Three things should be atop Ben Cherington’s offseason wish list as the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager looks to improve his team’s roster for 2024.
Starting pitching, starting pitching and more starting pitching.
The Pirates are far from the perfect team despite a 14-win improvement this season in which they had a 76-86 record after going 62-100 in 2022. And 61-101 in 2021.
The Pirates finished the 2023 season with right-handers Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo as dependable starters. Manager Derek Shelton was forced to mix and match during the other three turns through rotation with openers and bulk-inning relievers being the favored play, followed closely by bullpen games.
The starters had a season ERA of 4.88, which ranks 24th among the 30 major-league teams.
The team’s greatest need was also to Shelton at the end of the season.
“We need to continue to grow our starting pitching depth, whether that’s internally or externally by signing someone or through trades,” Shelton said.
Cherington was more general when asked what might be on his winter wish list. However, he did acknowledge that the Pirates “need to cast a wide net” for starting pitching.
The easiest path would be to add at least two veteran starting pitchers through free agency and Cherington said, “We have the resources we need to get better and to compete and contend. I’m confident in that.”
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine the low-budget Pirates spending huge money in free agency. That means they will likely look for second-tier starters or pitchers trying to rebuild their careers following injuries or poor performances.
One free agent who fits the profile is right-hander Jack Flaherty. His stock has fallen so far that the Baltimore Orioles used him in long relief in the postseason.
Flaherty was a combined 8-9 with a 4.99 ERA in 29 games this year with the St. Louis Cardinals and Orioles. The good news, though, was Flaherty logged 144.1 innings, the first time he reached double digits since finishing fourth in the National League Cy Young voting in 2019 while with the Cardinals.
Flaherty will be 28 when next season begins, making him a prime bounce-back candidate.
Another pitcher who fits the category is righty Luis Severino.
The injury-plagued Severino was 4-8 with a hideous 6.65 ERA in 19 games this season for the New York Yankees. He has also pitched in a total of 45 games over the past five seasons.
However, Severino was 33-14 combined with a 3.18 ERA over 63 starts during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Considering he’ll turn 30 in the early days of spring training, it’s not out of the question that Severino could regain some semblance of his old form with better health.
Cherington, though, is wary of getting too deep into free agency.
“I think free agency reminds us all the time that it’s fraught with that across the league,” Cherington said. “We really want to look at all the avenues we have to make the roster better. Leaning just on free agency is probably not a good position for any team to take, let alone the Pirates. But it’s still important, and if we do good work and identify the right targets and find the right matches we can make the team better. We can help the team get better through free agency.
“We’ve had some misses and some injuries. It’s kind of the nature of free agency, that’s going to happen. Our job is to try to execute on that better than our competitors, knowing that it’s probably never going to be perfect. Which is why we need to look at the other avenues, too.”
In a reversal of course, Cherington would not rule out trading some of his young players for proven starting pitching after stockpiling prospects since replacing Neal Huntington following the 2019 season.
“We have players in the system, players on our 40-man that will have value in trades,” Cherington said. “Our sole focus will be on improving the team this offseason. I don’t think we should take anything off the table. Willing to make trades if that’s the best way to do it.”
If the Pirates plan to contend next season, they aren’t going to do it with a two-man rotation. They need more starting pitchers – preferably good ones — and Cherington seems prepared to add some this winter.