Pittsburgh Pirates: Minor League Free Agents to Consider
By Noah Wright
Minor league free agents usually fill organizational depth, but these players could serve as quality depth to the Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates lost minor league depth in the Rule 5 Draft. In total, they lost a dozen players. Only Blake Sabol had any noteworthy prospect notoriety, but still. That’s 12 players the Pirates can’t put on their minor league rosters. Organizational depth rarely exceeds expectations but serves an important role. The Pirates still need to field minor league rosters.
Minor league free agency occasionally yields finds, but again, is mostly players who are likely going to serve as minor league and organizational depth. While they may not be flashy signings (or even appear in the majors), it’s still something organizations have to do. So who are some minor league free agents the Pirates could consider?
Outfielder Blake Rutherford
In 2017, Blake Rutherford was a recent first-round pick by the New York Yankees. The Yankees had sent him to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. After a strong 2018, Rutherford looked on his way to becoming a key member of the White Sox. But a poor 2019 and 2021 have derailed that.
Rutherford hit minor league free agency after the 2022 season but had a bounceback season nonetheless. In 467 plate appearances, Rutherford hit .271/.311/.428 line. This was still below average as he registered a 93 wRC+, but it was a 13% improvement from 2021. He still hit for some power with 13 home runs and a .157 isolated slugging percentage. Rutherford cut his K% down from 25% to 19.5%, though he only walked at a 4.5% rate.
The Pirates lost Jared Oliva in the Rule 5 Draft, and Rutherford could be a decent addition to Triple-A Indy’s roster. He’s not going to take away playing time from any important prospects, but there are definitely worse emergency depth-type players the Pirates could go after. Rutherford will be entering his age-26 campaign in 2023.
RHP Brent Honeywell
Brent Honeywell is a tragic tale. Once considered one of baseball’s premier prospects and the Tampa Bay Rays' top prospect, Honeywell missed 2018 and 2019 because of Tommy John surgery and a broken elbow. With the canceled 2020 season, the right-hander would not make another appearance until 2021, three seasons later. Honeywell spent the 2021 season with the Rays but was purchased by the Oakland Athletics this past offseason.
Honeywell’s tenure in Oakland was not pretty. He only pitched 17.1 innings for their Triple-A affiliate, allowing 15 earned runs on a whopping 28 hits and seven home runs. Honeywell had a decent 24.8% strikeout rate and 8.2% walk rate, but that’s about where the positives end for Honeywell’s time with the A’S.
When Honeywell made his major league debut, he was sitting 92-94 MPH. He also throws a cutter and a change-up. Honeywell used to throw the rare screwball but dropped the pitch almost entirely. But maybe there’s something left in Honeywell after all. The right-hander has tossed 28 innings at the Dominican Winter League, only allowing three earned runs and just six walks, albeit with only 17 strikeouts. The DOWL is a pitcher-friendly league, but those numbers are better than the average.
RHP Casey Sadler
This is one player who could eventually find their way on a major league roster rather than serve as minor league depth. Plus, the Pittsburgh Pirates should be plenty familiar with Casey Sadler. After all, they were the organization that drafted him. Sadler was never a top prospect but did his job as part of the minor league corps.
Seven years after his debut in 2014, Sadler pieced together a quality season in 2021. It was only 40.1 innings, but Sadler had a microscopic 0.67 ERA. He struck out 25.5% of the batters he faced, along with a quality 6.9% walk rate. Sadler is a groundball specialist and had a 62.9% groundball rate. Along with that, he induced an 85.4 MPH exit velocity. This led to a 0.22 HR/9 and 2.83 FIP.
Sadler, unfortunately, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in late March and didn’t throw a single pitch for the team this past season. Nobody expects Sadler to repeat his 2021 season, but could he be a decent low-risk/high-reward signee? Absolutely. I’d rather see the Pirates sign Sadler and give him an opportunity in the bullpen rather than keep trotting Duane Underwood Jr. out there.
DH Franmil Reyes
It wasn't all that long ago that Franmil Reyes was one of baseball's best power hitters. From his standout 2018 rookie season up through 2021 Reyes was a .260/.325/.503 batter. He averaged 35 home runs every 600 plate appearances while having a .243 slugging percentage. During his four-season stretch, Reyes had a quality .347 wOBA and 119 wRC+.
Going into 2022, Reyes was expected to continue his torrid power pace with the Cleveland Guardians. But he performed so poorly that the Guardians DFA'd the designated hitter. He would latch on with the Chicago Cubs, but things didn't improve much for Reyes. In 473 plate appearances, Reyes batted just .221/.273/.365 with a .280 wOBA, and 80 wRC+. It was by far the worst season of his career as he clocked in 20% below the league average.
His downfall was his lack of plate discipline. He's always been prone to the K, but his 33.2% strikeout rate was a career-worst. At the very least, he's always been able to offset a mediocre strikeout rate with a solid walk rate, but he had just a 6.3% BB% last year. But Reyes didn't lose his raw power, registering a 92 MPH exit velocity, 45.8% hard-hit rate, and 11.3% barrel rate.