Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington has promised an increased payroll and a different kind of trade. Has he delivered so far?
So many years of one-year free-agent contracts, only to see these players traded at the deadline, have caused Pirates fans to greet these signings with a collective yawn. They find the annual ritual where the players under one-year deals are traded at the deadline to be tiresome. Before each season, the talking heads on the cable sports shows, abuzz over other teams’ offseason activities, evaluate these deals by opining, “Great deal for Pittsburgh. They can flip him for prospects in July.” It gets old.
With many of the Pirates’ top prospects coming along, Cherington has proclaimed them ready to contend in 2024. This is even with uncertainty in the starting rotation and at second base. Accordingly, he’s stated that it’s time to increase payroll and maybe even see a different kind of trade or free agent than we’ve seen from the Pirates in the past. Nobody expects anything like the record contract given to Shohei Ohtani or even the recent deal given to Josh Hader. Small market teams are under constraints in baseball’s economic system. But what Cherington has hinted at is a better caliber of players under longer contracts.
A Different Kind of Trade for the Pirates
The Same Old Song
So far, however, to quote the Four Tops, it’s been “the same old song.” Last year, the Pirates’ Opening Day payroll was around $72 million. As of this writing, their projected 2024 payroll sits at about $68 million.
On December 5, Cherington acquired left-handed pitcher Marco Gonzales and cash – lots of it – from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for a minor league player to be named later. In an injury-shortened season, Gonzales was 4-1 with a 5.22 ERA in 10 games. The Braves had acquired him from the Seattle Mariners just two days earlier in a deal that also saw Jarred Kelenic and Evan White come to Atlanta. Kelenic was the Braves’ target. They acquired Gonzales for the sole purpose of facilitating the deal with Seattle. In doing so, they took on some of his $12.25 million salary off the Mariners’ hands. The intent was to flip him immediately while assuming much of what remained of the salary not covered by Seattle. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for any player. Nor is it the different kind of trade promised by Cherington.
Cherington followed up that move 10 days later by signing first baseman Rowdy Tellez to a one-year, $3.2 million contract. In 2023, Tellez hit only .215/.291/.376, with 13 HR and 47 RBI. But he’s just a year removed from his best season when, in 2022, he hit 35 home runs. The left-handed power hitter might be an ideal fit, aiming his rockets at the short right field fence at PNC Park. Yet, it was a curious signing for a number of reasons. Tellez doesn’t offer the on-base skills (career .304 OBP) the Pirates’ brain trust covets. Plus, he’s well below average defensively. For 2023, the Pirates committed $11.4 million on two first basemen, Ji Man Choi and Carlos Santana (both were traded at the trade deadline). As matters stand now, Tellez on a cheaper deal doesn’t constitute a new way of doing business.
On January 5, the Pirates signed veteran left-handed starter Martin Perez to a one-year deal worth a reported $8 million. Perez pitched for the world-champion Texas Rangers last year. Like Tellez, he’s one year removed from his best season. In 2022, he was 12-8 with a 2.89 ERA, 1.258 WHIP, and 3.26 FIP while earning his only All-Star berth. Given his career marks (85-81, 4.44 ERA over 12 years), however, it appears 2022 was an outlier. In 2023, he was 10-4, but his 4.45 ERA and 4.99 FIP indicate there may have been some luck involved with his record. He was banished to the bullpen when the Rangers acquired Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery at the deadline. Again, not a ringing endorsement.
— Ethan Fisher (@efisher330) January 17, 2024
The Bright Side
Let’s be fair and look at the bright side of these deals. With Mitch Keller as the lone reliable starter heading into 2024, the Pirates needed arms for their rotation. Gonzales and Perez profile as back-end rotation pieces, but the Pirates needed those, too. Pitching coach Oscar Marin has a recent history of turning around the careers of soft-tossing left-handed starters like Gonzales and Perez (see Tyler Anderson and Jose Quintana). The Pirates will be accused of being cheap for taking on Gonzales and footing almost nothing of his salary. But the last time they did something similar, the pitcher was A.J. Burnett, and that didn’t work out too badly. Why spend money when you don’t have to, just to say you spent money?
Looking at the current market for starting pitchers and noting the Cincinnati Reds paid $16 million to get one year of Frankie Montas, whose unremarkable career includes pitching in just one game in 2023, getting Perez for half of that looks shrewd on Cherington’s part. As for Tellez, it’s not unreasonable to believe he could provide at least the same production the Pirates got from Santana and Choi last year, albeit with lesser defense.
Nothing Like Trying
So, for now, it’s only fair to take Cherington at his word. He’s under pressure to deliver. In fact, in a recent rare interview, owner Bob Nutting confirmed that Cherington is under orders to do more. Much more. Spring training is still almost a month away, with the start of the season about two and a half months away. There’s plenty of time for his efforts to yield fruit.
In the meantime, Pirates fans might be consoled by remembering April Fools Day, 1987. That was the day the Pirates pulled off the late spring training deal that brought Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere, and Mike Dunne from the St. Louis Cardinals, just a few days before the start of the regular season. Now there was a different kind of deal that reversed the Pirates’ fortunes!
Whether one sees this situation as the glass half-full or half-empty, it’s abundantly clear Cherington needs to do more. The Pirates desperately need to change the narrative that they try to get by on cheap one-year deals, a wing and a prayer, followed by the usual July exodus. Otherwise, they’ll be looking at more and more empty seats at PNC Park in 2024 and beyond.