Free agency began in Major League Baseball yesterday, although baseball’s offseason always starts at a crawl. The Pirates have trimmed their roster down to 37 players, and I recapped those roster moves in today’s P2Daily. Coming off a 2023 season with 76 wins, the Pirates will be looking this offseason to push beyond 82 wins, and possibly put together a contender.
To get an idea of what this team needs, here is a rundown of each position, recapping 2023 and looking ahead to 2024 and beyond.
The Pirates opened the 2023 season with Austin Hedges as their veteran leader behind the plate. Hedges finished the year winning the World Series on the bench with the Texas Rangers. The difference shows how far the Pirates were from a World Series title heading into the season. Hedges wasn’t bad, but the Pirates sacrificed their offense at the position for his defense and leadership of the pitching staff.
As they go toward the 2024 season, they’ve improved in this area. Endy Rodriguez took over regular catching duties in July, and Jason Delay has proven to be a valuable backup. Henry Davis could factor into this mix next year, which could help to spell Rodriguez. The catching duties are taxing to the mind, and take away from concentration on offense. Rodriguez is the type of player who will put more focus into his defense, sacrificing his offense in the process. Davis is the opposite, showing to be more offensive-geared with his energy. Sparing Rodriguez from the mind-tax of the catching position an extra day a week might give him additional energy for hitting. Slowly increasing the on-field mind-tax of Davis gradually might help him to refine his aggressive approach at the plate, to harness more in-game power.
In the minors, the Pirates have backup options in Carter Bins and Abrahan Gutierrez in the upper levels. They don’t have any other starting candidates, though their options in the big leagues are much stronger today than one year ago today. Rodriguez and Davis are both the type of players who are going to improve their games each year. More importantly, they’re both going to bring all of the energy they have until the very end of the season, and they both have the potential for some productive energy.
Outside of adding depth to the minors, and Davis spending the off-season as a catcher, I don’t see a lot happening at this position over the next few months.
The Pirates just lost Alfonso Rivas on waivers to the Cleveland Guardians, after acquiring him this summer in a trade with the San Diego Padres. That trade, which sent Rich Hill and Ji-Man Choi to the Padres, was mostly about getting 17-year-old outfield prospect Estuar Suero. The Padres signed Suero for $325,000 in January 2022 out of the Dominican Republic. He already made it to the complex levels in the United States in 2023, while showing some in-game power at a very young age. He’ll be the age of a high school senior next year, and should end the year in A-ball, with one of the best toolsets for an outfielder in the system. The Pirates also received Jackson Wolf, a lefty in the upper levels who could be rotation depth in the next few years.
Rivas was mostly acquired to handle the loss of Choi and Carlos Santana, who were both traded at the deadline. That left the Pirates without a first baseman, which is where they were this time last year, before adding Santana and Choi and showing that they were finally addressing their needs at the MLB level.
First base is the biggest hole on the Pirates’ roster, once again. They upgraded several wins between 2022 and 2023 with the additions of Santana, Choi, Rivas, and Connor Joe. The fact they let Rivas go shows they might upgrade over this current 0-1 WAR level group of players.
Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales, and Ji-Hwan Bae are the best candidates for the second base role in 2024. Jared Triolo is a dark horse candidate. I would expect Peguero to get the most time here, with Triolo and Bae each working into a super utility mix. Gonzales could join the team as a backup middle infielder, or could continue working on his bat in the minors with everyday playing time.
The Pirates have plenty of options here, and no reason to turn to the outside. Down in the minors, the best upper-level prospect is Tsung-Che Cheng, who is Rule 5 eligible this year. The best middle infield prospect in the system, Termarr Johnson, should move up to Altoona at some point in 2024.
Oneil Cruz will return in 2024, and that will be the biggest boost for the Pirates. They added Alika Williams as a defensive option in a trade that sent away Robert Stephenson last June. Williams showed improved offense with Indianapolis, but didn’t carry that to the big leagues. They recently lost Tucupita Marcano on waivers. Marcano was injured, and likely behind Bae, Triolo, and Gonzales on the bench depth charts. By the time he returned next year, he likely would have had competition from Cheng.
Expect Cruz to be the starter here, with Williams as the backup, and Peguero as the top depth option if Cruz goes down for any amount of time. This is another area where the Pirates don’t need to turn to the outside.
Ke’Bryan Hayes. Always Gold.
Jared Triolo. Luxury Depth.
Bryan Reynolds. Finally Extended.
Reynolds played 1063 innings in center field in 2022. The Pirates moved him to left field and had Jack Suwinski play center field full time this year. Suwinski had 931 innings. You normally want a few thousand innings of a sample size to get an accurate read on defensive stats, but the one year comparison shows Suwinski as a slight upgrade in center field over Reynolds.
Suwinski also put up comparable offensive numbers to Reynolds in 2022. Reynolds had more hits, but Suwinski hit for more overall power and was better on the bases. The Pirates have two outfielders here who can put up multiple WAR. They might benefit from having both in a corner, and adding a defensive center fielder this offseason, like Kevin Kiermaier or Michael A. Taylor. That would allow each of Reynolds and Suwinski to better focus on their hitting.
The Pirates had Henry Davis as their right fielder. He didn’t perform well in the field, but that is to be expected since the Pirates moved him there in May. His offense was around average for rookies this year. Davis had some contact issues that could be improved upon. His strikeout rate was higher than MLB average, and his power results were below-average.
As mentioned above, the Pirates are working Davis behind the plate this offseason. I doubt that Davis would be the regular catcher in 2024, but he could factor into the mix there, with Joshua Palacios spelling him in the outfield. Palacios emerged this year as a solid fifth outfielder with a tendency to step up in big moments. Connor Joe is another player who could factor into the overall super utility mix between the outfield and first base, emerging as a future contending bench piece.
The Pirates need a first baseman. They wouldn’t necessarily need an external outfielder if they reduce the playing time for Davis in right field. However, the depth would be weaker. I think this spot and first base are going to be question marks heading into free agency.
The question here is whether the Pirates bring back Andrew McCutchen. It should be simple. McCutchen got on base at a .378 rate last year, hitting double-digit home runs and stealing double-digit bases. He could be improved upon as a starter, but he’s still productive.
I think he should return with 350-400 plate appearances in 2024, and a DH/bench bat role. That would allow the Pirates to factor Davis and Rodriguez into the DH mix on off-days behind the plate. If the Pirates don’t bring back McCutchen, they’re definitely going to have to add two starters to the offense this offseason. He’s one of the best values they could find to limit their external needs. He’s a Pittsburgh legend. And he was one of the most productive players all year in 2023. They should bring him back.
There’s no question about the starting pitching. The Pirates need more of it.
By the end of the season, they were routinely practicing bullpen games, openers, and other modern-day pitching methods. I’m going to split the pitching up into starters, multi-inning guys, and classic relievers.
Mitch Keller stands out among the starters, after setting a Pirates record for single-season strikeouts in 2023. Keller posted a 4.21 ERA in 194.1 innings, though his 3.80 FIP was more accurate to his skill level and what his season felt like. Keller has been emerging as a top of the rotation starter, taking steps forward in each of the last two years.
Johan Oviedo emerged this year as an MLB starter, putting up a 4.31 ERA in 177.2 innings of work. Opposite of Keller, Oviedo had a 4.49 FIP, showing some possible regression from his 2023 season. He had some issues at times with fatigue, especially after a complete game shutout in August. Oviedo has the stuff to be a starter, but might be better bumped down to the multi-inning role.
That’s a luxury the Pirates don’t seem to have. Aside from Keller, their other starting option is JT Brubaker, who would be returning from Tommy John, and also would likely be better as a multi-inning guy.
The Pirates should add two starters from the outside this offseason, even with a plan to use a few bullpen strategy starter spots. Their prospect rankings are heavy in the upper levels with pitching that could eventually start. Paul Skenes and Jared Jones could arrive in late 2024 as the first of that group. Behind them are Bubba Chandler and Anthony Solometo. Behind them are some interesting prospects emerging from A-ball in J.P. Massey and Thomas Harrington. Those pitching groups might make an impact in 2024, 2025, and 2026, respectively. For now, the Pirates are light on starting pitching.
The Pirates have a group of pitchers who aren’t quite reliable enough to start, while being too talented to pitch single innings. By the end of the 2023 season, they had adopted bullpen games, where multiple pitchers would combine to complete the first 6-7 innings, rather than assigning one starting pitcher to the entire task.
From this group, there could be eventual starting pitchers. Quinn Priester and Roansy Contreras have the most upside as potential starters. Contreras struggled in a starter role in the past, and Priester did the same in his debut this year. Both of these guys are top prospects, and the classic approach is to expect your top pitching prospects to go six innings from day one in the majors. We’ve already seen that Priester and Contreras struggling with this approach. They might fare better just focusing once through the order.
Luis Ortiz is another pitcher who has started in the past, but might be better in a long-relief role. Bailey Falter adds a left-handed option to the mix. Andre Jackson features one of the best changeups on the team, and Osvaldo Bido return in 2024 to provide the team with depth.
David Bednar has emerged as one of the best relievers in the game. He’s joined by two hard-throwing right-handers in Colin Holderman and Dauri Moreta. The Pirates also added left-hander Jose Hernandez in the Rule 5 draft last year.
In order to employ the swingman strategy, you need reliable relief pitchers in the back of your bullpen. Bednar is reliable. I wouldn’t put Holderman, Moreta, or Hernandez in that category yet, but the trio has shown enough promise to pair with the Renegade closer. The Pirates could use a veteran to pair with Bednar, but that need has been reduced with the addition of the other three relievers over the last 15 months.
The biggest need for the Pirates is starting pitching. They definitely need one starter, and could use two.
They need two starters between first base, the outfield, and designated hitter. How they handle Henry Davis and the catching position will impact this search. Whether they bring back Andrew McCutchen will also play a factor.
One of the best things about this team is the depth. That is meaningless if you don’t surround it with players who can make an impact.
The Pirates have an opportunity this offseason to add from the outside. They can complement their young core, and their growing group of impact players in Ke’Bryan Hayes, Bryan Reynolds, Mitch Keller, and David Bednar. Last season they were the most active in free agency of Ben Cherington’s tenure as General Manager. They’ve got fewer specific needs this time around, and I’d expect them to target those needs just as aggressively this year to try and reach a winning season.
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.