Several Pirates players and executives are in attendance at the team’s PiratesFest fan event in Pittsburgh this weekend, which acts as something of a midway point in the Bucs’ offseason. As such, GM Ben Cherington, team president Travis Williams, and manager Derek Shelton took part in a Q&A with fans on Saturday, and the group shared some tidbits on further winter plans with fans and media (including Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
Cherington made it clear that the Pirates’ offseason work is far from over, stating “We’re engaged on a number of fronts, and certainly my hope is that there’s going to be more happening between now and spring training.” Though Cherington naturally didn’t cite any specific players of interest, recent reports have linked the Pirates to such players as Carlos Santana, Michael A. Taylor, Adam Frazier, and a likely far more expensive target in Yariel Rodriguez.
With Martin Perez and Marco Gonzales already added to the rotation mix, Rodriguez would be the biggest boost yet to a starting staff that still has plenty of question marks, considering that Perez lost his spot in the Rangers rotation last year and Gonzales struggled through 50 innings in an injury-shortened season. Cherington made it clear that the Bucs are still looking for more pitching help, and that the team had offered some multi-year contracts to free agent arms.
This represents a bit more aggressiveness than usual for the Pirates, who haven’t signed any free agents to multi-year deals since 2016 — almost three full years before Cherington even took over the front office to oversee a major rebuild. Pittsburgh’s 76-86 record in 2023 represented the club’s highest win total since 2018, and between some burgeoning younger talent and the unsettled nature of the NL Central, there is some hope within the organization that it can fully turn the corner in 2024.
“Our goal was to play playoff games in October,” Shelton said bluntly. “Whether that’s winning the Central, which is definitely the goal, or being a playoff caliber team, that’s something we’re striving for. And I will be very clear in our first message in Bradenton [at spring training] in about a month that we should be thinking about that every day.”
Roster Resource currently projects the Buccos to have a $70.37M payroll in 2024, slightly less than their approximate $73.28M Opening Day payroll from last season. Since Cherington is on record as saying that the Pirates will increase their payroll, it remains to be seen exactly how much the team is willing or able to spend for further upgrades. It does appear that the Pirates should exceed their 2023 figure in some way, especially since some clear roster holes need to be addressed if Pittsburgh is to achieve its goal of being postseason contenders.
With broadcasting revenue such a major topic of conversation this offseason, the Pirates’ recent deal for a co-ownership stake in the SportsNet Pittsburgh network won’t be impacting the team’s ability to spend, Williams reiterated. “We’re not changing our plan, not changing our payroll. We’re committed to our plan, and we’re going to stick to it,” the team president said.
That said, Williams also seemed to stay away from any specifics about spending in general, and noted that “I’d say that payroll, while important, is not the most important factor in terms of how we get to building a championship-caliber team for our fans.” Williams claimed that the Pirates are one of baseball’s top five teams in terms of developmental spending, which Mackey notes is a difficult claim to verify or gauge with any accuracy, though it could be true given Cherington’s overhaul of the minor league pipeline.
“We’re putting all of our revenues back into the ball club,” Williams said. “We’re trying to get better every day and investing in areas where we’re gonna get better every day….We’re doing all the right things to win for Pittsburgh. We also want to make this work within the economics of baseball.”
A full and healthy season from Oneil Cruz would go a long way toward making the Pirates better in 2024 after the star prospect missed almost the entire season due to ankle surgery. Cruz told reporters (including Justin Guerriero of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) that he is now fully recovered following a summer setback in his rehab process. “Everything’s like it’s supposed to be….Now that I feel 100% again, just go out there like I do every year and give my 100% out there and be ready from Day 1,” Cruz said.
There had been some consideration given to Cruz participating in the Dominican Winter League to help him ramp up his readiness heading into Spring Training, but the Pirates have instead been limiting him to instructional league games in the Dominican Republic. Given how the Bucs already lost Endy Rodriguez to a torn UCL while playing DWL ball last month, it isn’t surprising that the team is being extra cautious with Cruz.
In other Pirates news, the team has yet to start any extension negotiations with Mitch Keller, as the right-hander himself told Mackey. This doesn’t mean that talks won’t eventually happen, and Keller feels a meeting “would probably be around spring training again like it was last year.”
Those earlier talks didn’t lead anywhere, nor did some follow-up negotiations that reportedly took place during the season. In the interim, Keller delivered an All-Star season that saw him post a 4.21 ERA over 194 1/3 innings, though he was much more effective in the first half of the season. With this in mind, Keller is planning to make some adjustments to his preparation for next year, noting “Maybe you need to change a little bit with recovery or mid-week lifts, bullpens and cut some out here and there, just so I’m feeling good toward the end or middle of the season. Just learning from how to handle a load like that.”
Keller is projected to earn a $6M salary in 2024, his second year of arbitration eligibility. Since he is slated for free agency after the 2025 season, there is still a considerable amount of time left for the two sides to potentially reach an agreement on a long-term deal. Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds both finalized extensions with Pittsburgh in each of the last two Aprils and locking up Keller would represent yet another core piece being added to what the Pirates hope is the nucleus of their next winning team.