Ben Cherington had a specific plan of attack last offseason when it came to free agency.
The Pittsburgh Pirates general manager was looking for veteran players who could serve a two-fold purpose.
One was to find players with the ability to help the Pirates win more games through their on-field performance. Secondly, Cherington wanted those players to serve as mentors to the Pirates’ youngsters and provide stability in the clubhouse.
How well that plan worked out can be debated.
The Pirates finished with a 76-86 record in 2023, which was a 14-game improvement over the previous season. However, their 18-13 finish came after such players as Carlos Santana, Austin Hedges and Rich Hill were traded in late July.
This offseason, the Pirates’ approach to free agency figures to be a little different. Cherington won’t specifically target older players whose contributions in the clubhouse might outweigh their performance on the field.
“It will continue to be an input, for sure, as we think about this offseason,” Cherington said about the importance of adding players who provide leadership. “Who are the types of players and personalities that will help us get better? Are they guys who can make a difference on the field, off the field, be an influence in the clubhouse?
“Of course, that helps if you can find that. The hard part is predicting accurately who is going to do that. It’s hard, until a player is here, wearing the uniform, in that room, moving around, it’s hard to perfectly be precise of who is going to play that role and who may not. Everyone is going to be at a different point in their lives, etc. For the most part this year, the guys we signed as free agents played that role and played that part pretty positively. So, it will be an input.”
The performance of the five free agents signed last winter was a mixed bag.
Santana played better-than-expected defense at first base but was right around league average as a hitter as he batted .235/.321/.412 with 12 home runs in 94 games. Hedges also was strong defensively behind the plate and drew raves for the way he handled the pitching staff but hit an abysmal .180/.237/.230 with one homer in 65 games.
Hill had his moments, but the 44-year-old left-hander had a 7-10 record and a 4.76 ERA in 22 starts before being traded. Right-hander Vince Velasquez made eight starts before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery and left-handed reliever Jarlin Garcia was sidelined all year by a nerve issue in his throwing arm.
Clearly, the best signing was Andrew McCutchen, who returned to the Pirates five years after being traded to the San Francisco Giants and became the most frequently used designated hitter. He slashed .256/.378/.397 with 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 112 games while playing a contributing role to the Pirates drawing 373,000 more fans than in 2022.
The Pirates are expected to re-sign McCutchen. However, Shelton believes the need for veterans is not so acute this winter as left fielder Bryan Reynolds, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and right-hander Mitch Keller seem to be growing into leadership roles.
“We just need to get the guys that did best suit our club, in terms of whether it’s positionally, still having veteran influence in there is important,” Shelton said. “But we have another year of Ke’, we got another year of Bryan. I think that’s important. Mitch has grown. So, I think this year, we don’t have to be as deliberate in terms of the specific positions as we were last year.”
Which is a good sign for the organization. Veteran leadership is nice but having good players is even better.