Monday Morning Mop-up Duty: an early look at free agency


SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – We have an entire offseason to look ahead, speculate and analyze 2014, but it starts today.


The offseason presents a much-welcomed challenge for the Pirates: building upon and sustaining a winner.


Another much-welcomed change is the Pirates should have more financial flexibility when plugging voids via free agency. GM Neal Huntington told me it’s unlikely the Pirates target A-list free agents, but they’ll continue to rely on searching for small- and mid-market free agent value. (Here’s a list of potential free agents)

From Rob’s Sunday story:


This year, the total payroll of the Pirates’ 40-man roster was $75 million. That figure will grow, likely by a significant margin, next year. The Pirates will gain revenue from an expanded season ticket-holder base (a by-product of this year’s postseason run) and a large bump in its share of the national television money doled out by MLB.


Owner Bob Nutting already has signaled that the club’s penny-pinching days are over. He allowed Huntington to go over budget late in the season by trading for Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau and John Buck.


“We are aware of player and fan expectations,” Nutting said. “My responsibility is to the long-term health of this organization. It’s much easier to stretch a financial budget — we have and will continue to do that for the right opportunities. What we’re not willing to do is mortgage the future by trading really premier prospects.”




(How much is Nutting willing to increase payroll in 2014? Conservative estimates suggest $80-85 million but could national TV dollars push it close to $100 million? )


Moreover, Pirates president Frank Coonelly told James Santelli in August the club will likely increase its 25-man payroll from its $66 million level in 2013. If the Pirates have a similar jump from 2013 to 2014 as they put in place from 2011 to 2012 and 2012 to 2013, that would place the 25-man payroll around $80-85 million in 2014. But the new television dollars and the spike in second-half attendance could allow for a more aggressive payroll spike.


“We’re gonna lay out a plan to incrementally get ourselves back towards where we need to be, competitive with the Cincinnati’s, the Milwaukee’s, the St. Louis’ of the world,” Coonelly said. “Going into 2014, we’ll continue that path, which is not large jumps, but moving us towards our industry foes.”


The Pirates only have some $31 million guaranteed to players in 2014 but that figure does not include the arbitration cases of Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Charlie Morton among others. The arbitration and pre-arb deals could push that number close to $60 million. So that projects to leave $20-25 million to spend, perhaps more, on a handful of roster spots including critical voids at first base, shortstop, right field along with building starting pitching depth.




9.  The first off-season decision involves AJ Burnett.


Knowing the Pirates should have some financial flexibility, I think the club would be wise to extend a qualifying offer to Burnett. Only a few folks know exactly what happened leading up to his Game 5 non-start, but Burnett was a 4.0 WAR player in 2013. That’s roughly a $20 million value. The one-year, qualifying offer figures to be $14.1 million. And by extending the qualifying offer if Burnett signs elsewhere the Pirates gain a compensation pick, which comes between the first and second round, which might be the most desirable outcome.


Burnett is 37. He’s not a perfect pitcher, but he’s been a very effective one with the Pirates. There’s still gas left in the tank as no Major League starter produced more strikeouts via curve in 2013. And you can never have too much pitching depth.


I don’t think the Pirates – nor should they be – are interested in a multi-year offer.


8. If Burnett retires or walks it’s hardly the end of the days for the Pirates. Because of their defensive plan of heavy shifting and two-seam useage the Pirates have proven to be the premier rehab clinic for pitchers coming off of down years.


Here are some bargain bin FA pitchers who could be bounce-back guys in Pittsburgh: Josh Johnson (Did not take well to the AL. But fastball velocity average  was93 mph last season, has a wiepout slider and could benefit by trading in four-seamer for two-seamer and the dimensions of PNC Park)…… Tim Stauffer (plus groundball rate and can miss some bats) …. Phil Hughes (once hyped prospect could really improve away from the AL and the bandbox that is New Yankee) …. Edinson Volquez (similar to Francisco Liriano in 11-12. Great stuff but command is a mess. He did show an increasingly willingness to throw two-seamer last season).


7.  There are three glaring needs in the lineup: first base, right field and shortstop. Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd and Clint Barmes are all free agents. I’ll address them there by priority of need:


6. First base:


I don’t expect Morneau will be back. Garrett Jones might not be tendered. And it’s a weak free agent crop:

Lance Berkman *
Jason Giambi
Travis Hafner
Todd Helton
Eric Hinske 
Paul Konerko
Casey Kotchman
Adam Lind *
James Loney 
Kendrys Morales
Justin Morneau
Mike Morse
Mike Napoli
Lyle Overbay
Carlos Pena
Mark Reynolds
Juan Rivera
Kevin Youkilis


Looking at that list and the recent impact of Yoenis Cespedes and Puig – it’s easy to understand why the Pirates have interest in Cuban slugger Jose Abreu. But as always with Cuban players it’s difficult to project performance. That presents both opportunity, because Abreu could be undervalued as a risk.


And the Pirates could be players for Abreu. From Baseball America last month:


The Pirates are one of the most intriguing potential destinations for Abreu. The organization has a heavily analytical front office and some of the savviest international scouts in the business. The international department has helped infuse the organization with plenty of talent, including Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Luis Heredia and Harold Ramirez, among others. The Pirates haven’t signed any high-profile Cuban players, but their scouts have signed Cubans in the past and they were in on Dayan Viciedo, another power hitter out of Cuba.


Typically the Pirates aren’t a team that springs for big-name free agents, but that might make Abreu an even more appealing option since clubs view Abreu as a riskier bet compared to a player with major league experience. With a potential bump in revenue coming from a postseason berth and their first winning season in 20 years, the Pirates could have more financial flexibility to pursue free agents in the offseason.


The other option would be moving Alvarez to first base. But he loses value there, and the third base free agent market is equally as barren as first base.


5. Shortstop.


Is Jordy Mercer an every-day shortstop or a super sub? I think he’s probably a super sub, who is best used in perhaps a platoon at 2B platoon with Neil Walker or at 3B with Alvarez while also playing some shortstop. He was a lefty masher in 2013 and that should be his role in 2014.


But if Mercer is just a platoon player , what to do at SS?


Of all the free agent position players, I think  Barmes is the best  bet to return on a discounted one-year offer. The defensive metrics were very kind to Barmes in 2013. He has expressed interest in returning.


I’m not sure if Alen Hanson is a true shortstop, but they Pirates will learn more about that question in 2014 and Barmes could be a competent stopgap.


4. Right field.


The Pirates might make Byrd an offer, but he’s expressed in an interest in returning to New York. He makes his offseason home in L.A. I think he’s unlikely to return. Plus, he’s a 36 coming off a career year. Moreover, Jose Tabata proved capable in the second half and he’s signed to a multi-year deal.


Big picture, Gregory Polanco  is the long term answer. And might make right field less of an immediate need because he could be ready in June, ready to the give the Pirates the most athletic outfield in baseball and perhaps a better option in the lead-off position.


Maybe Byrd or another veteran agrees to a one-year deal, but with OF depth in the system (Josh Bell, Austin Meadows and others) there’s little need to consider a multi-year offer.


3. I assume Wandy Rodriguez will pick up his $13 million player option.


2. I think the Pirates will approach Alvarez and Walker with multi-year contract offers but because they are now in arbitration years the Pirates will have lost much of their negotiating leverage.


1. The Pirates bullpen is deep and under contract for 2014. But if the team decides to go Hanrahan on Jason Grilli or Mark Melancon perhaps they could be in the market for a relief pitcher.


– TS