Pittsburgh Pirates to Explore Extensions With Young Players

The Pittsburgh Pirates are interested in extending their young players with less than 3 years of service at the MLB level.

In a recent development, the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to start exploring extensions with their young players. More specifically, ones with less than 3 years of service time at the MLB level. This news broke with the following Tweet from reporter Jon Heyman:

Now, nothing is officially done yet. But this is something I have said the Pirates need to start doing. Extending their young players before they become too expensive to keep. Not only should the Pirates start doing this, but it’s a trend we have seen in recent seasons.

Just this off-season, the Chicago White Sox extended 26-year-old relief pitcher Aaron Bummer, and consensus top 3 prospect in baseball Luis Robert. However, this isn’t unfamiliar territory for the White Sox who extended future star slugger, and former consensus top 5 prospect Eloy Jimenez last off-season.

This trend goes past just one team.

The Seattle Mariners extended first base prospect Evan White and youngs left-handed starter Marco Gonzales earlier in the off-season. Last off-season, the Atlanta Braves extended two of their biggest building blocks in Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies. The Rays were able to lock down Blake Snell and Brandon Lowe for a significant amount of time. The same thing has been done with the Philadelphia Phillies and Aaron Nola, Minnesota Twins with Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco, Texas Rangers and Jose LeClerc, and Houston Astros with Alex Bregman.

There are a handful of more examples but those were just the most prominent throughout the past two seasons, but it just goes to show the trend of how important these young players and keeping them under control are to the clubs. It’s a shock that the Pirates haven’t already done this yet, or at least looked into more until now. After all, it helps them keep their young players longer, and for a cheaper cost.

So if they start exploring extensions, who should they start with? Personally, I think they should first look into an extension with Mitch Keller. Keller’s 2019 struggles were a bit overstated. Yes his ERA was in the 7’s, but look past those just for a second. He still had a 3.19 FIP, a 3.0 BB/9, 12.2 K/9, a K/BB ratio that would have made Patrick Corbin and Sonny Gray jealous, a SIERA that rivaled Clayton Kershaw, and a DRA of just 4.13. Keller was in the top 69th percentile of exit velo last season, and has never suffered a major injury. In Triple-A last year, Keller led the league in strikeout rate, HR/9, K:BB ratio, FIP, and was top 5 in the league in ERA, FIP, WHIP, and HR/FB rate. Locking down a durable starting pitcher who has ace-level numbers should be a high priority for the Pirates. Had it not been for a BAbip of .475, the highest of all time by any pitcher with at least 40 innings pitched, his ERA probably would have looked like his DRA.

Another durable starter that Heyman mentioned was Joe Musgrove. Last season, Musgrove had a 4.44 ERA, and 1.22 WHIP in 170.1 innings, but his perferials said he was better than the results he had. This was the second straight season his FIP was below 4, at 3.82. Musgrove walked just 2.1 batters per 9, and struck them out at an 8.3 per 9 rate. His 4.03 K/BB ratio was well above the league average of 2.7. Musgrove is also very good at preventing home runs, carrying a 44% ground ball rate and 1.1 HR/9. Overall, Baseball Prospectus placed his DRA at 3.59. Musgrove is a reliable starting pitcher, but he can be a bit inconsistent. Musgrove was really good in April and September, but posted awful results in May and August. In June and July, Musgrove did solid, so there is a bit of inherent risk in extending Musgrove. However, the Pirates should definitley look into an extension with the right-hander.

On the offensive side of the ball, Bryan Reynolds should also be considered an extension candidate. Reynolds finished fourth in National League Rookie of the Year voting after posting a strong .314/.377/.503 line in 546 plate appearances that included 16 long balls, and a 131 wRC+. Among rookies with at least 300 plate appearances, Reynolds’ ranked 5th in fWAR (3.2), OPS, and wRC+. The Pirates’ rookie only made soft contact 16% of the time, and hard contact 43% of the time, putting him in the 67th percentile of hard hit rate. Defensively, Reynolds was nothing special, recording +5 DRS, but a -3.5 UZR among all three outfield positions. However, there is a bit of concern for Reynolds as his BAbip was .387. On paper, that looks unsustainable, but the switch hitter is familiar with high BAbip. His lowest BAbip in a single season throughout the minors was .362, but his lowest wRC+ was 122. Reynolds probably won’t regress too much, and he would be a very good offensive building block for the Pirates.

Middle infielder Kevin Newman was also brought up in Heyman’s tweet. Newman, like Reynolds, also had a good rookie season. After taking over primary shortstop duties in 2019, the right-handed batter hit for a solid .308/.353/.446 line in 531 plate appearances, including 12 home runs and 16 stolen bags. Overall, he was pinned at 110 wRC+. Newman showed a keen eye at the plate. He struck out just 11.7% of the time, which was the 5th lowest in all of baseball. Defensively, Newman was below average at shortstop. He posted a -7 DRS and -5.2 UZR mark at the position, but was much better at second base (2 DRS, 1.9 UZR). Plus, he should see more time at the keystone moving forward in 2020. However, I’d be a bit weary of the standout rookie. He was in the bottom 5th percentile of both hard hit rate and exit velocity. Hopefully, Newman can start driving the gap more frequently in 2020 to bring his value up a bit, but I would like to see at least another half season of good production before looking more deeply into an extension.

In terms of prospects with no major league experience that could see an extension, top 60 prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes should definitely be on the team’s radar. Hayes’ 2019 was up and down. He started off the season batting for a weak .245/.336/.398 line, but he did miss some time because of an injury. Once he returned from said injury, Hayes went on to slash .290/.337/.435 for the rest of the season.

His second half slash line is what we are accustomed to seeing from him, as his professional numbers look like this: .279/.354/.399. Regardless of his first half, Hayes still had 43 extra base hits. Hopefully, Hayes can carry over that 2nd half production into next year, and maybe show a bit more power. If he gets off to a hot start to the season, he could be in the majors earlier than expected. However even if he remains more of a high batting average/OBP and speed guy at the hot corner, his defense surely will help. Hayes has a 65 fielding grade, and 60 arm grade at third base. No other top prospect 3B has 60+ grades for both fielding and arm. When the 23-year-old reaches the Majors, he should rival the likes of Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado for the third base Gold Glove for years to come.

One name that wasn’t brought up, but I would like them to get into extension talks with is Josh Bell, but I just don’t see happening right now. Bell’s agent is Scott Boars, who likely would want to see what Bell could get in free agency. Plus after Bell just had the season he had where he was 22nd in the entire MLB in wRC+ (135), and 16th in the game in OPS (.936), Bell’s value is at its highest. The only thing that bogs down his value is his defense. Bell was in the bottom 10 of DRS (-8), UZR (-7.5), and was given poor results by outs above average (-5). However, if Bell can continue to produce in the top 20 batters like he did last season, his defense can be overlooked. His prowess with the leather might not even matter too much in the coming years if they implement the designated hitter to the National League. It’s possible the Pirates missed their chance to extend the switch hitting slugger last season when his value was at its lowest. However even if they are unable to extend Bell, the Pirates do have a handful of options they could turn to. Mason Martin is the top choice as Bell’s successor right now, but it is possible shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz could slide over to first base.