PITTSBURGH — The next few days will be busy for Ben Cherington and the Pirates’ front office.
Friday is the start of the international signing period, and Pittsburgh should be active on that front under international scouting director Junior Vizcaino after a handful of high-profile signings during Cherington’s first year as general manager. Friday will also bring a 1 p.m. ET deadline for teams and arbitration-eligible players to exchange salary figures for the 2021 season, an annual offseason milepost that typically leads to a flurry of agreements in order to avoid arbitration hearings.
The Pirates began the offseason with 19 arbitration-eligible players, a class so large that Cherington joked in November he would “enjoy watching … from a distance” as another group of front office executives managed the club’s cases. Pittsburgh’s offseason moves so far, including three arbitration-avoiding deals prior to the non-tender deadline, have trimmed that group to nine players:
It’s possible that the Pirates could make a trade or two in the coming days, further shrinking that group. They could come to terms on salaries for the coming season and trade some of them, with cost certainty, after Friday’s deadline. They could move forward with all nine players on their roster.
The Pirates have been a “file and trial” team, and Cherington said they expect to remain that way. So, if they don’t come to an agreement by the deadline and instead exchange salary figures with a player or players, it’s likely that they will go to an arbitration hearing to determine their salaries for the 2021 season.
“We certainly will work as hard as we can up to [Friday’s] date to get settlements. That’s always the desired outcome,” Cherington said in December. “But if we can’t, then we’ll be prepared to file and go to the hearing after that.”
As the deadline draws near, let’s look at the Pirates’ remaining arb-eligible players and where they might fit this year and moving forward.
Musgrove might be the Pirates’ most-watched player between now and Opening Day, as he’s considered a likely trade candidate given his track record and the belief that he still possesses untapped potential. He is probably Pittsburgh’s most realistic trade chip now that Josh Bell is with Washington, because he could bring back the kind of interesting young talent the Pirates are seeking this offseason, and he was nearly dealt to Toronto before last year’s Trade Deadline.
All the things that make the 28-year-old right-hander so intriguing to other teams also make him a candidate for a contract extension with Pittsburgh, something the Pirates would likely pursue in Spring Training if they don’t trade him before then. In that scenario, the clubhouse leader could stick around to guide the Pirates’ young starters through this “building” phase and form the foundation of their next core.
Musgrove’s full-season salary last year was set at $2.8 million, and he’s now entering his second of three arb-eligible years. His shortened season was further interrupted by a bout with right triceps inflammation, but he posted a 3.86 ERA with 55 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings and finished particularly strong with a 2.16 ERA over his final five starts.
Frazier seems like a prime trade candidate before his second of three arb-eligible seasons. He could help teams in a variety of ways, either as an everyday second baseman or as a super-utility player with league-average offensive production, and because the Pirates have plenty of middle infielders. It’s a position of depth in the Majors — Kevin Newman, Erik González and Cole Tucker will compete for the starting shortstop job, and Phillip Evans can play around the infield — and even more so in the Minors.
Set to get another raise after having his full-season salary set at $2.8 million last year, Frazier will return as the starting second baseman if he’s not traded and should bounce back at the plate. He was a Gold Glove Award finalist again last year, which was enough to make him one of the Pirates’ most valuable players despite his .230/.297/.364 slash line.
Kuhl’s full-season salary was set at $840,000 last season, his first year of arbitration eligibility, because he was coming off Tommy John surgery, which cost him half of the 2018 season and all of ’19. He’ll get a raise this year after an encouraging return to the mound, and he should have a spot in Pittsburgh’s rotation secured to start the season.
The right-hander posted a 4.27 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings over 11 outings last year, and those numbers were weighed down by a blow-up start in Kansas City during which a blister wreaked havoc on his command. He has two more years of club control remaining, but if he breaks out like some people within the organization expect, it won’t be a surprise if he’s in demand as soon as this year’s Trade Deadline.
Brault seemingly took a big step forward during his final two starts last season, allowing one run on four hits and five walks while striking out 14 in 16 innings against the Cardinals and Cubs. Dubbing himself a “freaking throwing machine” with Stallings behind the plate, Brault attacked the strike zone and showed real promise that should earn him a spot in Pittsburgh’s Opening Day rotation this year.
Where Brault fits moving forward into his first arbitration year is less clear. He’s shown the versatility to pitch out of the rotation or bullpen. He’s left-handed, which plays well at PNC Park. And he’s a well-liked teammate. But given where the Pirates are at in their pursuit of young talent, another hot streak like the one Brault put together last September could end him with on the trading block. MLB.com’s Jon Morosi reported in November that teams had called the Bucs about Brault.
Injuries limited Crick to seven appearances last season, and while his big-breaking slider was still there, the right-handed reliever’s fastball velocity was nowhere near its normal level. So this will be a telling season for Crick, the 28-year-old right-hander who joined the Pirates alongside Bryan Reynolds in the Andrew McCutchen trade.
In 2018, Crick was a lights-out setup man with a 2.39 ERA in 64 appearances and an unhittable slider. He said he began tipping his pitches in ’19, which led to a brutal second half of the season and a 4.96 ERA in 52 games overall. If he can rediscover his fastball velocity and 2018 form, Crick — another first-time arb-eligible player — could quickly ascend to a high-leverage role in Pittsburgh’s bullpen.
With Bell traded, José Osuna in Japan and Will Craig off the 40-man roster, it appears that first base belongs to Moran. The Pirates were encouraged by the increase in power they saw from the left-handed-hitting Moran last year, when he hit 10 homers and posted a .472 slugging percentage in 200 plate appearances. He’s a serviceable defender at first base, with Evans his only potential platoon partner, so he should find his name in the lineup often this year.
The Pirates’ most interesting first base prospect is Mason Martin, who hasn’t yet played above Class A ball, so the job could be Moran’s to lose for a few years as he enters his first season of arbitration eligibility.
Rodríguez is the kind of player who typically gets traded away from a last-place team like the Pirates. He’s been a solid, dependable reliever for the last three years, he’s got three years of club control remaining, and he’ll get another chance to prove himself in high-leverage situations this year after serving as the de facto closer in Keone Kela’s absence last season.
Since 2018, Rodríguez owns a 3.02 ERA and 1.15 WHIP with 185 strikeouts in 158 innings over 159 appearances. He was prone to home runs two years ago, when his walk rate also ticked up, but he bounced back well last season and continued to pitch well. He should get a solid raise in his first year of arbitration eligibility, and he will remain a trade candidate.
Stallings was named the Pirates’ most valuable player by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America last season, a testament to his ability behind the plate and his solid production as a hitter. He is most valuable defensively, and his skills as a game-caller and pitch-framer should serve Pittsburgh well as long as they want to keep him around.
The Pirates have little Major League-ready depth behind the plate, so it’s fair to expect that they’ll keep Stallings as the starter at an important position for the foreseeable future. Stallings is a “Super Two” player, so this will be the first of four years of arbitration eligibility for him. He could serve as a sort of mentor moving forward, guiding young pitchers into the Majors as the club goes through the rest of this “building” process.
Stratton is another potential trade candidate for several reasons. He’s a versatile right-hander who’s started, worked multiple innings and pitched in high-leverage spots out of the bullpen. Like Rodríguez, he comes with three years of club control. And his high-spin arsenal is particularly intriguing to analytically inclined teams.
Since joining the Pirates in May 2019, Stratton has posted a 3.76 ERA with 86 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings over 55 appearances. Assuming the 30-year-old is back in the Bucs’ bullpen to start the season, he’ll serve an important role as manager Derek Shelton has emphasized the need for a deep and versatile relief corps — a collection of pitchers like Stratton, essentially.