Pirates offseason feels different from past years

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Outfielder Andrew McCutchen is returning to the Pittsburgh Pirates on a one-year contract.

Luke Henne | Editor-in-Chief

Jan. 19, 2023

On Friday morning, news broke that outfielder Andrew McCutchen would be returning to the Pittsburgh Pirates on a one-year contract for the 2023 season.

The move helped the Pirates cement an offseason that hasn’t necessarily been groundbreaking, but it’s certainly not been stagnant either.

It feels weird to say, but the needle is moving in the right direction.

Following a 2021 campaign in which the team went 61-101, their high-profile offseason moves entering the 2022 season were anything but inspiring.

They beefed up the bullpen with the signing of relief pitcher Heath Hembree, who pitched to a 7.16 earned run average (ERA) before being released on June 26.

Jose Quintana helped solidify the starting rotation by pitching to a 3.50 ERA in 20 starts, but he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 1. Starter Zach Thompson was acquired from Miami, but his 5.18 ERA in 29 games warranted a trade out of town this past week.

Behind the plate, the team signed Roberto Perez to be the primary catcher. He batted .233 in 21 games before a left hamstring strain ended his season on May 7. The backup they signed, Andrew Knapp, hit .129 across 11 games before being designated for assignment on May 16.

The first base/designated hitter platoon had an output that was less than desirable. The team re-signed first baseman Yoshi Tsutsugo, who batted .171 in 50 games before being released on Aug. 5. His counterpart signing, Daniel Vogelbach, batted .228 in 75 games before being traded to the New York Mets on July 22.

The options off the bench didn’t produce much of anything, either. Utility infielder Josh VanMeter was acquired just before the season started, but hit just .187 in 67 games prior to being designated for assignment on Sept. 7. Jake Marisnick was signed to be an extra outfield option, but he hit just .234 in a 31-game tenure plagued by injury before being released on Aug. 7.

Of those nine players that were either traded, signed or re-signed, none of them are still rostered. The lack of production from the players already on the roster, coupled with the struggles of the new acquisitions, led the Pirates to a 62-100 record. They’ll now select first overall in the 2023 MLB Draft.

That offseason, for lack of a better term, was barebone.

This time around, however, things have been different.

The team acquired first baseman Ji-Man Choi from the Tampa Bay Rays on Nov. 10. His 52 Runs batted in in 2022 would’ve ranked third on the team last season.

The Pirates dealt shortstop Kevin Newman to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for relief pitcher Dauri Moreta on Nov. 18. In what was just his second season in the MLB in 2022, Moreta struck out 39 batters in 38.1 innings pitched. In his final 11 appearances of the season, he allowed just two runs.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, on Nov. 29, Pittsburgh found its designated hitter. The team signed Carlos Santana, drove in 60 runs a year ago between the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners. He’s hit at least 19 home runs in 11 of his 13 big-league seasons.

The team added to its pitching depth with the signing of Vince Velasquez on Dec. 13. Velasquez has featured as a starter for much of his career (started nine games in 2022), but 18 of his 27 appearances with the Chicago White Sox came from the bullpen. He struck out 69 batters in 75.1 innings pitched.

On Dec. 18, the Pirates acquired a depth piece in outfielder/infielder Connor Joe from the Colorado Rockies. Joe, originally drafted by Pittsburgh in 2014, hit .238 and drove in 28 runs a season ago. Those aren’t numbers that pop, but he’ll likely be one of the team’s top options off the bench.

Two days later, on Dec. 20, the Pirates signed their starting catcher in Austin Hedges. Although his .163 batting average from last season with the Cleveland Guardians is uninspiring, Hedges is regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the league. He’ll look to help young pitchers in the rotation blossom.

The Pirates closed out 2022 by signing relief pitcher Jarlin Garcia. The left-handed reliever pitched to a 3.74 ERA in 58 games with the San Francisco Giants a season ago, and has posted a sub-4.00 ERA in four-consecutive seasons.

When the calendar flipped to 2023, Pittsburgh continued to make moves.

On Jan. 5, the team signed starting pitcher Rich Hill. The 42-year-old left-hander will look to add veteran presence to a relatively-young team. He pitched to a 4.27 ERA with the Boston Red Sox in 2022, but recorded a sub-4.00 ERA in every season from 2014 to 2021.

Then, on Friday, the biggest shoe fell when the team resigned McCutchen. In 2022, he hit 17 home runs and recorded 69 RBI with the Milwaukee Brewers. He’s on the back half of his career, but he’s a fan favorite that will put people back in the seats at PNC Park.

In his first stint with Pittsburgh from 2009 to 2017, McCutchen went to five All-Star Games (2011-2015), in addition to winning a Rawlings National League Gold Glove Award (2012), four Silver Sluggers (2012-2015) and the 2013 National League Most Valuable Player Award.

Is the team going to make the postseason this year? Probably not.

Will they finish with a winning record? Unlikely, but certainly possible.

While no addition besides McCutchen truly turns fans’ heads, the team added quality to each hole in the roster.

The biggest question mark that remains surrounding the team is whether star center fielder Bryan Reynolds will be dealt after he requested a trade in early December.

And, they’ll still have to add a backup catcher.

However, for a team that lost 100 games a season ago, there’s a lot of promising pieces heading into this season.

Rookies Jack Suwinski and Oneil Cruz combined for 36 home runs in 2022 and should add lots of power to a lineup in desperate need of home runs. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes’ defense is as dependable as it comes (.972 fielding percentage in 133 games at the hot corner in 2022). If the Pirates choose to hold onto Reynolds (27 home runs last season), they have a shot at fielding a formidable lineup.

Starting pitcher Mitch Keller (3.91 ERA with 138 strikeouts in 159.0 innings pitched) took a big step forward and projects to anchor the team’s rotation, while Roansy Contreras blossomed (3.79 ERA with 86 strikeouts in 95.0 innings pitched) and could be an ace of the future.

While there could still be some questions in the bullpen, closer David Bednar struck out 69 batters in 51.2 innings pitched during 2022. He earned his first All-Star nod, and the Mars, Pa., native will likely continue as the team’s ninth-inning option.

Again, the offseason acquisitions aren’t going to move the Pirates from 62 wins in 2022 to 92 wins in 2023. They might not even get the team anywhere near the 82 wins required for a winning season in a 162-game schedule.

However, Pittsburgh will win at least 75 games this season. That’s not ideal, but it’s growth. And it’s growth that was made possible by the front office adding veteran presence to an exciting young core.

It’s nice to see an offseason in which moves are being made for the sake of improvement. Enjoy it.