Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

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.
 

Getting Defensive Over Catchers

It is less than a week into free agency and it is clear that the suitors for former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin are wasting no time in lining up. Martin has already met with the Cubs, and he has plans to meet with the Blue Jays and the Dodgers later this week. With all of these large market clubs that are flush with clash coveting the 31 year old backstop, the hopes that the Pirates can retain him are dwindling. Martin is going to get a huge pay day from some team. That team should not be the Pirates.
 
Russell Martin had an impressive season offensively in 2014. To a large degree that was a mirage. Martin is a smart professional hitter. But he is not a hitter that can be counted on to post an OPS of over .750, let alone reproducing the .832 OPS he had in 2014. That was largely the result of a ridiculously high BABIP of .336 that will surely regress next season. Martin will still be a solid hitter as far as catchers go, but only because the bar is very low for the position. League average OPS for catchers was just .701 in 2014. Going forward Martin is more likely to hit like he did from 2011 thru 2013. His OPS over that period was just .716. It is not Martin’s offensive projections that creates value in the eyes of the teams chasing him. It is his steady defensive production that has teams salivating over their chances of signing him. But is Martin’s defensive value something a team like the Pirates should be committing upwards of $60 million to?

 
Take a look at the following career totals of defensive stats for three current major league catchers in their early 30′s:
 

CS% Framing Runs per 7000 Blocking Runs per 7000
Catcher A 32% 17.9 1.4
Catcher B 38% 19.1 2.7
Catcher C 31% 21.3 1.1

 
These are three comparable defensive catchers. All three are well above average at throwing out base stealers, framing pitches, and blocking balls in the dirt. Two of the three were acquired last off season in trades. Two of the three have have salaries of less than $5 million. The other is Russell Martin.
 
Player A is Russell Martin
Player B is Ryan Hanigan
Player C is Chris Stewart.
 
Clearly a quality defensive catcher can be found without handing out an enormous multi-year contract. The Rays and Pirates did not have to trade any high end prospects to obtain Hanigan and Stewart last winter. So if defense is what you desire from your catcher why pay a premium for it on the free agent market? Martin does produce more offense than Hanigan and Stewart. But how significant is that boost in offense? It might be less than you think. In fact, over his career Hanigan has an on base percentage only slightly less than Russell Martin. Ryan Hanigan has a .353 career OBP versus .354 OBP for Russell Martin. If Martin were to hit like he did in 2014 then of course he would be much more valuable. However, we know that to be a pipe dream….just like the Pirates chances of ever signing a 31 year old catcher to a 4 year $60 million contract. It was never going to happen, so let’s not get defensive about it.
 

Why Did Pedro Not Bust Out Offensively?

It might not look like it, but Pedro Alvarez really did become a better hitter in 2014. He made huge strides in his plate discipline. Pedro took more walks and cut down on his strikeouts. He posted a career best 10.1 BB% and 25.4 K%. So why didn’t these improvements result in Pedro having a career year? The answer lies mostly with a decrease in his home run per fly ball rate. After two straight seasons of having an HR/FB rate over 25%, Pedro’s HR/FB dropped to 16.2% in 2014. Had he maintained an HR/FB rate of 25% he would have blasted 10 more home runs this season. What is interesting about Pedro’s dip in home run rate is that it came entirely from balls he pulled. His HR/FB on balls hit to CF and LF actually increased. In fact, they were the highest rates of his career. But fly balls that he pulled only left the yard 22.7% of the time this season. That was down from 66.7% in 2013 and 70.8% in 2014. In his career over 52.2% of the fly balls he has pulled have gone for home runs. So what we have is a player that had better plate discipline this season and got more out of the balls he hit to the opposite field, but couldn’t yank a ball into the right field seats. That just seems like an anomaly that is bound to correct itself. If Pedro’s improved plate discipline can hold next season that offensive explosion could still happen.
 

Gather Around the Hot Stove Pirates Fans

Now that a new World Series Champion has been crowned we can put the 2014 MLB season in the books and officially begin the Hot Stove season. What is in store for the Pittsburgh Pirates this offseason? Will it be quiet like last year, or does GM Neal Huntington have some surprises up his sleeve? Let’s get started with the questions the Pirates must answer before Spring Training begins in February.
 

First Order of Business – Will they extend qualifying offers to Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano? The Pirates have until November 3rd to extend qualifying offers to their pending free agents. The qualifying offer this year is worth $15.3 million. Martin is a lock to be offered a QO. Liriano is a bit more iffy, but I’m already on the record as saying the Pirates should extend the QO to him as well.
 

Biggest question of the offseason – How aggressively will the Pirates push to retain Russell Martin and will it be enough to sign him? The Pirates would really like to bring Martin back, but as the only quality catcher on the free agent market the bidding for his services will be fierce. If the Pirates are going to sign Martin it will likely take in the neighborhood of $60 million over 4 years to do it.
 

Second biggest question of the offseason – What to do at the 1B position? Who’s on first seems like an annual question every winter for the Bucs. The Pirates have used a platoon at 1B for several seasons, and that probably won’t change in 2015. Pedro Alvarez‘s throwing issues at 3B in 2014 forced the team to try him out at 1B. If he is going to have a future with the Pirates it will be as the left-handed hitter in the 1B platoon. However, the Pirates still have Ike Davis to occupy that role. It is hard to foresee the Pirates retaining both Ike and Pedro. One of them is likely to be dealt this offseason. Pedro has refused to play Winter Ball in the past. I think he should play Winter Ball this year to work on learning how to play 1B. If he refuses that could impact the Pirates decision.
 

Everything else….

Which arbitration eligible players will the Pirates tender? John Axford and Jeanmar Gomez have already been let go leaving the following list of arbitration eligible players the Pirates must decide if they will tender: Neil Walker, Mark Melancon, Ike Davis, Pedro Alvarez, Tony Watson, Josh Harrison, Vance Worley, Chris Stewart, Jared Hughes, Gaby Sanchez. The Pirates are likely to tender all of these players, although they may try to shop one or two of them in trades.
 

What bounce back candidate free agent starting pitcher will they sign? It seems like the Pirates sign a bounce back candidate starting pitcher every off season. Last year it was Edinson Volquez. The year before that it was Francisco Liriano. Who will it be this year? The hot name being suggested is Justin Masterson. Masterson is a ground ball pitcher with an ERA that was significantly higher than his FIP this season. So yes, he fits the profile.
 

Might they perhaps make a bigger free agency splash this year? According to GM Neal Huntington the Pirates had close to $20 million in their budget to shop for free agents last offseason. They were unable to find the right players and left most of that money on the table. It is unlikely they will expand their budget enough to do any shopping outside of the bargain bins, but this is a contending team ready to win. If there ever was a time for this organization to open the purse strings and make a run at signing an impact player it is now.
 

What about the possibility of a major trade? Huntington has flirted with trading for an impact player over the last several years. He tried to land Jon Lester and David Price at the trade deadline. The Pirates have also been attached to Mike Stanton rumors. Eventually Huntington is going to pull the trigger on a huge deal. Perhaps it will be this year at the Winter Meetings.
 

What about bench and depth signings? They certainly could use a backup middle infielder to replace Clint Barmes. Or maybe they will bring Barmes back again. Neal Huntington loves to collect AAAA players, so I am sure we will see several AAAA type players invited to Spring Training.

 

Jordy Mercer and The Late Bloomer Conundrum

In 2014 Jordy Mercer established himself as a viable starting major league shortstop. He earned his first call up in May of 2012 and split duties in 2013 with Clint Barmes, but this past season he became an everyday regular. Mercer got off to a slow start but finished strongly. He posted a triple slash line of .255/.305/.387 in 149 games. Those are decent numbers for a SS. For a Pirate SS they are terrific. The Pirates have not had a solid hitting shortstop since Jay Bell in the mid 90′s. Unfortunately for Jordy he will not get to cash in on his success anytime soon. Mercer is one of several late blooming Pirate players in recent seasons. He did not reach the big league club until age 25 and did not become an established regular until age 27. Mercer can not become a free agent until the 2019 season when he will be 32 years old. The Pirates already control him through what should be the prime years of his career, which means there is very little incentive for the club to work out a long term contract extension with him. The three position players the Pirates have previously negotiated contract extensions with, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, and Starling Marte were all set to become free agents prior to age 30. The Pirates were able to secure a few additional years of control by locking these players up with multi-year contracts early in their careers, but only in the case of Marte did they go beyond the age 31 season. Under Marte’s contract the Pirates hold a team option on his age 32 season.
 

Most skills for position players already begin to decline by age 30. It is risky for teams to buy additional years of control for players like Mercer when those years are likely to come with a regression in productivity. Jordy Mercer seems destined to follow the Neil Walker path in terms of how the Pirates will handle his contract situation. Walker also was somewhat of a late bloomer. The Pirates control Walker thru his age 30 season. The team has been content to take a year to year approach with Walker using his arbitration estimates as a guide to settle on his salary. Walker has stated that the Pirates have not discussed a multi-year contract with him since 2010. Despite Walker not being rewarded with a long term contract things have still worked out pretty well for him. His career earnings are already in the neighborhood of $10 million and the early arbitration estimates this offseason have him pegged to make another $9 million in 2015. But Walker benefitted by being a Super 2 arbitration player. Jordy Mercer will not make the Super 2 cut.

 

Not all teams are adverse to offering extensions to late bloomers. The Rays signed Ben Zobrist thru his age 34 season as did the Cardinals with Matt Carpenter. If a team sees value in doing it they will negotiate. With age not on Mercer’s side and him only having three cracks at arbitration the Pirates would have significant leverage in any multi-year contract discussions they might have with Mercer. Perhaps that leverage would allow for them to negotiate a long term contract with Mercer where the potential value outweighs the risk. So although Mercer is an unlikely extension candidate it is also not out of the realm of possibility. However, this would require the Pirates to be much more bullish on their projections of Jordy Mercer in his early 30′s than they have been with other players.
 

Francisco Lirian-QO

In roughly two weeks the Pittsburgh Pirates will have to make their first big decisions of the offseason – which pending free agents they should extend a qualifying offer (QO) to. The exact deadline will not be determined until the World Series has ended. Teams have five days after the conclusion of the World Series to make their qualifying offers. The QO this year is $15.3 million. That is no small sum for a team with a payroll budget of around $90 million like the Pirates. There are two pending free agents the Pirates will consider extending a QO. One is a no-brainer. The Pirates have already indicated they will make a qualifying offer to Russell Martin. There is no risk to doing so. He is practically guaranteed not to sign it, and if he does the Pirates will retain a player that is well worth the cost of the QO. As much as Pirate fans want Martin to be resigned the most likely scenario is he will turn down the QO from the Pirates and sign a multi-year extension with a larger market club. Under that scenario the Pirates would at least collect a draft pick in 2015 sandwiched between Rounds 1 and 2. The second player the Pirate will contemplate extending a qualifying offer to is Francisco Liriano. That decision is a little less clear cut, but I believe it is one the Pirates should make.
 

There is an outside chance that if the Pirates do make a QO to Liriano he might sign it. Although no player has yet to accept a QO, there were several players last offseason that probably wish they had. Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Ervin Santana, and Stephen Drew all found their market significantly impacted when their services were attached to the loss of a 1st round draft pick. Cruz, Morales, and Drew all signed 1 year deals for less than the qualifying offer. Santana signed a 1 year contract with the Braves for essentially the same amount as the QO. Eventually a player is going to end up just taking the QO instead of gambling on finding a longer term deal while their value is being suppressed by the signing penalty of a lost 1st round pick. Liriano profiles as the type of player that is most hurt by a QO. He is going to be 31 years old next season, he has thrown close to 1200 career innings, and he has an injury history. He also is too inconsistent to be considered a bonafide top of the rotation starting pitcher. Liriano is a better bet as a mid-rotation starter. For these reasons he likely would not fetch an enormous long term free agent contract even under the best of circumstances. He is inline for something like a 3 or 4 year deal in the $12-$14 million annual average value (AAV) range. The QO could really drag his market down further, which might make the $15.3 million 1 year salary that comes with a QO look like an attractive option to him.
 

If Liriano does accept a QO that isn’t such a terrible outcome for the Pirates. $15.3 million is some what of an overpay for Liriano, but it comes with no long term risk and he offers at least a fair chance at performing up to that level. Liriano can be maddeningly inconsistent at times, but he is also capable of being dominant. He is not a true ace but he is capable of pitching like one in stretches. In 2013 he pitched like an ace all season. He had some struggles in 2014, but there are signs Liriano can still be an elite pitcher. His K/9 rate of 9.70 and ground ball rate of 54.4% this season were even better than his 2013 numbers. Good luck trying to find another ground ball pitcher with those type of strikeout rates.
 

An even better outcome for the Pirates than Liriano outright accepting the QO is that it could lead to a discounted multi-year contract. If Liriano declines the QO the Pirates would still be in position to capitalize on his suppressed market. A 2 year/$25 million contract could be a win-win for all parties. The Pirates would retain Liriano at a lower AAV than the cost of the qualifying offer, while Liriano would get $10 million additional in guaranteed money above the QO. Either way the goal should be for the Pirates to retain Francisco Liriano. The best chance of that happening is by extending him a qualifying offer.
 

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