Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Arbitration Settlements and the Pirates Payroll

The Pirates came to terms last week with nine arbitration eligible players. The big winners were Mark Melancon and Josh Harrison. Both received substantial raises. The biggest news was not who the Pirates settled with, but who they did not settle with. Agreements could not be reached with Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, and Vance Worley. Team policy is to not negotiate once arbitration figures have been submitted, so it appears the Pirates are headed to an arbitration showdown with Walker, Alvarez, and Worley. The Pirates have not had an arbitration hearing with one of their players since Ross Ohlendorf in 2011.
 
Even if the Pirates win all three arbitration cases they will still likely have a payroll north of $90 million. I have not written much about the Pirates’ payroll this offseason. I was highly critical of the lack of spending last winter, but GM Neal Huntington has been much more aggressive with signing talent to the major league roster this offseason. Signing Francisco Liriano to a multi-year contract and taking a gamble on Korean SS Jung-ho Kang were bold moves that added payroll. But let’s not get too carried away yet with praise for the Pirates’ financial commitments. Getting payroll to this level has been a long time coming. Many people, myself included, feel this was overdue. It should also be noted that while the major league payroll has been gradually increasing, the amount spent on procuring minor league talent has dropped considerably due to amateur draft rule changes that fixed the amount that each team could spend on draft pick bonuses. In 2011 The Pirates spent a record $17 million on draft bonuses. In 2014 they were limited to around $7 million in draft spending. With less money the team can allocate for the draft they should be finding other places to commit those dollars. This year that happened. The Pirates spent $5 million on the posting fee to negotiate exclusively with Kang. Then they signed him to a 4 year deal worth $11 million. If the Pirates were still able to freely spend on draft pick bonuses it is very likely the $16 million commitment to bring Kang to Pittsburgh would never have happened. Kudos to the team for putting the money to good use this offseason. But it has been just one offseason. It is still too early to know whether this becomes standard operating procedure.
 

Jung-ho Kang and Infinite Infield Combinations

Now that the Pittsburgh Pirates have reached a contract agreement with Jung-ho Kang we can let our imaginations run wild dreaming of the various infield combinations the Pirates could employ in the near future. Even prior to the Kang signing the Pirates had Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Josh Harrison, and Jordy Mercer – four accomplished major league players to man the infield. At this point it is too soon to say what kind of major league player Jung-ho Kang will be, or even if he is capable of being a passable major league hitter at all. But it is safe to say that the Pirates are going to give him every chance to prove he can play at this level. The $16 million dollar commitment the Pirates made to bring the 28 year old Korean SS to Pittsburgh ensures that. The Pirates are not locked into any specific position with Kang. Every position in the infield is a possibility. That leaves a plethora of infield configurations the Pirates might consider. Let’s take a look some of the possibilities.
 

    1) 1B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Neil Walker, 3B Josh Harrison, SS Jordy Mercer, Bench Sub Jung-ho Kang: This is the most likely configuration to open the season. It would be a huge risk to upset what already looks to be a strong infield by allowing the unproven Kang to immediately force out one of the regular infielders. Using Kang in a bench role will give the Pirates time to evaluate his acclimation to American baseball as well as provide an opportunity to trial him at several positions.
     
    2) 1B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Neil Walker, 3B Josh Harrison, SS Jung-ho Kang, Bench Sub Jordy Mercer: Kang was a SS in the KBO. If he proves he can play the position in the MLB and can outhit Mercer we could see this alignment before too long.
     
    3) 1B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Jung-ho Kang, 3B Josh Harrison, SS Jordy Mercer, trade bait Neil Walker: If Kang can hit enough to warrant every day ABs Neil Walker could find himself on the trading block. Walker only has two seasons left before he is a free agent and his defensive abilities are declining. It might make sense to move him at midseason and institute this infield configuration.
     
    4) 1B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Josh Harrison, 3B Jung-ho Kang, SS Jordy Mercer, trade bait Neil Walker: Same as above only with Harrison moving to 2B and Kang playing 3B.
     
    5) 1B Neil Walker, 2B Jung-ho Kang, 3B Josh Harrison, SS Jordy Mercer, trade bait Pedro Alvarez: If Pedro gets off to another disappointing start to the season it could make sense to trade him and transition Walker to 1B.
     
    6) 1B Neil Walker, 2B Josh Harrison, 3B Jung-ho Kang, SS Jordy Mercer, trade bait Pedro Alvarez: Same as above only with Harrison moving to 2B and Kang playing 3B.
     
    7) 1B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Neil Walker, 3B Jung-ho Kang, SS Jordy Mercer, Bench Sub Josh Harrison: Is Josh Harrison really an all-star 3B? Maybe the clock strikes midnight for Cinderella and JHay turns back into the bench player he was destined to be before having an unlikely career year in 2014. In that case Kang would replace Harrison at 3B and Harrison would then once again become a versatile player off the bench.
     

 

Pirates Bench is Well Constructed

The Pirates every day lineup, the starting rotation, and the bullpen will look much the same in 2015 as it did last season. Although Catcher Russell Martin was lost to free agent, as was starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, the rest of the team returns mostly intact. GM Neal Huntington filled the holes by trading RP Justin Wilson to the Yankees for C Francisco Cervelli. A.J. Burnett was signed as a free agent to replace Volquez in the rotation. Huntington then acquired lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo from the Phillies to fill the void in the bullpen left when Wilson was dealt. The front office could have also chosen to keep the status quo with the bench. Gaby Sanchez was due a small raise in arbitration. It would have taken very little to re-sign middle infielder Clint Barmes. Instead the the Pirates allowed Sanchez and Barmes to sign elsewhere and the bench was almost entirely revamped. That says a lot about what the team felt about the construction of the bench last season.
 
Part of the reason Neal Huntington needed to give the bench a facelift was because Josh Harrison went from utility bench player to super sub to everyday third basemen in the span of about 8 weeks last summer. With Harrison pressed into everyday duty manager Clint Hurdle was left with very little flexibility to make substitutions from his bench options. To address the issue the Pirates acquired Sean Rodriguez from the Rays. In his career Rodriguez has logged time defensively at every position except catcher.
 
Another problem that plagued the Pirates’ bench was a lack of a power hitting right handed bat. Gaby Sanchez has been the primary right handed bench option for the last two seasons. His slugging percentage since joining the Pirates is less than .400. Last season his OPS was a paltry .679. If Sanchez provided any positional versatility he would probably still be a Pirate. But Sanchez is a pure first basemen with little power. The Pirates felt they could do better. Sanchez was non-tendered and Corey Hart was signed to fill the role of platoon 1B/primary right handed bench bat. Hart has hit 160 career home runs, but he comes with many health concerns. Knee injures have limited him to just 68 games over the last two seasons. Maybe Hart doesn’t have anything left in the tank. But he is an intriguing bounce back candidate with a better power tool than what Gaby Sanchez possessed.
 
The other big change to the bench was to say goodbye to Clint Barmes. Barmes was a very good defensive shortstop. As a hitter he offered very little. Barmes was a necessity while Jordy Mercer was an unproven shortstop still cutting his teeth in the major leagues. Mercer is now a known entity. He can play shortstop in the major leagues at a competent level. There is no need to maintain Barmes on the roster as a crutch. Good defensive middle infielders that do not hit much but are capable as backups are a dime a dozen. There is no reason to spend above the league minimum for one. The Pirates will choose between Pedro Florimon and Justin Sellers to fill that role.
 
The returning bench players are 4th OF Travis Snider, backup catcher Chris Stewart, and OF/1B Andrew Lambo. Lambo will probably start the year in AAA as depth. Snider rebounded last season and proved to be a useful fill in at the corner OF positions. He was also an excellent pinch hitter last season. Snider will be the go to left handed bat off the bench. Stewart is an above average defensive catcher. He doesn’t offer a whole lot with the bat, but he has a great eye and rarely strikes out. A team could do a lot worse than Chris Stewart as the backup backstop. All in all this bench is deeper and more well rounded than the Pirates have had in years. And it potentially could be even better if the Pirates are able to sign Korean infielder Jung-Ho Kang.
 

Pirates New Year’s Resolution Suggestions

Happy New Year to my friends, followers, and fellow Pittsburgh Pirates fans. New Year’s Day is the unofficial midpoint of the MLB offseason. Spring Training is right around the corner. Keep that in mind when you are singing Auld Lang Syne and watching the ball drop. To celebrate the occasion I’m offering up three suggestions for New Years’s Resolutions for the Pittsburgh Pirates to consider.
 

    1) Run the bases smarter. It was tons of fun watching Josh Harrison make infielders look silly while escaping from rundowns, but I think we can all agree that JHay and his teammates are guilty of entirely too many TOOTBLANS. This one by Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez was just comically stupid.
     

     
    It is time to resolve to put an end to the bad base running in 2015.
     

    2) Pitch inside with precision. The Pirate pitching staff plunked 88 hitters last season. That was 19 more than any other team in baseball. Not only did this put additional runners on base, but it also put Andrew McCutchen at serious risk due to retaliation by opposing pitchers. Pirate pitchers need to pitch inside to be successful, but they need to do it with it some precision. Hitting 80+ batters in a season in unacceptable. Perhaps the Pirates should resolve to be a little more cautious when pitching on the inner half of the plate.

     
    3) Use the entire roster. The Pirates treated Stolmy Pimentel like a Rule 5 selection. He rarely pitched unless the game was a blowout. The Bucs essentially wasted the 25th spot on the roster to carry Pimentel. This wasn’t the only inefficient roster management the team was guilty of. Manager Clint Hurdle was left shorthanded for most of the month of August because the team did not want to place McCutchen or Neil Walker on the disabled list despite injuries that left them unavailable for a couple of weeks.

 

Got any good Pirates New Year’s Resolution suggestions of your own? Tweet them to me @piratesvigorish. Happy New Year! Baseball will be here sooner than you know it.
 

Jung-Ho Kang and a Whole Lot of Firsts

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been awarded the winning posting bid for the right to exclusively negotiate with Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang. The posting fee bid from the Pirates is reported to be $5 million. Kang is a 28 year old right-handed hitting shortstop for the Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). Kang is a 5-time all-star in the KBO. Last season he put up Ruthian slugging statistics. In 116 games he crushed 40 Home Runs and led the league with a 1.198 OPS. It should be noted that the KBO is an offense heavy league and that the level of play is lower than even that of the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball League. Kang’s KBO stats are not likely to translate to Major League Baseball. However, most scouts believe he is a major league ready talent capable of being at the very least a utility player. The Pirates obviously believe he can be more than that. In addition to the $5 million posting fee the Pirates also need to sign Kang to a major league contract. His demands are reportedly a 3 or 4 year contract worth at least $5 million annually. In all likelihood it will take an investment in the vicinity of $20 million for the Pirates to bring Jung-ho Kang to Pittsburgh. That is more than the team has ever spent on a free agent position player, besting the 2 year $17 million contract spent on Russell Martin two years ago.
 
This is an historic moment for both the Pirates and Korean baseball. It marks the first time the Pirates have ever won a bid for an international player thru the posting system. Jung-ho Kang would also be the first Korean position player to jump from the KBO to Major League Baseball. Amateur Korean players such as Hee-Seop Choi have been signed by major league organizations, but the only professionals in the KBO to make the jump to MLB have been pitchers, the most notable being Hyun-jin Ryu of the Dodgers. I have to give general manager Neal Huntington credit for having the guts to take a leap like this. Jung-ho Kang offers a high ceiling but a very low floor. This is a pretty big gamble financially for a small market club like the Pirates. I have criticized the Pirates in the past for being too risk adverse. This is certainly a change of course.
 

Has Neal Huntington Found a New Way to Stash Depth Players?

Almost every team runs into a roster crunch at some point. When a roster crunch occurs hard choices have to be made and players with no remaining options are designated for assignment. Often times these are useful players that the team would like to retain. But that is not always possible. If players are useful to your team chances are likely they will be useful to other teams as well. To be assigned to the minors a player with no remaining options must pass thru waivers unclaimed. If another team claims the player he is lost and organizational depth is depleted. But an interesting thing occurred with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014. They had two useful experienced major league players (Jose Tabata and Vin Mazzaro) that they were able to outright without being claimed multiple times. Both players had the right to refuse a minor league assignment. They accepted the assignments because they were earning money on guaranteed contracts. Their existing contracts are also what dissuaded teams from claiming them off of waivers in the first place. Teams are rarely interested in taking waiver claims on players earning above minimum salary. Essentially the byproduct of a couple of poor contract decisions that GM Neal Huntington made with Jose Tabata and Vin Mazzaro was that he got to stash them in AAA Indianapolis for depth. It certainly was not Huntington’s plan to overpay these players for them to perform for the Pirate’s AAA affiliate. But what if there was a situation in which it might make sense to overpay a potentially useful player just so you could stash him in the minors without him being claimed? Perhaps that is the explanation for the Radhames Liz contract.
 
When the news broke last month that the Pirates were signing Radhames Liz to a guaranteed major league contract worth reportedly $3 million most people assumed that it meant he would be almost guaranteed to make the club out of Spring Training. That was somewhat disconcerting to Pirate fans since no one knew much about the guy and he hasn’t pitched in a major league game since 2009. Players like that do not command major league deals. More typical of a player of Liz’s ilk would be a minor league contract and perhaps a Spring Training invite. Sure, the Pirates have done well at finding diamonds in rough, but they usually don’t get a ticket straight to Pittsburgh. They have to get polished first. The Pirates obviously feel they have something special in Radhames Liz. He was managed this year in the Dominican League by Dean Treanor, the skipper of the Bucs AAA affiliate Indianapolis Indians. Maybe I’m misreading the tealeaves, but this feels much different than the type of shot the Pirates usually take on a fringe major league talent. This seems like a pitcher that they want to take time with and cultivate. In order to do that they need some time and they need to protect him. Paying him 3x the minimum major league salary does that. If Liz isn’t ready to help the Pirates at the end of camp they can still slip him through waivers without another team claiming him because the size of his contract will scare teams off. The Pirates won’t have to carry him on the roster all season long like they did last season with Stolmy Pimentel just because they fear losing him. This is entirely speculation on my part. I could be completely off base. Or I could have just uncovered Neal Huntington’s newest plan to stash talent in AAA.
 

Frankie Goes to Pittsburgh – Part II

The Pirates made it clear they intended on keeping Francisco Liriano when they extended him a qualifying offer. Today they got their man. The Pirates and Liriano agreed to a new 3 year contract worth $39 million dollars. This was a rare spending splurge for the Pirates. Never before had the franchise spent so much on a free agent. It is a positive sign that the Pirates were willing to pay market value for a solid middle of the rotation pitcher. However, let’s put things in perspective just a bit. Retaining Liriano means keeping the status quo. This is not an actual upgrade to the team that walked off the field after losing the N.L. Wild Card Game to the Giants on October 1st. Liriano had an up and down year in 2014. And it should not be forgotten that it was just two years ago that the Pirates were criticized for overpaying Liriano when they signed him the first time. Now the Pirates are committing 3 times as much money to re-sign the same pitcher. For the Pirates to get real value from this contract Liriano will need to pitch more like the guy that dominated the National League in his first season with the Bucs in 2013. That has kind of been the theme of this offseason for GM Neal Huntington as he has attempted to the put the band back together from the team that won 94 games in 2013. Last month he also signed A.J. Burnett. Burnett, Liriano, and Gerrit Cole make up the same 1, 2, 3 punch in the starting rotation that the Pirates rolled with down the stretch in 2013. Now they will try to replicate that success in 2015.
 

Pirates Settle on the Big Tease at 1B

Today the Pirates acquired utility man Sean Rodriguez from the Rays in exchange for a PTBNL. The trade in and of itself was really back page news to the real story. To make room for Rodriguez the Bucs designated Gaby Sanchez for assignment. This along with the trade of Ike Davis to the A’s a little more than a week ago means the Bucs have purged the roster of the 1B platoon they employed this past season. That can only mean the Pirates are committing fully to Pedro Alvarez as their starting full time 1B in 2015.
 
Committing to the perennially frustrating Alvarez at 1B is something of a bold move. Pedro is a boom or bust type of hitter that has not lived up to the expectations that the Pirates have had for him. Granted, the expectations have been high. But this is a guy with so much power and so much promise that the expectations were justified. There are stretches when Pedro absolutely looks the part of a middle of the order masher. But there are also times when he looks completely lost, especially against same side pitching. Even more concerning is his psyche appears so fragile and damaged that it may have resulted in a case of the yips that were so bad that he was forced to change from his natural position of 3B. Pedro is a player that looks like a change of scenery could do him some good, and by change of scenery I do not mean the other side of the diamond. But the Pirates just can’t let go of that potential. It is always there and always teasing us. So it appears the big tease is going to man 1B for the Pirates in 2015 with no insurance policy in place in case he fails, and no platoon mate to shield him from southpaws. It might work out. As I previously wrote, the signs are still there for Pedro to break out offensively. But we can almost certainly say this will be Pedro’s last shot with the Pirates to make the kind of impact that we all had hoped for.
 

Good Bye Super Russ

Russell Martin has made his decision. He won’t be returning to the Pirates. Yesterday he agreed to a 5 year $82 million contract with the Blue Jays. That is a whopper of a deal that the Pirates had no hope of matching. Good for Russ. He played two terrific seasons in Pittsburgh to position himself for this mega-deal. Martin leaves Pittsburgh as a beloved player. He was an elite defensive catcher that oozed intangibles. In 2014 he also put up a career year offensively. The Pirates made the playoffs both seasons that Russell Martin played for them. That in itself speaks of Martin’s impact. This was a team that had posted 20 straight losing seasons prior to Russ’s arrival. As a tribute to Russell, here is the moment I will most remember him for. This dramatic three run blast off of Brewers’ reliever Jonathan Broxton in the 8th inning on 9/19/14 gave the Pirates a come from behind victory over the team that was chasing the Bucs in the Wild Card Standings.

 

 

GM Neal Huntington Not Wasting Time This Offseason

We are barely two weeks into the MLB Hot Stove Season and Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington has already pulled the trigger on two major moves. On November 12th the Pirates acquired catcher Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees in exchange for pitcher Justin Wilson. Cervelli and backup catcher Chris Stewart make for a decent tandem that should give the Pirates at least a competent performance behind the dish in 2015. Although Cervelli won’t entirely make up for the loss of Russell Martin, he will make up for some of it. Cervelli rates well defensively. He is an above average pitch framer and the pitchers he has worked with in the past have raved about his game calling skills. He is not at Martin’s level when it comes to throwing out base stealers, but few catchers are. Cervelli can also hit a little bit. He has a career OPS of .729. Last season he posted a triple slash line of .301/.370/.432 in 49 games with New York. Solid numbers for a catcher for sure, albeit in a small sample. The biggest concern with Cervelli is staying on the field. He has missed games with a variety of ailments, most notably a broken hand and a hamstring strain. He also served a 50 game suspension for being linked to PEDs in the Biogenesis scandal. Cervelli has some warts, but he is a much better option for the Pirates than being stuck with no alternative than to hand the job to Tony Sanchez.
 
A few days after trading for Cervelli the Pirates then were reunited with an old friend when they signed free agent pitcher A.J. Burnett to a 1 year $8.5 million contract. Burnett signed with Philadelphia last off season after two years with the Pirates in which he posted a 26-21 record and a 3.41 ERA. A.J. found that the grass wasn’t as green on the other side of the state. The Phillies were a bad team and Burnett struggled as he pitched through a hernia all season. Burnett decided he didn’t want to finish his career on a team with no playoff hopes, so he declined his $12.75 million option to return to the Phillies in 2015. Burnett essentially took a $4 million pay cut because he wanted to return to the Pirates. I’m sure that went a long way in repairing any bridges that had been burned from his spat with manager Clint Hurdle over being passed up to pitch in Game 5 of the 2013 N.L.D.S against the Cardinals and from his indecision over whether or not to retire. Both Burnett and the Pirates had some differences that needed to be reconciled to pave the way for his return. That it happened at all is surprising. That it happened so quickly is almost unfathomable.
 
That is really the story of both of these moves from the past week. Neal Huntington is not wasting any time to improve the club. He is not allowing other players/teams to dictate the timing of his moves. This is a huge departure from how he approached things last year. Last off season Huntington allowed himself to be hamstrung waiting on A.J Burnett to decide if he was going to retire or not. Instead of aggressively pursuing a Plan B and a Plan C he kept money aside to sign A.J. Burnett. That money never got spent. This offseason has been the complete opposite. Although Huntington would like to resign Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano he wasn’t going to allow their decisions to leave him empty handed. He got a replacement catcher and a replacement for the starting rotation that make for good Plan B’s. And he still has money available and plenty of time left in the offseason to make more moves to improve the club.
 

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