The Pirates had a Murphy’s Law season in 2019, finishing what they hoped would be a competitive campaign with a 69-93 record that landed them in the NL Central cellar. Thanks to their ever-present payroll issues, they’ll face several tough decisions this winter.
- Gregory Polanco, OF: $22MM through 2021 (including buyout of 2022 option; contract also contains 2023 option)
- Felipe Vazquez, LHP: $13.5MM through 2021 (including buyout of 2022 options; contract also contains 2023 option)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (salary projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Keone Kela – $3.4MM projected salary
- Michael Feliz – $1.2MM
- Jameson Taillon – $2.3MM
- Elias Diaz – $1.4MM
- Chad Kuhl – $1.4MM
- Adam Frazier – $3.2MM
- Joe Musgrove – $3.4MM
- Josh Bell – $5.9MM
- Trevor Williams – $3.0MM
- Erik Gonzalez – $800K
- Starling Marte, CF: $11.5MM club option with a $2MM buyout (contract also includes 2021 option)
- Chris Archer, RHP: $9MM club option with a $1.75MM buyout (contract also includes 2021 option)
Like more than one quarter of the teams in baseball, the Pirates’ offseason began with the search for a new manager. Clint Hurdle, just days after publicly stating that he’d been assured of his return in 2020, was fired with two years remaining on his contract. The Pirates, who haven’t been in the market for a new manager in a decade, have reportedly interviewed Twins bench coach Derek Shelton, Athletics bench coach Ryan Christensen and Cardinals first base coach Stubby Clapp — each of whom has managed in the minors but not the big leagues. Former Rangers manager Jeff Banister is reported to be under consideration, too, as are Athletics quality control coach Mark Kotsay, Diamondbacks director of player development Mike Bell and Astros bench coach Joe Espada.
A new team president will need to be brought into the fold as well following this week’s announcement that Frank Coonelly will depart after 13 seasons. That search won’t be as exhaustive, it seems, as the Bucs are reportedly set to name a replacement as soon as next Monday.
The departure of Hurdle came not only after another disappointing season in terms of wins and losses but on the heels of reported discord in the clubhouse. Kyle Crick injured his finger in a fistfight that broke out with closer Felipe Vazquez, but that was only the beginning of the team’s Vazquez troubles.
A bombshell report in September brought forth charges of statutory sexual assault of a minor against Vazquez. A criminal complaint released by Westmoreland County shortly thereafter revealed, even more abhorrently, that during conversations with the police, Vazquez admitted to prior sexual contact with the alleged victim — a minor. Precisely what will happen with the remaining $13.5MM he’s owed by the Pirates will depend on the course of criminal and immigration proceedings along with any ensuing league discipline. Whether or not the contract will be voided entirely isn’t known; what is clear is that Vazquez will not receive his salary while he’s not a member of the roster. Given what has been reported to this point, it’s difficult to imagine him pitching for the the Pirates again — or for any other MLB team.
The altercation between Crick and Vazquez wasn’t the only instance of a behind-the-scenes clubhouse problem in 2019, though. Setup man Keone Kela was suspended by the team after a reported altercation with bullpen coach Euclides Rojas. Kela had also previously butted heads with and been disciplined by the Rangers, who traded him to the Pirates in 2018. Still just 26 years old, Kela has struck out 30 percent of the hitters he has faced in the Majors and is clearly a high-end talent, but he’ll likely be on the trade block this winter. The Pirates, after all, also explored the possibility of moving him back in July. That series of off-field issues won’t do his trade value any favors, but Kela, who is entering his final season of club control, is an obvious change-of-scenery candidate.
As is typical with the low-budget Pirates, there will be more trade scenarios to explore, but the extent to which they’re motivated to make a deal is dependent on where ownership sets the payroll threshold. Pittsburgh opened 2019 with a meager $74.8MM on the books, and at present they’re projected to come in around $71.4MM (assuming no non-tenders and assuming the options of both Starling Marte and Chris Archer are exercised). Take away Vazquez’s $5.75MM salary but add in another $6-7MM to round out the roster with pre-arbitration players, and the Buccos are close to the payroll with which they opened last season after an 82-79 finish. Despite their dip in record, the Pirates did somehow manage to slightly outdraw their 2018 total of 1.464 million fans (1.491 million). However, they also still ranked 14th in 2019 National League attendance — ahead of only the Marlins.
Pittsburgh’s Opening Day payroll topped $90MM each season from 2015-17 before sliding to $86MM in 2018 and the aforementioned $74.8MM in 2019. Put another way, the Bucs can afford to increase payroll. Ownership’s willingness to do so in a season with diminished expectations of winning, however, is far from a given. So, if payroll is pared back further — or if a more long-term outlook is adopted after a 93-loss season — who could GM Neal Huntington look to move?
The Bucs reportedly aren’t shopping Marte, although even if they were, it wouldn’t behoove them to broadcast that intention. More importantly, they may not find a better time to move him. Marte still has two affordable years remaining on his contract at a time when it’s extremely difficult to see Pittsburgh contending in the NL Central and at a time when several hopeful contenders need center fielders. The Phillies, Braves, D-backs, Padres, Giants, White Sox and Rangers are all among the clubs who could realistically look for an impactful center fielder this winter. Philadelphia’s need is particularly glaring.
Despite a lack of certainty in the Pirates’ rotation — more on that later — it also strikes me as worth pondering whether the club will look to find a change of scenery for Archer as well. Selling low on a pitcher for whom they paid an exorbitant price in the first place would sting, but things haven’t panned out for Archer in Pittsburgh. The Pirates didn’t have success trying to push Archer back into throwing a two-seam fastball — a pitch he’d already abandoned once in his career — and they were unable to help him curb his home-run troubles even after kicking the two-seamer to the curb once again in mid-June.
However, after cutting bait on that lackluster sinker, Archer struck out a whopping 31.3 percent of the hitters he faced and induced swinging strikes at a 13.4 percent clip. Those are encouraging signs from a pitcher who also has above-average spin on his breaking ball, above-average velocity on his heater and two years and $20MM remaining on his contract. That’s an eminently affordable rate for most teams, but it’s perhaps more than the Pirates care to commit to a pitcher who now looks like a reclamation project after struggling to fit into Pittsburgh’s mold. Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows aren’t walking back through the door, but the Pirates could definitely still extract some value if Archer is shipped elsewhere. That the offseason trade market is light on intriguing pitchers only enhances Archer’s appeal.
The question for the Bucs would be what to target in these theoretical trade scenarios. Embarking on a full rebuild would mean simply prioritizing the best available young talent, but they haven’t indicated that they’ll be going down that road. In terms of immediate roster needs, the Pirates are largely set in the infield. Kevin Newman impressed at shortstop in his rookie season, Adam Frazier enjoyed a solid year and Josh Bell finally tapped into the power that made him such a touted prospect. Jacob Stallings had a terrific defensive year behind the plate but didn’t offer much offense. Fellow catcher Elias Diaz, who missed the beginning of the season due to a viral infection, had a lost year all around.
In the outfield, Bryan Reynolds — acquired in what was at the time an unpopular Andrew McCutchen trade — is going to garner Rookie of the Year consideration and looks like a potential long-term piece. Gregory Polanco’s first year back from shoulder surgery was a dud, but he’s signed for at least two more seasons and only a year removed from a solid 2018 showing.
The points of upgrade in the lineup seem clear: the Pirates could use help at third base, behind the plate and (if they trade Marte) at one outfield spot.
At the hot corner, Colin Moran has been serviceable but unspectacular when hitting against right-handed pitching and virtually unplayable against lefties in his career. He’s not a great defender, but Moran has yet to even reach arbitration eligibility, so he’ll be back as an option. The Pirates have top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes, one of the game’s elite defensive prospects, looming in Triple-A. He could push for a big league roster spot by next summer, so a stopgap at third base or a platoon partner for Moran is all that’s really needed. That can be found in free agency (e.g. Logan Forsythe, Todd Frazier or Tim Beckham, assuming the latter is non-tendered).
In the outfield, the Pirates currently have Reynolds, Marte and Polanco, making them likelier to add depth pieces than a starting-caliber name — if they keep Marte. If he’s moved, the club could look to get a young outfielder back, but the free-agent market will also have ample corner options. Avisail Garcia and Kole Calhoun (assuming his option is bought out) could fit the bill, or the Pirates could simply re-sign Melky Cabrera, who was productive early in 2019 before his offense cratered later in the year.
Things are trickier behind the plate. Diaz looked like a potential option following a quietly productive 2018 campaign, but his illness-shortened season makes him more of a question mark. Stallings showed great defensive aptitude, but he’ll soon turn 30 and has just 282 MLB plate appearances under his belt. Catching help would be a logical area of focus in trades. Even if the Pirates hang onto their top chips, it should be addressed in free agency. Yasmani Grandal is going to be too expensive, but a second-tier option like Jason Castro, Travis d’Arnaud or Robinson Chirinos would likely fit into their price range.
The bigger questions for the Pirates come on the pitching staff. Jameson Taillon’s second career Tommy John surgery, paired with Archer’s struggles, was a massive blow to the Pirates’ 2020 hopes. Add in the fact that uber-prospect Mitch Keller was shelled in 48 MLB innings, and the rotation outlook is unexpectedly bleak. (To Keller’s credit, he was plagued by a ridiculous .475 average on balls in play and did rack up 65 strikeouts, so there’s cause for optimism moving forward.) The rest of Pittsburgh’s rotation includes team innings leader Joe Musgrove, who profiles as a mid-rotation arm, and two pitchers who posted ERAs north of 5.00 in 2019 (Trevor Williams and Steven Brault).
In the bullpen, things are similarly cloudy — particularly with Vazquez likely out of the picture and Kela standing out as a trade candidate. Richard Rodriguez and Michael Feliz turned in solid ERAs with more questionable secondary stats. The rest of the relief corps was a revolving door of shrug emojis. Pirates relievers ranked 23rd in the Majors in ERA, 22nd in FIP and 20th in xFIP as a collective unit in 2019, and that was with Vazquez and Kela combining for 89 2/3 innings. The incumbent group offers minimal hope for improvement.
Whether the Pirates move their most desirable assets now or reload and make another run in 2020, they’re going to need multiple arms added to the pitching staff, some catching help and some infield depth. If they keep Marte and Archer, they’ll likely be limited to low-cost fliers on rebound candidates, given that they’ll already be within $9MM of last year’s Opening Day payroll mark. If one or both of that pair is moved to another club, Pittsburgh could technically spend more aggressively, but the urgency to do so would be diminished, as dealing Marte and/or Archer would in many ways signal a step back.
Barring an unexpected payroll hike, the Pirates don’t look like major players in free agency (as usual). Contending in next year’s NL Central looks like a significant long shot, and the extent to which they believe that possible will have a direct impact on the future of players like Marte and Archer.