There have been very few rumors about players the Pittsburgh Pirates may pursue and how they'll add depth to the starting rotation. So let's speculate what Ben Cherington's potential plan could be.
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting pitching staff is still very thin. They acquired Marco Gonzales at the Winter Meetings, and while that’s a solid addition who will bring both volume and decent results, there are still multiple other questions this rotation faces. Now, with the Kansas City Royals, another team that typically has a payroll right around the Pirates’ range, many have started to panic once again.
But the question on everyone’s mind is what is Ben Cherington planning on doing with the rest of the pitching staff? Everything that has been talked about has mostly been speculation. Cherington has made some comments here and there about pursuing some guys, but there has been no clear answer, which is one of the reasons many fans are panicking. A lack of transparency will do that.
So, speculative speaking, what’s gonna be the plan?
One thing that Cherington hasn’t done yet is acquire his veteran soft-tossing lefty free agent that he signs every off-season. Derek Holland, Tyler Anderson, Jose Quintana, and Rich Hill all fall into this category. There are two that I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if the Pirates ended up with. One is Hyun Jin Ryu, and the other is Sean Manaea.
In my opinion, Ryu fits the mold better than Manaea. Ryu, who is entering his age-37 season, is coming off a season where he pitched 52 innings, and worked to a 3.46 ERA, 4.91 FIP, and 1.29 WHIP. While he owned a strong 6.3% walk rate, he gave up a decent amount of home runs with a 1.56 HR/9 and put up a sub-par 17% strikeout rate. But Ryu could see his HR/9 go down, as he was above average in exit velocity (87.8 MPH), hard-hit rate (36.8%), and barrel rate (7.6%). He also had a 16.4% HR/FB ratio, 2.7% higher than what he had over his last three years, and going from the Rogers Centre to PNC Park would benefit his home run rate.
Manaea has more potential. He’s significantly younger than Ryu, as he’s only going into his age-32 season. Manaea opened the year in the San Francisco Giant rotation but was struggling and was moved to the bullpen by mid-May. But from that point forward, Manaea pitched to a 3.44 ERA, 3.15 FIP, and 1.09 WHIP with a 25.9% strikeout rate, 7% walk rate, and 0.69 HR/9. Manaea had just a 6.1% barrel rate as well. Manaea pitched so well that he earned a spot back in the Giants’ rotation in September. Through his final four outings, he pitched 24 innings, only allowed six earned runs, struck out 18, only walked two, and allowed two home runs.
If the Pirates signed both, I’d be down for them to be part of the rotation. It might not be glamorous, but it would give the Pirates four starters who are fairly reliable when healthy and could easily get the job done. Both also fit the veteran soft-tossing lefty that Ben Cherington seems to gravitate toward every off-season.
Aside from Manaea and Ryu, who else could potentially be on the Pirates’ radar? Jack Flaherty has been one the Bucs have shown some interest in. Flaherty pitched 144.1 innings combined between the St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles but had an ERA of nearly 5.00 at 4.99. But the underlying numbers represented a much better pitcher. He had a 4.36 FIP and xFIP, as well as a 100 DRA-. That makes him more of a league-average pitcher than one with an ERA hovering around 5.00.
I’ve gone on about Michael Wacha multiple times, so I’ll save you the ear-full. He’s been solid over the last two seasons and should be in the Pirates’ price range. Lucas Giolito would be the best bounce-back candidate still on the market. Other veterans like Mike Clevinger, Michael Lorenzen, Eric Lauer, Martin Perez, James Paxton, and Frankie Montas are ones to keep an eye on. The only top international guy that is somewhat realistic is Yariel Rodriguez, whom the Pirates have sent feelers out towards.
Dylan Cease is still the top option on the trade market, but it seems the White Sox are still holding him at a high price. The Marlins are rumored to be listening on offers involving some of their young starting pitchers, including Jesus Luzardo, Edward Cabrera, and Trevor Rogers. Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Guardians is the best rental of the trade candidates.
At the start of the off-season, my prediction was the Pirates would make their biggest acquisitions via trade rather than free agency, and I still believe that. Maybe the reason we haven’t heard much is because Ben Cherington is working behind the scenes with other teams. Maybe that’s just the optimism talking, but it’s just a theory nonetheless.
But that doesn’t answer the question about the Pirates’ plan for the starting rotation. As of right now, if I had to guess what the Pirates’ plan is, it would be to acquire one starter via the trade market and another mid-tier arm via free agency. At the end of this off-season, I’d predict that you’ll see Ryu or Flaherty in black and gold (I'd be more on Ryu because of BC's affinity for veteran lefty starting pitchers), as well as one of the Marlins’ pitchers, most likely Rogers, as a buy-low rebound candidate.