In conjunction with this post, Darragh McDonald held a Pirates-centric live chat on 10-19-22. Read the transcript here.
2022 went about as expected for the Pirates, who made very little effort to add to the team in the previous offseason. Instead, it was another year of letting their young players get their feet wet in the big leagues, with some encouraging results in that department.
- Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B: $60MM through 2029 (including buyout of 2030 club option)
- Bryan Reynolds, OF: $6.75MM through 2023 (with two remaining arbitration years after that)
- Robert Stephenson
- Kevin Newman
- Miguel Andújar
- Mitch Keller
- JT Brubaker
- Duane Underwood Jr.
- Non-tender candidates: Stephenson, Newman, Underwood
The Bucs head into this offseason with very little on the books, as the Ke’Bryan Hayes extension is the only firm commitment. Bryan Reynolds avoided arbitration in April by agreeing to a two-year deal for 2022 and 2023, with a couple of passes through arbitration still to come after that. That’s only $16.75MM on the ledger for next year, which will be nudged up slightly by a couple of modest arbitration salaries from those that are tendered contracts. Otherwise, the payroll is fairly wide open for any additions the club wants to make.
They have previously run payrolls in the $100MM range but have been closer to $50MM while rebuilding in the past few years, according to numbers from Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That leaves them plenty of room to work with, though they will probably lean towards modest additions, if last winter is any precedent. A year ago, the club handed out a series of one-year deals to veterans like Roberto Pérez, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Heath Hembree, José Quintana, Jake Marisnick, Daniel Vogelbach and Andrew Knapp, none for higher than $5MM.
Of course, free agency isn’t the thing that Pittsburgh fans will look to for hope. The club’s prospects and other young players are the main event here, with lots of reasons for excitement in that department. Hayes has already established himself as a mainstay at the hot corner, able to provide a floor of elite defense even if his bat is still lacking. Last year, first full season, he hit .257/.316/.373. That production amounted to a wRC+ of 87, or 13% below league average. Still, he was able to produce 2.0 wins above replacement in the eyes of FanGraphs due to his excellent glovework. It was another similar season here in 2022, as Hayes hit .244/.314/.345 for a wRC+ of 88. But that subpar offense was paired with the best third base defense in the game, as Hayes produced 18 Outs Above Average, the top mark at the hot corner and trailing only Jonathan Schoop and Dansby Swanson for tops among all position players. Defensive Runs Saved is even more complimentary, as Hayes’s 24 DRS was the best of any position player across the league. Hayes also stole 20 bags, allowing him to produce 3.0 fWAR without adding much with the bat. He is still just 25 and could still be developing at the plate, which gives him the potential to be one of the most impactful players in the game if he takes a step forward in that department. Even if he doesn’t, he’s proven he can be a valuable player even with modest offensive contributions.
Next to Hayes on the infield is Oneil Cruz, who got a cup of coffee last year but truly debuted here in 2022. The young Cruz, who turned 24 this week, has some wrinkles in his game but has some of the most exciting elements as well. His Statcast page has blood red splotches thanks to his tremendous exit velocities and sprint speed. He also has one of the strongest throwing arms among infielders in the game. Everything he does is at an elite speed, from the way he runs and throws to the way he smashes the ball to smithereens. However, there are some areas where he is still figuring things out. One such area is plate discipline, with Cruz walking at a below-average 7.8% rate this year and striking out in a huge 34.9% of his plate appearances. Among batters with at least 350 plate appearances this year, only Joey Gallo and Chris Taylor struck out at a higher clip. Despite that, he was still above average at the dish overall, hitting .233/.294/.450 for a wRC+ of 106. Another area of uncertainty is defense, where Cruz is still an unknown commodity. There’s no real precedent for a shortstop like him, given his 6’7″ frame. The initial reviews on the experiment are mixed, with Cruz earning -9 OAA this year and a -7.5 from Ultimate Zone Rating, while DRS was kinder and gave Cruz a +1. He is still young and has less than one year of MLB experience at this point, so it’s possible Cruz could still develop. But given his speed and arm strength, he would likely make an excellent outfielder in the future if he doesn’t stick at short. With the Pirates unlikely to be contending for a while, they can keep the experiment going and see how Cruz responds next year.
While Hayes and Cruz should have the left side of the diamond spoken for, the right side is much less concrete. Rodolfo Castro, Kevin Newman, Ji Hwan Bae and Tucupita Marcano have been splitting the second base duties over the past few months, with no one seeming to run away with the job. Castro has shown some potential this year, hitting 11 home runs in 71 games and batting .233/.299/.427 overall for a wRC+ of 102. Newman took a step forward from 2021’s awful year at the plate but was still below average in the end. Last year, he hit .226/.265/.309 for a 53 wRC+ but got up to .274/.316/.372 and a wRC+ of 94 here in 2022. He’ll be due an arbitration raise on this year’s $1.95MM salary, though the club could just move on and non-tender him. Bae was promoted near the end of the season but has shown a potential to impact the game with his speed. He hit .289/.362/.430 for a 112 wRC+ in 108 Triple-A games this year, adding 30 steals in the process. In ten MLB games, he hit .333/.405/.424 while swiping another three bags. Marcano’s been up and down this year, playing well in the minors but not so well in the show. It’s possible the Bucs have an answer at the keystone in here somewhere, but all of these guys also play other positions, giving them the flexibility to pivot based on how things develop.
First base is even more wide open at this point, as most of the playing time this year has gone to guys who have already moved on or are about to. Yoshi Tsutsugo, Michael Chavis, Josh VanMeter, Yu Chang, Bligh Madris and Kevin Padlo all saw some time at first base this year but none of them are on the roster anymore. Ben Gamel has played a couple games there recently but is headed for free agency soon. That leaves the club with multi-positional options like Zack Collins and Diego Castillo on the depth chart going into next year, though it’s possible they bring in another low-cost free agent or waiver claim to take over here. Some of the free agent first baseman that likely won’t cost too much include Jesús Aguilar and Miguel Sanó.
In the outfield, there’s one firm building block in Reynolds. Despite constant trade rumors, the club has held firm and kept him around as part of the team. There’s a bit of a ticking clock, as Reynolds has just three years of team control remaining at this point. Though rebuilding teams can shed their embarrassing skin and become exciting in a hurry, as this year’s Orioles showed. They also held onto their center field trade candidate in Cedric Mullins and now seem poised to use him as part of contending teams for the next few seasons. The Bucs will hope to do the same with Reynolds. He had a third straight successful full season, hitting 27 home runs and batting .262/.345/.461 for a wRC+ of 125.
Who lines up next to Reynolds on the grass is a more open question. Bae has spent some time in the outfield and could wind up here if he doesn’t get the second base job. There’s Jack Suwinski, who hit 19 homers but also struck out 30.6% of the time and hit .202/.298/.411 overall for a wRC+ of 100. Miguel Andújar, recently claimed off waivers from the Yankees, could finally get the run of extended playing time he never got in the Bronx. Since his 2018 debut, he’s dealt with injuries and been relegated to a depth piece, mashing in the minors but struggling in brief stints in the majors. Castillo and Marcano could be in this mix as well, alongside Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Travis Swaggerty and other depth pieces.
Behind the plate, Pérez was injured early in the season and the club used Jason Delay and Tyler Heineman at the end of the year. Neither of those two have much experience and both are glove-first types who are better suited for a backup role. It’s likely the club fortifies this position with a veteran addition, with Pérez recently expressing his belief that he could be that guy again. If it’s not Pérez, the club could look to bring in another veteran catcher via free agency. The Bucs won’t spend to get Willson Contreras, but some of the other available options include Christian Vázquez, Omar Narváez, Austin Hedges and Tucker Barnhart.
Much like the position player side of things, the pitching staff features a host of youngsters who either will or won’t be part of the future. Mitch Keller seems to have taken a huge step forward here in 2022, dropping his ERA to 3.91 after registering a 6.17 mark last year. He’s still getting strikeouts at a below-average rate but improved his walk rate to a manageable level and is getting the ball on the ground more. After getting balls hit into the dirt on 40.4% of balls in play prior to this year, he had a 49% ground ball rate in 2022 thanks to adding a sinker to his repertoire.
Roansy Contreras got a three-inning cameo last year but got a more proper debut here in 2022. Over 95 innings, he put up a 3.79 ERA, 21.1% strikeout rate, 9.6% walk rate and 36.4% ground ball rate. He will turn 23 in November and look to take a step forward next season. 23-year-old Luis Ortiz made his MLB debut with a 4.50 ERA over four starts. He had a similar 4.56 ERA over 124 1/3 innings in the minors but with encouraging rate stats, striking out 27.1% of batters faced while walking just 7.5%. Johan Oviedo was bumped to the bullpen in St. Louis but returned to starting after coming to Pittsburgh in the José Quintana trade. In seven starts since switching jerseys, he has a 3.23 ERA, 20.9% strikeout rate and 54.5% ground ball rate, though with a concerning 11.9% walk rate in that sample.
Beyond that group, there’s a collection of depth guys who could fill out the rest of the staff. JT Brubaker had a 5.36 ERA last year but a 4.69 ERA this year with fairly similar peripherals, thanks to keeping the ball in the park more. He got taken over the fence 28 times in 124 1/3 innings last year but has reduced that number to just 17 long balls this year, despite increasing his workload to 144 frames. He’s eligible for arbitration this winter but should be kept around as a serviceable back-end guy. Bryse Wilson put up a 5.52 ERA in 115 2/3 innings while frequently getting sent to the minors. He won’t reach arbitration this winter but will be out of options next year, meaning he’ll have to be designated for assignment if the club ever wants to remove him from the active roster next year. Zach Thompson made 22 starts this year but got shifted to the bullpen as the season wore on. Although there are many intriguing arms overall, the Bucs could certainly sign another low-cost veteran like they did with Quintana a year ago, who could eat some innings and serve a mentor role before hopefully getting traded for prospects at the deadline.
In the bullpen, there’s a handful of young arms, but the top name is David Bednar. Since coming over from the Padres in the January 2021 deal that sent Joe Musgrove to San Diego, Bednar has fired 112 1/3 innings with a 2.40 ERA, 32.7% strikeout rate, 7.8% walk rate and 37.6% ground ball rate. He’s emerged as the club’s closer in that time, notching 19 saves here in 2022. He’s been the subject of trade rumors already and likely will be again, though the Pirates shouldn’t feel much pressure to move him given he can be controlled through the 2026 season. Behind him, it’s a hodgepodge of younger depth arms and journeymen. The club could certainly grab a couple of veterans in the offseason, unless they are dead set on giving their existing arms as much run as possible.
In addition to the exciting players that have already cracked the big leagues, the Pirates will also be looking forward to some future debuts. The club’s top pitching prospect Quinn Priester reached Triple-A by the end of the year but spent most of his season at Double-A, registering a 2.87 ERA with a 24% strikeout rate, 7.1% walk rate and 51% ground ball rate. Endy Rodriguez, an interesting catching prospect who also plays infield and outfield, also made it up to Indianapolis by season’s end. Across multiple levels, he hit .323/.407/.590 this year. A bit further away are some other prospects of note, such as Henry Davis, Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales and many others.
There are certainly things to be excited about here, but the return to meaningful games doesn’t seem especially close. The Pirates finished 62-100, a modest one-game improvement over last season, and still have a lot of ground to make up before they are genuine contenders. With the club unlikely to be major spenders, it will take continued development from within to get them over the hump. Another offseason of small commitments is likely to come, with 2023 likely pegged as another year of letting the kids play and seeing where it goes.