The Pirates have at least two and as many as three potential rotation pieces slowed by injuries at the moment, and director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk provided updates on lefty Steven Brault and right-handers Clay Holmes and Jameson Taillon to reporters Wednesday (Twitter thread via Adam Berry of MLB.com). Brault, slowed by a shoulder strain, was shut down from throwing early this month. But while the initial prognosis suggested that he’d be reevaluated after two weeks, the 27-year-old has yet to start up a throwing program more than three weeks since that announcement. Holmes, diagnosed with a foot fracture earlier this month, has been throwing from one knee from a distance of 75 to 90 feet. Taillon, the club’s top pitching talent, is throwing from 120 feet in his rehab from Tommy John surgery. He’s still expected to miss the entire season given the timing of last August’s operation, but it’s still encouraging to hear that the righty is ramping up his throwing efforts without issue.
Typically, late March is a time in which we see a lot of roster movement as clubs sort out their Opening Day rosters. Veteran free agents on minor-league deals can often force the action by virtue of opt-out clauses in their contracts. But the situation looks quite a bit different under the unusual circumstances of the delayed 2020 season.
League rosters have not been frozen. And there’s no rule suspending the operation of those opt-out clauses. Accordingly, teams and player agents have been left to sort things out on a case-by-case basis.
MLBTR’s Steve Adams reports (Twitter link) that there are a variety of approaches being taken around the game. In some cases, teams and players have effectively pushed back the decision by reaching new agreements pegged to some future date — from the start of a second Spring Training or eventual Opening Day. The Phillies, Blue Jays, and Pirates are in the latter camp.
In other situations, it seems, the sides have more or less tabled the details, leaving for another day a determination on the operation of the opt-out clause. And in still other cases, there’s still uncertainty. The Royals, for instance, are still trying to decide how best to handle the immediately pending (March 26th) opt-outs of veteran relievers Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal.
It’s certainly possible that those and other players will simply exercise their opt-out rights as originally negotiated. We’ve already seen some players — Joe Panik with the Blue Jays; Ryan Buchter with the Angels — earn 40-man roster spots in recent days, so some clubs have obviously been willing to make commitments.
Curious how this might impact your favorite team’s plans? Our 2019-20 Free Agent Tracker includes links to all of our posts on minor-league signings, with simple filters to help you isolate the signings of interest. At minimum, you’ll see many of the players who were brought into camp as non-roster invitees. And the linked posts on the signings include opt-out details, if they were reported.
- Twelve teams contacted Kevan Smith during the catcher’s free agent stint this winter, Smith tells John Perrotto of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, though he was surprised to be on the open market at all. The Angels non-tendered Smith rather than go through the arbitration process with him (MLBTR projected Smith to earn a $1.3MM salary in 2020), a decision that left Smith feeling “pretty stunned…I thought I was on solid footing there.” Smith ended up signing a minor league deal with the Rays after surveying his options, saying, “You start looking around and see what’s going to be your best opportunity and what team you’re most comfortable with. You pick and choose, and it comes down to who’s the most interested. I definitely felt the Rays wanted me to be here.” Playing in Tampa Bay also brings Smith to the East Coast and at least a bit closer to his home in Pennsylvania, though the Pittsburgh native said he didn’t hear from the Pirates this winter, despite the Bucs’ need for catching.
The Pirates have optioned seven players, the team announced on Twitter. They include relief pitchers Geoff Hartlieb, Sam Howard, Edgar Santana and Yacksel Rios, as well as outfielder Jason Martin and third base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes. But the most notable name in the bunch is shortstop Cole Tucker. The 23-year-old had been hitting well in spring training before the league-wide shutdown, putting up a slash line of .296/.387./.667, much better than his 2019 big league output of .211/.266/.361.
Tucker was a well-regarded prospect going into 2019, coming in at #83 on the FanGraphs Top 100 Prospects. He went on to have an up-and-down year, getting called up and making his big league debut on April 20 before being optioned and recalled twice more as the season wore on. He ended up getting into 56 games and producing a lackluster 61 wRC+ at the plate , but balancing that out with solid enough defense at short to break even in the WAR department with 0.0, according to FanGraphs. The numbers at Baseball Reference are slightly kinder, pegging him at 64 OPS+ and 0.2 WAR.
The shortstop position in Pittsburgh is currently occupied by Kevin Newman, who put together a very nice season in 2019, with a wRC+ of 110 and 2.4 fWAR. Erik Gonzalez should be slotted into the backup role, although JT Riddle could also play some shortstop in a pinch. It seems the team thinks the best path forward for Tucker is to get regular playing time in AAA and try to force his way into the picture. “We definitely believe in Cole as an every-day player”, said Pirates general manager Ben Cherington, Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports on Twitter. “He’s young enough where we think he should be playing every day still. Certainly see him contributing at the major league level really soon.”
We don’t really know whether or to what extent extension talks will continue during the coronavirus hiatus. But as I wrote yesterday, it seems reasonable to think they’ll be explored. Some may already have advanced nearly to completion before the global pandemic intervened.
While we may have to wait to learn who the targets are and see what deals get done, there’s a silver lining: more time for rampant speculation! Okay, we’re not going to speculate here; rather, we’ll tick through some interesting possibilities on paper. Remember, we’ve seen an increasing prevalence of deals with less-experienced players (even some without any MLB service) and with new player types (early-career relievers and utilitymen).
In the present MLB environment, value is king and the old forms are fading. Here are some names to chew on from the NL Central …
The Brew Crew already reached two deals this winter, both of which are quite interesting for very different reasons. The Milwaukee organization reached a big new extension (that still feels team-friendly) with superstar Christian Yelich. And it placed a upside bet on young hurler Freddy Peralta, whose ERA hasn’t quite yet matched his talent.
Scanning the rest of the roster, the name that jumps off the page is Josh Hader. True, he just lost an arbitration hearing to the team. But he’s still got a big $4.1MM starting point to build from for three more seasons and his salary could go wild if the Brewers keep him in the closer’s role. Perhaps there’s a path to a deal, even if it doesn’t expand the Brewers’ control rights past arbitration much (if at all).
Likelier, perhaps, are highly talented youngsters Keston Hiura and Brandon Woodruff. The former isn’t even close to arbitration but seems like an easy bet to keep hitting. The latter is a year away from Super Two qualification, so this might be the best opportunity to get him locked in at a palatable price. Given the aggressive stance the Brewers took in the Peralta deal, you can’t rule out negotiations with fellow hurlers Adrian Houser and Corbin Burnes.
Of greater long-term intrigue is the situation of staff ace Jack Flaherty. But odds of an agreement seem long, particularly after the club renewed his contract at a rather meager rate this spring. Perhaps fellow starter Dakota Hudson is a likelier target. If the club gets creative in exploring deals with the staff, relievers Giovanny Gallegos and John Brebbia might be approached, though neither is terribly youthful.
Two years out from free agency, Kolten Wong is a conceivable but hardly pressing potential target. It’s more interesting to contemplate an early pact with emerging utilityman Tommy Edman. But most intriguing of all? A pre-debut pact with top prospect Dylan Carlson. That would free the club to promote him whenever it wishes and perhaps secure a potential new franchise star for his entire prime.
If you can’t trade ’em, extend ’em? Perhaps not in all cases, but the Cubs have a lot of quality players that could be targeted for extensions — now that the team has elected not to deal them over the winter and likely won’t have a chance to revisit its decision in the middle of the 2020 season. Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, and Kyle Schwarber could in theory all fall in this bucket.
The likeliest candidate, though, is shortstop Javier Baez. He was never really on the block, so far as anyone knows, and there’s clearly mutual interest in a deal. Baez is two years from free agency but already well into bigger earnings via arbitration. Talks have been up and down thus far.
Otherwise, the Cubbies could explore ways of locking in lower prices on non-stars for the foreseeable future. What if — and believe me, this is a hypothetical — but what if the team saw some value in the right arrangement with a younger, less-established player? The most interesting possibilities: infielder Nico Hoerner, backstop Victor Caratini, and center fielder (for the time being, anyway) Ian Happ. Having already done a deal with David Bote, this sort of possibility can’t be ruled out.
Thankfully, in this case the team has more or less provided its own list (through unnamed sources that spoke with reporters). Younger big leaguers Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman, and Joe Musgrove are all said to be of interest, as is top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes. Now that we know talks have been initiated, it’s a matter of seeing if anything gets done.
Notably absent from that group? Slugging first baseman Josh Bell. The 27-year-old is in his first season of arbitration eligibility after a big 2019 season. The absence of reporting doesn’t necessarily mean that Bell isn’t of interest, though he may be a bit spendy for the Bucs to commit to.
Beyond that, it gets pretty speculative. The Pirates have big hopes for high-upside youngsters Mitch Keller and Oneil Cruz, but probably want to see them develop more before thinking about a long-term contract.
The Cincinnati ballclub has made a host of interesting moves of late. But there’s still potential for greater contractual action with regard to a few in-house players.
Excellent right-hander Luis Castillo is easily the top target. He’s in classic starting pitcher extension territory as a 2+ service-class player with two full seasons of increasingly productive moundwork. The team can surely envision quite a lot of upside and he has some real incentive to dodge the risk of another MLB campaign before getting paid.
Perhaps there’s also an argument for considering talks with lefty Amir Garrett or reliever/pinch-hitter/CF Michael Lorenzen. If teams can strike deals with pitchers like Peralta and Aaron Bummer, then these guys can’t be ruled out.
It’s awfully intriguing to think about a deal for everywhere-but-nowhere man Nick Senzel. But his precise place in this organization has yet to be determined. While the team would probably buy in at the right price, he’s probably not going to sell himself short and buy into an uncertain situation. There are a few other conceivable candidates on this roster — outfielder Jesse Winker; starter Anthony DeSclafani — but it’s quite a bit harder to see a path to a mutually agreeable deal in those cases.
Nobody knows when the 2020 Major League Baseball season will begin, but we can still look forward to its start. With that in mind, we’ll continue our series on potential bounce-back players from each division, this time focusing on notable National League Central pitchers whose production fell off from 2018 to ’19.
Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Cubs:
Undoubtedly among the greatest relief pitchers in baseball history, Kimbrel’s numbers careened off a cliff in his first season as a Cub. In fairness, though, Kimbrel didn’t have a normal offseason before finally joining the Cubs on a three-year, $43MM contract. The 31-year-old flamethrower went without a deal until the first week June, and he never really got on track after debuting later that month. Kimbrel battled elbow issues and threw just 20 2/3 innings, over which he allowed 15 earned runs on 21 hits (including a whopping nine home runs) and 12 walks. Although Kimbrel did strike out 30 hitters and continue to throw upward of 96 mph, it wasn’t enough to overcome the other problems. Considering what the Cubs have invested in him, not to mention the losses their bullpen suffered in free agency, it’s a must for him to return to form this year.
Jeremy Jeffress, RHP, Cubs:
Jeffress was a lights-out part of the Brewers’ bullpen in 2018, but last season represented an enormous step backward. In fact, it went so badly for Jeffress that the Brewers – then vying for a playoff spot – released him during the first week of September. Jeffress wound up with a ghastly 5.02 ERA in 52 innings and saw his typical fastball go from 95.3 mph in 2018 to 93.8. He also lost 4 percent on his swinging-strike rate, almost 10 percent on his strikeout rate, and 8 percent on his groundball rate. Consequently, he was only able to secure an $850K guarantee in free agency.
Trevor Bauer, RHP, Reds:
Bauer went from one of the absolute best pitchers in the sport two years ago to someone whom the opposition shelled after the Reds acquired him from the Indians at last summer’s trade deadline. The 29-year-old kept throwing hard, averaging about 95 mph on his fastball, but yielded 57 hits (including 12 home runs) en route to a 6.39 ERA in 56 1/3 innings as a Red. Between the two teams, his combined 4.48 ERA and 4.34 FIP were each more than two runs worse than the production he logged in 2018. Bauer also experienced an almost 7 percent fall in groundball rate, and he wasn’t any kind of Statcast hero, ranking near the middle of the pack in multiple important categories.
Pedro Strop, RHP, Reds:
Strop, 34, had several terrific years with the Cubs, but last season wasn’t one of them. His average fastball dropped by 1.5 mph (93.6), his walk rate spiked to its highest level since 2012 (4.32 BB/9) and he gave up more home runs than ever (1.3 per nine). All of those factors helped lead to career-worst run prevention totals for Strop (4.97 ERA/4.53 FIP), which came at a less-than-ideal time for the pending free agent. Strop’s subpar output last year stopped him from cashing in on the open market, but if he can rebound, the Reds will have a bargain on their hands at $1.825MM.
Chris Archer, RHP, Pirates:
MLBTR’s Steve Adams just took a more in-depth dive into the surprising struggles Archer has gone through as a Pirate. The former Rays standout has been a shell of himself since Pittsburgh acquired him from Tampa Bay in a July 2018 trade that looks incredibly lopsided in the Rays’ favor. But not all hope is lost for Archer, who – at the Pirates’ behest – grew too reliant on a sinking fastball that the opposition hammered. Archer bagged the pitch last summer and proceeded to post far better numbers during the second half of the season than he did before then, making the 5.19 ERA/5.02 FIP, 4.14 BB/9, 1.88 HR/9 and 36.3 percent groundball rate he put up over 119 2/3 innings look somewhat deceiving.
Derek Holland, LHP, Pirates:
Holland resurrected his career two years ago in San Francisco, only to fall apart between the Giants and Cubs last season. While Holland made 30 starts in 2018, he had such a rough time a year ago that he spent most of it in the bullpen, where he amassed 43 of 51 appearances. The 33-year-old limped to a 6.10 ERA/6.08 FIP with 8.75 K/9, 4.8 BB/9 and 2.13 HR/9, forcing him to settle for a minor league contract with Pittsburgh in the offseason.
Andrew Miller, LHP, Cardinals:
The first season as a Cardinal didn’t go well for Miller, whom they signed to a two-year, $25MM pact beforehand. The majority of his numbers, including a 4.45 ERA/5.19 FIP in 54 2/3 innings, went the wrong way. Miller, who barely walked more than one hitter per nine during his career-best season back in 2016, issued almost four and a half free passes last season. Moreover, he endured a 10.5 percent dip in groundball rate from 2018 and saw his home run-to-fly ball rate skyrocket to 21.6 percent. The 34-year-old has since dealt with some health troubles this spring, though the latest update on his status was encouraging.
Corbin Burnes, RHP, Brewers:
Burnes had a promising debut from Milwaukee’s bullpen in 2018. However, the spin rate darling’s propensity for surrendering homers proved to be his undoing last season. Burnes, 25, gave them up on 38.6 percent of fly balls, leading to an awful 8.82 ERA/6.09 FIP in 49 innings and canceling out a strong strikeout rate of 12.86 per nine and a borderline elite swinging-strike percentage of 17.2.
Corey Knebel, RHP, Brewers:
Knebel’s on the list for injury reasons, not ones related to performance. He was a huge piece of the Brewers’ relief corps from 2017-18, but Tommy John surgery kept him off the mound a season ago. Knebel, who underwent the procedure just under 12 months ago, had been lining up for an early May return before the game shut down, according to Adam McCalvy of MLB.com. So, the longer baseball’s hiatus last, the better Knebel’s odds are of returning to his past role as a Brewers contributor over a full season.
There’s little getting around the fact that the Pirates set back their franchise by years when trading Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz for Chris Archer prior to the 2018 trade deadline. The move had a cascading series of implications for the organization and quite likely contributed to the ousting of GM Neal Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage to varying extents. The Archer trade was bad. It cannot be undone. But is Archer a sunk cost? I’m not so certain of that.
When looking at Archer’s struggles in Pittsburgh, it’s worth noting that the Pirates asked him to dust off a two-seamer/sinker that he hadn’t thrown since 2014. The Pirates’ fascination with two-seamers was nothing new; it was a pitch they preferred all their pitchers to incorporate into their arsenals — sometimes to their detriment. Glasnow himself opened up about this when he called the Pirates “behind the times” in a revealing interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey — a piece that serves as a rather damning indictment on the prior regime in Pittsburgh, which was once renowned for unearthing hidden pitching value.
A quarter of the pitches Glasnow threw with the Pirates in 2017 were sinkers. He scrapped the pitch entirely with Tampa Bay. Nearly 18 percent of the pitches Gerrit Cole threw in five seasons with Pittsburgh were sinkers; he threw 13 total sinkers in 2019 with the Astros and nearly won a Cy Young Award. Glasnow also indicated that the Pirates emphasized pitching down and in rather than at the top of the strike zone; a look at Jordan Lyles’ heatmaps reveals that when deviated from that gameplan upon being traded to the Brewers he found quite a bit more success.
This isn’t to say the two-seamer-heavy approach never worked. As Mackey observed in his interview, there were indeed success stories — Francisco Liriano and J.A. Happ among them. But teams have increasingly moved away from shoehorning every pitcher on their roster into the same organizational pitching philosophy when it’s clearly not working for a certain pitcher.
To the Pirates’ credit, they eventually did allow Archer to scrap his sinker in 2019 — and the overall results still weren’t great. He posted a 4.65 ERA in 12 sinker-free starts. But looking beyond ERA, there was more reason to be optimistic. Archer posted a 5.85 ERA, a 6.07 FIP and a 4.93 xFIP while incorporating the sinker into his repertoire until mid-June of this past season. Upon ditching that pitch? He sat at 4.42/3.78/3.70 in those same measures. He also induced substantially more swings and misses and seemed to control his arsenal more effectively:
|Archer w/ sinker||23.9%||11.4%||58.1%||12.5%||12.3%||29.8%|
|Archer w/out sinker||31.2%||9.3%||65.4%||21.9%||13.7%||34.0%|
Once he scrapped the sinker, Archer walked fewer hitters, worked ahead in more counts and generally looked like a superior pitcher. Archer also saw his home-run rate plummet from 2.37 HR/9 to 1.31 HR/9 once he changed up his pitch mix — and it’s important to point out that homers were never a major problem for him prior to this past season’s juiced ball environment. Archer entered the 2019 season with a career 1.01 HR/9 mark and saw that number skyrocket to 1.88 on the year. Again, his sinker contributed; about one percent of Archer’s non-sinker offerings were hit for home runs. Five of the 203 sinkers he threw wound up going over the fence (2.5 percent).
We’re looking at a small sample, but it’s clear that Archer’s sinker was an awful pitch for him in 2019. He might not be an ace even if he goes back to a full season of four-seamers, but the non-sinker version of Archer in 2019 was a perfectly passable pitcher. And if the ball reverts to a more traditional composition and Archer’s home-run rate backs down toward his career levels, he might even look more like the pitcher the Pirates hoped they were acquiring when surrendering Glasnow, Meadows and Baz in that deal. (Alas, even if that does come to pass, it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine the scales of the deal tipping all the way back to Pittsburgh’s direction.)
The manner in which Archer is able to capitalize on what seems likely to be a four-seam-heavy approach will be critical for the fate of both Archer himself and the Pirates. Archer’s $9MM option for 2020 was something of a no-brainer given the hefty $1.75MM buyout and the fact that his contract contained a second club option. The option decision on him this winter is far less in his favor. Pittsburgh (or more likely another club) will hold an $11MM option over Archer with a much smaller $250K buyout. The 2020 option decision was a net $7.25MM call, but it’ll be a $10.75MM call next winter. That’s probably not getting picked up if he looks more like a rebound candidate than a bona fide big league starter.
Archer’s performance, of course, also has significant impact for the Pirates’ future. If he’s throwing well early in the season — whenever that may be — and looks like he’s back to his old ways (or, ideally, better than ever), Archer will become a premier trade chip. If he looks more like first-half Archer from 2019, the Bucs might simply look to dump his salary in a “take what you can get” type of deal.
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)
Our series focusing on notable players looking for bounce-back seasons in 2020 rolls on with the National League Central. We’ll start with 10 of the division’s hitters who hope to return to form this year…
Joey Votto, 1B, Reds:
Votto is one of the greatest hitters who has ever lived, so it was rather surprising – even at the age of 35 – to see him turn in such pedestrian numbers in 2019. He ended up with what was essentially a league-average line of .261/.357/.411 with 15 home runs in 608 plate appearances, mustering just 0.7 fWAR during that span. Compared to 2018, the ever-patient Votto saw his walk rate fall by almost 5 percent, his out-of-zone swing rate jump by nearly 5 percent and his strikeout rate climb by 4 percent. Regarding his performance last year, Votto admitted in February (via Mark Sheldon of MLB.com): “It’s the worst season I’ve had in my career, pretty clearly. I don’t think it’s close. Everything went the wrong way.” Now, the six-time All-Star and former MVP is “motivated” to turn things around as part of what could be the Reds’ first contending team in several years.
Lorenzo Cain, CF, Brewers:
Cain joined Votto in logging uncharacteristically mediocre numbers last season. But Cain, a 5.7-fWAR player as recently as 2018, was clearly hampered by a right thumb injury. That issue played a part in limiting the 33-year-old to 1.5 fWAR and a .260/.325/.372 line across 623 trips to the plate. From 2018-19, his walk rate fell by 3.5 percent, his wRC+ plummeted by 41 points (124 to 83) and he stole 12 fewer bases (30 to 18).
Justin Smoak, 1B, Brewers:
One of the Brewers’ offseason free-agent pickups, Smoak is coming off a year in which he matched Votto in wRC+. That’s normally a good thing, but at 101, that wasn’t the case last season. In his final campaign with the Blue Jays, the switch-hitting Smoak only put together a .208/.342/.406 line in his 500 PA. But his hard-hit rate increased by almost 9 percent, according to FanGraphs, and Statcast was a fan of his work. Notably, the 33-year-old’s expected weighted on-base average (.366) far outpaced his real wOBA (.323).
Jedd Gyorko, INF, Brewers:
Another of Milwaukee’s offseason signings, Gyorko is on the heels of a brutal and injury-wrecked 2019 spent with the Cardinals and Dodgers. He accounted for minus-0.7 fWAR in just 101 PA, thanks in large part to an unsightly .174/.248/.250 line. Before that, Gyorko totaled three straight seasons of above-average offensive production. For an affordable $2MM, Milwaukee’s hoping a healthy version of the 31-year-old will return to his 2016-18 days.
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Cardinals:
There was nothing wrong with Goldschmidt’s output in 2019, per se; it just didn’t match up to the brilliance we’ve come to expect from him. A middling start to the six-time All-Star’s first season as a Cardinal tamped down his overall numbers, helping limit him to a .260/.346/.476 showing and 2.9 fWAR (though he did hit 34 home runs). Remember, Goldschmidt entered the year as a lifetime .297/.398/.532 hitter with six consecutive seasons of between 4.0 and 7.2 fWAR.
Matt Carpenter, 3B, Cardinals:
Carpenter, like Goldschmidt, was a star in the several seasons preceding 2019. But last year went awry for Carpenter, who – for the first time in his career – failed to record even average offensive production. The 34-year-old finished the season as a .226/.334/.392 hitter in 492 PA, notching a career-worst 1.2 fWAR in the process. Compared to 2018, Carpenter’s walk and strikeout rates went in the wrong direction by about 3 percent apiece, his ISO plummeted by a stunning 100 points, and his hard-hit percentage fell by eight points.
Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals:
The Cardinals are currently working to extend the 37-year-old Molina, one of the best players in franchise history, though the potential Hall of Famer wasn’t his usual self in 2019. He produced his lowest fWAR (1.2) since 2006 and batted a powerless .270/.312/.399 in 452 PA. On the other side, Molina’s caught-stealing rate went down by a few points to 27 percent (still a bit better than average), and his pitch-framing output also dropped.
Harrison Bader, CF, Cardinals:
With this many Cardinals on the list, it’s a wonder they took the division last season. Anyhow, Bader was a major contributor to the team in 2018 – his first full season – but couldn’t come close to replicating that performance in ’19. His fWAR was cut in half by 50 percent (3.6 to 1.8), largely because of a disappointing .205/.314/.366 line over 406 trips to the plate. A 4 percent increase in strikeout rate was among the culprits. To Bader’s credit, though, he did slash his soft-contact rate and continue to thrive in the outfield, where he tallied 14 Defensive Runs Saved and a 12.9 Ultimate Zone Rating.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates:
It would be fair to give Polanco a mulligan for his poor year, as he underwent left shoulder surgery in September 2018 and dealt with problems in that area throughout last season. He only appeared in 42 games and amassed 167 PA, batting .242/.301/.425.
Daniel Descalso, INF, Cubs:
The typically light-hitting Descalso was so effective as a Diamondback in 2018 that it convinced the Cubs to give him a two-year, $5MM contract heading into last season. That decision has not paid off at all so far. The 33-year-old Descalso’s initial season in Chicago couldn’t have gone much worse, as he batted .173/.241/.250 over 194 PA and accounted for minus-0.8 fWAR. Among 411 hitters who racked up at least 150 PA, Descalso ranked seventh worst in wRC+ (42) and 14th from the bottom in ISO (.077). If you’re skeptical that he’ll turn back into a decent contributor this year, you’re not alone, but there’s really nowhere to go but up.
The Pirates have launched exploratory talks with at least four players about possible long-term deals, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports on Twitter. Jon Heyman of MLB Network had previously reported that the club intended to explore deals of this kind with some young talent.
Among the targets are outfielder Bryan Reynolds, middle infielder Kevin Newman, and starter Joe Musgrove — all relatively youthful, quality MLB players. The Bucs have also approached top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes, per the report.
As we discussed when the initial news arose, this is hardly surprising in the full context. The Bucs, like many lower-budget organizations, have long relied upon early-career extensions to achieve value. And there are indications that there’s a broader push to lock up relatively inexperienced players around the game, though we’ve yet to see an onrush of dealmaking.
There are some interesting elements here, though. Hayes is an especially intriguing target since he has yet to appear in the big leagues. That’s no longer a barrier to an extension, as we’ve seen several such accords, but it’s also not exactly commonplace.
Most recently, Luis Robert lined up on a $50MM deal — a record-setting number for a pre-MLB player. But he has risen to the ranks of the the most elite prospects in the game. And he had already secured a huge bonus ($26MM) when he signed as an amateur. Suffice to say, Robert had ample leverage.
Hayes is generally regarded as one of the fifty or so best prospects in the game, so he’s not to Robert’s level of future expectations. Perhaps a better comparable is Scott Kingery, who was promised $24MM in his agreement with the Phillies two years back. It’s arguable the market has moved north since that time, so Hayes would be justified in viewing that as a starting point.
Also of note: the lack of talks — so far as is known publicly — between the Pirates and star first baseman Josh Bell. The Bucs already agreed to a $4.8MM arbitration salary with the 27-year-old, who is coming off of a breakout 2019 season. Bell would surely cost a far sight more than any of the players listed above.