SOUTH HILLS – As GM Neal Huntington has said many times, as any baseball realist appreciates, for the Pirates to be successful they must build their core - and the outer core, too – from within. The free agent market has only become more expensive and less efficient so there’s even less incentive for small market teams to seek out mid- and top-prices free agent assets. We’ve been over this before.
Still, Huntington has also noted that it’s impossible for every team to fill every void internally. For the Pirates to try and replicate their 2013 success it seems a quality left-handed, right-side corner bat, a starting pitcher, and at least a backup middle infielder, if not a platoon option, must be found externally. (I actually think Rafael Furcal makes sense because he can play both short and second and as a switch-hitter he could perhaps form a double platoon with Jordy Mercer and Neil Walker).
Look, few were expecting the Pirates to start throwing out mega dollars this offseason, that’s not smart business or realistic. But I did think it made a lot of sense to make AJ Burnett a qualifying offer, and it seems surprising – at least to me – the Pirates aren’t willing to pay closer to market rate on a one-year deal for Burnett. After all, Burnett did lead the NL in strikeout rate and groudnball rate last season.
Huntington told the Tribune-Review earlier this season that the Pirates were not going to pay market rate for Burnett, which for 2014 would be $15-$18 million. The qualifying was $14.1 million, which would have cut down the market for Burnett by requiring draft-pick compensation should he sign elsewhere.
And Huntington re-echoed those thoughts to MLB.com yesterday: if Burnett wants to seek a market-rate deal elsewhere the Pirates will not be matching it.
“The unfortunate reality of the market is, if he’s into that, he’s gonna pitch somewhere else,” Huntington said. “We’ve got funds we would gladly allocate to A.J. If he or others want a market-value deal, they’ll sign elsewhere. It’s not just Pittsburgh; there are other markets where different resources must be used as effectively as possible.
“There is money available, but the question is how do we build around A.J.? We’ve got some other soft spots to address, and where do we go there with the money that A.J. may ultimately cost us?”
Big picture, the Burnett situation seems to indicate that even on a short-term deal the Pirates appear unwilling to pay a three-win player market value. (A three-win player, is an above-average, everyday position player or a No. 2/3 type starter.) While the core must be built internally, this makes it really difficult to supplement a core with quality. It means the Pirates have to identify bounce-back pitchers or very good platoon players, who are becoming more in demand.
Reading between the lines: while the Burnett camp has been quiet, it seems perhaps Burnett wants to come back — at the right price.
Teams cannot expect a player to take a discount to stay. That’s simply not realistic. And while Burnett was aided by Ray Searage and the Pirates’ defensive play – this is a pitcher that led the NL in strikeout and groundball rates last season. He’s a valuable asset and one who might be worth paying a significant part of the payroll for 2014 — if you believe he’s not headed for decline at 37.
Huntington seemed more skeptical in speaking with me yesterday about his ability to retain Burnett.
“We are still working through the process with A.J.,” Huntington said. “It has not inhibited our ability to do things at this point in time, but there is no question it is something we would like to see move forward if it’s possible. If not, we’ll have to operate as we see fit.”
Look this is really not a GM decision, this is an ownership decision. In Huntington’s perfect world, in any GM’s perfect world, he’d have unlimited resources. But Huntington is unwilling to spend 15-20 percent of payroll in 2014 on Burnett.
This also suggests that the Pirates’ 2014 payroll is likely not going to creep up much from its 27th ranking in 2013. While the Pirates did sell more tickets in 2013, attendance still ranked 19th in baseball. And the Pirates’ local TV deal is tied for the least lucrative in the game. The Pirates have more money to spend, but they remain in a relative disadvantage when competing in the free agent market place.
SO THE PIRATES’ NEW RHP MILES MIKOLAS IS AN INTERESTING GUY …
(Hat tip to Tim Williams on the find)
WHAT’S THE NEXT EVOLUTION IN DEFENSE AND WILL THE PIRATES GET THERE FIRST?
Sam Miller has some interesting thoughts on what might be beyond shifts in the next step in defensive alignment.
How about four outfielders? (Or how about five infielders with an extreme groundball pitcher?)
As for infield shifts: Ryan Howard hit, if Brooks Baseball is to be believed, 15 groundballs to the left side of the infield in the past two years. Five were hits—one was a double—and the other 10 were outs. (Some of these were probably hit in non-shift situations.) Meanwhile, he hit 95 fly balls that stayed in the park, and 17 of those were hits—13 of them doubles. Assume for a moment that he has no ability to hit more groundballs against the shift than he has shown. Turn those 10 groundball outs into singles but eliminate eight of the 13 doubles, and the defense would clear a small profit.
(We assumed for a moment that Howard has no ability to hit more groundballs against the shift than he has shown. This is an assumption that Baumann won’t make—he assumes hitters are just refusing to adjust, and shirking their game theory obligations. I’m not sure that I agree. One of the unknowns is whether Howard and his ilk are actually capable of hitting the ball toward an abandoned position. Some hitters can, but it’s not clear that Howard can.)
Big Change because: Four outfielders! Once there are four outfielders, it doesn’t look like baseball anymore, and anything’s possible.
I expect many teams to mimic the Pirates’ successful plan in 2014. To keep an edge the Pirates have to become even more aggressive and find the next big thing on defense.