One of the main focuses of the Pittsburgh Pirates this off-season should be pitching, and right-handed pitcher Jon Gray would be a perfect free agent target
The Pittsburgh Pirates need to show some semblance that they’re willing to start putting some pieces in place to set up contending long term. Going into next season they’ll be looking at a fairly young and inexperienced starting pitching staff to start the campaign.
Miguel Yajure, Mitch Keller, Bryse Wilson, Wil Crowe, JT Brubaker, and Dillon Peters will all be in consideration for a starting rotation spot. The only pitcher in contention for a spot with more than 200 innings pitched throughout their career is Steven Brault, who could be traded this offseason.
Sure, the Pittsburgh Pirates could go the route of an older, more experienced veteran to mainly eat innings. But I think it’s time to at least give an effort to go after some pitchers in the tiers above. One of the more notable free-agent starting pitchers that will be available will be right-hander Jon Gray, which I think is the perfect free-agent target for the Bucs this season.
Gray is coming off a season where he pitched 149 innings, posting a 4.59 ERA, 4.22 FIP and 1.32 WHIP. Gray posted a healthy 24.4% strikeout rate with a workable 9% walk rate and 1.27 HR/9 rate. While on the surface these don’t look like great numbers, you also have to remember this is a Coors Field pitcher.
Gray had a 104 ERA+, 96 ERA-, and 95 FIP-. He also had a solid 4.04 xFIP (95 FIP-). Overall, he was about 5% better than the league average pitcher. DRA viewed him in the best regard, holding him at a 3.91 mark and an 84 DRA-. Career-wise, he has a 3.90 mark.
Gray has consistently been better than what the surface numbers say. Mainly because he has pitched in Coors Field. Once adjusting for that, he has a career 107 ERA+, 96 ERA-, 88 FIP-, 90 xFIP-, and 84 DRA-. He’s probably been about 5%-10% better than the average pitcher throughout his career so far. Gray is a ground ball pitcher by trade. He has a career 46.7% GB%. But he also has a good 23.9% strikeout rate. Despite being a Coors pitcher, he only has a career HR/9 of 1.14.
So what would a reasonable contract look like for Gray? I’d say 3-4 years at an average annual value of around $18 million. I’d also throw in a 4th/5th-year option for $20-$22 million. This would carry him through his age-33-34 or age-34-35 seasons. The Pittsburgh Pirates could also make the contract backloaded so that he’s paid more now rather than later so they have more capital to use once they are in contention on a frequent and consistent basis.
The Pirates have shown they’re willing to spend when they think the time is right. In 2016 and 2017, they spent about $60 million in total on players who wouldn’t even post a WAR of 1.0. That included the likes of Jeff Locke, Ryan Vogelsong, Jon Niese, Daniel Hudson, Juan Nicasio, and many others. So it wasn’t an issue of not spending. It was an issue of investing the money in all the wrong players.
Gray would be a very good investment for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Currently, their payroll only sits at just over $54.3 million. Even adding Gray would keep a low budget for the time being and keep around more than enough money to use towards extension, and other future free agents.
I think now is the time the Pirates have to show they want to compete by 2023. Laying the foundation now is something they should do in this off-season and in the regular season. Signing at least one upper-tier free agent, in this case, Gray, while promoting prospects who look to be long-term pieces of the puzzle should be the main focus of the off-season and the 2022 season.