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Market prices and the Pirates, Mikolas is a foodie, and what’s next on defense?

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.

 

- TS

60 Comments

  1. Clemson Travis,

    You were not around 3-4 seasons ago when Huntington and his “stats guys” had John Russell play his corner outfielders 120 feet off the line . . . . . because certain batters NEVER pulled the ball to the corners.
    .
    You’ve never seen so many doubles and triples hit against a Pirate pitching staff. Everything was into the corners!!
    .
    Amazingly that defensive shift disappeared the next season!
    .
    Don’t hold your breath on 2 outfielders/5 infielders anytime soon.

  2. -”The qualifying was $14.1 million, which would have cut down the market for Burnett by requiring draft-pick compensation should he sign elsewhere.”

    For a normal free agent, sure. But AJ is not a normal free agent. AJ himself has essentially cut the market to three – Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington – by issuing his geographic demands. Considering the chances of Baltimore bringing him back into the AL East are about as high as the chances I re-grow all my hair, your only realistic competitor is Washington. And last year’s signing of Raphael Soriano tells you how much draft pick compensation scares Mike Rizzo.

    The only thing a qualifying offer is certain to have done is set an arbitrary floor to what the Pirates can spend on AJ. If he wants to pitch, and the Pirates want him back for something like $10m, he’s not going to retire over the difference after banking $120m throughout his career.

    -Neat find on the defensive alignments. Seems to me that the ideas – four outfielders, switching LF and RF based on batter handedness, are based off of a given defensive deficiency. Not enough range, not enough arm strength, etc. Call me crazy, but why not just get three good outfielders?

    The scarcity of power in baseball has been well documented. The prototypical corner outfielder is a big homerun hitting RBI machine, with defensive prowess well down the list of attributes. Given how expensive power has become, doesn’t it make more sense to forget about tradition and get the three best defenders possible (assuming they’re average hitters)?

    • Maybe Burnett is waiting for the Pirates to be holding a free agent bag that is completely empty or near empty. Then he can get that 2 or 3 million more when the Pirates realize that the market just didn’t allow for them to get a pitcher anywhere near AJ’s talent for less then 12 million. At that point they really would have to sign him. They can’t go into next year without him and two or three Jonathan Sanchez sticky spiders thrown against the wall because we already saw how badly those stick.

      • Isn’t this the most logical reasoning for both sides? Really can’t believe nobody has mentioned it yet. Well done, buddy.

        It is implied, but Huntington has to be talking about AJ fitting within a PROJECTED budget, with PROJECTED additions. If they don’t land a 1B, or if they spend less than their original projection, then they absolutely will have plenty more to give AJ and nobody will care what percentage his salary makes up. The only way the percentage game matters is if it PRECLUDES a club from making additional moves.

        AJ’s agent has to realize this. From his perspective, why WOULDN’T they wait until the Pirates made their moves before negotiating?

    • Respectfully disagree.

      I think it’s risky for a front office to believe Burnett wouldn’t explore other options or increase his geographic radius if the dollars were right.

      It’s unlikely Burnett would accept the QO, but I do think it would parse down any potential suitors and protect the Pirates with draft pick compensation. I mean, maybe the ideal outcome was getting back a draft pick for a 37-year-old arm.

      Now perhaps the QO sets a bargaining floor of $14 million, but Burnett is worth more than $14 million on a one year deal. I mean he led the NL in groundball and strikeout rates.

      • I agree with everything you say here, Travis.

        Now you know what it’s like living with Bargain Basement Neal. He will take a chance on losing Burnett rather than give him an extra $2 mill. If he wants him for $12, Neal won’t make that QO, playing with fire. Dangerous way to do business. He did it last year with Jeff Karstans.

        Emotional statements made by AJ Burnett near end of season (or any player) should NEVER be considered written in stone.

        • Bargain Basement Neal? Really? If you’re issue is with the financial constraints the Pirates operate under that has little to do with Neal Huntington. He has to operate under the budget he’s allotted. He’s the general manager, not the president or owner.

          • No argument here, and that’s what I wrote in the entry.

            They only financial-related thing you can debate re: Huntington is if it’s really not worth paying a player 17-20 percent of payroll. The Pirates are not the only team with this belief, I suspect most teams would adhere to the principle.

          • Brendan Byrne,

            I never hear the Tampa Bay General Manager talking about what he can’t do.

            He always talks about what he can do.

            Same with Oakland.

          • Give me a break, man.

          • Billy Friggin Beane just went on a crusade about how the playoffs are nothing but small sample size game of chance and the regular season is far more telling.

            But you didn’t hear that, since you pay no attention to Oakland.

          • I did hear that!

            Not sure what that has to do with Huntington improperly stating for the record in a variety of settings that those who want “Market Value Contracts” should not consider the Pirates as players.

          • “He always talks about what he can do. Same with Oakland.” -Groat

            Um, not so much.

          • Really??? I’m sure a quick search would find many instances where those two really good GM’s talked about budget, payroll contraints, allocating money appropriately………while defending and justifying why a move was made. I’m sure you hear a lot more from them when a majority of the fanbase thinks they did something bad then when they do something that is perceived to be good like sign Longoria to an extension.

            When Price gets traded I’m sure Tampe Bays GM will be talking about why it happened and how it wasn’t possible to keep him going forward. He will be on damage control not beating his chest and declairing it a good move.

        • He turned down trades BEFORE coming to Pittsburgh based on geography.

          This stuff isn’t new, guys.

      • “…but Burnett is worth more than $14 million on a one year deal. I mean he led the NL in groundball and strikeout rates.”

        And this has absolutely nothing to do with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

        • I take that back. It has everything to do with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

          But it has nothing to do with the decision Neal Huntington has to make.

          Travis said it himself: “Look this is really not a GM decision, this is an ownership decision.”

  3. If the Buccos aren’t willing to even pay close to market prices for AJ, what are they going to do to fix 1B?? It was scary that they were even rumored to have been inquiring about Berkman…yikes.

    • Same thing they did to fix catcher and starting pitcher last winter: sign under-valued players.

      Honestly, how are Huntington’s comments even the slightest bit out of line with every single thing we know about the Pittsburgh Pirates and free agency?

      I know it is winter, but man. Plenty to talk about other than parsing Front Office Executives words.

  4. NMR said: “:Given how expensive power has become, doesn’t it make more sense to forget about tradition and get the three best defenders possible (assuming they’re average hitters)?”

    I like this reasoning and have been drifting in this direction myself, for a while. I think this is related (if not exactly the same thing) as Billy Beane’s decade-old realization that power is over-valued. It is also one of the reasons I’d like to see Jordy Mercer play 3rd base. Continue leveraging the defensive improvements where you can create them. Essentially, Jordy will hit let home runs than Garret Jones, but will make up for it with better corner defense.

    Speaking of Jordy, he was a rookie last year. I would like to think it’s early to write him off as a liability against right-handed pitching. Let the kid bat and save the money on a would-be Furcal contract on getting A.J. back.

  5. It doesn’t bother me one bit, but I was wondering if the Trib gives you any crap about posting a video that contains the F word?

    • I was actually wondering the same thing. My 10 year old saw me watching it and started watching it with me and then the two f-bombs came out at the end. It’s not a big deal to me because I’m not naive enough to think he hasn’t came across that with all the access kids have to the web now and he is very good at knowing right from wrong but I could see someone saying something.

  6. I wonder if Furcal can still play after his serious elbow injury. He’s only played 5 games at 2B since 2000, but theoretically it’s easier to play than shortstop. Given how much he probably wants and the fact that his throwing cannon might not be the weapon it once was, I’d at least wait to see how well he looks in winter ball.

    • Man I loved watching Furcal throw the ball. Better than any arm in the game right now (not named Andrelton).

      • Seriously? First off, there are a couple of guys who throw the ball pretty good. One already on the roster. Here are my problems with Furcal.
        1. Without the benefit of any 2013 stats, Furcals OPS for the last two seasons was an average of .650.

        2. Let me compare Furcal to another solid defensive SS.– Jack wilson was 30 when he last played significant games in a season. Wilson lumbered around for the next few years but was completely out of the MLB by the time he was 34 years old. Wilson had better than average range, quick hands and a great arm. He was a career .265 hitter who declined rapidly.
        Furcal is 36 YEARS OLD NOW! He last played consistent innings when he was around 31. 2 years ago the Dodgers ran him out there 121 games. He roasted his arm.

        3. If you average Furcal’s last 5 seasons he hit .250 over those years.

        4. Barmes is 2 years younger and has a higher career fielding percentage than Furcal. Who comes cheaper? Barmes or Furcal? Who is able to stay mostly injury free over the last 4 years?

        • I guess the bigger question is: How does Furcal improve this Pirate team? I will say this. He is allegedly a great leader in the clubhouse. Always very well liked where ever he goes. Is that enough? I dont think so. I see Furcal landing with a non contender who needs someone to mentor a young guy and to energize a fading fan base with his name.

    • Furcal is supposed to work out for teams within the next couple of weeks, to demonstrate he still has arm strength after the elbow surgery …. I would think the Pirates would be in attendance

  7. @Nate, Travis, et al

    Figured I’d post on the most recent thread, but have you seen the details of Johnny Peralta’s contract with the Cards?

    I think we touched on the possibility of this a while, but the Cards have FRONT loaded his contract such that it decreases with age until “only” $10m in the last year.

    This is incredibly smart, IMO.

    • Thanks for the information. That is interesting because it isn’t done in baseball very often. It’s more of a football thing to make the salary cap work. It would also make him easier to trade if he continues to play well and they have a young player coming up 3 years from now. That makes the deal a little better but it’s still 54M for a guy only 2 years removed from batting .239 and 1 year removed from steroids. He also plays a position that is not kind to aging players and he will be 32 in May of next year.

      I don’t think it’s a horrible move for the Cards and their 120M payroll with their window for winning being right now and them having such a big void at shortstop. It’s kind of an all in move which isn’t their typical way of operating. It would have been a horrible move for the Pirates in my opinion.

      • Oh, terrible move for the Pirates.

        But it puts the Cards in a position where the only way it turns out poorly is if Peralta just isn’t any good from the start. The Cards obviously have room in their budget this year and next. They had one hole left to fill, and that was shortstop. Three and four years down the road is too far to tell, but they’ve hedged their bets such that Peralta would have to be a complete waste, not productive at all, in order for those years to actually turn out poorly for the Cards. Teams with $100m+ payrolls can hide $10m in a year like it is nothing.

        I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but it kind of sounds like you and Travis just plain don’t think Peralta is that good. Doesn’t have as much to do with the contract, or at least the value of the contract.

        • It’s not that I don’t think he is good as much as I really don’t know how good he is. It is so hard to project the guy with the questions surrounding him. I do know that their isn’t really a lot of options out there for shortstops so they probably did what was needed to fill that one void they had after getting their center fielder.

          I’m not a fan of the move but I don’t totally disagree with it based on circumstance for the Cardinals. It’s not unlike the situation the Tigers found themselves in last year when they signed Anibal Sanchez. Was it an overpay, yes but based on their payroll and the position they were in being a top contender it made some sense. He ended up being really good (hopefully Peralta does not). It’s more that I disagree with others (not you) about how much better of a team it will make them and on if it’s the type of move that the Pirates should make.

        • Yes. Basically, I’m not a fan of Peralta’s game … and I’m not a fan of paying for his initial decline (32-35)

          I wonder if the Cardinals became overly protective of their B-grade young pitching – Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly et al – and just settled to pay market rate for an OK shortstop. More likely the asks were incredibly high and it was either pay Peralta or Drew or another year of Kozma. And they weren’t signing up for another year of Kozma.

          The dollars for Peralta are market value for a 2.5-3 win player. I don’t dispute that. But I’m not sure he’ll be producing as a 2.3-3 win player going forward.

          Maybe the debate should be Drew and a first round pick or Peralta and just treasure

          • If the debate is Drew&pick vs Peralta, it’s a no-brainer. Stephen Drew is a fine shortstop, but has never hit a lick against lefties and has been below average outside of hitters parks.

            I said in the Peralta thread that the only way I fault the Cards, and I do fault them for this, is if they turned down the White Sox reported request of Carlos Martinez for Alexei Ramirez last summer. Considering the Angels and Orioles were both reportedly after Shelby Miller this winter, giving up Martinez out of the pen would’ve been easier to stomach.

          • Maybe Im being to simple here but whats not to like about a SS who plays in triple digit games and hits double digit HR’s? Home runs are game changers. The Cardinals new exactly what they were getting.

  8. “If he or others want a market-value deal, they’ll sign elsewhere.”

    I just wish NH would quit being quoted saying this and things like this.

    • As much as I like NH I kind of agree. It seems like a don’t blame me when it happens kind of comment. The job is the job. Yes he is dealing with constraints that don’t allow him to give many players if any “market-value” but that is the job. If he does that job well enough he can probably have a choice someday of moving to a team that is elsewhere and can operate under that system.

      He sometimes says more then he should. He could and should have just simply said we have a number we are comfortable giving AJ and it’s now up to him or just say nothing at all because most fans are well aware of the enviroment he is operating in.

      • I agree Nate. Just say we have a number and a budget.

        Saying that certain players won’t get ‘market-value’ deals is not good for the sales process.

        Players, agents, and even fans may know if a deal is ‘market value’ – but no one wants to really admit that they took one of those deals.

        • Don’t know how Pittsburgh can be ever considered a “destination” for players when the mouthpiece of the organization’s Front Office says the team will not consider “Market Value Contracts.”

          Seems a significant error in judgment at best.

          Threatens some athletes with an ego——or course, NO athletes have an ego except AJ——to take a higher contract number elsewhere just to “prove” their worth.

          And I’ve heard Huntington say this on numerous outlets.

          • I bet you my paycheck that no free agents give a sh*t, let alone pay attention, to each and every Neal Huntington interview.

            Anybody that follows the Pirates knows that of course they give “market value contracts”. Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Correia, Clint Barmes were all “market value contracts”.

            Huntington clearly meant that the team can’t match market value for high end players like Burnett, which is about as obvious as any statement made by a Pirate official can get.

          • There are two reasons players play this game. One is to make money and one is the desire to compete. I have a business relationship with a few professional athletes and the one thing they all have in common is that they all REALLY hate to lose. That is the biggest reason that players did not want to come to Pittsburgh. Geez, come to Pittsburgh and lose 100 games. Couple that with the FACT that you had to be really special to get paid REAL money and its No Way I want to go there.
            Well, the Pirates still aren’t REALLY paying guys. When you consider AJ Burnett, even though he has amassed a great fortune, money is always an object. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. His agents commission will be very interested in that contract. So…. AJ gets passed up by the coaching staff for a rookie for the deciding game of the NLDS. He gets non tendered by the F.O in hopes that he will take a discounted under valued offer. I’m telling you right now that the only reason AJ Burnett hasn’t told the Pirates to “shove it” is because he likes this team and still has a desire to compete.

      • Agreed.

        But then I think about what my reaction would be after getting asked the same repetitive questions over and over and over again and I realize Huntington does a way better job than I give him credit for.

  9. I felt sorry for that poor lizard. What did he ever do to Miles?

    I’m glad I turned it off before the language came up….

    Foo

  10. Speaking of Tim Williams, he has a good post up today: “In NH I trust”.

    As for his quotes, I try REAL hard not read ANYTHING into what he says. I just have a feeling that I’d never want to play him in poker.

    Foo

    Did I mention how I felt about that poor lizard? The little guy probably had a family, some kids, etc.

  11. MLBTR says the Rockies are interested in Morneau. Good luck Justin…..you seem like a nice guy, but I hope this signals the end to ANY chance you come back to Pgh!

  12. Happy Turkey day to all. If you have any leftover punkin pie, let me know and I’ll be over. ESPECIALLY, if you live in a warm part of the country.

    Frigid Foo

  13. I was just looking over the winter ball stats and noticed Ivan De Jesus Jr. is having a really good start. Batting .333 with 15 walks in only 66 at bats. Combined with what he did in AAA last year I’m not sure why he isn’t an option for this team as the backup to Walker and Mercer if they decide to not re-sign Barmes. He isn’t on the 40 man and I’m not positive but I think because of service time he is no longer protected. With the Pirtes overall lack of organizational depth at middle infield it seems odd how they have handled this player.

  14. Let me say thanks in advance to Travis and all my fellow commenters for finding better things to do than quibble over Rule 5 draft and/or 40-man roster decisions.

  15. The Orioles are close to a minor league deal with infielder Ivan De Jesus Jr., reports Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com. However, the O’s are likely to hold off finalizing the deal in order to avoid having to add De Jesus to the 40-man roster to protect him from being selected in next week’s Rule 5 Draft.

    Just saw that on MLBTraderumors

    • Thanks for the info. Although it’s not a huge thing I thought he was very good organizational depth and could contribute at the major league level.

      I think this and some other things that happened over the last couple of years can put an end to the whole NH prefers guys he traded for over other players complaint. He has given up and moved on from a number of traded for players over the last two years.

      • Josh Harrison was acquired from the Cubs via trade. The conspiracy lives on!!

        And yeah, I’ll join you guys in wishing we saw de Jesus, but it’s hard to fault the guys who actually see him play. Josh Harrsion looked good in AAA, too.

  16. If Burnett was worth 15 to 18 million as the market rate he would have already been signed by someone. Pay for older players are coming down. The old guys are not worth the risk. Look at all these teams that have over paid and are now stuck with these unrealistic contracts. Even the yankees are not submitting to Cano’s demands. He will be lucky to get 23 million per year and he is the top free agent.

  17. I want to suggest the Pirates want to continue paying AJ what they have been paying him. 6.5 million a year!

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