On the eve of a new baseball season it seems an appropriate time to take a final retrospective of the Pittsburgh Pirates offseason. The 2015 Pirates will return most of the core from a team that has qualified for the playoffs as the NL Wildcard each of the last two seasons. The lone exception is star catcher Russell Martin who signed with the Blue Jays.
Because the Pirates’ core players are relatively young, productive, and cost controlled there were few glaring needs that needed to be addressed by GM Neal Huntington. That is not to say he didn’t have plenty of work to do. Upgrading a good team is harder than upgrading a mediocre one. Huntington started the offseason by attempting to retain his best free agent pieces. He extended 1 year qualifying offers (and later made multi-year contract offers) to Martin and starting pitcher Francisco Liriano. He failed to sign Martin, but he did ink Liriano to a 3 year $39 million offer which may well have been the coup of the offseason if not for A.J. Burnett‘s decision to return to the Pirates after a one year stint in purgatory….I mean Philadelphia. Burnett essentially replaces Edinson Volquez in the rotation who left via free agency to sign with the Royals. After filling the needs in the rotation the front office turned its attention to finding a catcher to replace Russell Martin. The Pirates did so by acquiring Francisco Cervelli from Yankees in exchange for lefty reliever Justin Wilson. This was followed by a series of moves aimed at strengthening the bench and the bullpen with a heavy emphasis on positional versatility and power arms.
One of the important things to keep in mind when evaluating an offseason trade is how they fit into the whole offseason plan. Often we get carried away with looking at individual trades and declaring an immediate winner or loser. I am guilty of this too. I certainly felt dealing a promising prospect like Buddy Borden to the Rays for utility player Sean Rodriguez was an overpay. Joely Rodriguez seemed a bit steep of a price for southpaw reliever Antonio Bastardo too, though in my opinion the need for another quality lefty in the bullpen justified that move. Later in the offseason OF Travis Snider was dealt to the Orioles for Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault – a pair of promising left-handed pitching prospects. Many fans and members of the Pittsburgh media criticized this deal as well. Some even accused this of being nothing more than a salary dump. If you look at all of these trades together and focus on the net returns you see a much different picture
The Pirates traded the following major league players this winter: Ike Davis, Travis Snider & Justin Wilson. Combined 2015 salary: $6.15 million
The Pirates traded the following prospects this winter: Buddy Borden, Joely Rodriguez, and Shane Carle
The Pirates acquired the following major league players this winter: Sean Rodriguez, Francisco Cervelli, Antonio Bastardo, Arquimedes Caminero, and Rob Scahill. Combined 2015 salary: $7.0 million
The Pirates acquired the following prospects this winter: Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault
There were a few other depth pieces (such as Steve Lombardozzi) and cash that changed hands in these trades, and the Pirates also picked up some International signing slot money, but at the end of the day we can summarize the net of all these deals in this way: The Pirates got a starting catcher, a utility bench player and several bullpen pieces in exchange for two left-handed platoon players and a promising lefty middle reliever. The salaries are basically a wash, talent is close to equal, but the players acquired are better fits for the roster this year. That is what offseason trading is all about – moving pieces around to find better fits. As for the prospects, in my opinion the Pirates have come ahead in these deals. Stephen Tarpley is the best prospect that changed hands in any of these trades.
Of course the trades were only half of the story in the Bucs’ quest to build a better bench and bullpen this season. The team bid farewell to Gaby Sanchez and Clint Barmes and signed Corey Hart as a free agent. They made a surprise addition by signing pitcher Radhames Liz to a guaranteed MLB contract despite the fact he hasn’t pitched in the majors in 6 years. Whether Liz turns out to be any kind of upgrade is yet to be determined. However, the scouts were impressed with the upper 90′s velocities he was posting in the Dominican Winter League, and if the Pirates feel he is a worth a flyer I am more than willing to trust them on this given their track record of fixing pitchers. And the final free agent addition was the one with the most upside – shortstop Jung-ho Kang. Kang has mashed for several seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization. He blasted 40 homes with a 1.198 OPS in the KBO last year. Kang’s power is intriguing, but what he can do against MLB pitching is still a big question. He is making an unprecedented jump from a position player in the KBO to the major leagues.
So did the front office do enough this offseason to improve on a team that last year won 88 games? It is to tough to say because all of the improvements are on the margins. It may even be fair to question if the team is better at all. I do believe the rotation, bench, and bullpen are marginally better. But there is no clear cut certain upgrade that was added to the team this offseason. Perhaps more should have been done. The Pirates had the resources to do more. According to the latest Forbes estimates the Pirates raked in $43.6 million in profits last season – 5th highest in all of baseball. The Pirates are capable of competing for top free agents. Russell Martin was signed away by the Blue Jays. James Shields signed with the Padres. The 2015 Pirates would be better with either of those two players, yet they were signed by two teams that had lower revenues than the Pirates did last season.
Despite the lack of a truly big free agent splash or blockbuster trade, I think Neal Huntington mixed and matched well this offseason. I am bullish on the Bucs in 2015. I predict a 91-71 record and their first division title since 1992.