Bucs have clear area of need this offseason

November 29th, 2023

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As the temperature in Pittsburgh begins to sink to its usual winter chill, MLB’s Hot Stove is only getting hotter. While the Pirates have not made many waves in the November edition of baseball’s busiest transactional period, one of the places where the action begins to really kick off is fast approaching.

The Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., begin on Sunday, and there is a lot on the Pirates’ agenda to improve a club that began the 2023 season with one of its best months of baseball in recent memory, only to finish 10 games below .500 and fourth in the National League Central. Sure, there were improvements in the standings and from some key young players, but there are more areas that need to be improved.

And one area greatly outweighs the others. To make it clear, let’s compare the Pirates’ three groups -- the bullpen, the offense and the starting rotation -- to some 2023 Wild Card Series teams.

The Pirates’ bullpen had a 4.27 ERA in 2023, which was 19th in MLB, ranking ahead of the eventual World Series champion Rangers (4.77) and the Marlins (4.37). However, when you look at the Bucs’ main options in winning scenarios, it’s safe to say that any team would want David Bednar (2.00 ERA in 67 1/3 innings) or setup man Carmen Mlodzinski (2.25 ERA in 36 innings) -- not to mention Colin Holderman, despite a couple of bumps. Get in close games, and you’re in good hands.

So far, so good.

On offense, the Pirates arguably don’t have anyone who is a Silver Slugger-lever hitter outside of Bryan Reynolds, though Oneil Cruz has not played enough games to clearly state his case. But marginal gains -- which can likely be done through a couple of players, whether that be an impact addition or an internal breakout -- would likely be enough to get the Pirates around the level of a fringe Wild Card team. The Brewers actually had a slightly worse OPS than the Bucs last season (.704 vs. .707).

But, of course, what did the Brewers have? An enviable starting pitching staff. If the Pirates had any one of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, it would be a huge boost, much less all three in the same rotation.

This is the crux of the Pirates’ concerns as the Winter Meetings near.

Pittsburgh has the opposite situation of Milwaukee. Given the reports that Johan Oviedo will undergo Tommy John surgery this offseason, that would mean only one full-time starting pitcher will be on the Pirates’ staff come Opening Day: Mitch Keller. He was an All-Star in 2023 after a fantastic first half, then he struggled out of the gate in the second half. So even with his surge compared to past seasons, we’re not quite at the point of calling him an ace, even if he is the anchor right now.

In all likelihood, the Pirates will not secure a free agent who is a universally recognized ace. Shohei Ohtani is going to garner a contract that will make us all gasp. Blake Snell, the 2023 National League Cy Young Award winner, is poised for a long free-agent contract that Pittsburgh has been less willing to hand out in its history. Aaron Nola and Sonny Gray are off the market with their multiyear deals with the Phillies and Cardinals, respectively.

However, there are plenty of valuable pitchers who are more than just the “one-year deal coming off a bad season” small-market stereotype in this year’s free-agent class. To prove a point, let’s do a statistical exercise. Keller had a 2.9 bWAR last season while leading the Bucs’ rotation. I would say a pitcher who produces more than 5 bWAR is positioning themselves for a hefty one-year contract or a multiyear deal.

So here is the list of free-agent starting pitchers who had between 3 and 5 bWAR in 2023:

Brandon Woodruff (5.0)
Marcus Stroman (4.8)
Martín Pérez (4.4)
Julio Urías (4.4)
Michael Wacha (4.1)
Eduardo Rodriguez (3.7)
Seth Lugo (3.1)
Zack Greinke (3.0)

There are a good number of options, though the Pirates will obviously have to outbid other interested teams. There are also nine pitchers in the 2 to 3 bWAR range who could be interesting -- think names like Lucas Giolito (2.8) or Tyler Mahle (2.5).

This is not to say that the Pirates are linked to any of these players at the moment. But general manager Ben Cherington said at the GM Meetings earlier this month that “more of our energy has gone to the pitching market early,” so it’s a safe assumption that many of these players’ agents have at least gotten a check-in.

There’s also a fairly intriguing trade market, which includes the aforementioned Burnes, who may be on the trading block even after the Crew non-tendered Woodruff, and former Pirate Tyler Glasnow.

We’re just waiting for the first domino to fall for Pittsburgh to see what its strategy will ultimately be. Given that the Cardinals have already swooped in to claim three veteran arms in Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn, the pressure is already on in the division. So maybe the Winter Meetings is where some of the framework for the Pirates’ first splash will be laid out. Time will tell.