One of the primary questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Pirates at the beginning of the offseason was who’s on first?
That riddle was resolved with the signing of Rowdy Tellez as a free agent.
So, now the question is who is in right field? With Henry Davis expected to go back to being a full-time catcher in the wake of Endy Rodriguez’s elbow surgery earlier this month, the Pirates don’t have a clearcut right fielder.
A platoon of either a pair of holdover left-handed hitters — Joshua Palacios and Canaan Smith-Njigba – and right-handed-hitting Edward Olivares could emerge with how the roster is currently constituted.
Olivares was acquired from the Kansas City Royals on Dec. 15 in a trade for minor-league infield Deivis Nadal, who spent the past two seasons with low-A Bradenton.
Olivares, 27, is intriguing because he showed some pop last season by hitting 12 home runs in 107 games for the Royals while also stealing 11 bases to go with a slash line of .263/.317/.452. However, he had an awful season defensively with minus-11 runs saved as he started 47 games in left field, three in right and 42 as the designated hitter.
Olivares is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time this winter and is projected to make $1.8 million in 2024, according to MLB Trade Rumors. However, the Pirates believe they are taking a low-risk gamble.
In four major-league seasons with the San Diego Padres (2020) and Royals (2020-23), Olivares has batted .261/.310/.426 with 24 homers and 15 steals in 230 games.
“Like the bat,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “He’s obviously not a household name but since he’s gotten some opportunity in the major leagues the last couple years with Kansas City, he’s produced at a pretty solid level offensively. In fact, some of the underlying numbers that we look at suggest that he may have even been a little better in 2023 than the surface-level numbers suggest. We think this is a bona-fide major league hitter who has a chance to deepen our lineup.”
While adding pitching depth has been Cherington’s biggest focus this offseason, he also knows the offense needs some upgrades. The lack of hitting options played a part in the Pirates going 27-49 from May-July last season after having a 20-9 record at the end of April.
“We have 13 position players on the team, and we want as many of those to be offensive threats as possible,” Cherington said. “There’s a lot of things that contributed to the tough stretch we had last year as we got into June and July, but I do believe one of the things that contributed was we just got short on offensive options on the team.
“We got into a position where too often, we didn’t really have a great matchup for a particular pitcher, etc. So, we wanted to just build the deepest group of position players we possibly can.”
Someone who could push Palacios and Njigba-Smith for the left-handed side of the platoon is Billy McKinney, who the Pirates also picked up on Dec. 15 from the New York Yankees in exchange for $500,000 of international amateur free agent signing bonus pool money.
McKinney, 29, played in 48 games for the Yankees in 2023, hitting .227/.320/.406 with six home runs. He had minus-2 defensive runs saved while starting 27 games in left field, eight in center field and three in right field.
A first-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics in 2013, McKinney has never established himself as a regular in the big leagues. He has a career .209/.284/.390 slash line with 34 homers in 311 games over six seasons with the Yankees (2018, 2023), Toronto Blue Jays (2018-20), Milwaukee Brewers (2021), New York Mets (2021), Los Angeles Dodgers (2021) and Athletics (2022).
McKinney also has enough major-league service time to be eligible for arbitration. Yet he cannot go to a potential hearing because he is on a minor-league contract after being outrighted off the 40-man roster by the Yankees at the end of last season.
‘Been a pretty productive left-hand hitter,” Cherington said. “Put up decent numbers last season with the Yankees.”
Oddly, the Pirates had a chance to sign McKinney as a free agent yet ended up trading for him.
“It was a little bit of a strange-looking deal, but we had pursued him earlier in the offseason and he ended up re-signing with the Yankees,” Cherington said. “This opportunity came up and it felt like it made sense, so he’ll be right in that mix in spring training competing for an outfield/first base. Again, one of those guys who can deepen that position player group.”
Will Olivares and McKinney turn out to be impact players? Probably not.
They could be useful players, though, and it never hurts to guys that around.