Despite three seasons until he hits free agency, the Pirates find themselves at a crossroads with Bryan Reynolds. Pittsburgh shipping out veterans as they approach lucrative paydays is a 30-year-old story, and as the team’s young(ish) star with the most service time, it’s no surprise that Reynolds would be the subject of constant, swirling rumors. He and the Pirates talked about an extension, but nothing came of it; seeking a little more clarity, the 2021 All-Star requested a trade. Luckily, unlike the Gerrit Cole situation, there hasn’t been a decisive break between player and organization, and Reynolds is still open to discussing an extension. But what kind of extension is realistic for Reynolds, and will the Pirates be able to field a contender while they have him?
Per The Athletic, the Pirates and Reynolds were about $50 million apart in their extension talks. Given that this $50 million isn’t, say, the difference between $300 and $350 million, it’s a notable separation. Pittsburgh’s offer was six years and $75 million, covering a few years of free agency; that would be the largest contract in team history, but that mostly reflects the ultra-thrifty approach of the Bucs, not some surfeit of munificence on their part. Compared to the eight-year, $70 million contract that Ke’Bryan Hayes signed, it seems downright miserly, given how far away Hayes was even from arbitration at the time.
Reynolds had a notable dropoff in play from 2021 to ’22, going from .302/.390/.522, 6.1 WAR to .262/.345/.461, 2.9 WAR, but a large chunk of that dropoff was to be expected given the pattern of what happens to players after career-best seasons. And in any case, there was never a chance the Pirates were actually going to offer him a contract consistent with the notion that he was a six-win player, because then you’re getting into Juan Soto territory. But as a three- or four-win player with a few years of arbitration remaining, it’s close enough for a deal to be plausible.
So let’s run the numbers. The current contract, a two-year deal to avoid arbitration, already covers the 2023 season, so we’ll focus the projection as an extension past this season.
ZiPS Projection – Bryan Reynolds
With built-in discounts for the two remaining seasons of arbitration, ZiPS suggests a six-year, $95 million contract for Reynolds. That’s less than many people might think a player of his worth might get, but he has misfortune of poor timing when it comes to baseball’s salary structure. Reynolds is a great player, but he’s unlikely to be a star by the time he hits free agency, and his first season with a new team will be at age 31. Being 31 didn’t prevent Aaron Judge from getting a monster contract, but he’s also coming off a season in which he was worth well more than double the value of a typical Reynolds season. While it’s disappointing given Pittsburgh’s history with its best players, one can see the cold hard logic in all of it; his arbitration years already cover all the projected three-WAR seasons remaining his career, so why pay free agency values for a sub-three WAR player in his decline years?
Making Reynolds three years younger highlights just how much money this may cost him:
ZiPS Projection – Bryan Reynolds (Born 1998)
Keeping the extension at six years, ZiPS wants to give this theoretical version of Reynolds $159 million, even including those assumed lower dollar figures due to arbitration salaries.
Going back to the original projection, there are reasons to argue Reynolds is more valuable than that $95 million contract that ZiPS would happily sign. Defense in ZiPS is largely OAA-based these days (where available), but it still blends in a dose of DRS and UZR (this model predicts OAA better than OAA alone). There’s significant disagreement among defensive measures when it comes to Reynolds in center field: OAA pegs him at +4 for his career, but he’s a negative by UZR (-7) and DRS (a rather dismal -16). If we use only OAA in the projections, it adds another $25 million to the projection, getting Reynolds to $120 million. That happens to be, according to Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic, right about what the Reynolds camp was hoping to get.
“I’ve been pretty open these last few years that my No. 1 (goal) would be to sign an extension,” Reynolds said. “I want that to be a fair deal for both sides. Not a crazy player-(friendly deal), not a crazy team-(friendly) deal.”
According to a source close to the situation, the Pirates pushed to extend Reynolds near the end of the 2022 season with an offer of $75 million over six years. The counter-offer from Reynolds’ camp was around $120 million.
I don’t think the Pirates are going to come close to $120 million for a couple reasons. One, we’re talking a nearly 75% boost over the largest contract the team has ever signed. And with most of the good years already under contract, there’s just not a lot to push the Pirates into extending Reynolds except at extremely team-friendly terms. While $120 million isn’t obviously unreasonable for a team, convincing the Pirates of that is a tough hill to climb, and the fact remains that it’s unlikely they are even a contender for three years.
To get a rough idea of Pittsburgh’s trajectory, I simulated the 2024 and ’25 seasons using only players under contract or control for their teams. ZiPS projects the Pirates at 68 wins and a 1.3% chance of making the playoffs in 2022. General uncertainty and the team’s prospects only improve these projections to 72 wins and 4.5% in 2024 and 76 wins and 8.1% in ’25. No, these years aren’t written in stone, but the path they’re on is not a promising one; it’s unlikely that the team is going to bridge the gap between these projections and the Cardinals/Brewers/Cubs in free agency.
The relationship between the team and the fans in Pittsburgh has broken down to the extent that I’m not sure keeping Reynolds even preserves interest in the team. The fans may not be in the room where it happens, but they definitely know how the sausage is made, and signing Reynolds even to the extension his camp is requesting would not be sufficient to erase 30 years of bad feelings. From the Pirates’ perspective, I think an eventual trade is what actually happens, despite the signs that Reynolds is open to negotiation. And there are a lot of teams that could use him. Looking only at contenders, ZiPS estimates that he would improve the center field situation of a number of them by at least a win: the Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Red Sox, Cubs, and Dodgers, to name a few. The only center fielder with a better projection than Reynolds who is a free agent in the near future is Harrison Bader, and I can’t imagine the Yankees shopping him unless something goes terribly wrong this season for the Bombers. In other words, there are a lot of plausible homes for Reynolds’ services.
Decision day on Reynolds is coming quickly, and as with past stars, I expect the Pirates to choose to send him out of town. To change this storyline will, unfortunately, require a drastic change in the way the team thinks, and new ownership, too. Dawn remains a long way off for the Steel City.