I think I’m suffering from anticipatory boredom, if there is such a thing. It’s only been a few days since the owners locked out the players, and the Pirates normally sit out the off-season, anyway, once they’re done slashing the payroll. But there isn’t going to be much baseball news going forward, other than listening to the lawyers, and I retired so I wouldn’t have to do that any more.
Anyway, the Pirates clearly aren’t done adding to the roster for spring training. If and when a labor deal happens, there’s likely to be a scramble to sign players. The Pirates may participate in that to a very limited extent. More likely, they’ll focus on signing players to minor league deals, which of course they can do now. That may not be too easy, though, for the time being. Some players may choose to wait it out with the idea of exhausting their chances of finding a major league deal before settling for less.
So here’s a quick rundown of my guesses on what the Pirates will be looking for. One thing I’m not going to do is run through a list of free agents I’d like the Pirates to sign. Lots of folks have pointed out in the comments here that there are a number of free agents out there whom the Pirates can easily afford and who could probably help. It’s been many years, though, since the Pirates tried to improve during the off-season. When they start trying to improve, then I’ll start thinking about free agents.
The Pirates are bound to add here. As it stands now, the competition for backup to Roberto Perez would be Michael Perez and Jamie Ritchie, who has no major league experience. None of the prospects are close to being ready. The idea of spending next season waiting to see whether Roberto and Michael can reach the Mendoza Line combined is seriously depressing, but Ben Cherington seems to prefer catchers who flat can’t hit. Regardless, the Pirates absolutely have to add probably two catchers with experience. There’s lots of attrition at the position. Of the system’s upper-level catchers this year, Michael Perez stayed healthy all year and Jacob Stallings nearly did. Among the depth guys, though, Andrew Susac missed nearly the whole season, Joe Hudson was out a while, Christian Bethancourt missed some time, Jason Delay missed over half the season, Raul Hernandez missed nearly all the season, and Deon Stafford got hurt and then released. So, yeah, probably two guys. Almost certainly on minor league deals.
It’s hard to see a great need. A corner guy with a solid, right-handed bat would be nice, but Michael Chavis gives them a backup plan at first. After that, I dunno. If they lose Mason Martin, there’s nobody to play first. Cole Tucker, I guess. It’s hard to imagine the Pirates acquiring another utility infielder, because they already have all of them. And Hoy Park, Tucupita Marcano and Diego Castillo are all on the 40-man roster, along with Oneil Cruz and Rodolfo Castro. I can’t imagine they’re going to bring in another veteran Wilmer Difo type, considering that they just dfa’d the actual one and he was a pretty good Wilmer Difo type.
There are obviously needs here. Once you get past Bryan Reynolds, the presumptive starters are probably Ben Gamel and Anthony Alford. Gamel has conclusively proven that he’s at most a fourth outfielder on a major league team. Alford, despite a good last month or so, remains a huge question mark due to his alarming K rate. After them, the closest thing to a major league outfielder is Greg Allen, and he’s not all that close.
As they are so often, the Pirates are stuck in between. They just added Travis Swaggerty, Canaan Smith-Njigba and Jack Suwinski to the 40-man roster, but none of them has played more than a few games in AAA and none has hit all that well in the minors yet. So the team has help on the way, maybe, but not for half a year to a year. Meanwhile, somebody has to play. It really shouldn’t be very hard to find a decent, third-tier free agent to fill in this year, but there are two barriers: the absence of a major league budget and Cherington’s stunning inability to find outfielders who can hit. Of course, they can keep playing infielders in the outfield. Being the worst-hitting team in baseball for a third straight year isn’t a good look, but it hasn’t bothered Cherington yet. They badly need to add a major league hitter here, but I’m not holding my breath.
Cherington has produced a lot of failure at the major league level so far, but his signature failure is the fact that not one single pitcher has managed to lock down a spot in the rotation. It’s not for a lack of candidates. Newcomers Jose Quintana and Zach Thompson should join J.T. Brubaker, Mitch Keller, Bryse Wilson, Roansy Contreras, Miguel Yajure, Wil Crowe, Max Kranick and Dillon Peters in the competition. That’s ten guys, but Cherington has said he still wants to add another starter. That speaks volumes about the ten guys (apart from Contreras, who’s probably headed for AAA for now), and not in a good way. It’d make sense to add a starter if the Pirates would spend the money to add an established major leaguer who’s better than a potential fifth starter. The team doesn’t need yet another depth guy. They’ve got a horde of those and, to repeat, not a single one of them has established himself as a major league starter. Still, what we’re likely to see is a starter signed to a minor league deal, possibly before labor peace arrives. No point in abandoning a failed strategy.
The bullpen is an even bigger problem than the rotation. The latter has a lot of at least marginally plausible candidates. Apart from David Bednar and Chris Stratton, nobody currently available looks like more than a longshot to be a useful major league reliever, yet the Pirates need to build a ‘pen from the ground up, apart from Bednar and Stratton. With the current roster, it’s very hard to see how they could put together even half of a decent ‘pen, and that’s including starters moving to relief. That’d be hard enough, but then you have to account for the fact that Cherington’s demonstrated ability to find relievers on the scrap heap is exactly zero. It’s really hard to see them adding anybody on a major league deal, unless they make a trade, or unless they sign Richard Rodriguez once there’s a labor deal. Otherwise, it’ll be waiver claims and minor league deals, possibly some of the latter in the near future. They need to add a whole bunch of guys, and hope they get some regression to the mean and a couple of them work out. If they try to make do with what they’ve got . . . well, they’re not trying.