ST. LOUIS -- The cacophony of claps and greetings grew in volume as Ke'Bryan Hayes made his way to his locker. Hayes, perpetually the cool cat, tried to downplay the news that he agreed to the biggest contract in Pirates history. His teammates wouldn’t grant him that satisfaction.
Someone repeatedly yelled out, “Rich man!” Cole Tucker, with the enthusiasm only he can provide, shouted that everyone should ask Hayes for a dollar. With Hayes and the Pirates agreeing to an eight-year, $70 million deal with a club option for a ninth season, according to a source, there was no shortage of players willing to provide a handshake. A dap. A hug.
“I’m just thankful for this opportunity, for them believing in me for a long-term deal,” Hayes said. “I’m very committed as I’m sure they are committed for this partnership. I’m excited to get back to work this year.”
The club has not confirmed the deal, which is not yet official and is pending a physical. That will come next week after the Pirates fly back to Pittsburgh on Monday night after this four-game series. But when the ink dries, Hayes will have usurped Jason Kendall’s six-year, $60 million contract for the largest deal in franchise history.
There was a slight scare when Hayes exited Thursday afternoon's 9-0 Opening Day loss to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium in the bottom of the first inning with a left forearm spasm just hours after the news had been reported. Hayes, though, indicated after the game that it was nothing more than a bad cramp. The Bucs have an off-day Friday, but he expects to play on Saturday and properly start his season with a deal that cements him as a cornerstone.
Kendall signed his deal in November 2000. Hayes’ father, Charlie, was still in the league, set to play what would be the final season of his career. Ke'Bryan was 3 years old.
“In my eyes, it shows how much they believe in me with how little time that I have in the big leagues,” Hayes said. “For me, it’s almost a confidence boost, just them showing they want me to be a guy that’s here for a long time, help lead the way. To be able to break a record like that, that’s awesome. It’s very humbling.”
There have been a lot of names between Kendall and Hayes who couldn’t break that record: Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte, among others. The Pirates deemed Hayes worth the money, and Hayes hopes they will open up the checkbook for others as well.
“If we can keep a lot of these guys here -- because we’ve been playing the last couple years together -- that would be awesome,” Hayes said.
The specifics of how the roster will shake out in the coming years is, of course, unknown. What is known is that Hayes stands to help usher in the Pirates’ next era of winning baseball. And in Hayes, the Bucs have one heck of a foundational piece.
Hayes is already a defensive alchemist. He’s elite by defensive runs saved. He’s elite by outs above average. He’s elite by the eye test. With respect to Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman, two of the best defensive third basemen to walk this earth, Hayes may own the title of “Best Defensive Third Baseman” by season’s end with a Gold Glove -- and maybe even a Platinum one -- to decorate the résumé.
That defensive wizardry provides Hayes with an exceptionally high floor. Last season is proof. Hayes was a below-average hitter by wRC+ (88). That was a function of the injuries he battled. Yet, he still posted 1.5 fWAR in 96 games. If Hayes is, at the minimum, a league-average hitter, he’ll be one of baseball's best at the hot corner for years to come.
“He’s right there,” said shortstop Kevin Newman. “Everybody says Arenado, and Arenado is phenomenal; he’s really good. I might be biased because I play next to him and I see all the plays that he makes, but he’s right there.”
The signing of Hayes is not an end, but a beginning. There is still work to be done. There are still further investments to make. Winning will not come overnight. But in reaching a deal with Hayes, the Pirates are making a small, yet notable, step forward.