We’re continuing with our “Three Needs” series, in which we take a look at the chief issues to be addressed for clubs that have fallen out of contention. We’ve already focused on the Mariners, Tigers, White Sox, Marlins, and Rangers. Now we’ll cover the Pirates, who entered the All-Star break 2.5 games off of the pace in the NL Central before enduring a calamitous second half.
1. Market Starling Marte
The appropriate path depends to no small extent upon the market’s appetite for the Pirates’ assets. But it’s time to strongly pursue a sell-side approach to the winter after dabbling and pulling back this summer. That begins with Marte, the team’s excellent center fielder.
True, there isn’t a single standout team in the division, so it’s open to competition. The Pirates still have a good bit of MLB talent and perhaps some room to add salary. But the roster situation is not good. Top starter Jameson Taillon is going to miss most or all of the 2020 campaign. If the despicable allegations against closer Felipe Vazquez can be proven in court, he’ll deservedly spend the next few years in prison rather than pitching. There’s no spending out of this malaise for an organization that hasn’t topped $100MM in Opening Day payroll and opened this season at just $75MM.
Marte stands out as a marketable asset that could bring a strong return that will help this team find its way back to respectability. It’s hard to see a path within the next two seasons, after which he’ll be a free agent. And he’s no longer extremely cheap. But two option years that add up to just $24MM is still a relative bargain for a high-quality regular who is still 31 years of age. That’s especially true given that the upcoming free agent market is lean on center fielders.
2. Re-Think The Rotation
The Pirates have a fair amount of interesting infield and outfield talent at and near the MLB level. Plenty of questions remain to be answered, but that’s just how it goes with young players and low-revenue teams. Even if Marte is sent elsewhere, the club can mostly feel good about rolling with internal options with some affordable supplementation in the lineup.
It’s a different situation on the pitching side of things, especially in the rotation. Mitch Keller could yet be a future ace, and he showed intriguing K/BB numbers this year, but there’s plenty to iron out. Joe Musgrove had a nice year and might form a useful mid-rotation pairing with Trevor Williams if the latter can re-learn how to limit the long ball. Chris Archer … well, who knows, but the team probably can’t give up on him just yet.
Perhaps there’s an argument to be made for the Pirates mostly to remain internal with the staff. But even then, there’s room to add arms. If the Bucs move some Marte and a few others — Keone Kela would be the next-most-obvious candidate — then there’ll be loads of payroll space to work with. Investing in some intriguing bounceback arms could pay big dividends.
Regardless, the Pittsburgh organization needs to go back to the drawing board on its approach. There was a time not long ago when it was extracting big value from limited spending, but the formula isn’t working. (See here for a nice recent breakdown of the situation.) The league has adjusted, clearly, as the Pirates ended the season with a putrid 5.46 collective starter ERA (and that’s including Taillon). We’ve seen a historic barrage of home runs and rather drastic changes in pitching approaches. Such change inherently creates new opportunities for adjustment in the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game pitchers and hitters. Your move, Bucs.
3. Seek A New Core Catcher
With Francisco Cervelli leaving town, the Bucs need to try to find a replacement. Elias Diaz has had an exceedingly rough season by more or less every measure, with a 61 wRC+ and brutal framing numbers. Jacob Stallings had a much more solid campaign, though the 29-year-old has never before been trusted with a significant role.
It seems fair to presume that one or both of those incumbents will fill innings usefully in 2020. But it’d be disappointing to rely on them as a duo for another full season. Given the pitching turmoil, it’s especially important to have a steadying presence behind the dish. And this could even be an area the Pirates can look to for some upside.
It’s hard to pry loose good, young catchers. But there could be some possibilities. Austin Hedges stands out as a target. He may never fully come around with the bat, but is by any measure a top-flight defender. There’s little reason to think the club will have a shot at top free agent Yasmani Grandal. But Travis d’Arnaud would be an interesting player to take a bit of a risk on with a longer contract. And there are loads of respected veterans out there if a bigger strike can’t be found, including some bounceback candidates such as Yan Gomes (if the Nats don’t pick up his option).