Jim Sankey: Extra Innings: Pirates lacking in free agent signings, drafting, development

Mar. 19—Despite all the hoopla around signing one key player to a multi-year deal in each of the last three springs, the Pirates have not kept up with the increased costs for top talent via free agency or trades.

This year's big deal is a five-year, $77 million extension for pitcher Mitch Keller. If Johan Oviedo were healthy and Paul Skenes were to start the year in Pittsburgh, Keller would have been the team's third-best starter. His $15.4 million average salary for the next five years is even less than what many other number three pitchers got on the open market.

And while tooting their own horn and touting the signing, Williams reminded fans not to look for a splurge of big deals.

"I'd say that payroll, while important, is not the most important factor in terms of how we get to building a championship team for our fans," according to the team president. "We're putting all of our revenues back into the ball club. We're trying to get better every day and investing in areas where we're gonna get better every day. We're doing all the right things to win for Pittsburgh."

Since then, The Athletic reminds us that since Bob Nutting became the principal owner in 2007, the Pirates' payroll has been in the bottom six in all except in 2016, when they shot up to 20th. Their projected $85 million payroll in 2024 is 29th, ahead of only Oakland.

And the website said that the four largest contracts in club history (Bryan Reynolds, Ke'Bryan Hayes, Jason Kendall and Andrew McCutcheon) combined are almost $500 million less than the $288 million extension for two-year Kansas City shortstop Bobby Witt, Jr.

The Pirates haven't signed a free agent to a multi-year deal since 2016.

Pittsburgh's record contract for an external free agent was two years, $17 million to catcher Russell Martin, $13 million below any other club's highest free agent deal and the $10.5 million to Aroldis Chapman is the largest one-year pact the team has ever given an external free agent.

Nutting doubled down on Williams' puppet response: "We have and will continue to invest into the club in the most effective and efficient [read: cheapest] way possible to bring a winner to Pittsburgh.

"The most [read: cheapest] impact on winning in Pittsburgh will always come from the continued improvement of the players that are on our roster and in our system," Nutting added.

But The Athletic pointed out that of the 71 players they have drafted and signed in the top five rounds since 2012, only four have produced a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 1: Hayes (12.5), Keller (4.1), Kevin Newman (3) and Jared Triolo (2.1).

Cherington has spent 14 of 21 picks in the first five rounds on pitchers, since pitching is so difficult [read: expensive] to acquire.

In the international draft, nobody since Starling Marte (2007 draft) has developed into a star. And much of the top talent achieves top performances only after they leave Pittsburgh.

And if drafting, scouting and development in the minors is lacking, coaches at the major-league level have no answers to help struggling pitchers like Quinn Priester, Luis Ortiz and Roansy Contreras and top position picks like Nick Gonzales, Henry Davis and Liover Peguero.

Keller's success finally came via a route that has become quite popular recently: He sought help at an independent pitching lab in North Carolina. Hayes found consistent offense last season, with the Pirate star giving "10,000 percent" credit of his improved offense to working with Pittsburgh's AA hitting coach Jon Nunnally.

Since turning to Driveline this past off-season, Davis has socked four home runs and leads the team with 11 RBIs.

Others within the organization have sought outside help, sometimes secretly, according to The Athletic, who reported that management was upset with and was let go after the season. A similar fate befell former Pirates closer and minor league pitching coach Joel Hanrahan, who left the organization before the 2022 season for Atlanta, when the Pirates would not consider Hanrahan's request for a promotion to Pittsburgh, with the backing of many of the young hurlers whom Hanrahan had worked.

Throughout MLB, organizations are rethinking and rebuilding coaching staffs. Coming off a 115-loss season and ranking last in farm system rankings in 2019, Baltimore overhauled its coaching philosophy with 65 new hires in roughly 18 months. And in case you haven't noticed, it's worked out pretty well for the Birds.

No one can guarantee or even expect that changing philosophies will solve every problem, but it seems obvious that when a team's players are looking elsewhere in hope of finding success, it should be worth a shot.

Next week: Predicting the 2024 season. (Spoiler: Pirates finish fifth.)

JIM SANKEY is the Pittsburgh Pirates columnist for Allied News. His work appears weekly during the baseball season.

JIM SANKEY is the Pittsburgh Pirates columnist for Allied News. His work appears weekly during the baseball season.