The Pirates ramped up their rebuilding efforts by trading away several key players without adding much in the way of Major League reinforcements.
Major League Signings
- Tyler Anderson, LHP: One year, $2.5MM
- Total spend: $2.5MM
Trades and Claims
- Traded 1B Josh Bell to the Nationals in exchange for RHPs Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean
- Traded RHP Jameson Taillon to the Yankees in exchange for RHPs Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras, SS Maikel Escotto and OF Canaan Smith
- Traded RHP Joe Musgrove to the Padres in exchange for OF Hudson Head, LHP Omar Cruz and RHPs Drake Fellows and David Bednar; Pirates also received C Endy Rodriguez from Mets as part of three-team deal
- Acquired Rule 5 RHP Luis Oviedo from Mets in exchange for cash
- Acquired OF Dustin Fowler from the Athletics in exchange for cash
- Claimed C Michael Perez off waivers from the Rays
- Claimed RHP Sean Poppen off waivers from the Twins
- Selected RHP Jose Soriano from the Angels in the Rule 5 Draft (Soriano is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery)
Notable Minor League Signings
- Todd Frazier, Brian Goodwin, Tony Wolters, Chasen Shreve, Wilmer Difo, Joe Hudson, Chase De Jong, Clay Holmes
- Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams (non-tendered), Chris Archer, Keone Kela, Derek Holland
Ben Cherington’s first year at the helm of the Pirates didn’t result in the aggressive tear-down that many anticipated, although that was in part due to injuries. Chris Archer’s thoracic outlet surgery and a series of health setbacks for Keone Kela took away a pair of obvious chips prior to last summer’s trade deadline.
This offseason, Cherington and his staff got to work on what has long felt like an inevitable tear-down of the previous regime’s roster. Gone are Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon, each traded away for a package of multiple young players — nearly all of whom are several years away from contributing at the Major League level.
Right-hander Wil Crowe is perhaps the lone exception, and he could join the Pirates’ big league roster early in the 2021 season. Crowe doesn’t have huge upside, but he could slot into the back of a Pirates rotation that is in a transitional state after losing Musgrove, Taillon and righty Trevor Williams, who was non-tendered back in December. (Williams went on to sign elsewhere in the division, landing a one-year deal with the Cubs.)
Broadly speaking, the trades of Bell, Musgrove and Taillon are hardly unexpected. The Pirates were baseball’s worst team in 2020 and will be among the worst in 2021 as well. All three members of that trio have just two years of club control remaining, meaning none of them were likely to contribute to the Pirates’ next competitive club.
Still, there’s an argument that the Bucs would’ve been better off holding off on making any deals until this summer. Bell is coming off a miserable .226/.305/.364 showing through 57 games last season. The switch-hitting slugger’s batted-ball profile was encouraging, but his strikeout rate spiked during last year’s abbreviated season. With a big first half, it’s feasible that Bell might’ve been more in demand than he was over the winter, when few clubs were looking for everyday options at first base and/or designated hitter.
Taillon, meanwhile, hasn’t pitched since the 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery. It was the second such procedure of his career, and he has a fairly lengthy track record of injuries, so perhaps the Pirates didn’t want to risk any further setbacks. One would imagine that had Taillon demonstrated his health and looked effective in Spring Training and early in the season, however, that the Pirates might have been able to fetch a larger return. Musgrove also dealt with injuries in 2020, although he came back and finished the year with his most impressive work of the season.
None of that is intended to pan the returns the Pirates received in those deals. Seven of Pittsburgh’s Top 30 prospects at Baseball America were acquired in those trades, with another two coming via last winter’s Starling Marte swap. Any rebuilding team is faced with trying to find the right balance between trading a player at peak value and hanging onto him too long; the Pirates were burned, to an extent, by hanging onto Kela and Archer, ultimately receiving nothing in return for either player. They took a more risk-averse approach by moving Bell, Taillon and Musgrove now rather than marketing them midseason, but they also ensured themselves a respectable return on each of the three.
That said, it’s also likely that the trades were financially motivated — particularly in the case of Bell, who avoided arbitration with the Nationals by signing a one-year, $6.35MM deal after the trade. Bell, Taillon ($2.55MM) and Musgrove ($4.45MM) will earn a combined $13.35MM in 2021. Williams, whom the club cut loose for nothing, was due a raise on his $2.825MM salary (and eventually signed at $2.5MM). The Bucs lopped more than $15MM off an already modest payroll and opted not to reinvest much into the 2021 roster. They’re currently set to open the year with a team payroll shy of $45MM, the lowest in baseball by a wide margin. (Cleveland is next lowest at about $53MM.)
Pittsburgh’s lone big league signing was a one-year, $2.5MM deal with lefty Tyler Anderson. The former Rockies first-rounder had an up-and-down tenure in Colorado and a decent showing with last year’s Giants, but was non-tendered by San Francisco in December. It’s a reasonable enough price point but a little puzzling as a rebuilding team’s standalone addition of the winter. Anderson has a fairly lengthy injury history, including a pair of knee surgeries. He hasn’t been a bankable source of innings and even at his best has been more of a fourth starter.
In a vacuum, the Anderson signing is perfectly reasonable, but it feels as though it’d be better for the Bucs if Anderson was one of several additions made with the intent of bolstering the rotation after losing three veterans this winter. That’s especially true given that the Pirates could trade either Steven Brault or Chad Kuhl at any point, further depleting their starting options.
As it stands, the Pirates will try to navigate the season with Brault, Kuhl, Anderson, Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, Crowe, Miguel Yajure and Cody Ponce as their most immediate rotation options. Other internal options will surely arise, but particularly given the possibility of a Kuhl and/or Brault trade, the club could be thin on rotation depth. Non-roster invitees James Marvel, Clay Holmes and Chase De Jong could provide some cover, as could waiver claim Sean Poppen, but this looks like a club that could use another dependable arm or two just to help get through the year.
In the bullpen, the Bucs have some once-touted pitchers (Kyle Crick, Carson Fulmer, Michael Feliz, Chris Stratton) but there’s little in the way of certainty beyond de facto closer Richard Rodriguez. The 31-year-old is quietly among the game’s more effective relievers and should give them a solid option late in games — at least until this summer when Rodriguez is likely to be on the trade market alongside pretty much every other veteran on this roster.
On the position-player side of things, the Bucs picked up some catching depth by claiming Michael Perez from the Rays and inking longtime Rockies catcher Tony Wolters to a non-roster deal. Perez hasn’t hit much in limited big league time, but the 28-year-old has a solid Triple-A track record and gives them a lefty bat to pair with right-handed-hitting Jacob Stallings.
The trade of Bell opens up first base for Colin Moran, though he’ll likely be on the market this summer himself — particularly if he can sustain last year’s uptick in power. Second baseman Adam Frazier was discussed in trades this winter, even as recently as late January, so it’s possible he could still be moved prior to Opening Day. If not, he can expect to hear his name in trade rumors throughout the year.
On the other side of the diamond, former first-rounders Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker will vie for playing time at shortstop. Tucker’s outfield experiment appears to be over, so he’ll get another look at his original position. Both have options remaining. Uber-prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes, meanwhile, should have a clear path to at-bats at the hot corner after last year’s brilliant debut. At least on the surface, gregarious veteran Todd Frazier would seem to have a good chance to make the roster as a backup option at either corner.
Pittsburgh entered the winter without much clarity in the outfield, and several months later, not much has changed. They’ll still hope for a Gregory Polanco rebound that allows them to shed at least some of his contract, while 2019 Rookie of the Year candidate Bryan Reynolds will get a chance at his own rebound in left field.
On paper, the Pirates seemed like a decent landing spot for a non-tendered outfielder with some big league experience and upside — a Hunter Renfroe or David Dahl, for instance — but they opted instead to mine the DFA/waiver market. The Bucs have a pair of former top 100 prospects to compete for time in center field: August waiver claim Anthony Alford and recent trade acquisition Dustin Fowler. They’ll be joined by veteran minor league signee Brian Goodwin, who figures to have a good chance to make the club as well. If Goodwin indeed cracks the roster, he can be controlled through 2022 via arbitration.
No one expected the Pirates to be particularly aggressive spenders in free agency this winter, but it’s still something of a surprise, given the holes on the pitching staff, that the club didn’t bring in some more low-cost help. If nothing else, any such arms could’ve potentially become trade chips this summer, and they’d have helped to prevent the team from over-relying on a collection of pitchers that has been oft-injured and inconsistent. Perhaps ownership simply wanted to keep the payroll as low as possible, and if that’s the case, then mission accomplished; the entire Pirates roster will barely earn more than Trevor Bauer alone will be paid by the Dodgers in 2021.
Winning games in the short-term clearly isn’t a priority for the Pirates as they wade through the arduous tanking process in an effort to stack their draft and international classes over the next few years. We’ve seen many clubs go through this process since the Cubs and Astros won World Series on the backs of full-scale rebuilds, but the returns have diminished over the years as more teams employ the tactic. Perhaps the Pirates will eventually emerge as a division power in the wake of these lean years, but they’re asking fans for an awful lot of patience as they gear up for what looks like another non-competitive season and a top-five pick in 2022.
How would you grade the Pirates’ offseason? (Link to poll for Trade Rumors iOS/Android app users)