The Pirates traded their best player (again) and appeared more intent on cutting payroll than giving the appearance of trying.
- Jarrod Dyson, OF: One year, $2MM
- Guillermo Heredia: One year, $1MM
- Luke Maile, C: One year, $900K
- JT Riddle, SS/OF: One year, $850K
- Total Spend: $4.75MM
- Exercised $11.5MM club option over OF Starling Marte
- Exercised $9MM club option over RHP Chris Archer
Trades and Claims
- Traded OF Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks in exchange for minor league SS Liover Peguero and minor league RHP Brennan Malone
- Traded RHP Dario Agrazal to the Tigers in exchange for cash
- Traded RHP Parker Markel to the Angels in exchange for cash
- Claimed LHP Sam Howard off waivers from Rockies
Notable Minor League Signings
- Derek Holland, Robbie Erlin, John Ryan Murphy, Andrew Susac, Charlie Tilson, Socrates Brito, Tom Koehler (since retired), Jake Elmore, Hector Noesi, Phillip Evans
- Starling Marte, Melky Cabrera, Elias Diaz (non-tendered), Francisco Liriano, Dario Agrazal, Parker Markel, Steven Baron, Corban Joseph
The Pirates offseason kicked off in bizarre fashion, with former manager Clint Hurdle telling The Athletic’s Stephen J. Nesbitt that he’d received assurances that he’d be retained into 2020 — only to be fired days later. General manager Neal Huntington headed up the search for a new skipper … until owner Bob Nutting canned Huntington nearly a month into that effort. A month after the regular season ended, the Pirates had no manager or general manager and weren’t close to making a hire for either vacancy. They were represented by interim GM Kevan Graves at the annual General Managers Meetings and, shortly after that event’s conclusion, hired former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington to replace Huntington. Another 10 days later, Pittsburgh hired Twins bench coach Derek Shelton as their new manager.
By the time the Pirates had both their GM and manager in place, the likes of Yasmani Grandal, Travis d’Arnaud, Chris Martin, Will Smith and Kyle Gibson had each already signed as free agents. The Brewers had traded Chase Anderson to the Blue Jays and orchestrated an interesting four-player swap with the Padres. But getting a late start to the offseason ultimately didn’t impact the Bucs much, because as the winter wore on, it became clear that the team wasn’t planning on making any notable additions.
Rather, the largest move the Pirates made this winter was shipping their best player, Starling Marte, to the Diamondbacks in a trade that trimmed payroll and added some high-upside but very young talent to the farm ranks. Liover Peguero and Brennan Malone didn’t shoot to the top of the club’s prospect rankings but are both ranked inside the Pirates’ top 10 farmhands by FanGraphs, Baseball America, MLB.com and The Athletic.
Some fans felt that the Pirates didn’t get enough in return, but the market for Marte was a bit quieter than anticipated. The Phillies never appeared to get seriously involved — perhaps due to sitting narrowly south of the luxury tax threshold. The Indians had interest but were clearly more interested in cutting payroll than adding MLB talent themselves. The Padres were tied to Marte but more focused on Mookie Betts. Ultimately, the Bucs got a pair of quality prospects that wouldn’t have been guaranteed had they held Marte in hopes of extracting a greater return this summer.
Immediately after trading Marte, Cherington made clear that he hoped to bring in a serviceable replacement (of course, at a lower cost than Marte’s $11.5MM salary). The market for center fielders was thin to begin the winter and largely picked over by that point, but Pittsburgh wound up adding a trio of center-field-capable options at minimal costs. Jarrod Dyson ($2MM), Guillermo Heredia ($1MM) and JT Riddle ($850K) were all signed to one-year, Major League deals. Heredia projects as the club’s fourth outfielder and can be controlled via arbitration through the 2022 season if the organization sees fit. Riddle should be a backup infielder/outfielder and is controllable through 2023.
Dyson is a straight one-year pickup — a blistering runner with high-end glovework and, frankly, a pretty tidy bargain for the Pirates at a $2MM price point. He’s a nice value addition, but it’s worth noting that in going with Dyson, the Bucs apparently deemed even Kevin Pillar’s $4.25MM price tag with the Red Sox to be too expensive. It’s not as if Pillar spurned the Pirates to sign with a surefire contender, so either the front office believes Dyson to be a better asset — a defensible take but not a decisive fact by any means — or ownership simply didn’t want to spend the extra dollars to bring in the younger Pillar.
Luke Maile is the only other player who inked a big league deal with the Bucs this winter, although he still has minor league options remaining and, as such, inked a split contract. He’s the presumptive backup to 30-year-old Jacob Stallings, who’ll be getting his first opportunity as a starting catcher in 2020. Light-hitting framing savant John Ryan Murphy was brought in on a minor league deal as a depth piece, but the catching corps in Pittsburgh is a collectively underwhelming unit, to put things mildly.
It’s a different story around the infield, for the most part. Josh Bell will look to shake off a second-half slump and build on a generally strong 2019 campaign, while Adam Frazier has settled in as a quality, underrated second baseman. Kevin Newman showed off plenty of upside in a strong rookie effort last year, and the Bucs have reportedly initiated talks on an extension with one of the game’s top third base prospects (and top overall prospects): Ke’Bryan Hayes. If Hayes agrees to a deal, he’d likely open the year in the Majors … whenever, exactly, Opening Day actually happens. In the outfield, sophomore Bryan Reynolds and longtime Bucco Gregory Polanco will flank the newly signed Dyson.
Turning to the pitching staff, the Pirates have had their fair share of misfortune recently. Jameson Taillon had Tommy John surgery last summer, and righty Chad Kuhl is still working back from his own Tommy John procedure at the end of the 2018 season. Lefty Steven Brault has been slowed by shoulder woes this spring. Closer Felipe Vazquez, of course, is out of the picture entirely after being arrested on a series of abhorrent statutory sexual assault charges.
The Pirates did little to bolster their waning pitching depth this winter, however, bringing Derek Holland, Robbie Erlin and Hector Noesi aboard on minor league deals but eschewing any big league additions. Holland appears the likely fifth starter behind Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams and Mitch Keller.
Perhaps even more glaringly, Pittsburgh opted not to add a single reliever to the big league staff — with the possible exception of claiming lefty Sam Howard from the Rockies. Keone Kela should close down games in 2020, but he’s the only reliever with any real track record in the Pirates’ relief corps. There’s enough flotsam on the 40-man roster that the Pirates could’ve added some veteran arms or at least speculated on the waiver wire. Instead, they’ll rely on the same group of relievers that ranked 23rd in the Majors in ERA, 22nd in FIP and 20th in xFIP as a collective bunch in 2019 — and that was with Vazquez dominating for the first several months.
Not including Vazquez’s salary — he’ll be on the restricted list — the Pirates are set to open the season with under $54MM in payroll on the books. It’s an astonishingly low number in today’s game — one so small that no one should be surprised to see yet another grievance brought forth against the organization by the MLBPA. The collective bargaining agreement has rules in place about the manner in which a team must allocate its revenue-sharing funds, and it’s easy to understand why the union has questions about the Pirates’ claims that their use of said resources is compliant.
Cherington declined to use the word “rebuild” this offseason, instead claiming that the Pirates are merely “building.” Semantics aside, the Pirates’ roster is extraordinarily porous, and the front office effectively did nothing to stop the ship from taking on water. Pittsburgh didn’t even select a player in December’s Rule 5 Draft. If the Pirates weren’t even going to feign an attempt at improving, it’s surprising that they didn’t aggressively shop the likes of Kela, Bell, Frazier, Musgrove and basically anyone else who’s controlled for three or fewer seasons.
2020 Season Outlook
If the manner in which owner Bob Nutting bumbled through the first month of the offseason — allowing a GM to conduct a hunt for a manager before firing that GM and starting over a month into the process — didn’t illustrate the organization’s lack of a plan, the end result of their winter should spell it out. This roster isn’t any better than the one that lost 93 games in 2019. It’s very arguably worse. And yet the Pirates only made one future-oriented trade, did next to nothing to add short-term free agents who could emerge as trade chips, sat out the Rule 5 Draft and engaged in virtually no activity on the waiver wire.
Players like Reynolds, Newman and Hayes at least give fans some exciting young talent to watch, but this is a weak roster that the club barely tried to improve. It’ll be an upset if the Pirates don’t finish in last place, and fans can expect to see some combination of Archer, Mugrove, Kela, Frazier and Bell circulating the rumor mill this summer.
Cherington deserves some benefit of the doubt, given a track record of quality player development in Boston and Toronto. Perhaps the plan was to use 2020 as a year of pure evaluation for what was already in house, but it sure seems like the Pirates passed on countless opportunities to pursue upside deals, further stock the farm or at least give the fans some reason to care. It’s going to be a long year in Pittsburgh.
How would you grade the Pirates’ offseason? (Link to poll for Trade Rumors mobile app users)