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Signing Hayes a must for Pirates

Notes and observations as the Pittsburgh Pirates approach a full opening July 1 at PNC Park

n Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, who is in just his second season and his first full season, has arguably become the face of the Pirates’ franchise.

Hayes, 24, is a bonafide National League Rookie of the Year candidate this year as a very bright light on a last-place team.

He’s a player that the Pirates probably need to bend over backward to keep, and so far, they have been doing just that.

After batting .376 with five homers and 11 RBIs in a cameo appearance following a September callup to the majors last season, Hayes has hit three home runs in 17 games this season entering tonight’s series opener with the Chicago White Sox at PNC Park.

Hayes­ — the son of former long-time major leaguer Charlie Hayes — is batting .266 (17 hits in 64 plate appearances) with 10 RBIs this year.

Hayes missed two months of this season with an injured left wrist after homering in the Pirates’ season opener April 1 against the Chicago Cubs, or those numbers would have been much better.

One of the Pirates’ priorities in the new regime of general manager Ben Cherington is to sign Hayes to a long-term contract before he hits free agency in 2027.

The Pirates offered Hayes a second contract extension before this season – the terms of which were not disclosed — but for the second year in a row, he turned it down.

The Pirates still have time to lock up Hayes, who becomes arbitration eligible after the 2023 season, when his negotiating leverage will become substantially better.

This year, Hayes – who was a first-round draft pick by the Pirates in 2015 – is making $589,500, which is barely above the league minimum of $570,500.

The Hayes situation is a gamble on both sides. The Pirates are hoping that they can get Hayes under contract in the next couple years, and pay him more up front while foregoing a much bigger contract down the road.

It’s dicey committing an extended contract to a young player who may become ineffective or get injured after he signs, but the Pirates successfully negotiated a six-year extension with Andrew McCutchen after the 2012 season, and McCutchen garnered the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 2013 while leading the Pirates to their first of three consecutive postseason berths.

The Pirates traded McCutchen in 2018, after his best years as a player, and paid much less for those years than they would have had McCutchen not signed.

The Pirates are hoping that things with Hayes will work out similarly well, but Hayes is gambling on himself at the present moment – shunning very good instant money and a long-term contract and betting on getting something better, from the Pirates or another team, down the road.

Presently, he may be the team’s only untouchable in trade talks leading up to the August 1 trade deadline.

n Another former big-time prospect, right-handed pitcher Mitch Keller, is facing a career crossroads at this point after being demoted to Class AAA Indianapolis by the Pirates following a poor start against the Los Angeles Dodgers June 3.

Keller was tagged as a can’t-miss prospect when he was taken by the Pirates in the second round of the 2014 MLB draft, but has been largely a disappointment since first being called up to the Bucs in 2019.

This year, he’s 3-7 with a 7.04 earned run average in 12 starts, giving up 56 hits and 37 runs – all earned – in 47.1 innings, while striking out 51 and walking 29.

A good starting outing has inevitably been followed by one or two bad ones this season for Keller, who the Pirates were hoping could anchor their unproven rotation.

For his big-league career, Keller is just 5-13 in 28 starts with a 6.31 ERA.

Keller has a little time to get himself straightened out, but the clock on him has definitely begun ticking.

n The Jameson Taillon trade with the New York Yankees has looked OK for the Pirates to this point. The once highly-touted Taillon, who has endured two Tommy John elbow surgeries and could never stay on the field for the Pirates while enduring several health setbacks, is just 1-4 with a 5.59 ERA in 13 starts this year with the Yankees.

Meanwhile, two young pitching prospects – right-handers Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras – that the Pirates got in the Taillon trade, have shown some early promise this season.

Yajure has had two spot starts with the Bucs, and has acquitted himself reasonably well, striking out eight batters in nine innings, while Contreras in ripping up Class AA competition as a pitcher with the Altoona Curve.

Time will tell, but so far, so good for the Pirates.

n Another former can’t-miss prospect, outfielder Gregory Polanco, is saddling the Pirates with a team-highest $11 million contract albatross that they no doubt wish they could unload in July. But takers should be non-existent for Polanco, who hasn’t been the same player since injuring his shoulder nearly three years ago. He is batting only .202 in his first 58 games this season, after hitting just .153 in last year’s shortened season.

n The old “Don’t lose the glove” adage can certainly be applied to Kevin Newman, who has established a new Pirates’ franchise record 60 straight games without an error at shortstop, but is battingjust .204 entering tonight’s White Sox series. Newman had a spring training batting average of .606, which earned him the starting shortstop job over Erik Gonzalez to begin this season, but which also points out how meaningless spring training numbers really are.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

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