AnalysisNL Central

The Pirates’ Next Move (Hopefully)

The Pittsburgh Pirates probably should be one of the more frequently discussed sleeper teams for 2024. Coming off of a 14-win improvement, boasting a very talented and exciting young core, and residing in the uninspiring NL Central, the Bucs are in prime position to take a real step forward and contend this upcoming season (should they choose to do so). And, as we’ve seen in each of the past couple of seasons, anyone who secures a ticket to the October dance is capable of making some serious noise.

However, as is the case with every MLB team, the Pirates have some holes to fill, most notably in the starting rotation. Pittsburgh entered the offseason with exactly two healthy, MLB-caliber starting pitchers – Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo. The latter promptly reported elbow pain and subsequently underwent Tommy John surgery in November, leaving the Pirates with their ace and a bunch of question marks. These question marks include the trio of Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz, and Quinn Priester, all former top prospects with plus-or-better stuff, who combined for a 6.10 ERA across 205 MLB innings in 2023, and trade deadline acquisition Bailey Falter, whose 3.86 ERA for the 2022 NL champion Phillies appears to be an anomaly based on the rest of his MLB career. However many starters GM Ben Cherington felt he needed to add increased without any additional baseball being played.

Cherington continued his penchant for filling PNC Park with soft-tossing southpaws by acquiring Marco Gonzales from the Braves at the Winter Meetings and agreeing to terms with Martin Perez in mid-December. Both pitchers profile as solid bounce-back candidates with reliable track records who are cumulatively costing the Bucs only about $11 million in 2024. For that price, and based on the utterly robust cost of pitching on the market this winter, that’s a fine start. But there’s gotta be more than that.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Jason Mackey believes that Cherington agrees with that sentiment, noting that it’s “possible — if not likely — that [the return of Andrew McCutchen] will be upstaged soon by something bigger,” specifically, trading for a starting pitcher who can help the team “in 2024 and beyond.” The Pirates certainly have a stockpile of young, tradeable assets, and, as Mackey argues, trading for a player who has yet to reach free agency is more financially viable than signing one on the open market.

Signing another free agent remains a possibility, especially as many options remain on the market well into 2024. Players like Mike Clevinger, James Paxton, Domingo German, and Yariel Rodriguez have been floated around as potential targets. But the focus here will be on the trade market, as that presents the low-budget Pirates with the greatest chance to add a pitcher of legitimate consequence.

“Starting pitchers with multiple years of control” doesn’t really narrow the options down much, so let’s go a little further. The following pitchers:

  • have at least two more seasons of arbitration eligibility (and thus easier to acquire than pre-arb pitchers)
  • have no health concerns going into Spring Training
  • have at least a remote possibility of getting traded
  • roughly fall within the Pirates’ financial parameters.

With all that in mind, here are some candidates who, to some extent, are probably on Ben Cherington’s radar, split into tiers:

Tier 1 – Cease & Co.

Dylan Cease, White Sox

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This would certainly be a stunner and perhaps reminiscent of the 2018 Pirates suddenly deciding to go all-in and trading a haul for Chris Archer. His 2023 numbers aren’t all that inspiring, but he’s just one season removed from a 2.20 ERA and a runner-up finish in the Cy Young race. Any team acquiring Cease would have to pay for the 2022 version, and his potential suitors may not become fully clear until the free agent starting pitching market (namely Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery) resolves. But there’s no doubt Cease would make the Pirates a much better team. Whether they are ambitious enough or not is an entirely different story.

Logan Gilbert, Mariners

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It’s long been speculated that the Mariners might use one of their many young starting pitchers as trade bait to improve their lineup. That being the case, the Pirates don’t really line up as an ideal trade partner. But Gilbert is about as steady as it gets. Since his debut in 2021, he’s 13th among starting pitchers in innings pitched and FIP, 15th in ERA, and fourth in walk rate. Again, Pittsburgh probably isn’t a fit here unless Seattle really likes one of their young middle infielders. But Gilbert would be worth at least having that conversation.

Jesus Luzardo, Marlins

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In 50 starts since the start of the 2022 season, Luzardo has quietly become one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. The only starters with a better ERA, strikeout rate, and walk rate than Luzardo in that time are Gerrit Cole, Kevin Gausman, and Max Scherzer. That’s it. And at just 26 years old, his arrow is still pointing up. Miami, like Seattle, may be motivated to trade someone from their pitching surplus to address other needs. If the Pirates are serious about making a real splash, this might be the dream scenario.

Tarik Skubal, Tigers

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As someone who is relentlessly adamant that Mitch Keller is untouchable, it’s probably hypocritical to include Skubal here. Despite an abundance of pitching injuries and another abysmal season from their $140 million shortstop, the Tigers won 78 games and could probably stand pat and still contend in the AL Central. But Skubal, like Luzardo, is better than people think. His ERA has decreased drastically in each of his four MLB seasons (ultimately dropping from 5.63 to 2.80), and his minuscule 2.00 FIP in 2023 was 49 points lower than any other starter who pitched even 50 innings.

Tier 2 – Legitimate Mid-Rotation Starters

Aaron Civale, Rays

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Currently without injured Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, and Jeffrey Springs, it may behoove the Rays to hold off on trading more pitching, although Tampa Bay’s “next man up” seemingly always turns into a stud. Civale actually saw a three-run spike in his ERA after a midseason trade from Cleveland, although his FIP for each team was nearly identical (3.53 in Cleveland, 3.63 in Tampa Bay). Either version of the righthander would be a quality addition.

Triston McKenzie, Guardians

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McKenzie was limited to just four starts due to multiple IL stints in 2023 and, given his exaggerated struggles, may not have been fully healthy at any point. His 2022 campaign showed tons of promise. That season, he sported a 2.96 ERA, including a 2.19 ERA mark over the final three months. He has struggled with walks and home runs at times, but the stuff is good enough and the ceiling is high enough to warrant a significant trade package.

Trevor Rogers, Marlins

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Rogers is another candidate looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2023. A biceps strain ended his season on April 19 after just his fourth start, and his 2022 season (5.47 ERA, 4.35 FIP in 23 starts) paled in comparison to his 2021 (2.64 ERA, 2.55 FIP in 25 starts) that saw him finish as the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up. Rogers is probably a more logical trade candidate for a Marlins team still looking to contend.

Patrick Sandoval, Angels

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The Pirates covet much of what Sandoval provides. He’s left-handed, he’s durable (at least 27 starts in consecutive seasons), he limits hard contact (77th percentile hard-hit rate), and he keeps the ball on the ground (73rd percentile groundball rate). Unfortunately, his ERA jumped from 2.91 to 4.11 last year, Likewise, his strikeout and walk rates were both his career worst. Despite losing Shohei Ohtani, hiring a new manager, and a ninth consecutive non-playoff season, the Angels don’t appear to be waving the white flag. A potential acquisition for a bigger-name starter (perhaps Blake Snell or Shane Bieber) could make one of their existing pitchers expendable.

Jose Urquidy, Astros

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Urquidy is another example of a solid pitcher coming off of an injury-plagued season. Shoulder inflammation kept Urquidy on the IL from May into August, but that marked his first campaign with an ERA above 3.95 or a WHIP above 1.17. His track record also includes 46.1 innings pitched across 15 postseason games (eight starts), an attractive attribute as the Pirates try to work their way back to contention.

Tier 3 – Could Be Fun

Paul Blackburn, Athletics

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Paul Blackburn’s cutter has been his second-most used pitch in each of the last two seasons, and opposing hitters have a .400 average and .631 slugging percentage against it in that span. On the other hand, each of his non-fastballs induced batting averages below .200 and slugging percentages below .330 last season. Pitching coach Oscar Marin specializes in having his pitchers pitch to their own strengths. I’m no expert, but that seems like a match that could prove fruitful.

Griffin Canning, Angels

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Canning might also benefit from a change of scenery, but for different reasons. His strikeout rate (69th percentile) and walk rate (76th percentile) are both promising figures for a pitcher entering his age-28 season. However, he’s been burned by the long ball while with the Angels (1.6 HR/9 in 2023 and for his career). According to Forbes, PNC Park was the seventh-friendliest pitcher’s park and the hardest place in the league to hit a home run, while Angel Stadium is a top-10 hitter’s park.

Dane Dunning, Rangers

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As previously noted with Civale, the injury situation here likely leaves Dunning off the market with his name written in ink in the Rangers’ rotation. Texas is currently looking at lengthy absences from Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and the recently acquired Tyler Mahle. Dunning was a key contributor for the 2023 champs, posting career-best marks in ERA, innings pitched, and walk rate and adding three scoreless appearances in the World Series.

Michael Kopech, White Sox

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Once a top-10 prospect in the entire sport, Kopech is coming off of what is comfortably the worst season of his career to date. He walked 12 more batters than any other AL pitcher last year (Cease, his teammate, was second) despite being tied for 44th in the AL in innings pitched. What’s worse, his career-worst ERA was actually a full run better than his FIP (6.46), and he has yet to top 130 innings pitched in any season of his MLB career. Kopech’s season ended after dealing with knee inflammation that required surgery, but he is expected to be a full go for Spring Training.

Brady Singer, Royals

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The Royals are coming off of a 106-loss campaign, yet have invested nearly $100 million in free agency, indicating they are unlikely to sell off major pieces. Singer, Kansas City’s top pick in the 2018 draft, is also coming off of a down year, allowing a career-worst .287/.341/.467 slash and 19% strikeout rate while seeing his average fastball velocity drop by over a tick and a half. He still posted strong groundball and walk rates and is just a season removed from a 3.23 ERA.

Tier 4 – I Guess Martin Perez Really Is The #2

Cole Irvin, Orioles

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Irvin parlayed a pair of solid seasons in Oakland into a trade to Baltimore, where, despite fair numbers (4.42 ERA, 4.43 FIP, 1.28 WHIP), he couldn’t hold a spot in the Orioles’ rotation and even spent some time in Triple-A. His starter-reliever versatility and his ability to limit free passes and loud contact make him an ideal fit for Pittsburgh, although they have plenty of those guys as is, and Irvin wouldn’t exactly move the needle.

Zack Littell, Rays

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After claiming Littell off waivers from the Red Sox in May, the Rays tinkered with his pitch mix with good results. After spending most of the season as a reliever/opener, Littell got an extended look as a traditional starter down the stretch, posting a 3.38 ERA and .673 opponent OPS in 11 starts. He’s not flashy, but he’s a good pitcher. The Rays Pitching Factory tends to have that effect.

Joey Lucchesi, Mets

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The forgotten piece of the three-team trade that sent Joe Musgrove to San Diego and David Bednar and Endy Rodriguez to Pittsburgh, Lucchesi’s season debut marked his return from June 2021 Tommy John surgery. Small sample size aside, his 2.89 ERA was the best mark of his career and he appears to still be every bit of the pitcher he was in 2018-2019 with the Padres. The Mets’ additions of Luis Severino, Adrian Houser, and Sean Manaea to their rotation currently leave Lucchesi off of their projected Opening Day roster.

Tier 5 – No Thanks (ft. the Rockies)

Austin Gomber, Rockies

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Gomber was the main prize of the trade that sent Nolan Arenado from Colorado to St. Louis, and it seems as if that’s the only thing that has kept him in the Rockies’ rotation this long. Among all pitchers with at least 250 innings pitched since the start of 2022, Gomber’s 5.53 ERA tops only Patrick Corbin and his 5.01 FIP tops only Corbin and Josiah Gray. Coors effect notwithstanding, Gomber might be an option, but he’s not a solution.

Peter Lambert, Rockies

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What’s the point? I’m not going to talk anyone into this, including myself.

Cal Quantrill, Rockies

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Absolutely zero intrigue here, either. As a 28-year-old member of the Cleveland Pitching Factory, Quantrill posted a strikeout rate (13.1%) worse than Jamie Moyer did while pitching at Coors at literally 49 years old. The Pirates already had a chance to add Quantrill when Cleveland designated him for assignment in November and obviously opted against it. His $6.6 million arbitration projection is higher than every single pitcher listen here aside from Dylan Cease.

Jose Suarez, Angels

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Suarez’s disastrous 2023 campaign was marred by a shoulder strain that sidelined him from early May to mid-September. The lefthander has been effective in the past, pitching to a 3.86 ERA across 207.1 innings in 2021-2022. Ken Rosenthal noted Suarez as a player who had been garnering trade interest across the league earlier this winter.

Touki Toussaint, White Sox

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Another former top prospect, Toussaint age-27 season – and his fifth career MLB organization – led to his longest look as a starting pitcher. The results weren’t promising, but if there’s a silver lining here, it’s his curveball. The opposition hit just .115 and slugged .189 off of what wound up being his most frequently thrown pitch.

Bonus Tier – Pre-Arbitration

Let’s briefly touch on a few other names. These pitchers are largely raw and unproven but have exceptionally high ceilings, but due to age and service time are not yet eligible for salary arbitration. All of these pitchers are a gamble and would come with a higher cost on the trade market, but if the Pirates are seriously looking for a long-term piece, this would be the place to look.

Alek Manoah – It’s been a wild couple of seasons for Manoah, who has gone from the highs of being a Cy Young finalist in 2022 to the lows of allowing 11 runs in 2.2 innings after getting demoted to rookie ball in 2023. With his future in Toronto now in question, teams may be looking at Manoah as a bounce-back candidate. It’s worth noting that Pirates GM Ben Cherington and assistant GM Steve Sanders were in the Blue Jays’ front office when Manoah was drafted 11th overall in 2019.

Braxton Garrett/Edward Cabrera/Max Meyer – The Marlins potentially flipping one of their young arms for some offense is one of the most persistent rumors of the offseason. If it doesn’t end up being the aforementioned Luzardo or Rogers, it could be Garrett (3.63 ERA, 1.18 WHIP since 2022), Cabrera (great strikeout and groundball rates, throws a 96-MPH changeup), or Meyer (third overall pick in 2020, rehabbing from 2022 Tommy John surgery).

Bryce Miller/Bryan Woo – Seattle is in a similar boat as Miami, and while the Mariners may be content with the additions they’ve made to their lineup (namely Mitch Garver, Mitch Haniger, and Luke Raley), they could still be swayed into making a deal involving either Miller or Woo, both 2021 draft picks who have already established themselves as capable MLB starters.

Reid Detmers – Even if the Angels decide to deal a starting pitcher, they certainly would rather trade Sandoval or Canning or Suarez (maybe there’s a taker for Tyler Anderson), but if I’m in Ben Cherington’s shoes, I’m still making this call. Detmers saw a spike in his ERA in 2023 (3.77 to 4.48), but despite the down year, he was one of just 16 pitchers to start at least 25 games with a K/9 rate of 10 or higher. He also threw a no-hitter at just 21 years old in 2022.

Nick Lodolo – An intra-division trade of this magnitude would be atypical, but Lodolo is an intriguing case. A stress fracture in his left leg limited him to just seven very poor starts in 2023, but he looked like a stud in the making as a rookie in 2022, posting a 3.66 ERA and a 29.7% strikeout rate. With a rotation already featuring budding star Hunter Greene, 2023 breakouts Graham Ashcraft and Andrew Abbott, and free agent acquisitions Nick Martinez and Frankie Montas, Lodolo may no longer fit into Cincinnati’s plans. He also has a history with the Pirates, having been drafted by Pittsburgh with the final pick of the first round in 2016 but opting to attend TCU instead of signing.

Prediction: Once the free agent market finally picks up, the Angels will add one of the top remaining starting pitchers and trade Patrick Sandoval to the Pirates. Closer to Spring Training, the Pirates will also swing a minor trade for Joey Lucchesi as a reliable depth piece.

2024 salary estimates courtesy of Matt Swartz, MLB Trade Rumors

Ethan Fisher

Jesus paid it all. Forever hoping Bob Nutting will just pay anyone. Ke'Bryan Hayes is the best 3B in the NL Central. Always talking Pirates/baseball in general on Twitter @efisher330

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