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.
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.
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.
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.
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.