Coming off their third straight last place season, the Pirates remain squarely amidst a rebuild. It’ll be another quiet winter and likely another poor season at the major league level for Pittsburgh. Yet the burgeoning farm system is finally beginning to offer some long-term hope.
- Roberto Pérez, C: $5MM through 2022
- Yoshi Tsutsugo, 1B: $4MM through 2022
- José Quintana, LHP: $2MM through 2022
Owe $3MM buyout on 2022 club option to Gregory Polanco, who was released in August
Total 2022 commitments: $14MM
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Bryan Reynolds — $4.5MM
- Chris Stratton — $2.2MM
- Kevin Newman — $1.95MM (settled to avoid arbitration)
- Ben Gamel — $1.8MM (settled to avoid arbitration)
- Colin Moran, Chad Kuhl, Chasen Shreve, Kyle Keller, Phillip Evans, Trevor Cahill, Steven Brault, Wilmer Difo, Chase De Jong, Cody Ponce, Erik González, Shelby Miller, Connor Overton, Enyel de los Santos, Shea Spitzbarth, Taylor Davis, Tanner Anderson
As expected, the Pirates were one of the worst teams in the National League in 2021. It was the Bucs’ second consecutive season with a win percentage south of .400, and they’re again in line for a top five overall pick in the draft. That’s par for the course for one of the league’s most obvious rebuilders, and it sets the stage for another fairly quiet offseason.
The Pirates have been one of the lower-spending clubs around the league even during years with strong rosters. Pittsburgh entered 2021 with a player payroll estimated just north of $45MM, and their end-of-year expenditure was reportedly the lowest for any MLB team since 2013. Without any path to contention in 2022, it’s unlikely the Pirates push payroll much higher next season, although the complete lack of financial commitments entering the winter gave the front office some freedom for early-offseason moves.
Before the lockout, Pittsburgh made three low-cost big league signings. Southpaw José Quintana inked a $2MM deal and will get another rotation chance after spending the bulk of last season in the bullpen. An All-Star caliber hurler earlier in his career with the White Sox, Quintana hasn’t been especially productive over the past three seasons.
Quintana did miss bats at a career-best rate last year, even as he struggled to a personal-worst 6.43 ERA. That’s at least a bit encouraging, although it came with a corresponding spike in walks. The Bucs have enough rotation uncertainty to afford the veteran some innings in hopes of a bounceback. In an ideal world, Quintana would follow the Tyler Anderson path of posting solid enough production to recoup a mid-tier prospect or two from a contender at next summer’s trade deadline.
Pittsburgh is still in the stages of the rebuild where they’re willing to move players off the big league club for future value. They did just that last month, in fact, sending Gold Glove catcher Jacob Stallings to the Marlins. The move brought back right-hander Zach Thompson — who has a chance to step right into the rotation after flashing some promise as a rookie — and a pair of prospects, right-hander Kyle Nicolas and outfielder Connor Scott.
Parting with the well-regarded Stallings likely wasn’t an easy call, but this was probably the right time for the Bucs to pull the trigger. Not only is the backstop coming off perhaps the best season of his career, he just turned 32 years old. While the late bloomer remains under club control for three more seasons (barring changes to the service structure in the next CBA), he may not be as productive as he was this past season by the time the Pirates are ready to contend.
The Stallings trade and outright of backup Michael Pérez left the Pirates without a catcher. Yet they quickly turned to free agency to find the solution, signing former Indian Roberto Pérez to a $5MM guarantee. The 33-year-old is coming off a miserable offensive season that got him bought out by Cleveland, but he’s a high-end defender who should work well with the young pitching staff at a non-exorbitant cost. Pérez isn’t a long-term answer, but he’s a perfectly capable veteran stopgap for next season.
Roberto Pérez is the only catcher on the Pittsburgh 40-man roster at the moment, meaning there’ll be more moves coming out of the lockout. Acquisitions will come via low-cost free agency or perhaps the Rule 5 draft, but Pittsburgh will have to select at least one more catcher to the big league club by Opening Day. Michael Pérez remains in the system as non-roster depth and figures to get another look himself in Spring Training.
Moving elsewhere around the diamond, first base is accounted for by the Bucs’ other major league free agent signing thus far. Yoshi Tsutsugo returned on a $4MM deal, and general manager Ben Cherington has already indicated he’s likely to spend the majority of his time at first. Tsutsugo struggled with the Rays and Dodgers after an impressive run in Japan, but he showed signs of life after latching on with the Bucs late in the year.
Tsutsugo hit .268/.347/.535 across 144 plate appearances in black and gold. Can he sustain anywhere near that level of production over a longer run? That remains to be seen, but he impressed the front office enough to earn another look. With Tsutsugo taking over as the club’s top lefty-hitting first baseman, the Pirates moved on from Colin Moran just before the non-tender deadline.
The other corner infield spot belongs to Ke’Bryan Hayes. It was a disappointing 2021 for the 24-year-old Hayes, who entered the season as a favorite for Rookie of the Year after a monster three weeks late in 2020. He suffered a fairly significant wrist injury within the first week of the season, and he never seemed to get on track offensively upon his return. The organization will hope for more than a .257/.316/.373 line from Hayes moving forward, but he’s clearly a key piece of the franchise’s long-term future.
The Bucs’ middle infield is in a bit of flux. All-Star second baseman Adam Frazier was traded away this summer. Kevin Newman, who took the bulk of playing time at shortstop this past season, remains on hand but hit .226/.265/.309 over 554 plate appearances. Newman may open the year at the position, but it shouldn’t be long before top prospect Oneil Cruz is playing shortstop regularly. The 23-year-old was rewarded for a monster Double-A season with a two-game big league cameo to end the year. But he’s only played six Triple-A games, and a season-opening assignment to Indianapolis may be in order.
Cruz is a fascinating prospect, with his massive 6’7″ frame leading to questions about his ability to stick at shortstop. The rebuild affords the Pirates some freedom to evaluate Cruz’s long-term defensive home, as they can live with a few miscues during what’ll be a non-competitive year regardless. Either way, Cruz’s huge power potential from the left-handed batter’s box makes him an intriguing young talent who’ll get plenty of reps against big league pitching in the not too distant future.
Second base is completely up in the air, with Cole Tucker, Hoy Park, Michael Chavis and Newman among the internal options. Everyone in that group underperformed in 2021, though, and none should be a lock for playing time. Free agency offers numerous depth options around the dirt. Old friend Josh Harrison is available, while Hanser Alberto, Ehire Adrianza and Shed Long are among the infielders who could sign minor league deals. Adding some veteran help to the mix — even if just via non-roster pact — could be in order.
There’s also plenty of uncertainty in the outfield, but one player is locked in. Center fielder Bryan Reynolds had an excellent 2021 campaign, hitting .302/.390/.522 over 646 plate appearances. That was his second very strong showing out of three big league seasons, and Reynolds looks to have emerged as the type of cornerstone position player clubs are hoping to find during a rebuild.
There’s surely robust interest from teams around the league in acquiring Reynolds, but it’d be a major surprise if he’s ultimately moved. Pittsburgh reportedly rebuffed huge demand for the left-handed hitter at the deadline, viewing him as a potential anchor of their next competitive club. That won’t stop teams from calling coming out of the lockout, but all indications to this point are that the Pirates don’t have much interest in parting with Reynolds.
The Bucs can control the 26-year-old (27 in January) for another four seasons via the arbitration process. They surely have their sights set on competing within that time frame, and Reynolds isn’t slated to hit free agency until after his age-30 season. It’s justifiable for the front office to just hold onto him via arbitration, then, although the organization would likely have interest in extending their window of club control an additional few seasons if Reynolds is amenable.
As a Super Two player, Reynolds is already in line for his first significant salary this winter. He’s projected to make $4.5MM in 2022, which could lessen his desire to push back his path to free agency for more up-front security. We’ve seen a few extensions for outfielders in this service bucket in the past, but Reynolds’ offensive track record to date far surpasses those of players (Max Kepler, Kevin Kiermaier, Ender Inciarte) who have signed this kind of deal.
In all likelihood, a Reynolds extension would probably have to set a new precedent for players in this service class. For a Pirates’ franchise that has never gone beyond $60MM on a guaranteed contract, that kind of deal may not be in the cards. That said, the Pirates don’t have a single guaranteed dollar on the books beyond next season, so the possibility of committing to Reynolds long-term can’t be ruled out.
Aside from Reynolds, there’s little in the way of locks for outfield playing time. Ben Gamel avoided arbitration and will probably be in the mix. Former top prospect Anthony Alford finished the season on a bit of a hot streak and could get a look. The Bucs grabbed the out-of-options Greg Allen off waivers from the Yankees and will either have to keep him on the active roster or designate him for assignment themselves. Prospects Travis Swaggerty and Canaan Smith-Njigba each seem likely to begin the year in Triple-A but could debut within the first few months.
None of Gamel, Alford or Allen should stand in the way of the team looking into upgrades though. Pittsburgh has an estimated $39MM in 2022 commitments, according to Jason Martinez of Roster Resource, leaving a few million dollars even before reaching last year’s minuscule mark. The Pirates aren’t going to sign anyone in the Michael Conforto range, but they could look to the free agent outfield market for possible minor league or low-cost MLB deals in the Quintana/Pérez mold.
That’s also true of the rotation, which Cherington has expressed an interest in continuing to address. Quintana has a rotation spot and Thompson likely does as well after being acquired in the Stallings deal. JT Brubaker will probably get another shot. The right-hander allowed far too many home runs en route to a 5.36 ERA last year, but he posted solid strikeout and walk numbers.
Bryse Wilson, acquired from the Braves in last summer’s Richard Rodríguez swap, joins Mitch Keller as former top prospects who may be running out of chances. Both pitchers have strong pedigree but have yet to produce in the big leagues, either from a run prevention or peripherals perspective. Wilson is out of options, so he’ll likely be on the active roster in some capacity. Such players as Max Kranick, Dillon Peters, Miguel Yajure and Wil Crowe could be in the mix as depth options at the back end.
Given that collection of generally unestablished names, it’s no surprise Cherington’s open to further additions. The Pirates should be a target destination for reclamation candidates like Vince Velasquez, Zach Davies or Drew Smyly. In addition to the possibility of landing a rotation job, the pitcher-friendly nature of PNC Park could help arms of that ilk who have struggled with home runs in recent seasons.
As is the case for most rebuilding teams, the Pirates don’t have a ton of certainty in the bullpen. David Bednar and Chris Stratton are in line for high-leverage roles, although either could attract trade interest. Duane Underwood Jr. probably did enough in 2021 to earn a season-opening spot, and some members of the rotation depth mix will wind up working in shorter stints as well.
There’s room here, as there is throughout the roster, for some cheap fliers. There’s the possibility of a Rodríguez reunion; the Bucs’ former closer finished the year terribly in Atlanta and was non-tendered after the season. Yet he’s clearly capable of having success in Pittsburgh, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the front office tried to bring him back. He’s just one of numerous options available, and the Bucs will probably bring in a few relievers on minors deals and/or waiver claims before the start of the season.
The Pirates are perennially hamstrung by payroll limitations, and they’re not going to make any impact splashes this offseason. There’s enough flexibility around the roster that the front office may just have their pick of bounceback/reclamation targets coming out of the lockout. For another season, though, the organization’s most important developments will likely be concentrated on the farm.