The Pirates made a trade today with Texas, swapping pitcher Miles Mikolas for Rangers 1B Chris McGuiness. McGuiness got his first taste of the big leagues in 2013 collecting 34 ABs during a June call up with the Rangers. He is a left handed hitting 1B who will turn 26 years old at the start of next season. You can add him to the list of suspects along with Travis Ishikawa and Andrew Lambo that will compete to be the left handed hitting platoon mate of Gaby Sanchez.
At this point it seems as if the Pirates are content with addressing the 1B position with quantity instead of quality. They are buying up as many $1 scratch off lottery tickets as they can and hoping one of them hits. If the plan for first base is to find some AAAA poop to stick to the wall they might as well throw more than just three turds at it. So let’s look at some of the other potential turds…I mean targets the Pirates can look at to join this 1B competition.
- Jordan Lennerton: Bats LH/Throws LH – The 27 year old Lennerton has been in the Tigers organization since 2008. The Tigers did add him to their 40 man roster this winter. He has been a consistent performer, posting an OPS over .800 in each of his last five minor league seasons. He is a patient hitter that draws a lot of walks. Lennerton is also said to be good defensively. He was named top defensive first baseman in the Eastern League by Baseball America in 2012. I’d rather have this guy than Chris McGuiness.
- Vince Belnome: Bats LH/Throws RH – The 25 year old Belnome is more of a utility player than a true 1B. He came up through the Padres organization as a 3B/2B. He just started getting playing time at 1B in 2011. Last year Belnome played in the Rays organization at AAA Durham. Roughly half of his playing time last years was spent at 1B. This guy can hit minor league pitching. Not a ton of power but he is an on base machine. His career minor league OBP is .412 with an OPS of .889. At just 5’11″ Belnome is kind of vertically challenged to be playing 1B.
- Jeff Clement: Bats LH/Throws RH – My mistake. These are supposed to be AAAA players, not AAAa players.
- Ben Paulsen: Bats LH/Throws RH – Paulsen is a 26 year old 1B in the Rockies organization. In 2013 he posted a triple slash line of .292/.345/.523 in 123 games with AAA Colorado Springs of the Pacific Coast League.
- Brandon Allen: Bats LH/Throws RH – Brandon Allen is a true AAAA player. He has appeared in the major leagues with three different clubs, last appearing in 2012 with the Rays. In 389 plate appearance at the major league level he has an .665 OPS. Last year he played in the Padres organization posting an .825 OPS at AAA Tucson.
If you played baseball beyond the T-ball level at some point you were probably razzed by your teammates for not “taking one for the team”. The situation is common for every level of baseball from Little League all way through the professional ranks. A hitter steps to the plate in a key moment. A pitch ventures far inside that the batter dodges. The AB continues and the hitter fails to reach base. As the dejected player ventures back to dugout his teammates playfully bust his balls for not letting the inside pitch hit him. I suspect “Why didn’t you take one for the team” is something Starling Marte has never heard.
In 2013 Starling Marte was hit by a pitch 24 times. It was the second highest total in baseball behind Shin-Soo Choo. 24 HBP for a season is a high total, but it isn’t an unusually high number that is should raise any eyebrows. What was unusual were the situations in which Marte was getting hit by pitches. 20 times Marte was hit by a pitch in two strike counts, including 7 times in which the count was 0-2. 83 % of his HBPs came with two strikes. To see just how unusual that is here are the numbers for the top 5 leaders in HBP last season.
As you can see the other leaders in HBP in 2013 were not being hit with two strikes at nearly the same frequency as Starling Marte. But Marte’s “ability” to draw a HBP in a two strike count wasn’t just unusual for last season, it was actually quite historic. I looked at data for the past 20 seasons and could not find a single player that was hit by pitches in two strike counts as often as Starling Marte was last season. The closest I could find was Jason Kendall with 19 HBP in two strike counts in 1998. Craig Biggio is the all-time leader in HBP with 285 during the modern era. 6 times in Biggio’s career he was hit with a pitch 20 or more times in a season. However, the most times Biggio was hit in a two strike count was just 11 during both the 1997 and 2001 seasons.
So why exactly is Starling Marte drawing so many HBPs in two strikes count? Does he possess some sort of ability to become a human piñata? Is he really trying to take one for the team? I think the answer may be yes. Look at how far he leans into this 0-2 pitch with the Pirates trailing a game 6-3 in the 7th inning.
If Starling Marte is purposely leaning into pitches I’m not sure if that should be considered brilliance or stupidity. Marte had a terrific first full season as a starting major league outfielder for the Pirates. His .343 OBP last season far exceeded my expectations. But if Marte is going to have to rely on leaning into 95 mph fastballs in two strike counts to get on base one of two things is going to happen: he will either get hurt or pitchers will wise up and not come inside when they have him buried in the count. Either way Marte will have a hard time sustaining his OBP unless he finds a less painful way to reach base.
2013 was a breakout year for Pirate SS Jordy Mercer. After a hot start to his age 26 season at AAA Indianapolis he earned a promotion to the majors in early May and never looked back. By mid-June Mercer had wrestled away the majority of the playing time at shortstop from Clint Barmes. It is safe to say that Jordy Mercer is now an established major league baseball player. For the first time in his career he is a lock to make the roster when the Pirates break from Spring Training. His role will be expanded in 2014. The Pirates did retain Barmes but they did so with the understanding he would have a lesser role. It is clear the Pirates intend to give Mercer the bulk of the playing time in 2014.
I don’t think people realize how good Jordy Mercer really was offensively in 2013. Only four other shortstops in team history had a greater wRC+ than the 113 that Mercer posted last season (minimum 350 plate appearances). Dick Groat did it once. Groat had a 116 wRC+ in 1960 and won the NL MVP that season. Jay Bell did it twice. The others were Hall of Famers Honus Wagner (14 times) and Arky Vaughan (10 times). That is some prestigious company. Mercer’s .772 OPS in 2013 ranked 8th among all shortstops in the league, just after Stephen Drew and before Jean Segura.
The question is can Jordy Mercer reproduce the same sort of offensive production in an expanded role in 2014? I’m skeptical. I think some regression is due. Mercer really padded his stats by destroying left handed pitching. In 89 plate appearances against southpaws Mercer posted a triple slash line of .410/.460/.692. That is a whopping 1.152 OPS against left handed pitching. Against right handed pitching he posted a modest .654 OPS. Nothing from Mercer’s minor league history suggests he can continue to dominate left handed pitching like that. His highest OPS in the minors vs. left handed pitching was in 2011 when splitting time between AA Altoona and AAA Indianapolis he posted a lefty/righty OPS split of .892/.710. The lefty/righty OPS splits for his entire minor league career is just .729/.673. Mercer really has two things working against him. The numbers he posted against left handed pitching last season are unsustainable while no evidence exists that he has a particularly high ceiling against right handed pitching. And the Pirates see an awful lot of right handed pitching. Last season they faced a league low 31 left handed starting pitchers. Because of this I’m predicting Mercer will regress to a triple slash line of .263/.318/.407
The good news for Pirate fans is that Jordy Mercer performed so good with the bat last season that he has some room for regression and can still be a productive SS. A .725 OPS isn’t terrible for a major league SS. That is right around middle of the pack offensive production. If Jordy Mercer can improve the other parts of his game he would still be a very valuable SS. Mercer was a below average defensive SS last season. His UZR/150 was just -9.4. Some improvement in this area of his game would compensate for some loss in offensive production. Mercer’s defensive deficiencies are one of the main reasons that Clint Barmes was retained. Barmes is a plus defender. Because the Pirates employ a ground ball heavy pitching staff, defensive play carries more significance. If Mercer continues to struggle defensively it will eat into some of his playing time, especially if his bat regresses. I do believe Mercer is a better defender than his 2013 advanced metrics showed. I think he will improve with the glove in 2014 and be close to a league average defensive shortstop.
Without further ado, here are the final estimations I’m using as inputs for Wahoo’s on First WAR Calculator to estimate the 2014 WAR for Jordy Mercer:
OBP – .318
SLG – .407
Plate Appearances – 510
Games – 130
Position – SS
Defense – 4 (league avg)
Base Running – 3 (league avg)
And the verdict for Jordy Mercer 2014 WAR is… 2.5
As Santa Hurdle checks his list for who was “Naughty” or “Nice” he’ll find that most of the Pittsburgh Pirates will go in the “Nice” column. These guys deserve a great gift. But what is a good gift for a player, coach, or executive in the Pirates organization? Here are a few last minute gift ideas that I’ve come up with.
Andrew McCutchen: Cutch already has an NL MVP award, two Silver Slugger awards, and a Gold Glove award and he just turned 27 years old. Where is he going to put all this stuff? With all the hardware he has been collecting lately I think a great gift would be a new trophy case.
Starling Marte: Marte seems to be in an ownership dispute with NL pitchers over the inner half of home plate. He likes to hug the dish while pitchers like to paint the inner corner. The result is a lot of baseballs leaving a mark on Starling Marte. Last year he was hit 24 times with pitches. This offseason in the Dominican Winter League Marte was plunked in his first two games. It is only a matter of time before he takes a pitch off his hand that will land him on the DL. This guy needs some protection. So I think a great gift for Starling Marte would be the Shock Doctor Ultra Batter’s Hand/Wrist Guard.
Russell Martin: Martin got his gift early when Major League Baseball banned home plate collisions. Enjoy the peace of mind in knowing that you will never get trucked at home plate again, Russell.
Owner Bob Nutting: Bob nearly had a coronary when Pirates’ President Frank Coonelly either slipped or erred in stating that the Pirates’ local TV contract was significantly greater than being reported. In fact, Coonelly said the Pirates deal with ROOT Sports was in the top half of league revenues for local television contracts. Of course this inevitability led to questioning why the payroll is still so low. The Pirates may have a really great front office team, but they sure do say a lot of dumb stuff to the media. I bet Nutting would like to muzzle those guys sometimes, so that seems like a great gift for Bob. I’d suggest a good leather dog muzzle. They look badass, kind of like Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
Jeff Locke: Jeff has really had a rough last few months. He had a terrible second half of the season. He was so bad he lost his spot in the rotation and was left off the postseason roster. Now it looks like his best buddy A.J. Burnett is going to retire and won’t be back with the Pirates next season. Jeff Locke sure could use a new buddy. Maybe Santa Hurdle can bring him this classic.
There are two major reasons cited for the Pirates’ unwillingness to chase any of the 13 free agents that were offered qualifying offers.
1) The financial commitment is considerable. These are the premier free agents on the market. They’ve already turned down a $14 million, 1 year offer.
2) Signing such a player requires forfeiture of a first round draft pick.
The first reason is very valid. The Pirates are a low revenue team with limited resources. Top free agents like Shin-Soo Choo or Robinson Cano are never going to fit within the Pirates’ modest budget. In most instances it is unreasonable to expect them to commit 15% or more of their payroll to a single player. As much as the Pirates would have liked Mike Napoli to fill their hole at 1B, it was never going to happen. His price tag was far beyond what the Bucs reasonably could have offered him. However, the loss of a draft pick should not be a major deterrence. As it stands now the Pirates will have the 26th overall pick in the 2014 Draft. Latter 1st Round picks have similar surplus value to a Grade B prospect. The Pirates have traded a few Grade B prospects in recent years. Robbie Grossman was sent to Houston For Wandy Rodriguez. Dilson Herrera went to the Mets in the Marlon Byrd deal. Grossman and Herrera both graded out as B prospects. The Pirates also parted with a competitive balance pick in the 2012 draft to acquire Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins. That was the 35th overall pick in the draft, just 9 slots behind where the Pirates are slated to pick in 2014. So the Pirates have some history of giving up assets of comparable value to their 2014 first round pick.
This all becomes more meaningful when we consider that the market for Kendrys Morales has failed to materialize. Scott Boras may have miscalculated the market for his client when they turned down Seattle’s qualifying offer. Not only does it appear Morales will have a hard time finding a lucrative long term deal, but it also appears a 1 year deal in the vicinity of the $14 million qualifying offer that he turned down will be tough to find. According to Peter Gammons, some people in the industry believe Morales may not be signed until after the June draft when he is no longer tied to a draft pick.
I can’t see Kendry Morales waiting that long. That would be a huge risk for him. At this point in his career he should probably be trying to maximize his earnings. Sitting out half a season doesn’t really accomplish that for him. That would be a huge risk. His best course of action is probably to find a team willing to give a healthy 2 year deal. If he could get a contract something like a $16 million over 2 years, he would at least be saving some face by getting an additional $2 million in guaranteed money offer the 1 year qualifying offer that he turned down. And that is where the Pirates can step in and throw him a lifeline. The Pirates still have a big need at 1B. I’m not sure Morales can physically play the position everyday. He has had some well documented serious leg injuries in the past. Last season he made just 31 starts at 1B, though he was healthy enough to DH nearly everyday and collect more than 650 plate appearances. I feel almost hypocritical for suggesting this because I didn’t want the Pirates to pursue Corey Hart for similar reasons. But the Pirates should give Morales a look. I believe his price is falling into a range that the Bucs can afford. Whether the Bucs pursue Morales or not may in fact come down to whether they view their 2014 first round draft pick as gold, or as the bronze that it really is.
Pirates prospect Gregory Polanco is on the fast track to PNC Park. Every major scouting service has the young OF ranked as a top 25 prospect. Polanco is 5 tool player. He is a potential star and most people believe he will get the call up to the majors in the middle of the 2014 season. The Pirates are set in LF with Starling Marte and CF with Andrew McCutchen. It appears that Polanco’s immediate future in Pittsburgh will be as the right fielder. But that might not be the best usage of the talented young prospect.
The Pirates have a number of internal candidates to play RF this season. Jose Tabata, Travis Snider, Jaff Decker, and Andrew Lambo are all in the mix. The alternatives at 1B are significantly thinner. They have Gaby Sanchez to occupy the right side of the platoon and the unproven Andrew Lambo. The Pirates have been shopping for a 1B all offseason to no avail. As the roster currently stands, 1B is the Pirates biggest hole. It is my belief that Pirates should start giving Gregory Polanco some reps at 1B to potentially fill that hole if it still exists at mid season. Polanco could get a crash course on playing 1B in Spring Training. His playing time at AAA Indianapolis should then be split between 1B and the OF during April and May. If Polanco could add this positional versatility it means the Pirates would have an elite prospect that they could turn to during the season to fill in at four different positions. If production is lagging at either RF or 1B Polanco would be the player internally the Pirates could turn to. If Marte or McCutchen were to get injured Polanco would be in line to plug those holes as well.
This wouldn’t be the first time a team has employed this strategy with an elite defensive OF prospect. In the late 90′s the Angels moved Darin Erstad to 1B because they had a crowded outfield and a hole at 1B. He bounced back and forth between CF and 1B much of his career depending on what needs the Angels had in a given season. Erstad proved to be a natural at 1B. He would eventually win gold gloves at both CF and 1B.
This is not to say that Gregory Polanco would pick up the 1B position as easily as Darin Erstad did. However, Polanco does have many of the same tools. He is left handed, nimble, and has good heighth for the position. He is a natural athlete. Polanco should be able to learn the 1B position well enough that he could competently play it if called upon at mid season.
There are still some players on the trading block such as Justin Smoak, Ike Davis, and Mitch Moreland that the Pirates might end up acquiring to play 1B in 2014. Even if they do acquire one of these players I still think it makes sense to get Polanco accustomed to 1B. That added positional versatility could still come into play. All of the 1Bs that are available have flaws and question marks. The Pirates have no immediate prospects at 1B to turn to. If whomever they turn to at 1B washes out they are left with no good internal options.
Some would argue that putting Polanco at 1B would waste his athleticism. However, I would argue that 1B is a more important defensive position for the Pirates than RF. The Pirates have constructed a ground ball heavy pitching staff. They have embraced a strategy of over shifting the infield defense. A mobile left handed 1B could allow for more radical shifts on right handed hitters. Polanco could play further off the bag than any other 1B in baseball. If PNC park had a spacious right field it would be a different story. However, right field at PNC park is not an extremely demanding piece of real estate to defend. Would Polanco’s range really add much over an average player within the smallish right field dimensions of PNC Park? For these reasons I believe the Pirates should consider Gregory Polanco as an option at 1B.
The Pirates re-upped SS Clint Barmes today to a 1 year, $2 million contract. This is a significantly lower salary than Barmes earned last year indicating the Pirates plan a lesser role for him in 2014. You can look at the signing two ways:
1) Clint Barmes is very solid defensively. His 14.2 UZR/150 last season was second only to Andrelton Simmons for SS that played more than 500 innings. When extreme ground ball pitcher Charlie Morton is on the mound Barmes should be the starting SS. He can also come off the bench as a late inning replacement. His defense alone makes this a good value signing. If Barmes has even a slight improvement to his offensive numbers in 2014 it would be gravy.
2) On the other side of the coin, a $2 million binky for the manager is a huge overpay. I’ve priced binkies at Babies R’ Us. You can get a pack of 2 for $5. Perhaps the weakest attribute of manager Clint Hurdle is how he deploys his bench. The number of times Hurdle penciled Barmes into the starting lineup only to lift him in the 7th inning for offense was maddening. Hurdle was constantly wasting a precious pinch hitter on a position player while also weakening his defense in the final innings. Just start Jordy Mercer, save your bench, and bring Barmes in to play defense in the 8th or 9th. If Hurdle misuses Barmes as he did at times last year this signing can swing from good to bad.
The Pirates had a busy Day 3 of the 2013 Winter Meetings as Charlie Morton was signed to a 3 year contract extension and free agent starting pitcher Edinson Volquez was inked to a 1 year contract. All told, the Pirates committed $26 million today for starting pitching.
The Hidden Vigorish on the Morton extension:
Charlie Morton received a 3 year / $21 million contract extension with a club option for a 4th year in 2017. This represents the largest contract for a pitcher in Pirates history. However, this is still really great value for Morton. A number of lesser pitchers such as Jason Vargas and Phil Hughes raked in bigger paydays as free agents this offseason. Had Morton not been extended and reached free agency he would have likely been out of the Pirates price range. What I most like about this deal is that the Pirates will reap the prime years from a player they spent so much time and resources in cultivating. Charlie Morton has reinvented himself as an extreme ground ball pitcher under the tutelage of Jim Benedict and Ray Searage. Morton has become an effective pitcher over the last three years. He posted a FIP of 3.77 in 2011. In 2013 he posted 3.60 FIP in 20 starts after returning from Tommy John surgery in 2012. He appears to have recovered fine already, and most pitchers don’t fully regain their form until the second year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. There is still upside to Charlie Morton. These next few years are likely to be the best of his career. It just seems right that the Pirates will get the best years of Ground Chuck after all the work the organization has done to turn him into a decent starting pitcher.
The Hidden Vigorish on the Volquez signing:
Edinson Volquez was signed by the Bucs to a $5 million / 1 year contract. I understand what the Pirates see in Edinson Volquez. He has decent ground ball and strike out rates. But his control is really bad. Last year he had a 4.07 BB/9. His career BB/9 is 4.75. How bad is that? Well, the pitcher with the worst BB/9 among qualified starting pitchers last season was Jeff Locke at 4.55. In addition to the trouble with free passes, Volquez also has issues keeping the ball in the yard. And he can’t blame the ballpark for his troubles with the long ball as he has pitched most of the past two seasons at one of the most pitcher friendly parks in all of baseball. I’m sure the Pirates see Edinson Volquez as another undervalued pitcher with a lot of talent that they can fix. I’m less enthused, but I said some of the same things last year about Francisco Liriano.
We are about to put a bow on Day 2 of the 2013 MLB Winter Meetings and to this point everything has gone just about as expected for the Pittsburgh Pirates. GM Neal Huntington came to these meetings searching for answers to 1B and the starting rotation so far rumors surrounding those positions have been flying fast and furious. Here is a recap:
Supposedly the Bucs were meeting with the agent for SP Bronson Arroyo. The Arroyo rumors broke early on Day 1 but have since cooled.
One early rumor indicated the Pirates had interest in Toronto 1B Adam Lind. Reports are the Jays were asking for Neil Walker in return. That is a trade that makes little sense for the Pirates. Given the asking price it understandable that this rumor didn’t have legs.
One rumor that does have some legs is the interest the Pirates have in Logan Morrison. The Marlins are shopping Morrison and by most accounts the Bucs are one of the 3 or 4 teams in hottest pursuit.
The Pirates have circled back to their discussions with free agent 1B James Loney. Perhaps Loney’s camp is sensing the saturated trade market is eroding his demand and the asking price is coming down.
The Bucs have also checked in on free agent 3B Eric Chavez. Chavez can play some 1B. Actually, he plays it pretty well.
A late breaking rumor here on Day 2 is the Pirates showing interest in SP Jason Hammel.
One of the more interesting revelations thus far has been the numerous inquiries the Pirates have fielded for RP Justin Wilson.
As you can see the Bucs are still searching for an answer at 1B, that is unless you believe this line of BS from Neal Huntington:
Sure, Neal. You are so comfortable with Gaby Sanchez that you keep kicking the tires on flawed first basemen like Morrison and Lind and a high mileage guy like Eric Chavez. Speaking of Chavez, I’m kind of interested in that one. I said weeks ago when the Lance Berkman rumor was circulating that the Bucs should look at Eric Chavez.
Eric Chavez can’t play everyday on the long side of a platoon. His body just can’t do it. However, he’d be a great insurance policy if the Pirates are forced into using Andrew Lambo at 1B next season. I could see Chavez starting two games a week at 1B, backing up Pedro at 3B, and being a real nice option off the bench when he doesn’t start.
The Annual Baseball Winter Meetings are set to kick off this week in Orlando and will conclude on December 12th. 2013 marks the 112th year of the meetings. The Winter Meetings is generally the high point of the “hot stove league”. Free agent signings and offseason trades usually peak during the week of the Winter Meetings. The Rule 5 draft also takes place at this event.
The Pittsburgh Pirates will go to the 2013 Winter Meetings with a number of questions still to be answered. They’ve already lost RF Marlon Byrd, 1B Justin Morneau, and 1B Garrett Jones from the 2013 squad. Starting Pitcher A.J. Burnett and SS Clint Barmes are potential losses that are still unsigned. The Pirates have yet to sign a major league player this offseason. The only pickup of note so far was the acquisition of backup catcher Chris Stewart. The biggest holes the Pirates would like to fill is at 1B and starting pitcher. They have been rumored to have interest in free agent 1B James Loney. They have also been tied to trade rumors involving Mark Trumbo, Mitch Moreland, and Logan Morrison. The Bucs came up short in an attempt to sign starting pitcher Josh Johnson. The biggest rumor of the offseason to date is the Pirates’ supposed interest in trading for the Rays all-star hurler David Price. We can firmly place that rumor in the “no way in hell” category. It will be interesting to see what, if anything the Pirates accomplish this week at the meetings. Will it be a quiet week, or will it be like these five notable Winter League Meetings from past years?
1954 Winter Meetings – Selected Roberto Clemente from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft. This is one of the top 2 or 3 most significant transactions in the Pirates history. Clemente would become a Hall of Fame player. He led the team to a World Series title in 1960 and 1971.
1975 Winter Meetings – Traded Willie Randolph, Ken Brett, and Dock Ellis to the Yankees for Doc Medich. This one-sided deal helped elevate the Yankees back to prominence. Medich gave the Pirates one OK season. He posted an 8-11 record with a 3.52 ERA in 1976 before being dealt to the A’s prior to the 1977 season. Dock Ellis was exceptional for the Yankees in 1976. He posted a 17-8 record and a 3.19 ERA. Randolph would become a 6 time all-star and was a stalwart for the Yankees for more than a decade.
1977 Winter Meetings – The Pirates were involved in a trade with four teams in which they gave up Al Oliver and Nelson Norman and acquired Bert Blyleven and John Milner. Oliver was an all-star caliber player that helped the team win a World Series in 1971. But Blyleven and Milner were key additions that would help the Pirates win their next championship in 1979.
2000 Winter Meetings – The Bucs wanted to bolster the team in preparation for their inaugural season at PNC Park. GM Cam Bonifay attempted to do so by opening the checkbook for the free agent signings of Derek Bell and Terry Mulholland. The signings were finalized and announced on December 10, 2000 at the Winter Meetings. Mulholland was an extreme overpay for a relief pitcher. Bell turned out to be a complete disaster. He hit just .173 in 46 games with the Pirates before going into “Operation Shutdown”.
2003 Winter Meetings – The organization became a laughingstock when they lost five players in the first six picks of the Rule 5 draft. The players selected were Chris Shelton, Rich Thompson, Frank Brooks, Jeff Bennett, and Jose Bautista. A side note to this dark moment in Pirate history was that they actually had four players selected from the Rule 5 draft the year before. That makes it a whopping nine Rule 5 players the Pirates lost in a two year period!