Pirates general manager Ben Cherington is among the many executives who spoke with the media at the GM Meetings this week. The fifth-year baseball operations leader indicated the rotation has been the focus in the early going.
“We’ve been mostly focused on starting pitching, both in free agency and trade,” Cherington said of the offseason’s first few days (link via Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). “We would like to add to our position player group, too. But more of our energy has gone to the pitching market early on.”
Bringing in a starter or two seems an obvious goal for the front office. Pittsburgh had five starters log 50+ innings this past season. None had an ERA better than Mitch Keller’s 4.21 mark. Rich Hill was traded and is now a free agent. Roansy Contreras had a disastrous season that saw him optioned to the minors on a couple occasions. Luis Ortiz allowed nearly five earned runs per nine with almost as many walks as strikeouts.
Despite a disappointing second half, Keller has one rotation spot secure as the current staff ace. Johan Oviedo logged 177 2/3 innings over a full slate of 32 starts. The results — a 4.31 ERA with a 20.2% strikeout percentage and lofty 10.6% walk rate — were serviceable enough that Oviedo likely goes into Spring Training with a job in hand. JT Brubaker could return midseason after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April.
That still leaves multiple vacancies, as none of Quinn Priester, Bailey Falter nor Osvaldo Bido pitched well in smaller samples. No one will expect the Bucs to make a run at Blake Snell or Aaron Nola, but they have the payroll room to add a third or fourth tier free agent. Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes are the only two players with guaranteed contracts totaling a combined $17MM next season. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects the arbitration class to earn roughly $16MM. The Pirates opened 2023 with a player payroll around $73MM, as calculated by Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Cherington and his group thus have the ability to consider mid-level free agent options like Seth Lugo, Jack Flaherty or Michael Wacha. If they prefer the one-year route — a tack they’ve taken in prior offseasons — someone like Wade Miley or Hyun Jin Ryu could be a possibility.
They’ll need to weigh any rotation investment against what they hope to accomplish on the position player side. Cherington said the club would like to add at first base. Pittsburgh traded Carlos Santana at the deadline and relied mostly on Connor Joe and Alfonso Rivas down the stretch. Joe’s production was mostly concentrated against left-handed pitching; Rivas was waived and lost to Cleveland.
With Santana back on the open market, a reunion could be an option. Brandon Belt, Rhys Hoskins and longtime division rival Joey Votto join him in the free agent class. Rowdy Tellez and Dominic Smith are non-tender candidates.
It seems first base is the most pressing infield need for the Bucs. Cherington expressed more confidence in their internal second base options, which are headlined by Ji Hwan Bae, Liover Peguero and Nick Gonzales. None of the group had much success this year — they were 26th in OPS at the position — but it doesn’t seem an addition is a priority, even if Cherington added that they’re “not ruling out adding someone.” A middling free agent market led by Whit Merrifield, Amed Rosario and Tim Anderson could play a role in that.
One free agent who seems likely to wind up in Pittsburgh is franchise icon Andrew McCutchen. The veteran outfielder has been clear about his desire to finish his career in the Steel City. Cherington has reciprocated that interest on multiple occasions, something he reiterated yesterday. The GM told reporters that he has had multiple conversations with McCutchen’s camp since the season ended (link via Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).
If McCutchen returns, he’d rejoin Reynolds and Henry Davis among the corner outfield/designated hitter options. Davis, a former #1 overall pick, saw the bulk of his time in right field as a rookie. Cherington stressed the organization still views the Louisville product as a viable option at catcher, though, even if their playing time share in 2023 suggested they viewed fellow first-year backstop Endy Rodríguez as a better defender behind the plate.