Pirates mailbag: Largest marvel? Disappointment? Time to turn a pitcher the cash?

Pirates mailbag: Greatest wonder? Unhappiness? Time to show a tumbler the money?

PITTSBURGH — This Pirates mailbag doesn’t include any mention of Luis Ortiz, but that’s only because the questions were submitted before the rookie right-hander made his dazzling debut Tuesday.

Ortiz was superb this summer at Double A and Triple A. He kept it up in the second game of a doubleheader against the Reds by allowing one hit and striking out five over 5 2/3 scoreless innings.

“A 100 mph fastball, a real tight slider, some changeups … that was pretty impressive stuff,” Reds manager David Bell said.

That squared with the report I got days earlier from a longtime scout who saw Ortiz pitch a couple of times this season in the minors.

Ortiz figures to be around a while, so there’ll be plenty of time for yinz to ask about him. In the meantime, let’s mull some other queries about the club.

Questions have been edited for clarity and length.


Hey, Rob. What’s been your biggest surprise this season? What’s your biggest “I told you so,” besides the awful record and inconsistent hitting and pitching? — Dakota M.

I was a little surprised by Bryan Reynolds’ slow start. (He was batting .212/.302/.388 at the end of May.) I was more surprised by José Quintana’s solid rebound (3-5, 3.50 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), which led to all 20 of his outings with the Pirates being starts.

I was most surprised that Jack Suwinski made the jump from Double A in late April — an emergency call-up when Reynolds went on the COVID-19 injured list — then stuck around and is among the top rookie sluggers with 16 home runs. He sure looks like a near-lock for a starting job next season.

As for an “I told ya so” item … I expected the search for an everyday catcher was still far from over when Roberto Pérez signed last winter, and that’s exactly how it’s played out.

Pérez, 33, is a career .207 hitter who’s appeared in 72-plus games just once in his nine-year career. With the Pirates, he played in 21 games and hit .233 before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury.

The Pirates have used seven catchers this season. Andrew Knapp and Michael Perez are no longer with the club. José Godoy and Josh VanMeter are at Triple-A Indianapolis and won’t be in the mix next year. Zack Collins, a catcher/first baseman who has yet to receive time behind the plate for the Pirates, was plucked off waivers about a week ago. Jason Delay has performed well enough to be the backup next season, but the search for a first-string catcher will continue, perhaps even into spring training.

Some folks insist the Pirates should re-sign Pérez next year if he shows he’s healthy by playing winter ball. “We have not had any formal conversation (about a new contract),” general manager Ben Cherington said last week. “We would like to get to the offseason and see where he is physically. We’ve really enjoyed the time with him.”

Learn from history, Ben. Move on. Find another catcher.

Is there any chance they’ll sign a starting pitcher to a long-term deal? I’m thinking specifically of someone like Taijuan Walker. — Mark E.

It would be nice if the Pirates inked a reliable free-agent pitcher to a long contract this offseason. It would be a welcome change and create some buzz.

That all being said … no. There’s no indication ownership is willing to dramatically alter its business model and free up the tens of millions of dollars it would require to do such a deal. Also, unless management is certain the Pirates will be elite-level competitive as soon as 2024 — and I am not — then this likely is not the right time to sign a veteran pitcher to a multi-year contract.

As an example, let’s look at Walker. He’s 30 years old and having a great season with the Mets, his fourth team in 10 years. He’s been bothered this season by a bulging disc and a sore shoulder, and missed the 2018 season after having elbow surgery.

Walker is at the end of a two-year, $20 million contract and has a $6 million player option for 2023. If the Pirates quickly hit on a lot of their prospects in the majors and the team comes together quickly, let’s say they’re competitive in 2025. That means a three- to five-year contract for Walker with an average annual value of something like $15 million to $18 million. (I bounced those numbers off an industry source who laughed and said I might be too conservative.)

Can you envision ownership giving that kind of deal a green light? Me neither.

Here’s a sentence I didn’t expect to write in September 2022: Why not consider an extension for Mitch Keller? This winter will be the first of his three arbitration-eligible years. He’s 26 and seems to have figured out some things this season.

Keller probably isn’t going to develop into a true No. 1 or maybe even a No. 2 starter, but there are signs he could be a serviceable mid-rotation arm. Perhaps he and the Pirates could work out a modest, four-year contract that buys out his first year of free agency.

Looking for a comp? In 2019, the Phillies signed Aaron Nola, who then was 25, to a four-year, $45 million deal. Nola put up better numbers than Keller over the first four years of his career, so the Pirates should downsize the dollars a skosh.

 


Quinn Priester was slowed this season by an injury, but he’s still on track to soon be a potential impact pitcher with the Pirates. (David Hague / Altoona Curve)

Seeing Diamondbacks prospect Corbin Carroll called up recently made me bummed about the state of the Pirates’ farm system. Do you think things are trending in the right direction or does the player development system need to be shaken up? — Clinton L.

Fourteen of the top 32 picks in the 2019 MLB Draft have made it to the majors, including Carroll, who went to the Diamondbacks at No. 16. That class included Adley Rutschman (Orioles), Bobby Witt Jr. (Royals), Nick Lodolo (Reds) and Alek Manoah (Blue Jays).

With the 19th pick, the Pirates took Quinn Priester, the first high school pitcher off the board. Priester is having a fine season (4-3, 2.13 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) at Double-A Altoona and probably would be at Triple-A Indianapolis if he hadn’t spent the first two months of this season on the IL. Generally, prep pitchers take longer to develop than position players.

That draft was Neal Huntington’s last as general manager. None of the Pirates’ picks from that class have made it to the majors, but there are a handful — Priester, Matt Gorski, Jared Triolo, Matt Fraizer, Blake Sabol — who might arrive in the next year or two.

When Cherington took over in November 2019, a lot of the player development staff was retained. The holdovers were familiar with the players in the system, which was a plus. But those were also the same folks in charge at the end of Huntington’s regime, when it seemed the Pirates weren’t developing talent very well.

There’s been significant turnover in the development staff the past couple of years. Farm director John Baker was hired in November 2020. Special advisor (and pitching guru) Dewey Robinson, infield coordinator Chris Truby and roving catching instructor Chad Noble came aboard this year. Minor-league field coordinator Shawn Bowman and pitching coordinator Josh Hopper are in their second seasons.

Let’s give the staff some time to jell before calling for heads to roll.

Manny Machado of the Padres plays chess in the clubhouse against his teammates and coaches to build mental resilience and teamwork. Do any of the Pirates do something similar to foster team cohesion? — J.S.

Dominoes were a big thing in the Pirates’ clubhouse a couple of seasons ago. There was a special table where players would gather for intense (and occasionally loud) games.

I recall that when hunting enthusiast Adam LaRoche was on the team, some of the guys would mess around with a bow and arrows. That ended, though, when we walked into the clubhouse one afternoon and saw an arrow sticking out of the big-screen TV in the middle of the room.

This year, Ke’Bryan Hayes purchased two items to boost camaraderie: a ping-pong table and a large bluetooth sound system that’s decorated with the Pirates logo.

The ping-pong table has gotten a lot of use this summer. Tucupita Marcano and Diego Castillo are super good.

I kind of think Mason Rudolph could be really dynamic in that lush PNC Park outfield. What do you think? He probably could match VanMeter’s stats and would sell some tickets. — Daniel C.

The Pirates have made some questionable, risky, unusual and downright stupid moves to fill their outfield spots over the past several years, so why not give the Steelers’ third-string quarterback a try? There’s less chance of him getting injured standing in front of the Clemente Wall than scrambling behind the Steelers’ porous offensive line, right?

I asked The Athletic’s Steelers beat writer Mark Kaboly for his take on putting Rudolph on the Pirates’ roster: “That sounds good to me. Then again, what if Ben Roethlisberger shows up to throw out another first pitch? Things might get weird in a hurry. You know the rumor that Ben wouldn’t help Mason, which is why Mason threw some verbal darts at him this past offseason.”

 


Al Tuna — yeah, that’s me in the fish suit — and the Curve staff do a great job keeping fans happy at PNG Field. (Claire Biertempfel)

Now that you’ve donned the Al Tuna costume, which do you think is the better fan experience, PNC Park or PNG Field? From my point of view, the difference in ticket prices and distance from my home (one hour to Altoona versus 3 1/2 hours to Pittsburgh) puts me in the Altoona camp. — Mark E.

It’s difficult for me to make a full and fair comparison because I don’t experience games as a fan.

In last month’s mailbag, I griped about PNC Park’s deteriorating exterior. I’ve heard from fans about long lines and limited selections at concession stands. During the last homestand, I had a half-hour to kill between games of a doubleheader, so I walked around the ballpark to check things out. I’m impressed by the upgrades in the outfield concourse — more colorful, more welcoming, more amenities. It simply seems more fun. So kudos to the Pirates for that. Mayhap I shortchanged the PNC Park experience.

My family tagged along with me to Altoona a handful of times over the past few years because they love going to Curve games. The prices are a lot cheaper, Curve burgers are super tasty and, of course, everybody has a soft spot for Al Tuna. The folks who keep PNG Field humming, from the press box workers to the ushers, are wonderful.

Nothing matches the feeling of a big-league ballgame, even if it’s held in that run-down barn where the A’s play. But it’s also impossible not to appreciate the charm and affordability of a minor-league game.

What does it say about the state of the franchise that in year three of the new management team there are more waiver-wire pickups than players from the Pirates’ farm system on the major-league roster? — Dan L.

It says the rebuild still has a ways to go. The homegrown guys who should form the core of a contending club are slowly trickling up to Pittsburgh. Management must field a team until those players get here, but it doesn’t want to spend a lot of cash — hello, waiver claims!

“There are good players who are claimed on waivers, players that maybe need a different opportunity or there’s still some development to happen and maybe (the other) team just runs out of time,” Cherington said. “We’ve always got to be ready to take a chance on guys that we think have some skill and who might be good for us.”

About the Author: Mofazzal Hossen

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