The Pirates’ extension of Bryan Reynolds — seven years and $100MM on top of his current $6.75MM salary — put an end to a long-running saga of trade rumors swirling around the All-Star outfielder. It’s the first nine-figure contract in franchise history and the second long-term deal with a hopeful core player of the past 14 months; Pittsburgh also signed third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes to an eight-year, $70MM deal prior to the 2022 season. Speaking at yesterday’s press conference to announce the Reynolds extension, Pirates owner Bob Nutting suggested that he hopes to work out long-term deals with additional core players (link via Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).
Nutting noted that “to a great degree, we’re just getting started,” going on to call Reynolds’ new contract “a huge step forward for the franchise” before adding that he’s “confident we’ll have future steps as we go forward.” Pirates fans, in particular, will want to check out Gorman’s full piece for comments not only from Nutting but also from Reynolds himself and from general manager Ben Cherington.
On the one hand, it’s fairly common for owners and baseball operations leaders to offer up what’s essentially boilerplate executive-speak about wanting to extend core players on a young club. On the other, Nutting has kept a notoriously tight budget and small payroll for the Pirates. The extensions for Hayes and especially for Reynolds mark a definitive change in course for the club, and with fresh off guaranteeing his top player an additional $100MM in guaranteed money, Nutting’s words perhaps carry a bit of extra credence.
If the Bucs do plan to explore — or already have explored — long-term pacts with additional players, there are a handful of logical candidates for such a deal. In the rotation, right-handers Roansy Contreras and Mitch Keller both increasingly look like solid building blocks, though they’re at very different stages of their careers. The 23-year-old Contreras doesn’t yet have a full season of Major League service time, putting his earning power on an extension considerably south of Keller. The Reds just locked up righty Hunter Greene, who was controllable for five more seasons, on a six-year, $53MM contract. Contreras is even further removed from free agency and would presumably come with a lower price tag.
Keller, meanwhile, is earning $2.4375MM in 2023 with just two more seasons of club control remaining beyond the current campaign. The 2014 second-rounder ranked as one of the game’s top pitching prospects prior to his debut in 2019, and while it’s taken some time for him to get there, Keller has begun to solidify himself as a quality starter.
Dating back to last May, when he added a sinker to his repertoire and began to rely less heavily on his four-seamer, the 27-year-old sports a 3.28 ERA with a 21.9% strikeout rate, 8.6% strikeout rate and 48.1% ground-ball rate in 159 1/3 innings. That includes an impressive six-inning, two-run, 10-strikeout performance against the Dodgers today. If he were to continue at this pace, he’d have a strong case in extension talks. For some context, Keller will be in the same service class following the 2023 season that Kyle Freeland (five years, $64.5MM) and Pablo Lopez (four years, $73.5MM) were when they signed their own extensions. The Bucs could try to pursue something sooner, but regardless, much of Keller’s breakout looks sustainable.
Elsewhere on the roster, closer David Bednar is a local product who’s emerged as a fan favorite and as one of the game’s better relievers. Since coming over from the Padres as part of the return for Joe Musgrove, he’s pitched to a 2.26 ERA with a 32.6% strikeout rate, 7.3% walk rate, 30 saves and 17 holds. His 2023 campaign has been particularly impressive, as Bednar has yielded just one run in 12 innings with a 15-to-1 K/BB ratio.
That said, relievers are notoriously volatile on a year-to-year basis, and Bednar is already 28 years old. The Pirates control him through his age-31 season and might find some risk in locking him into an extension that would effectively be buying his age-32 campaign and perhaps a season or two thereafter.
In the lineup, the Pirates have some interesting candidates. Shortstop Oneil Cruz is currently out while recovering from a fractured ankle but has displayed some of the most tantalizing tools in all of baseball when healthy. His development is still a work in progress, particularly with regard to his approach at the plate, but few players can match his combination of power, speed and athleticism. Meanwhile, outfielder Jack Suwinski has quickly become a Statcast darling, with eye-popping exit velocity, barrel rates and sprint speed. Both young hitters are controllable through the 2028 season at present.
The Bucs have plenty of young talent beyond that grouping — some of it yet to debut in the Majors. Catchers Endy Rodriguez and Henry Davis are among the most highly regarded in the sport at their position. Right-handers Luis Ortiz and Quinn Priester are both considered potential rotation pieces in the long term. Infielder Nick Gonzales just hit the minor league injured list with a shoulder strain today but is in Triple-A and could potentially make his debut later this year if the issue proves minor.
Broadly speaking, the Pirates have a deep and talented system, with plenty of interesting long-term pieces already on the roster and also on the cusp of debuting while biding their time in the upper minors. There’s always risk for a low-payroll club like this to lock players up so early, as the margin for error is thinner than with a deep-pocketed rival. That said, hitting a home run on an early extension can also be key in allowing teams in this payroll sphere to spend a bit more in free agency, if their core players are locked in at affordable rates. Only time will tell whether Nutting’s comments were merely lip service or the beginning of a welcome trend for Bucs fans, but regardless of which is true, the organization’s future looks increasingly bright.