from the pen. The 40-man roster also currently features a pair of righties in Clay Holmes and Alex McRae who’ll present possibilities. There’s probably room for some tweaking here if desired — if, say, the club prefers a cheaper free-agent veteran and finds a taker for Nova, or sees an opportunity to buy or sell high on an unexpected hurler — but “need” doesn’t appear to be a driving force.
That’s largely also the case in the relief unit, though there’s probably more room to add here. Leftover rotation candidates can round out a group that is led by closer Felipe Vazquez and setup man Keone Kela (who was acquired, like Archer, in July of 2018). Otherwise, losing Edgar Santana to a TJ procedure hurts, but emergent hurlers Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick both look to be strong assets. Michael Feliz and Nick Burdi each reputedly possess eye-popping stuff but haven’t yet established themselves in the majors. It’s possible to imagine the pen being made up of internal options, but an addition or two would also make sense. In particular, the club could have its eye on a quality lefty option. Brault could work as a lefty specialist, as he was much more successful against opposing southpaws, but the team certainly could wade into free agency as well. Top options such as Zach Britton and Andrew Miller are likely out of reach, but there are loads of other candidates on this winter’s market.
The broad takeaway from the foregoing analysis seems to be that the Pirates may have greater flexibility than is popularly supposed. From a financial perspective, even $20MM of availability could go a long way. That’s especially so given the significant versatility on the existing roster, which will allow the team to target specific players and/or chase value, adapting as it goes. The unwelcome uncertainty surrounding Polanco certainly puts a damper on things, and it’s undeniably a tough division to tackle, but the Pirates have every chance of fielding a highly competitive club in 2019 — if they make smart choices this winter and have a few things break for them in the season to come.