WASHINGTON — Bryan Reynolds’ first four seasons in Pittsburgh were not so much the launch of an All-Star career as they were a feedback loop, continuous reminders of what it meant to be a Pirate.
If the three consecutive last-place finishes followed by a second 100-loss season weren’t enough, the outfielder ran headlong into a ceiling so many stars had in the past: A de facto cap on salary commitments, an unwritten edict that prompted past stars to flee or get traded, that prevented free agents from joining the squad, that kept a franchise with a rich history operating in the 21st century at 20th-century prices.
The tunnel seemed so dark that the former Vanderbilt star requested a trade this offseason, a startling ask from a player three seasons away from free agency yet constantly linked to trade rumors due to his club’s futility on the field and ham-fisted track record off it.
So do understand if Reynolds has to steady himself these days.
His Pirates are off to a 20-9 start, the best record in the National League, and while Reynolds, wife Blair and their two children are rooted in Tennessee, they can certainly shop around in preparation for Steel City summers: Reynolds last week signed an eight-year, $100 million contract extension, the first nine-figure commitment in club history.
“It’s significantly different,” Reynolds says of the vibe as May dawns this season compared to years past. “I feel happy I’m going to be here for a long time.
“Happy we’re settled with all that and look forward to continuing what we’re doing.”
It all happened so fast. Here’s how:
It’s not like Major League Baseball changed its rules to encourage stolen bases and the Pirates responded by signing a 4 x 100-meter relay team.
Not unless you consider 37-year-old first baseman Carlos Santana a speed merchant.
OK, so Santana has just three stolen bases in three attempts – one of seven Pirates with multiple thefts through 29 games. It’s just that Santana’s three steals in his 26 games exceeds his total for 349 games between 2020-2022. And the Pirates largely returned a core group of players who combined for 89 steals all of 2022 – 14th among 30 major league teams.
So, what gives with the major league-leading 41 steals?
“We’re fast, we’re dynamic,” says Reynolds, “but some freedom has been given. All the (new) rules have helped, but we’re just kind of an athletic group.”
With impeccable timing: The Pirates’ 82% success rate reflects a sound exploitation of the larger bases and the limit on disengagements from the pitching rubber. Reynolds hasn’t been caught in five attempts, while leader Ji Hwan Bae has 11 steals in 12 attempts. It makes for a potent offense considering the Pirates rank second in the NL with a .343 on-base percentage – meaning dozens of those walks and singles have essentially been converted to doubles.
That gaudy OBP won’t hold up, and the Pirates’ win total is aided by a schedule frontloaded with stragglers – they’re a combined 16-6 against the White Sox, Reds, Rockies, Cardinals and Nationals.
Sure, the bats will slump. But speed never does.
A #Bucktober flashback
It’s already odd enough that Reynolds now counts Andrew McCutchen as a teammate, since the once and former star outfielders were traded for another between San Francisco to Pittsburgh in January 2018. Five years later and McCutchen is back, on a one-year deal that puts him directly behind Reynolds in the batting order.
t’s already odd enough that Reynolds now counts Andrew McCutchen as a teammate, since the once and former star outfielders were traded for another between San Francisco to Pittsburgh in January 2018. Five years later and McCutchen is back, on a one-year deal that puts him directly behind Reynolds in the batting order.
And teammates with one guy who was one of his biggest fans when McCutchen was the 2013 NL MVP.
David Bednar was born in Pittsburgh and was a Mars Area High School senior when the Pirates broke a two-decade playoff drought and advanced to the 2013 NL Division Series.
Now, Bednar is the Pirates’ All-Star closer and a bit in disbelief he’s battling alongside the player who brought Pittsburgh baseball back from oblivion.
“Beyond surreal,” says Bednar, who leads the majors with nine saves and has given up one earned run in 13 innings. “It’s so cool and getting to know him, not only is he a great baseball player, but he’s also a great teammate, an awesome dude.
“It’s really been full circle.”
Kudos to the casual fan that can block out the five grim seasons preceding this one and fondly remember 2013, when social-media hashtags were still earnest and #Buctober was on everyone’s screen. An area hospital dressed all newborns in Pirates onesies. Johnny Cueto dropped the ball on the mound; two more playoff appearances followed.
“Pittsburgh is such a great sports town,” says Bednar, who spent his college years on the Wawa side of Pennsylvania before San Diego drafted him in the 35th round out of Lafayette College in 2016. A three-team trade headlined by Joe Musgrove heading to the Padres in January 2021 brought him back to the land of Sheetz.
“Going back to high school, and when the Buctober stuff started, it’s cool playing with Cutch, because that’s where it really started. All my family and friends are big Bucco fans. It’s cool to see the buzz around it is definitely back.”
It remains an open question how long it might last.
‘A lot of winning to be done’
McCutchen signaled his commitment to Pittsburgh by signing a team-friendly six-year, $51.5 million extension in 2012, yet even his affordable deal and connection to the city couldn’t stop him from hitting the road. The Pirates picked up his $14.75 million 2018 option and then traded him to the Giants, continuing a grim franchise pattern but at least netting a building block in Reynolds.
And as the decades passed, the math did not add up: Major League Baseball hurtled toward $11 billion in annual revenues, yet the Pirates’ largest financial commitment remained the six-year, $60 million deal given catcher Jason Kendall – in 2000. It seemed no amount of revenue sharing or rising tides could lift the Pirates’ ship high enough to seriously compete.
Finally, there are some signs of permanence. In April 2022, owner Bob Nutting broke Kendall’s franchise record, even if on another team-compatible extension for infielder Ke’Bryan Hayes: Eight years, $70 million, with a 2030 club option.
“The last two years, with Ke’Bryan too,” says Reynolds, “I think it lays a good foundation of what the future could look like.”
Reynolds’ extension got the Pirates off a rather ignoble list – now only the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox and Oakland A’s haven’t signed a player to a nine-figure deal, even if the Pirates needed every penny of Reynolds’ deal to do so. Certainly, Pittsburgh’s lower-revenue fortunes play some role in its track record, but it’s fair to note the division rival Cincinnati Reds saw fit to commit $225 million to first baseman Joey Votto – 11 years ago.
Yet you don’t have to squint too hard to see a core forming. Dynamic (and unprecedentedly big, fast and strong) shortstop Oneil Cruz should join Reynolds and Hayes as a lineup fixture, but an ankle fracture will keep him out through June.
Starter Mitch Keller is nearing the ace status the club once envisioned for him, and will have two more years of control after this one. Top prospect Yoansy Contreras has been dominant his last three starts, completing at least six innings and striking out 19, albeit with seven walks.
And in a climate where mid-market teams must create gems out of struggling arms, the Pirates’ pitching operation may have a significant success story. Right-hander Vince Velasquez, signed for a $3.15 million flyer this winter, has a 3.06 ERA through six starts, nearly two runs better than his 4.93 career mark entering the season.
The schedule gets tougher immediately: The Pirates open a three-game road series Tuesday against the only the team hotter than them – the 23-6 Tampa Bay Rays. The tenuous state of their rotation will be greatly tested as the summer unfolds.
Yet Reynolds’ deal answers one question effusively – and perhaps signals better, sustainable times ahead.
“Now that it’s resolved, we know that it’s one less thing on his plate and he’s a part of that core group going forward,” says Bednar. “And hopefully there’s a lot of winning to be done in Pittsburgh.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pirates’ NL-best start to 2023 has Pittsburgh charting new course