New Bucs have lots to do at Winter Meetings

December 8th, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates’ front office overhaul led to a late start to their offseason. Fortunately, they’re nearly done catching up in time for one of the biggest weeks of the winter.

Baseball’s annual Winter Meetings begin on Sunday at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. There, in sunny Southern California, general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton will hunker down with members of the front office and work-in-progress coaching staff to chart a course for the Pirates as they approach their first season under new leadership.

Because of the Pirates' focus on making over the management team, their traditional “Hot Stove”-type activity has been limited. Most of their roster moves have been forced by offseason deadlines. They picked up their options on and . They protected prospects from the Rule 5 Draft. They non-tendered catcher Elias Diaz.

That could change, however, now that the GM and managerial openings have been filled. Cherington and Shelton still must finalize their coaching staff, a process that could take place during the coming week. Then they can finally turn their attention toward reshaping a roster coming off a 93-loss, last-place season.

Will they ship out veterans to aggressively rebuild? Will they add and subtract around the margins, putting off a more dramatic decision until next year? Their words haven’t given much of an indication in either direction, but their actions obviously will.

We’ll also hear more from Cherington as he meets with local media each day, and Shelton will speak again during his Winter Meetings press conference. And with the entire baseball world in one building for five days, we should get a better idea of where the Pirates are headed.

Club needs: The Pirates need to fill out their coaching staff, first and foremost, with the most important opening being the pitching coach now that they’ve hired bench coach Don Kelly and committed to keeping hitting coach Rick Eckstein.Then they’ll need to determine when they’ll realistically be competitive again -- whether it’s 2020 or a few years down the line -- and add as much talent as possible to enhance their chances of winning during that window.

No matter what, they need to acquire at least one catcher -- whether it’s a starter, a veteran backup for or someone who can split time with him. The Pirates could use some help in the rotation, bullpen and outfield as well.

Whom might they trade? With a new GM in place, just about anything is on the table.

Center fielder Marte will be a frequent topic of conversation, as the veteran’s skill-set could help a bunch of contending teams. Don’t be surprised to hear rumors about closer Keone Kela, either, as contenders are always in pursuit of high-quality late-inning relievers. They may not trade All-Star first baseman , but he might be the best trade chip among their realistic options.

If another team is willing to pay the price for Archer’s upside and still-reasonable contract, perhaps the Pirates would part ways with the veteran starter. The same goes for right fielder , although such a move seems even less likely with him essentially coming off a lost season following September 2018 shoulder surgery.

Prospects to know: Given the limited supply of impact talent in their farm system, it’s hard to imagine the Pirates parting with top young/pre-arbitration players or prospects. They should carve out a spot in their rotation for , their No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, but it’ll be more interesting to see how Cherington and new assistant GM Steve Sanders view the Bucs’ top prospects.

How far away do they believe Ke’Bryan Hayes and Will Craig are? Where do they see Oneil Cruz fitting in? How do they value younger top prospects like Travis Swaggerty, Cal Mitchell, Quinn Priester, Sammy Siani, Ji-Hwan Bae, Cody Bolton and Jared Oliva? Do they see a core group worth building around? The Pirates have some infield and outfield depth in their system, but they clearly need to add high-end starting pitching prospects.

Rule 5 Draft: The Pirates have an open spot on their 40-man roster, and as long as that remains true, they could take a flyer on a young player left unprotected in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft. They likely won’t lose anyone, as they protected most of their eligible/near-ready top prospects. It could be easier to carry a Rule 5 Draft pick, particularly if they’re not contending, with a 26-man roster in 2020.

Worth noting: Reliever , who should be healthy for Spring Training after missing most of last season, must fulfill his remaining Rule 5 requirements two years after being selected in 2017. He spent a month in the Majors in September ‘18 after recovering from Tommy John surgery, made the Opening Day roster this past season, then went on the injured list on April 23.

Payroll summary: In his comments this offseason, Pirates chairman Bob Nutting has not struck the tone of an owner who is on the verge of authorizing a significant increase in payroll. However, Cherington has said he is comfortable with the resources provided by ownership.

The Pirates’ Opening Day payroll shrank for the third straight season this year after reaching a franchise-record high in 2016, and they cut salary in July by trading outfielder Corey Dickerson and, to a lesser extent, starter Jordan Lyles.

Taking guaranteed contracts, projected arbitration figures and estimated pre-arb salaries into account, the Pirates’ projected Opening Day payroll is currently around $65 million. Nobody has publicly set a target figure for the 2020 payroll.

One question: Who can the Pirates get to help at catcher?

There’s still a lot of uncertainty heading into the Winter Meetings, but one thing we know for sure is Pittsburgh needs a catcher. Naturally, the market that’s arguably moved the quickest this offseason has been behind the plate.

The Pirates put themselves in the market when they non-tendered Diaz, and Cherington confirmed on Wednesday that they will “look at free agency and trade opportunities” this offseason to add help behind the plate. Stallings, who improved his power at the plate and his pitch-framing behind the dish this year, is going to be part of the mix – but he’s the only catcher on their 40-man roster.

“We’re really excited that Jacob’s here, and he made some great strides last year,” Cherington said. “Everything I’ve heard is that he is interested in a lot of things that we would care about. … I’m sure we’ll have more information on what the possibilities are over the next 10 days and throughout the offseason. I think we’d be focused on adding to that position in some form."

Jason Castro and Robinson Chirinos are arguably the best proven options available, and Castro has history with Shelton. But will the Pirates outbid opponents for those two after they played for postseason teams last year? Could they talk Russell Martin into a reunion? Are they even looking for a starter?

Here are four under-the-radar names to watch: Austin Romine, the longtime Yankees backup; John Ryan Murphy, another former Yankees backup who has put together some solid defensive seasons; Kevan Smith, a Pittsburgh native with a .272 career average who spent last year with the Angels; and Blake Swihart, a versatile defender and former top catching prospect under Cherington’s watch in Boston.