The Pittsburgh Pirates need to upgrade their starting rotation this winter. While the top free agent arms will be well out of owner Bub Nutting’s financial comfort zone, could the Pirates look to the trade market to land a potential top-of-the-rotation arm?
There are plenty of frontline starters on the trade market this offseason, though some of them are unlikely for Pittsburgh. Former Pirates starter Tyler Glasnow seems extremely likely to be dealt by the Rays. However, he is only under club control from one more season at a $25 million salary. Next.
Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes could potentially be had, but would Milwaukee trade him in the division? That seems unlikely.
A couple hours west of Pittsburgh in Cleveland, the Guardians could look to move Shane Bieber. That’s a little bit more reasonable. He’s projected to earn $12.2 million in arbitration this year. He’ll hit the free agent market next winter, however. With one year left on his deal, the return price won’t empty the farm, but would the Pirates part with young assets for one year of Bieber? Doubtful.
There is one name who makes more sense than any of the other three listed. Chicago White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease.
Cease, 28 next month, is two years away from free agency, so the Pirates would have him for this coming season and next. He’s projected to earn $8.8 million for 2024 in arbitration, a figure well within reason to fit the Pirates’ payroll.
New White Sox general manager Chris Getz recently said that the club will listen on anybody on their roster, and Cease is expected to be highly-coveted.
The surface-level numbers for Cease in 2023 weren’t great. He finished the season 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA while leading the league with 33 starts made.
Some of the underlying metrics are kinder to the right-hander, however. Cease’s FIP was a much healthier 3.72. A big reason for the disparity? The White Sox were one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season. They ranked 29th in defensive runs saved (minus-59), 25th in outs above average (minus-25) and were tied for the third-worst fielding percentage (.983).
In 2022, Cease was the runner-up for the American League Cy Young. He went 14-6 with a dazzling 2.20 ERA with 227 strikeouts across 184 innings in 32 starts made. For his career, Cease has struck out 792 batters in 658 innings (10.8 K/9). Since debuting in 2019, he’s fifth in the American League in strikeouts per nine innings.
Durability has also been one of Cease’s best attributes. He’s made at least 32 starts in each of the last three seasons and led the league in the category on two occasions.
His durability should appeal to the Pirates just as much as the upside. As it stands right now, the Pirates might be down to one reliable starting pitcher for their rotation for 2024.
The asking price to acquire his services would be steep. Since taking over as general manager, Ben Cherington has accumulated as much young talent as he’s been able to. At some point, some of the depth pool will need to be moved for more solidified players to come in and immediately help the big league team.
Is now the right time to strike with a bold move such as this? It’s as good of a time as ever, especially if the Pirates intend to build off of their 76-86 showing from 2023. Is Cease the right fit? If the Pirates want to acquire a potential frontline starter to pair with Keller at the top of the rotation, it sure makes a lot of sense.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have the pieces to get a deal done, but would they do it? Ultimately, it would come down to Cheirngton’s comfort level in executing a deal like this.