Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Month – January 2015

Pirates Sell High on Travis Snider

Maximizing value is the key to success for any resource starved low revenue major league baseball team. Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington has a fairly strong track record when it comes to buying low on talent. His eye for finding undervalued assets is one of the biggest reasons the Pirates have turned into a contender after so many years of being a laughingstock. But maximizing value is more than just finding bargains. A shrewd GM also needs to look for opportunities to sell high on expendable talent. Selling high is something that Huntington has done very little of. So yesterday’s trade that sent Travis Snider to the Orioles in exchange for minor league pitcher Stephen Tarpley and a player to be named later is a bit unusual. Not only does it represent selling high on a player, it is also a case of a contender subtracting a player that served an important role in the team’s success last season. This is a bold move that has created a fair amount of understandable criticism. Although that criticism is warranted I really like the move.
I believe last year we saw the best of Travis Snider. Last season Snider posted a .776 OPS. That is fair production for a corner outfielder, but it is hardly irreplaceable. Frankly, I don’t believe Snider is going to repeat what he did last year. To me Snider is nothing more than a 4th OF. He is useful in that role. There are worse options to have than Travis Snider playing a significant number of games in RF and being the primary left-handed hitter off the bench. But Travis Snider was not going to make or break the 2015 Pirates, and the Pirates bench really has become crowded this winter. The Pirates must find some playing time for Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang to get him acclimated to American Baseball. That means less playing time will be available in the infield for Sean Rodriguez. Rodriguez may have to play more OF to accommodate Kang. With Andrew Lambo, Jose Tabata, and Corey Hart also capable of filling in at RF, a roster crunch was impending. Lambo and Tabata could still be stashed in the minors, but taking advantage of the situation by cashing in on a valued asset is a more efficient strategy. This trade does come with some risks. The biggest risk being that perhaps Snider would be needed as more than just a bench player. The Pirates have essentially handed the RF starting job to Gregory Polanco. If Polanco struggles Snider would be a good insurance policy. The Pirates obviously feel very good about Polanco otherwise they would not be so comfortable about trading Snider.
The return the Pirates snagged for Snider was pretty solid too. Stephen Tarpley was a top 15 prospect in a pretty good Orioles’ farm system. Tarpley was the Orioles 3rd round pick in 2013. Last year he posted a 3.68 ERA with 60 strikeouts and 24 walks in 66 innings for the Aberdeen Iron Birds of the NY-Penn League. I saw Tarpley pitch in August against the Pirates’ Jamestown Jammers affiliate. He was filthy in that game. He sat in the low 90′s with his fastball and his breaking ball made the left-handed bats in the Jammers’ lineup look silly all game long. The Pirates had several organization staff on hand observing the game including minor league pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell. I’m sure Tarpley made a solid impression on the Pirates’ staffers. The Pirates have a number of outstanding right handed prospects already in the minors, but the system is pretty barren of quality southpaws. Tarpley immediately becomes the Pirates best left-handed pitching prospect. The only other southpaw of note is Cody Dickson. I’ve also seen Dickson pitch and in my opinion Tarpley is the better talent.
I really hope the Pirates do not end up missing Snider. My hunch is they won’t. Keeping Snider would have been the safe move. But the Pirates need to take some risks, and taking a small risk with a 4th OF is a good step forward. Snider likely won’t be missed and the system has been injected with a needed talent.

Arbitration Settlements and the Pirates Payroll

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

Jung-ho Kang and Infinite Infield Combinations

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

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


Pirates Bench is Well Constructed

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

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