Chase De Jong gave the Pittsburgh Pirates a surprisingly solid 2022 seaosn, but where does the team go from here with the right-hander?
In 2021, the Pittsburgh Pirates brought in right-hander Chase De Jong to make a few starts. He pitched just 43.2 innings, struggling heavily. The right-hander allowed 28 earned runs on 11 dingers, 19 walks and struck out just 39. It wasn’t the most popular decision the Pirates opted to have De Jong return in 2022, but he ended up giving the Pirates a solid season out of the bullpen.
De Jong pitched a total of 71.2 innings, working to the tune of a 2.64 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 4.75 FIP. De Jong only had a 20.1% strikeout rate with a 10.2% walk rate. Plus, his 1.26 HR/9 wasn’t anything to write home about. But he held opponents to just a .202/.299/.380 slash line. His 88.4 MPH exit velocity was in line with the league average, though his 39.4% hard-hit rate was far from good (the average is 35.8%).
Although the Pirates signed De Jong to a minor league deal, he still has four years of control left. The Pirates need as much bullpen help as they can get, but they also need 40-man roster spots in preparation for the Rule 5 draft.
So what do the Pirates do with Chase De Jong this winter?
Of course, they could keep him around. De Jong was far from a bad long-relief man. He struggled in high-leverage situations, but those opportunities were few and far between. Only 11 of his appearances came in the eighth or ninth inning with a lead or deficit of two runs or fewer. Eighteen of his total outings were at least two innings. De Jong might not move the needle a lot, but you could do much worse than him for a low-leverage/multi-inning relief role.
But that’s assuming that De Jong can continue to perform anything as he did in 2022. De Jong may have had pretty surface numbers, but the numbers underneath the hood were quite ugly. De Jong had a 4.96 xFIP, 4.38 SIERA, and 4.84 DRA. Baseball Savant’s xERA was the most optimistic at 3.89, which is average but still not great. Opponents had just a .225 batting average on balls in play against the right-hander. De Jong is a flyball pitcher with a ho-hum hard-hit rate and exit velocity, which don’t mix well. Opponents had a barrel rate of 8.6% against De Jong, which was in the bottom 27th percentile.
The next option the Pittsburgh Pirates have is to trade him. He’s a pitcher with four years of control remaining. He was also in the top 88th percentile of fastball spin rate and top 61st percentile of curveball spin rate, so a team may see something in him and be willing to trade him, even for low-level prospects. But that also relies on the team thinking that they can get more out of De Jong and that he can continue to pitch semi-decently, even though the underlying numbers are ugly.
The third option is for the Pirates to designate De Jong for assignment. Even though De Jong hasn’t even reached arbitration yet, the Pirates need 40-man roster spots. They have a handful of noteworthy Rule 5 eligible prospects like Endy Rodriguez, Mike Burrows, Malcolm Nunez, Tahnaj Thomas, Jared Triolo, Matt Gorski, Blake Sabol, Dariel Lopez, and J.C. Flowers. That 40-man roster spot could potentially be more valuable than De Jong.
For now, the Pittsburgh Pirates will likely keep De Jong unless they absolutely need his 40-man roster spot. Plenty of other depth pitchers are on the roster, like Peter Solomon, Yohan Ramirez, Eric Stout, Junior Fernandez, and Jeremy Beasley, who likely won’t make it past the roster crunch.
They could non-tender Duane Underwood Jr., DFA Nick Mears, and trade Kevin Newman to make even more room on the roster before having to trade or release/DFA De Jong. The right-hander did decently in 2022, and while the chances of him repeating 2022 are slim, why not roll with him until he proves otherwise? Worst case scenario is he is DFA’d by mid-April to make room for a player who has surpassed their service time date.