While the Pittsburgh Pirates front office likely were busy patting themselves on the back yesterday during the last day of the winter meetings for letting the Atlanta Braves pay them to take Marco Gonzales, a soft-tossing lefty coming off a major nerve injury and a surgery with a terrible track record, Eduardo Rodriguez signed a four-year $80 million contract to pitch for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Jeimer Candelario also signed a contract for three years with the division rival Cincinnati Reds for $45 million.
Left-handed starter Wade Miley resigned with the Milwaukee Brewers recently for... blah blah blah, you could talk yourself blue in the face playing that game at this point.
All players the Pirates could have afforded.
But don’t worry, here’s what general manager Ben Cherington had to say to media about their current meager payroll.
“I would anticipate us ending up above where we landed last year. Generally speaking, we expect that as we get better, the payroll will continue to climb with us. To some extent, motivation for us is if we can actually push that as we get better.”
Wow, I eagerly await to see his prediction for what direction the sun will rise from tomorrow morning. Of course payroll is going up, unless you’re trading closer David Bednar or starting pitcher Mitch Keller, how on Earth would you go about cutting payroll off this roster? Saying payroll is going up doesn’t actually say anything substantive. More importantly, did he just suggest that they have to find more on-field success before the real money comes to push payroll higher in a way that means something?
Truthfully, I just can’t even with this one. I find it to be insulting the intelligence of anyone who pays attention to professional baseball at large and the anyone who follows the Pirates. You’ve already committed four years and a near total tear down of the roster to assemble this group of young players headed into 2024, and you need them to prove they can win without outside help for the major financial resources to come and get them that help? What? You find yourself in a position where you could commit fully to something special, why pass on that?
In fairness, Ben Cherington also said they’re still looking to add. They expressed interest in adding in the outfield, at first base and of course, pitching.
But it can’t be just players who are already broken that they have to try to fix. They have enough of that going around already. You can’t dip your pinky toe in the kiddy pool with a life jacket on and tell everyone you went swimming.
The presumptive opening day rotation if the season started tomorrow would be Mitch Keller, Bailey Falter, Marco Gonzales and Roansy Contreras/Quinn Priester/Luis Ortiz
Six pitchers who combined in 2023 for an ERA of 5.21 in 530 innings, and boy, is Mitch Keller’s 4.21 in nearly 200 innings pitched doing a lot of heavy lifting there. Nobody else cracked 100 IP.
You not only have to add quantity, but quality.
The problem with passivity extends beyond player acquisition or payroll and seeps its way into how they’ve managed the roster. When Oneil Cruz broke his ankle in early April this year, they filled that role with Chris Owings, Tucapita Marcano, Rodolfo Castro and later Alika Williams. Four players who were either inadequate defensively, offensively or both. Obviously replacing Cruz was a tall, if not impossible task—but they didn’t really try either.
The same goes for what happened at catcher. With Henry Davis on the roster by June 19 and Endy Rodriguez in AAA, there was simply no excuse to continue to let Austin Hedges flail at sliders down and away with runners in scoring position whilst fans booed every time he came to bat. Despite Hedges being tied for 10th worst wRC+ ever for a player with at least 2000 plate appearances, including pitchers, the Pirates refused to make a change or even give anyone else a real shot until they were hopelessly out of contention after being in first place mid-June.
At some point the Pirates need to commit to something other than losing 100 games multiple times in a row for the first time in franchise history since the 1950s. It’s the only truly notable on-field result the team has produced under Cherington. Absolutely nobody working at 115 Federal Street should be happy about that. Bryan Reynolds will be 29 by opening day, Mitch Keller will be 28 and Ke’Bryan Hayes will be 27. These player’s primes won’t last forever.
There’s still time to figure this out, but not an infinite amount. Figuring it out means Bob Nutting is going to have to get a little uncomfortable with what the payroll is, and Ben Cherington is going to have to be more proactive than simply discussing with the Pirates’ ever-expanding analytics department the idea of adding good players.
They need to go from “interested” in players to exchanging figures and put some pens to paper. You can’t just bow out the second another team enters the equation either.
If Bob Nutting and Ben Cherington have to be pushed into the deep end of the pool by the people and players at field level, then 2024 might just be another wasted year.
That isn’t OK.