In a flurry of signings just prior to the January 17th deadline to exchange arbitration salary figures, the Pirates have come to terms on one year contracts with all of their remaining arbitration eligible players . Here is the list of signings:
Mark Melancon – $2.595 million
Gaby Sanchez – $2.3 million
Travis Snider – $1.2 million
Pedro Alvarez – $4.25 million
Neil Walker – $5.75 million
Vin Mazzaro – $950 K
These signings, along with the Charlie Morton three year contract extension agreed to last month, puts a wrap on all the Pirates arbitration eligible players for 2014. The last time the Pirates went to an arbitration hearing with a player was with Ross Ohlendorf in 2011. The Pirates are one of several teams that have taken a hard line stance on arbitration. Known as a “File-And-Trial” team, they refuse to negotiate after the the deadline to exchange arbitration figures. Teams that employ this strategy believe it helps to avoid a messy arbitration hearings by encourageing agents to bargain in good faith earlier in the negotiating process. The “File-And-Trial” strategy appears to be working well for the Bucs.
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.
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!
If the Pirates want to fill their hole at first base they have plenty of options to choose from on the trading block. Here is a list of the first basemen rumored to be available: Mark Trumbo, Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, Logan Morrison, and Adam Lind. We can probably add Mitch Moreland to that list too. The Tigers and Rangers pulled off a mega deal yesterday that sent Prince Fielder to Texas in exchange for Ian Kinsler. The acquisition of Fiedler makes Moreland expendable. These six available first basemen all come with flaws. None of them are really superb defenders. Trumbo rates the the best with a 8.8 UZR/150 in almost 2500 career innings. Moreland also rates as slightly above average defensively with a 4.2 UZR/150 in more than 3000 career innings. The others are average at best. Davis, Morrison, Lind were particularly brutal defensively in 2013. However, defensive prowess is not high on the list of attributes teams look for in a first baseman.
The biggest concern with this group of players is the uneven level of offensive productivity they provide. They all have some Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to their games. They have tended to have alternating good and bad seasons. One year they play like an all-star candidate. The next season they wind up getting platooned or benched. Even in a good season these hitters have prolonged cold stretches. It is the nature of the type of hitters they are. They have long power swings with high whiff rates. The exception being Logan Morrison. Morrison’s issues are mostly health related. He is the Jose Tabata of first basemen, a young player who had early success and now can’t stay on the field. Davis, Duda, Lind, and Moreland are left handed hitters with really bad platoon splits. Trumbo is the only right handed hitter among the group. His major flaw is that he is not a selective enough at the plate. Trumbo chased 38.4% of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone in 2013. No first baseman chased a higher percentage of balls.
Just because the first basemen available for trade are flawed doesn’t mean the Pirates should not try to acquire one of them. They have a need at the position. Rolling the dice on one of them would not be a terrible idea. The Bucs are actually a nice fit for a left handed hitter. Last year the Pirates faced a lefty starter just 31 times. That was a league low, and it doesn’t appear that number will increase significantly in 2014. Their opposition in the NL Central possess only three notable left handed starting pitchers. And there is some real upside with some of these hitters. Trumbo, Davis, Lind, and maybe even Moreland have 30 home run potential. The Pirates don’t have the resources to land the perfect first basemen. But sometimes if you gamble right the perfect hitter can emerge. Chris Davis looked an awful lot like one of these six flawed first basemen before the Orioles acquired him in 2011. He evolved into a player that finished 3rd in AL MVP vote following a season with 53 home runs and 138 RBIs. If the Pirates could get 2/3rds of that production from one of these flawed players the trade would be well worth it.
The Pirates officially lose the first piece from their 94 win team of this past season. Marlon Byrd has signed a 2 year deal with the Phillies worth $16 million.
What this means is the Pirates have a hole in RF. That is nothing new. Until Byrd was acquired from the Mets in late August, the Bucs used a parade of players in right field for the past several seasons. Marlon Byrd was the perfect late season trade. He filled a position of need and lived up to the expectations. He will be missed, but the Pirates should be able to fill the vacancy with internal options. Jose Tabata is an adequate OF when healthy, while Andrew Lambo mashed 32 home runs in the minors last year and deserves a shot at some playing time. Both Tabata and Lambo are nothing more that placeholders until super prospect Gregory Polanco is ready to take over. I would have liked Byrd back on a one year deal. 2 years at that kind of money is beyond what the Bucs were willing to pay. I’m glad they passed. It should be noted that this was very much in line with the amount of money and length of contract that baseball insiders were predicting for Byrd. Jon Heyman wrote a piece recently in which himself, a GM, and a Player Agent made predictions on the contracts for the top free agents. This was the prediction for Byrd:
OF Marlon Byrd: There’s reason to be skeptical, but it’s hard to miss those glitzy 2013 numbers. Agent: 2 years, $17M. GM: 2 years, $15M. Me: 2 years, $18M.
So far it seems like the insiders have a pretty good grasp of how the market is shaking out.
It now appears as if A.J. Burnett will not be back with the Pirates next season. The veteran right hander is contemplating retirement. Even if he decides he wants to pitch in 2014, he may not be a fit within in the Pirates budgeted payroll. GM Neal Huntington did not extend Burnett a qualifying offer due to budget concerns. Now Huntington must look to how to best address the hole in the starting rotation left by Burnett’s departure. The Pirates do have sizable depth in their system. They could go to Spring Training and allow Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, Stolmy Pimentel, Phil Irwin, and others to compete for the opening. That seems risky for a team coming off 94 wins in 2013 and has legitimate aspirations of contending for the NL Central Division crown. Burnett was a solid and durable pitcher that could be counted on to make 30+ starts and log close to 200 innings. It would be a tall task for any of the internal options to replace that kind of production. And if one of the other starting pitchers that the Bucs are counting on goes down for an extended period of time the season could be lost. It would probably be in the best interests of the Pirates to bring in a veteran starting pitcher they could plug into the middle of the rotation to eat some of the innings lost by Burnett’s departure. The Pirates have had success finding undervalued struggling starting pitchers and reaping the benefits of a bounce back season. That will likely be the strategy the Bucs use to replace Burnett if they can’t get him to re-sign at a discount. They’ll be looking for pitchers that can be inked to a 1 year contract at a salary significantly lower than the $14 qualifying offer. I suspect the Pirates would not be willing to go more than $9 million with such an offer. Here are the free agent starting pitcher candidates that might fit the criteria of 1 year at less than $9 million:
Tim Hudson: Just prior to the start of free agency I thought Hudson would make a great plan B if the Bucs lost Burnett. I don’t think it is very likely to happen. The market for Hudson appears stronger than I first thought. It has been reported that as many as 10 teams are interested in Hudson. The Red Sox and the Giants have shown particularly strong interest. Hudson would also prefer more than a 1 year deal. With the number of teams interested I suspect he will get a two year contract or a 1 year deal beyond $10 million.
Josh Johnson: Johnson had a hugely disappointing season in 2013 posting a horrific 6.20 ERA. His peripherals were much better. His xFIP was 3.58. A .356 BABIP and 18.5% HR/FB indicate he suffered from some rather poor luck. He looks like a prime bounce back candidate. He is very much like the type of undervalued pitcher the Pirates have had success acquiring and fixing in the past. Despite his 2013 struggle it appears Johnson has quite the demand. He is only 30 years old and it wasn’t that long ago that he was a dominating pitcher. The Yankees, Mets, and Rangers are among the teams interested in signing Josh Johnson. Those are teams with deep pockets. However, he may still be a fit for the Pirates. Johnson is said to be seeking a 1 year contract so he can rebuild value and hit the free agent market again next offseason. If that is truly the case he might be willing to sacrifice some dollars for the situation that he thinks he could most thrive in. Pittsburgh would be an ideal place for a pitcher like Johnson to rebuild his value. PNC Park is among the most pitcher friendly stadiums in the league and the Pirates would field an excellent defense behind him. The Pirate coaching staff also has a track record of fixing talented pitchers like Josh Johnson. He profiles very much like Francisco Liriano last off season and A.J. Burnett prior to the 2012 season.
Phil Hughes: Hughes also had a disastrous 2013. Unlike Johnson, Hughes’ peripherals were less kind. Hughes is only 27 years old but he hasn’t been a very good pitcher over the last 3 seasons. There might not be enough of a market for him to get a multi-year contract offer. He may fit the Pirate’s budget. I don’t think he is fit for the team. The Pirates covet ground ball pitchers. Hughes has never had a ground ball rate greater than 37%.
Dan Haren: In 2013 Dan Haren had a 4.67 ERA which was a full point higher than his 3.67 xFIP. He got off to a terrible start to the season but posted some good numbers in the second half. He was also victimized by a rather high HR/FB rate. His ground ball rate dropped to just 36%. That was the worst GB% of his career. In recent seasons Haren has relied heavily on his cutter and that pitch failed him in 2013. Hitters abused Haren’s cutter this season to the tune of a .329 Avg. Emphasizing his 2 seam fastball instead of the cutter would likely raise his GB% and could make a big difference in his effectiveness. The Pirates have had success with other pitchers by having them deemphasize a less effective pitch in favor of more sinkers or 2 seam fastballs. Baseball insiders are predicting Haren will receive a 1 year contract in the $7-8 million range. This looks like a very good fit for Pittsburgh.
Roberto Hernandez: Formerly known as Fausto Carmona, Hernandez is the cheapest of the pitchers I’m profiling. He earned a modest $3.2 million with the Rays last season and did little to warrant a much larger investment from any team in 2014. He still could be a fit for the Pirates for one reason: he is an extreme ground ball pitcher. Hernandez posted a 53.2% ground ball rate in 2013. His career GB% is 57.8%. Despite keeping the ball on the ground Hernandez tends to get hit really hard when hitters do elevate his pitches. He has sported two straight seasons with HR/FB rates above 20%. Pitching in the cavernous PNC Park would certainly help him suppress the home runs.
MLB Free Agency is under way and A.J. Burnett is free to sign with any team without the hinderance of a lost draft pick because The Pirates refused to extend Burnett a $14.1 qualifying offer. General Manager Neal Huntington insists The Pirates still intend on retaining Burnett. A.J. himself has stated he will only pitch for the Pirates or retire. However, the decision not to extend a qualifying offer to Burnett is a curious one. He is well worth $14.1 million on the open market. If Burnett has a change of heart and opens his services up to other teams he’ll have little trouble finding suitors. Burnett and his family make their home in Maryland. The Baltimore Orioles are right in his back yard and they are desperately searching for a top end starting pitcher. I believe not offering Burnett the qualifying offer was a mistake. I don’t think he would have accepted the offer anyway. Burnett would not risk signing a deal in which there was any chance he could be traded in season. The Bucs could have negotiated lower than the $14.1 million qualifying offer by dangling an ironclad no trade clause as part of the deal. By not making the qualifying offer the Pirates risk losing Burnett to another team like the Orioles without even receiving a compensatory draft pick.
The Pirates now begin their off season search to fill holes at first base, right field, and starting pitcher. The Pirates are interested in re-signing RF Marlon Byrd. If Pittsburgh can’t re-sign Byrd they likely will turn to internal options. Highly rated prospect Gregory Polanco is likely to be called up by midseason. They could use Jose Tabata as a placeholder in right field until Polanco is ready.
Resolving first base is a murkier dilemma. The Pirates have used a platoon at first base for the past several seasons with declining results and there is no high end prospect on the cusp at 1B in the farm system. The best options for an upgrade from the free agent market are Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales. Both were given qualifying offers and are probably beyond the Pirate’s price range. The other free agent options would be James Loney or re-signing Justin Morneau and hoping he is more like the player he was for the Twins in August than the one that hit zero home runs in September after the Bucs acquired him.
The Pirates would only be in the market for a starting pitcher if A.J. Burnett retires or signs elsewhere. The Pirates have a lot of starting pitching depth but most of it comes with question marks. Burnett provides stability to the rotation. He can be counted on to pitch effectively over 30+ starts. Josh Johnson or Tim Hudson are free agents the Bucs could turn to as replacements for Burnett but they come with more risk at only a slightly lesser cost. More likely the Bucs will go shopping for a starter on the bargain rack. The Pirates covet ground ball pitchers so Roberto Hernandez and his 57.8% career GB% could be a fit. Other options include left handers Joe Saunders, Chris Capuano, and our old friend Paul Maholm.
The top priority for the Pittsburgh Pirates this off season is to re-sign A.J. Burnett. Burnett is a big personality. He is brash and outspoken. He may have rocked the boat a little too much in 2013, but he is a damn fine pitcher. He is the first right handed pitcher in Pirate team history to record 200 strikeouts in a season. In his two seasons in Pittsburgh he has posted a 26-21 record and 3.41 ERA. Last year he posted the second highest ground ball % and fourth highest K/9 rate among all qualified pitchers. Despite being 37 years old next season he is still a good bet to make 30+ starts and pitch close to 200 innings. This is not a pitcher that can easily be replaced. Losing Burnett would be a big blow and that is the reason The Pirates appear willing to make an unprecedented qualifying offer to Burnett. To some teams the $14.1 million qualifying offer is no big deal. For the small market/low revenue Pirates it is a very big deal. Right now he is General Manager Neal Huntington’s main focus. But he can’t be his only focus. Burnett is considering retirement. He has said repeatedly Pittsburgh is the only team he will pitch for and that he is 50/50 on whether or not he is coming back. Huntington can only wait on Burnett’s decision for so long. The Bucs have other holes to fill and if AJ chooses to retire they’ll have a hole in the rotation to fill too. They don’t want to be left without a dance partner because AJ Burnett couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to go to the prom. They need a Plan B.
Tim Hudson would make a perfect Plan B for the Pirates. Hudson is no spring chicken either, but the 38 year old right hander has a track record of durability. He has 8 seasons of 30+ starts and 200+ innings. He did miss the last two months of this season due to a horrific ankle injury suffered while covering a play at first base. But Hudson’s arm is fine and his ankle is nearly healed. He should be ready to go for Spring Training. The Pirates covet ground ball pitchers and Hudson is an extreme ground ball pitcher. He has not had a season with a GB% of less than 55% and his career rate is 58%. He is also a proven winner. With a stellar career record of 205-111, Hudson is borderline hall of fame pitcher. The Braves are said to be interested in re-signing Hudson, but they do not appear willing to extend him a qualifying offer. So signing him would not cost the Pirates a draft pick. At this stage of his career Hudson would only be interested in signing with a contender. A Pirate team coming off 94 wins that calls the very pitcher friendly PNC Park its home should be a situation that Hudson would consider a fit. The dollars should also match up. It is hard to envision Hudson getting an offer as large as the qualifying offer the Pirates are likely to give to Burnett. MLBTradeRumors.com has estimated Hudson will receive a 1 year, $9 million contract. Personally I’d prefer the Pirates land AJ Burnett. However, if I were Neal Huntington I’d have a call into Tim Hudson’s agent as soon free agency begins on November 5th to gauge his interest in joining the Pirates. If AJ Burnett drags his feet too long they can quickly switch to Plan B.