Pirates busy offseason continues

When we last reviewed how Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington was reconstructing the roster, there was much to discuss. Ji-Man Choi was acquired in a trade. Kevin Newman was traded for Dauri Moreta. Carlos Santana was signed as a free agent. Lewin Diaz and Ali Sanchez were picked up on waiver claims.

Cherington said there was more work to be done and he wasn’t just blowing smoke. Austin Hedges was signed as a free agent to fill the void at catcher. Free agent pitchers Vince Velasquez, Jarlin Garcia and more recently, Rich Hill, were signed. Outfielder Connor Joe was picked up in a trade with the Colorado Rockies. Diaz and Sanchez were gone before they even had a chance to fill out their W-4 forms as Pirates. Other moves were necessary to clear space on the 40-man roster. These included trading Diego Castillo and designating Bryse Wilson for assignment.

Hedging their bets

Let’s start with Hedges, who, as the every-day catcher, figures to appear the most frequently of these recent acquisitions. In 2022, he slashed a meager .163/.241/.248, 7 HR, 30 RBIs. Over his eight-year career spent with the San Diego Padres and Cleveland Guardians/Indians, his batting line reads .189/.247/.331, 66 HR, 207 RBIs. He’s hit as many as 18 homers in a season, but that was way back in 2017.

However, what Hedges, 30, brings to the table is elite defense. For 2022, The Fielding Bible credits him with eight Defensive Runs Saved (tied for sixth-best in major-league baseball among catchers) and two Adjusted Earned Runs Saved (a metric that measures how a catcher handles a pitching staff, where he is tied for fifth with several others). Baseball Prospectus is more generous toward Hedges in its rankings. It credits him with 12.6 Fielding Runs Above Average (third among major-league catchers) and .0017 Called Strikes Above Average (a pitch-framing measure, where he ranks fourth).

Hedges threw out 22 percent of runners who attempted to steal in 2022. That was down from his career average of 30 percent. Most amazingly, over his major-league career he has been charged with only 18 passed balls. Lastly, his work with the Guardians’ young pitchers in 2022 has been said to have been a major factor in their reaching the postseason.

The new shortstop?

This pickup was largely met with derision by a fan base weary of losing and skeptical of any rebuilding plan. During Cherington’s time with the Pirates, in acquiring catchers he’s ignored the offense and considered it a defense-first position. (Note the acquisitions of Luke Maile, Roberto Perez and Andrew Knapp, none of whom, for different reasons, saw much action in a Pittsburgh uniform.) However, the modern game of baseball ain’t your dad’s baseball. In a bygone era, shortstop was regarded as a defense-first position.

Teams employed the likes of Mark Belanger and Ed Brinkman there, guys who struggled to hit .225 most years. Today catcher is the new shortstop. Analytically minded front offices realize the value of pitch framing and game calling. With rule changes taking effect in 2023 designed to encourage more base stealing, the catcher takes on even more importance.

There’s speculation that hot catching prospects Henry Davis and Endy Rodriguez will arrive in Pittsburgh at some point in 2023. That could very well be. My guess is neither is coming unless Cherington thinks the defensive skills are up to par.

Hill on the hill

Last August, Boston Red Sox broadcaster Dennis Eckersley famously criticized the Pirates’ roster, calling it “a hodgepodge of nothingness.” One wonders how he feels about the Pirates having outbid his Red Sox for the services of Hill. Hill’s home ballpark will now be the scene of the greatest game he ever pitched. On August 23, 2017, he had a no-hitter against the Pirates after nine innings, only to lose the game, 1-0, in the 10th inning on Josh Harrison‘s home run.

The Pirates will be the 12th major-league team for Hill, 42, an 18-year veteran who gives them the left-hander the rotation has so sorely lacked. Last season with the Red Sox, he was 8-7 with a 4.27 ERA and a 1.303 WHIP. He gave up 15 homers in 2022, nine of which were surrendered at home. At Fenway Park, batters slashed .274/.323/.462 against him, as opposed to .244/.309/.404 on the road. Moving from Fenway and the “Green Monster” to PNC Park and its deep left field, one would expect Hill’s numbers as a Pirate to be more akin to what he produced on the road in 2022.

More new pitchers

Getting Hill and his outstanding curveball was quite a coup for the Pirates. At the other extreme is the rather underwhelming addition of Velasquez, 30. The hard-throwing right-hander has pitched for four teams over eight years, producing a career record of 34-47, 4.93 ERA and 1.375 WHIP as a starter and reliever. In 2022, the Chicago White Sox saw fit to give Velasquez just nine starts. After June 15, he made only one start. Even so, it looks like a spot in the Pirates’ rotation is his to lose.

Perhaps the Pirates are encouraged that batters hit just .235/.299/.422 against him last season. These figures were far better than his career numbers and the Batting Average Against was a career low. He was even better in the second half, when batters produced a weak stat line of .212/.270/.346. Whether that means the maddeningly inconsistent Velasquez has permanently turned the corner remains to be seen.

What it does mean is the Pirates’ 2023 rotation will be Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, Roansy Contreras, Hill and Velasquez. Zach Thompson will be banished to the bullpen, where he’ll likely work in long relief.

As for the left-handed Garcia, 29, a San Francisco Giant in 2022, it’s sufficient to note in 2022, the Pirates’ left-handed relievers pitched to a 5.72 ERA and 1.586 WHIP. Garcia will be an upgrade to the Pirates’ lefty relief contingent simply by being a warm body.

No ordinary Joe

Turning now to Joe, the Pirates have hopes for him beyond the volume of jersey sales he’s sure to generate. Originally drafted by the Pirates in 2014, he was traded for Sean Rodriguez in 2017 before he had a chance to play for the big club. After bouncing around a few organizations and overcoming testicular cancer, he found a home with the Rockies, where in 2021, he hit .285/.379/.469 in 63 games. Playing more frequently in 2022, those numbers dropped to .238/.338/.359. Regardless, it’s clear Cherington values Joe’s skills at getting on base.

Pirates fans, or at least those who post to social media or call the talk shows, are unimpressed with the batting averages of the new additions. However, again, this ain’t your dad’s baseball. Rather than fill the lineup with sluggers, the small-market credo is don’t make outs and keep the line moving around the base paths. In the table below, I’ve ranked 11 Pirates who should see significant playing time in 2023 and their 2022 on-base percentages. Note where the new acquisitions rank.

Player2022 TeamOBP
Ji Hwan BaeIndianapolis (AAA).362
Bryan ReynoldsPirates.345
Ji-Man ChoiRays.341
Connor JoeRockies.338
Carlos SantanaRoyals/Mariners.316
Ke’Bryan HayesPirates.314
Rodolfo CastroPirates.299
Jack SuwinskiPirates.298
Oneil CruzPirates.294
Miguel AndujarYankees/Pirates.257
Austin HedgesGuardians.241

The price tag

Cherington is on the record as wanting to add one more hitter. However, with the above all but guaranteed to be on the roster in 2023, there’s room for only two more position players. One would be the backup catcher and the other would need some familiarity with shortstop. I don’t see where another player fits.

During this recent splurge, the Pirates have committed a whopping $25.4 million to six free agents, albeit on one-year deals. Add Choi’s projected arbitration salary of $4.5 million and the price tag is nearly $30 million for seven additions. Somebody had to be left off the 40-man roster as a consequence of all this maneuvering. Castillo and Wilson are the unfortunate casualties. Castillo’s exit means the Pirates now have nothing to show for trading Clay Holmes to the New York Yankees. That will also be likely be the ultimate result of the trade of Richard Rodgriguez to the Atlanta Braves. Wilson was the key to that deal and the remaining player acquired does not appear to be a prospect.

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