The Pittsburgh Pirates Should Join the Trend of Extending Young Players
By Noah Wright
A recent trend has been appearing across the Major Leagues: extending young players before they make an impact at the major league level. Here are two of the best options the Pittsburgh Pirates have to join this trend with.
A recent trend has spread across Major League Baseball: extending players before they even graduate prospect status. Just recently, the White Sox extended their top outfield prospect Luis Robert. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for the White Sox, as they extended Eloy Jimenez right before he reached the Majors last season. Before that, the Philadelphia Phillies and Scott Kingery reached an agreement before the start of the 2018 regular season, his rookie year. Many other young names like Paul DeJong, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Alex Bregman are receiving extensions before they become fully proven commodities. Most of these contracts are very team friendly.
This is a tactic the Pittsburgh Pirates really should look into, extending players before they become expensive. Right now, they have two players the team should definitely look into extending. Those two being right-handed starter Mitch Keller and third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes. Both will fill a regular role at some point in 2020.
Right now, Keller is projected as the team’s number four starting pitcher. Despite his 7.13 ERA, Keller actually had a strong 43 inning debut. He recorded a decent 4.07 K/BB ratio, and showed a good amount of control, with a 3.0 BB/9. Keller struck out a ton of batters, resulting in a 12.2 K/9. Keller also wasn’t home run prone either, as he gave up just six home runs. He only gave up one through his first 12 big league innings, and one more in his final 16.2 innings. The rest came in a rough three game stretch in August.
Plus, just look at his batting average on balls in play if you want an easy explanation of why he’ll be decent in 2020. .475? Only two pitchers since the start of 2000 saw their opponent BAbip rise above .350, that being Robbie Ray in 2016 at .352 and Kevin Millwood in 2008 at .355. Keller’s 3.78 SIERA and 3.19 FIP are more akin to A.J. Burnett in 2012-2013 (3.17 FIP, 3.26 SIERA), or 2017 Jacob deGrom (1.3 HR/9, 4.05 K/BB, 3.44 SIERA).
Next season, Keller should use his slider and curveball more often. He used his fastball almost 60% of the time, and I feel it became predictable for batters. His slider and curveball produced put-away percentages of 25.5% (curve) and 29.5% (slider) while his fastball put-away percentage sat at just 18%. Regardless, his fastball should improve as it’s spin rate sits in the top 91st percentile. The Pirates need to lock up Keller now before he becomes someone with Burnett-like numbers, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility whatsoever.
Ke’Bryan Hayes is the other name the Pirates should look into extending. While not a big hitter, Hayes can drive the gap. Last season, he saw his power take a step backwards from his impressive 2018 season in Double-A Altoona. In 2018, Hayes hit .293/.375/.444 with seven home runs, a dozen stolen bases, 31 doubles, and 7 triples in 508 plate appearances. That resulted in a 129 wRC+.
2019 didn’t start out so well for the prospect, as he got off to a sluggish start, and missed part of the first half with a fractured index finger. Regardless, Hayes returned to action to hit for a solid .290/.337/.435 in his final 186 at bats of 2019. Even then, the speedy third baseman still had 31 doubles, and a career high 10 home runs.
Hayes is easily the best defenders in the minors. He is the only top third base prospect to receive 60+ grades by MLB.com for both his prowess with the leather and his arm. Hayes will probably never be your big time, .290/.380/.500 corner power bat who consistently hits 30 bombs a season. However, he is a doubles machine who can produce solid overall batting numbers and provide defense that will rival the likes of Nolan Arenado, Matt Chapman and Manny Machado at the hot corner as the top defender across the MLB.
Not only does extending Keller and Hayes help the Pirates keep their players longer than the current system allows them to, but it also helps them have players like Hayes avoid having to sit in Triple-A for that week or two for the team to get that extra year on their contract. Buying out that 6th season now would let the Pirates open the 2020 season with Hayes on the 26-man. Right now, these are the players I think they should really look into extending, but should also consider it when youngsters like Travis Swaggerty and Oneil Cruz also are on the doorstep of the Majors.