It’s a Pirate’s Life for Andrew McCutchen and Martín Pérez

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Hello, and welcome to another edition of Semi-Rebuilding Team Signs Solid Players. Last time, we saw the Kansas City Royals sign Michael Wacha and Hunter Renfroe. This time, we’re headed 800 miles east, to Pittsburgh, because the Pirates are our next feature. In the past week, they’ve added Martín Pérez and team legend Andrew McCutchen on one-year deals.

The McCutchen signing is the more interesting of the two to me – and also one that felt inevitable since the conclusion of last season. McCutchen enjoyed a resurgent 2023 in Pittsburgh, his first year back after a five-year, four-team odyssey that he embarked on after leaving before the 2018 season. He walked more, struck out less, stole more bases, made solid contact more frequently; if you can dream it, he did it better last year than he had in his previous peregrinations.

The result of that improvement was a 115 wRC+ and a .256/.378/.397 slash line, heavy on on-base and light on homers (12, the lowest he’s posted in a healthy season). Early in the season, it looked like that performance might be a key part of a Pirates playoff berth. But the team faded in the second half, and McCutchen’s season ended on September 4 when he partially tore his Achilles tendon legging out a double.

That’s not how anyone wanted it to end, and so it didn’t end. McCutchen is sitting on 299 home runs, and clearly still has something left in the tank. In fact, he was the best hitter on the team on a rate basis last year, and he comfortably projects as good enough to start for them this year again. He’s also a city legend and reminder of the last Pirates playoff team, which surely doesn’t hurt the team’s estimation of him.

The obvious benefits of this signing don’t even stop there; the Pirates farm system has produced a number of strong major leaguers and looks poised to produce many more, but McCutchen doesn’t block any of them. He played DH almost exclusively last year, occasionally moonlighting in right field. Pittsburgh’s system is heavy on up-the-middle types; in addition to signing McCutchen, they went out and signed Rowdy Tellez to play first base.

That’s the kind of move you only make if DH and first base are wide open; McCutchen might not have a lot of positional flexibility, but his role perfectly suits Pittsburgh’s needs. The only thing that could have stopped a McCutchen/Pittsburgh reunion was that Achilles injury, but fortunately it wasn’t a complete tear, which might have required more extensive rehabilitation.

If the Pirates want to continue their improvement from last season and contend for a playoff spot in 2024, they’ll need to hit better; their team-wide 90 wRC+ last year simply didn’t cut it. McCutchen should help with that goal, and at $5 million, the price is certainly right. This is the rare deal that checks every box I can think up. You can’t always sign a franchise legend to fill an actual need on a team that hopes to be competitive – but if you can, you should.

That’s the easy part of the Pirates transaction analysis. Peréz requires a bit more of an investigation. He’s a quintessential journeyman, with a career 100 ERA- and 102 FIP-. In other words, he’s been almost exactly league average across 1,440 career innings. In 2023, his already low-whiff game turned further in that direction; his strikeout and swinging strike rates were near his career lows, and his performance suffered as a result. He ended up as a part-time starter for Texas and didn’t have a playoff rotation spot.

At this point in his career, I think that’s an appropriate approximation of what Pérez can do for you: He’s definitely not good enough to be a playoff starter, but he’s still perfectly capable of making 20 starts at the back end of a playoff contender’s rotation. Will you be ecstatic about the quality of those innings? I mean, you might! In 2022, he was sublime, to the tune of a 2.89 ERA and peripherals to match, but that was the first year since 2015 where he’d posted an ERA or FIP below 4.00. He reverted to his career form last year, and we project his performance to decline slightly more with age in 2024.

So yes, we’re not talking about Corbin Burnes or Gerrit Cole here. My counterpoint? Who cares! The Pirates are desperately thin in the starting rotation, particularly after Johan Oviedo tore his UCL. Reinforcements might not be far off; Paul Skenes will likely debut this year, and six of the team’s top 10 prospects are starters. But that’s all in the future; you have to have a full rotation all year long, and plenty of those prospects will either get hurt or fail to realize their potential. Starting the season with a competent major league rotation in place is paramount, and Pérez is a big part of that.

The biggest criticism of this deal I can muster is that I wish the Pirates had done a little more. Pérez slots into the middle of their rotation, so that’s a big improvement – but they could have aimed just a big higher without paying a huge premium. Seth Lugo signed for $15 million a year. Wacha signed for $16 million a year. Both of those guys would fill the same “we need a Skenes stopgap” role as Pérez, but their ceilings seem higher to me at this point in their respective careers.

Really, though, they should do both. Signing Pérez hasn’t turned their rotation into a juggernaut; it hasn’t even made them average. We project their starters for the fifth-lowest WAR in the majors next year, and that’s with a smattering of innings from their phenoms. Bumping Bailey Falter from fifth starter to swingman would do a lot to improve that projection, and the same goes for Marco Gonzales. Maybe the Pirates have another move coming. There are, after all, plenty of free agent starters still available.

I think that’s unlikely, though. Pittsburgh’s salary is already roughly in line with last year’s iteration, which doesn’t leave them a ton of budget room to add someone in that Wacha/Lugo tier. More than likely, they’ll add a few speculative options, perhaps as non-roster invitees to spring training, to compete for a rotation spot. But another benefit of signing Pérez is that he leaves your options open. He’ll take up a spot for as long as he’s one of the team’s best five options – given their depth chart, I think that will probably be all year. But if he falls out of that top five? No problem! He’s on a one-year deal, and he’s already accustomed to working out of the bullpen as a long man/lefty specialist when needed.

I don’t want to overstate either of these signings. They’re minor in the grand scheme of things, no doubt. But I’ll say this: I think that both of them make a ton of sense. If you’re a Pirates fan, it’s unrealistic to expect your team to start spending meaningfully more – whether it’s the right thing to do or not, it’s just not going to happen. Instead, they’re going to operate on a tight budget and prioritize internal options when possible, only supplementing them with free agents where necessary. With that in mind, these signings are great. They’re affordable, they clearly fill a need, and they give the team at least a puncher’s chance in a weak division. They even bring back a franchise legend currently sitting on 299 home runs. There’s a lot to like here.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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alexpbloommember
5 months ago

Good piece, Ben. Agree with everything except where the realistic cap on the payroll is. They touched $100M a decade ago when they were playoff bound. That would be $130M in today’s dollars. For the right player, a big investment could make sense and still be well within reach. Whether they will do that, we can all doubt. But there’s definitely room to spend as they expect to be competitive in coming years. Given the state of the division, I don’t see a reason to totally punt this year if they could get someone controllable for several more years on a somewhat bigger budget. I think they should have be looking at the top end of the SP market as well. Yamamoto, anyone? It’ll never happen, but we Pirates fans would appreciate everyone in baseball media not just giving a pass to the ownership for running a bottom-5 payroll every year.