Andrew McCutchen is 36-years-old.
Carlos Santana turns 37 in April.
Austin Hedges is a 30-year-old catcher.
Rich Hill will turn 43 before the season begins.
This isn’t an article that is going to speak negatively of age. You won’t get such a take from this 39-year-old blogger.
Collectively, the Pittsburgh Pirates are paying these four veteran players just shy of $25 million dollars on one-year deals for the 2023 season. As Ethan Hullihen broke down yesterday, the current payroll estimate is $72.5 million.
The Pirates are clearly shifting to a new phase of their rebuild, and as I wrote heading into the year, I could see them having a winning season in 2023. I think the addition of McCutchen pushes them closer to this possibility.
I’ve written about how I think the Pirates have needed veteran leadership in the majors. All four of the above players will provide that leadership in the form of sharing their experience with younger players, but also with their upbeat attitudes across the board.
Leadership is one thing.
Performance on the field is another.
The Pirates will need the latter in order to have a winning season.
All four of these players have a shot at average starter production, especially considering the unique roles they could play with this team.
HEDGES PAVING THE WAY FOR ENDY
If we’re comparing FanGraphs WAR values, Austin Hedges is the least valuable of this group. He’s been around replacement level the last three seasons, with a 1.5-2.3 WAR the previous three years.
Hedges will provide value behind the plate, where he’s been one of the best defenders in the majors. His work with the younger pitchers this year will have lasting impacts in their careers. Most importantly might be the transition this summer from Hedges to Endy Rodriguez.
The Pirates number one prospect, Rodriguez should be in the majors by mid-season. Hedges will ease that jump to the majors by giving Rodriguez a mentor to learn from. Rodriguez is the type of person who learns quickly, so just like the pitchers, his work with Hedges this year will produce long-term lessons.
Ideally, by the end of the season, the Pirates have a solid 1-2 combo, with Hedges as the strong defensive backup to Rodriguez, the National League Rookie of the Year.
I said ideally.
KEEPING SANTANA’S LEGS FRESH
The Pirates have made a lot of additions at first base and designated hitter this offseason. They added Ji-Man Choi and Carlos Santana in the span of a week, then later traded for Connor Joe.
Santana seems like he will split time between first and designated hitter. Last year he played 76 games at first and 50 as the designated hitter. He put up a 1.0 WAR in 506 plate appearances.
Choi spent most of his time at first base last year, playing 98 games. Joe spent more of his time in the outfield, but played 24 games at first base and 27 as the designated hitter.
You need to fill 162 games at first base, regardless of what you do at DH. If Joe plays the same amount of games this year at first, that would reduce the need for Santana and Choi to play on the field by 36 games total, compared to their combined 2022 totals.
This might help Santana in a big way, as the reduced workload on the field will keep his legs fresh, which could help his bat be more productive as the designated hitter.
RICH HILL LEADING THE ROTATION
Rich Hill is entering his age 43 season and still producing.
He’s had around league average numbers the last two seasons, putting up a 1.7-1.8 WAR. the lefty should get a boost pitching in PNC Park.
The Pirates also added Vince Velasquez to their starting group this offseason, and he could provide leadership of his own. The rest of the starting group includes Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, and JT Brubaker.
Hill’s leadership and shared knowledge among this young trio of pitchers will be huge for their careers. His ability to provide reliable innings every fifth day will take the stress off of them to lead the way in 2023.
There will be a lot of younger pitchers arriving from the minors this year. Luis Ortiz and Johan Oviedo highlight the early-season candidates. Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows lead the prospects who could arrive around the middle of the season.
The Pirates will have a very young rotation, especially in the second half. There’s a chance that Hill gets pushed out at the trade deadline, considering all of the options.
There’s also an argument to be made that he would be more valuable keeping all season for his leadership and stability, compared to any trade return he’d get at the deadline.
The Pirates have so many outfield options.
Yet, they didn’t have any standout starters prior to bringing back McCutchen. I’m not sure that McCutchen adds a reliable starter, but he will add to the overall mix.
Right now, that mix includes Bryan Reynolds, who was acquired in 2018 in a trade for McCutchen.
It also includes Jack Suwinski, who could benefit from platooning with Connor Joe.
McCutchen played 53 games in the outfield last year, along with 82 games at designated hitter. The Pirates also have Miguel Andújar and Cal Mitchell to factor into the outfield mix, along with an assortment of prospects in the upper levels of the minors.
If you dig through the archives of this site, you’ll probably find me lamenting back in the day about how the National League didn’t have the designated hitter, which couldn’t allow for players like McCutchen to finish their careers in Pittsburgh. The DH is here, and the Pirates are taking advantage of that with these veteran additions. It could allow McCutchen to finish his career in a Pirates uniform.
McCutchen and Santana should both see extensive time at DH, where Andujar and Joe could factor into the mix when they’re not backing up other positions.
McCutchen can serve as a leader to the outfield, where the Pirates will hope that a full-time starter emerges alongside Reynolds. Santana likewise, would serve as the leader of the infield.
What I like about these additions is that they all add players who will help to stabilize weaker positions, while adding leadership throughout the team, and not really blocking any prospects who emerge. That’s a difficult needle to thread, and the Pirates seem to have done it.
Now if they could get a veteran reliever to pair with David Bednar, this would look like a sleeper winning team.
PIRATES SIGN 22 INTERNATIONAL PROSPECTS
The Pirates were aggressive on the first day of international signings, reaching agreements with OF Jun-Seok Shim and RHP Raymond Mola, who both rank among the most notable prospects this year.
Be sure to bookmark our International Signing Tracker, which we’ll keep updated with every signing that is announced throughout the year.
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THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Pirates Prospects Weekly is returning to a full schedule this week. We’ve got an article drop tomorrow, a column from Wilbur Miller on Wednesday, the return of Roundtable on Thursday, and a new format for the Pirates Discussion on Friday.
FUQUAY VINYL PLAYLIST
I decided to take a break for a few weeks, recapping a very busy 2022 on the site, and preparing for a bigger 2023. Mostly, that break involved getting away from screens as much as possible, listening to music, and writing on my non baseball projects.
I made this playlist two weeks ago to start the New Year and have been rocking to it since.
WEEKLY PIRATES QUIZ
Spoiler Alert: One of the answers to the quiz below is mentioned prominently in this article.
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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.