Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Month – October 2014

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.

Sizing Up the Market for Russell Martin

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin will be a free agent in a few short weeks. He is the best available catcher in this free agent class and will be highly sought after. Although Martin is on the wrong side of 30 he should still find several teams willing to offer him a multi-year contract in the neighborhood of $15 million Annual Average Value (AAV). At a minimum it will take a 3 year contract to ink him, and it is very likely it will take 4 or more guaranteed years to get a deal done. So here are the potential landing spots to sign Russell Martin.

The Incumbent


Pittsburgh Pirates
Why he makes sense for the Pirates: Martin is well respected by his teammates, adored by the fans, and the front office has already said signing him is a priority. Pitch framing and strong defense are two attributes the Pirates really value, and Martin is elite in both those aspects. He has been a prefect fit for the organization since he joined them two years ago. The Pirates intend to extend him a qualifying offer.

Why he doesn’t make sense for the Pirates: Money, Money, Money. The largest free agent contract the Pirates have ever handed out was the $17 million contract they gave Martin two years ago. It will take triple that to sign him now. The Pirates are a frugal organization that avoids risky long term signings. Catchers do not age gracefully. Martin will be 32 next season. Signing him comes with a significant risk that his play will regress and he will underperform the backend of the contract.

Strong Suitors

Red Sox
Why he makes sense for the Red Sox: The Red Sox ended up really missing Jarrod Saltalamacchia who left the Sox for the Marlins as a free agent last winter. Boston’s catchers combined for just 0.9 fWAR in 2014. Young Christian Vazquez has some talent, but the Red Sox are a team that aspires to be contenders every season. They probably won’t be comfortable just handing over the bulk of the catching duties to Vazquez. The Red Sox have a protected 1st round draft pick, so the qualifying offer that will be attached to Martin will not deter them. The Red Sox are a cash rich organization that is financially capable of bidding on the best available free agent talent.

Why he doesn’t make sense for the Red Sox: In the past few seasons the Red Sox have to stayed away from deals longer than 3 years. The Red Sox covet the roster flexibility that shorter contracts provide.

Why he makes sense for the Cubs: The Cubs are a team on the come with numerous young position player talent. They might be ready to contend if they can get the most out of their pitching staff. What better way to do that than by adding a catcher like Martin that is great at handling a pitching staff and helps steal strikes for pitchers with his exceptional framing skills? The Cubs’ brass has also spoken of the need to add some veteran presence and leadership to the squad. As an added bonus signing Martin would also be taking away a player from a strong division rival. Much like the Red Sox, the Cubs have a protected 1st round pick and plenty of money in the coffers to sign a free agent of Martin’s ilk.

Why he doesn’t make sense for the Cubs: The Cubs actually have a fair catcher in Welington Castillo. Martin might also not believe the Cubs are as close to contending as they think. Would he take an offer from the Cubs if stronger contenders are beckoning?

Why he makes sense for the Tigers: The Tigers are team in a win now mode and their catcher Alex Avila has suffered from several recent concussions. They are also not shy about chasing top notch free agents.

Why he doesn’t make sense for the Tigers: The Tigers have really expanded their payroll beyond a comfortable level, and their farm system has been left with a dearth of talent due to numerous trades in recent seasons. Signing Martin would continue to hurt them on both fronts as signing him will not be cheap and the Tigers would lose their 2015 1st round draft pick.


Why he makes sense for the Rangers: The Rangers had an abysmal season in 2014 and the catcher position was part of the problem. Martin could really solidify a position in which the Rangers produced less than 1 fWAR. The Rangers also have a track record as being players in the free agent market. They also have a protected 1st round draft pick.

Why he doesn’t make sense for the Rangers: The Rangers have had a bloated payroll for years and they have hinted that they need to trim their budget. They had so many problems last season and catcher is probably not their biggest issue. They might be closer to going the rebuilding route than making a run at another expensive free agent.

Why he makes sense for the Dodgers: The Dodgers are a team that is in a win now mode and got underwhelming performances this season from catchers A.J. Ellis and Drew Butera. New GM Andrew Friedman has a reputation from his tenure with the Rays for valuing more advanced defensive catcher skill sets like pitch framing and blocking. Martin fits the bill. The Dodgers look like the favorites to land him.

Why he doesn’t make sense for the Dodgers: Even with subpar performance from their catchers the Dodgers still had the best record in the National League. The Dodgers have the highest payroll in baseball. How much higher can they go? At some point the escalators on the payroll luxury tax will be problematic for the Dodgers. It is also unclear how Friedman will handle having such a large budget. Although Martin would be affordable to the Dodgers I don’t expect they would make him an insane offer far beyond what other clubs would be willing to pay. Friedman is too smart to saddle himself with too much sunk cost at the end of any contract. Signing Martin would also cost the Dodgers their 2015 1st round draft pick.


Dark Horses

Blue Jays, Rockies, White Sox, Mariners, Mets, Braves
Why he makes sense for these clubs: These clubs have varying needs for a catcher. Among this group the White Sox and Rockies appear to have the biggest need for a good backstop.

Why he doesn’t make sense for these clubs: The Mariners have Mike Zunino and the Mets have Travis d’Arnaud. Both are younger catchers with upside, so unless these clubs absolutely love Russell Martin they probably will stick with what they have for now. Dioner Navarro did an adequate job for the Blue Jays last season. Although he profiles more as a backup, the Blue Jays will probably be inclined to stick with him instead of spending lavishly on Martin. The Braves have Evan Gattis who can mash, but defensively is a liability. Cost and the loss of a 1st round pick would probably dissuade them from getting involved in the market for Russell Martin. The Blue Jays, Mets, and Mariners would also lose a 1st round pick if they were to sign a free agent attached to a qualifying offer. The Rockies could really use a catcher, but Martin is likely out of their price range. The White Sox would be a good fit, but they are not likely to contend next season and that could affect their willingness to sink money into an aging veteran catcher.


How Teams Have Fared After Losing a Primary Catcher in Free Agency

In a few short weeks Pirates catcher Russell Martin will become a free agent. The Pirates hope to retain him, and for good reason. Like most primary catchers he is an integral part of the team’s success. Recent history has not be kind to teams that have lost their primary catcher to free agency. Over the past five seasons 13 primary catchers have parted with their teams via free agency. For this study I’m considering a primary catcher to be one that has started more than half of his team’s games behind the dish. Those teams on average have won 7.1 less games in the following season. If you factor the “Barajas” effect, the numbers look even worse. Three times Rod Barajas has left a team after being its primary catcher and those teams improved by 10, 4, and 15 games. The only non-Barajas teams that didn’t get worse were the 2010 Dodgers that improved by two games after losing Russell Martin and the 2009 Royals who also improved by two games after Miguel Olivo left for the Rockies. Excluding the teams with Rod Barajas, the difference after losing a primary catcher was 12.1 less wins in the subsequent season. Here is the full list of teams that have lost their primary catcher in free agency over the last five seasons:


Year Player Team Change in wins
2013 Brian McCann Braves -17
2013 A.J. Pierzynski Rangers -24
2013 Jarrod Saltalamacchia Red Sox -26
2012 Rod Barajas Pirates +15
2012 Russell Martin Yankees -10
2012 A.J. Pierzynski White Sox -22
2011 Rod Barajas Dodgers +4
2010 John Buck Blue Jays -4
2010 Yorvit Torrealba Padres -19
2010 Russell Martin Dodgers +2
2009 Jason Kendall Brewers -3
2009 Rod Barajas Blue Jays +10
2009 Miguel Olivo Roayls +2


Pirates 2014 Season From A to Z

A is for Attendance. The Pirates drew 2,442,564 fans to PNC Park this season to set an new franchise attendance record.

B for Bumgarner, as in Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner dominated the Pirates in a complete game shutout at PNC Park in the N.L Wild Card Game to end their 2014 season

C is for Cutch. Star CF Andrew McCutchen had another fine season and once against was an MVP candidate. He may not win the MVP award this season, but he is a virtual lock for his 3rd straight top 5 finish.

D is for Diamondbacks. A series against the Diamondbacks from August 1st – 3rd turned into a brutal beanball war that ultimately ended with the Pirates losing Andrew McCutchen for several weeks with a broken rib.

E is for Eddie V. Edinson Volquez was brought in as a free agent to replace A.J. Burnett in the rotation. Many, including myself, thought it was a bad signing. But Eddie V turned out to be better than expected. He still shouldn’t have been the starting pitcher in the Wild Card Game though.


F is for Frieri, as in Ernesto Frieri. The Pirates acquired relief pitcher Ernesto Frieri in late June from the Angels. Frieri was a disaster. On July 8th he gave up walk-off home run to Cardinals second basemen Kolten Wong. Frieri continued to suck for another month before the Pirates DFA’d him on August 8th.

G is for Grilli. Jason Grilli entered the season as the Pirates closer, but after a string of blown saves he was dealt to the Angels for Ernesto Frieri on June 27th.

H is for Hit By Pitch. Pirate pitchers are taught to aggressively pitch inside. One of the byproducts of that approach is that they hit a lot of batters. The Pirate pitching staff hit 88 batters which led the league by a wide margin.

I is for Ike. The Pirates acquired 1B Ike Davis from the Mets on April 18th. Ike spent most of the summer taking pitches, even when they were 3rd strikes.

J is for JHay. Josh Harrison was the Pirates surprise hero of the season. JHay’s rise from bench player to all-star was meteoric. He started the year as essentially the 25th man on the roster. By season’s end he was the leadoff hitter, starting 3B, and one of the most important players on the team. JHay could seemingly do anything… including Houdiniesque escapes from rundowns.

K is for Ks. Pirate hitters had significantly fewer of them this season. Under new hitting coach Jeff Branson the Pirates struck out 86 times less than in 2013.

L is for Lunchbox. Lunchbox is the nickname of Pirates RF Travis Snider. Snider has been much maligned for most of his tenure with the Pirates, but he had something of a breakout season in 2014 and eventually earned the starting RF job.

M is for Marte. After struggling for much of the 1st half of the season Starling Marte turned his season around after returning from a brief stay on the DL in late July. Marte was one of the hottest hitters in baseball over the last two months of the season.

N is for “No Move is the Right Move”. That was GM Neal Huntington’s explanation for why he didn’t make any trades to strengthen the team at the deadline.


O is for offense. This was the Pirates strongest offensive team since the early 90′s. They posted a 109 wRC+ (weighted run created plus) which was 4th best in the baseball and the highest total by a Pirates team since 1991.

P is for Polanco. Highly touted prospect Gregory Polanco made his debut on June 10th. He got off to a hot start but struggled in July and August. Eventually he was benched and sent back down to the minors.

Q is for qualifying offer. According to the front office the Pirates could not afford to offer one to A.J. Burnett.

R is for Russ, as in catcher Russell Martin. Martin is always great defensively, but this season he had a career year offensively too. Russ is a soon to be free agent and much of the talk this summer centered around whether or not the Pirates would be able to sign him to a new contract that would keep him in Pittsburgh.

S is for Sanchez. The Pirates have two of them and neither one did much this season.


T is for TOOTBLAN. The Pirates base running was comically bad at times this season. This incident was by far the worst offense.

U is for useless. Useless describes the Pirates bench in early August that consisted of Michael Martinez, Jayson Nix, and Brent Morel while a number of key players were on the disabled list.


V is for Vanimal, the nickname of pitcher Vance Worley. Worley became the latest pitcher the Pirates were able to find on the scrap heap and transform into a quality starting pitcher.

W is for walk-off. The Pirates had 10 walk-off wins in 2014 including this game winning home run by Neil Walker on opening day.

X is for xFIP. xFIP is a better predictor of future performance for pitchers than ERA. Vance Worley and Edinson Volquez both significantly outperformed their xFIP which means they probably won’t be as good next season.

Y is for yips. Pedro Alvarez had a very bad case of the yips this season. Alvarez led all of baseball with 24 throwing errors.

Z is for Zoltan. For the 3rd straight summer Pirate players flashed the Zoltan Z sign after getting a hit. The team didn’t start the season using the Z, but they brought it back in late April after an early season slump.


Pirates Are Aced Out Again

For the second straight season the Pittsburgh Pirates were bounced from the playoffs by an ace starting pitcher. Last year it was Adam Wainwright who silenced the Bucs’ bats in Game 5 of the N.L.D.S. This season it was a gem by San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner that ended the Pirates’ season in the N.L. Wild Card Game. Bumgarner was sensational. He allowed just 4 hits and 1 walk in a complete game shutout in which he simply carved up the Pirates lineup.
The success of these aces against the Pirates in elimination games just further illustrates how foolish it was for the Pirates to allow their hopes to rest on the shoulders of Edinson Volquez. The Pirates had the option of skipping Gerrit Cole in the final game of the season so he could be available for the Wild Card Game. Instead they took a long shot chance to catch the the Cardinals for a share of the NL Central Division lead. The plan backfired and the Pirates were left with no choice but to oppose Bumgarner with Volquez. Edinson Volquez had a fine season, but he is no ace pitcher. You can argue that Gerrit Cole is not an ace either, but in his short career he has already flashed some ace qualities including pitching very well in the the playoffs last year. I don’t know if Cole would have matched zeros with Bumgarner, but I liked his chances to do so better than I did Volquez.
Volquez did manage to put up zeros thru the first 3 innings until disaster struck in the 4th. Ultimately it was the breaking ball command that did Volquez in. He was unable to bury his curveball in crucial 2 strike counts. Pablo Sandoval led off the inning with a single off of a 2-2 curveball that Volquez left thigh high. Hunter Pence then hit an 0-1 fastball into left field for a base hit. That brought up Brandon Belt who turned out to have the key at bat of the inning. With the count at 2-2 on Belt, Volquez threw perhaps his best breaking pitch of the night. It was a sharp curve that broke below the knees. It was the kind of chase pitch that a pitcher has to make with 2 strikes when they need to get a big strikeout. Belt’s hands started moving forward but to his credit he checked his swing. Volquez would walk him on the next pitch. That brought up Brandon Crawford with the bases loaded and no outs. Crawford would deliver the big blow. Once again it was the curve ball that would fail Volquez. With the count at 1-2 Volquez hung a breaking ball right into Crawford’s wheel house. Crawford put the ball over the Clemente Wall to stake the Giants to 4-0 lead. With the way Bumgarner was pitching the game was essentially already out of the Pirate’s reach. Four batters in that 4th inning scored on Volquez, and he had gotten ahead in the count on all four of them. An ace would not have let them off the hook.
For the Pirates it was a sad end to a very good season, albeit one in which they took a step back. In the coming days I will post a detailed postmortem on the Pirates entire 2014 season. In the mean time I will lament on being aced out once again.

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