The Pittsburgh Pirates have been busy this offseason.
By no means have they made a “splash” that would make the rest of the league take notice. Their additions have been more of the “quantity” variety, without a lot of impact quality.
That’s not to say that the Pirates need impact players to make significant change. This team ranked among the worst at almost every position across the board last year. Even adding a 1.0 WAR player can make a huge difference, if done at the right spot.
Here are three areas where the Pirates have made low-key additions that might have more chain-reaction-type value than it seems on the surface.
2022 Combined WAR: 0.1 (21st)
Additions: Austin Hedges
Subtractions: Roberto Perez
Analysis: As a group, the Pirates were replacement level last year behind the plate, which put them in the bottom-third of production around the league. Their starter was Roberto Perez, who went down with an injury after signing a one-year, $5 M deal.
The best options to emerge in the absence of Perez were Tyler Heineman and Jason Delay, who both got value from their defense. The Pirates have retained both as minor league depth options for 2023.
The Pirates just signed Austin Hedges, who has been replacement level the last three seasons, but has some of the best defense in the majors behind the plate. At the very least, Hedges and either Heineman or Delay will give the Pirates one of the best defensive combos in baseball.
The offense at this position will be atrocious, and the overall WAR is probably going to be in the bottom-half of the league. However, the Pirates will excel defensively behind the plate. That will impact their pitching staff in a positive way.
First Base/Designated Hitter
2022 Combined WAR: -3.0 (30th) / -0.9 (25th)
Additions: Carlos Santana, Ji-Man Choi, Miguel Andujar, Connor Joe
Subtractions: Michael Chavis, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Josh VanMeter, Daniel Vogelbach
Analysis: Here’s the fun part about upgrading the worst team in baseball: There are some areas where you don’t need to go all-out to massively upgrade the team. Carlos Santana and first base might be the best example of this.
Santana was worth 1.0 WAR last season, and the Pirates signed him to be their starting first baseman. The Pirates, as a group, had a -3.0 WAR at first base last year, ranking last in baseball.
They also traded for Ji-Man Choi, who had a 1.3 WAR last year. I would expect both players to split time between first base and designated hitter. Santana should get the nod more often at first base, due to his defense.
The Pirates have the recently added Connor Joe, as well as Miguel Andujar as wild card options, and both look better than the depth guys they had behind Daniel Vogelbach last year.
If the Pirates can manage just a 1.0 WAR at each of these positions, it will be a swing of six wins over the 2022 group. Santana and Choi aren’t going to be impactful enough to carry a team, but they make it far less likely we will see Josh VanMeter as the starting first baseman.
2022 Combined WAR: 3.2 (24th)
Additions: Connor Joe, Ryan Vilade
Subtractions: Ben Gamel, Jake Marisnick, Greg Allen
Analysis: This is an area where I think the Pirates could do more. In fact, outside of adding a starting pitcher, adding a third outfielder might make the biggest impact that could be made on this team.
That’s what the team lacked in 2022. Bryan Reynolds had a 2.9 WAR. Jack Suwinski had a 1.8 WAR in his rookie season. Yet, the Pirates finished with a combined 3.2 WAR, because their third spot was made up of an assortment of league-minimum or worse players.
The additions so far have been minor, but have helped to offset the best of those depth options. Connor Joe was replacement level last year, but had a 1.1 WAR the season before. My hope is that Joe was brought in to boost the depth, rather than to be the third starter with Reynolds and Suwinski. A combination of Suwinski and Joe would probably lead to a good starter.
Ryan Vilade was added as right-handed depth, and doesn’t have much experience in the majors as he heads into his age-24 season. He’s only two months older than Canaan Smith-Njigba and a year and a half younger than Travis Swaggerty. He’s over a year younger than last year’s Pirates breakout prospect Matt Gorski. The Pirates have a collection of outfielders with upside, but last year showed they should treat this group as a bonus.
They did have Ji-Hwan Bae starting in center field at the end of the season. Bae would be an interesting wild card, and an outfield with him, Reynolds, Suwinski, and Joe might have a better chance of putting up league-average value.
To have league-average value in 2022, they would have needed a 7 WAR from the outfielders. Reynolds and Suwinski combined for 4.7 WAR. Bae, Joe, and Miguel Andujar might be better depth options than the Pirates had last year, allowing them to build on the first two players.
I think this could be an above-average outfielder with the addition of an actual third starter. The biggest impact here would be making it less likely that you see all of those negative value depth players — who tend to show up when you enter a season without three outfielders.
THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.