Monday Mop Up: Adding tinder to tender deadline

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SOUTH HILLS – The hot stove season becomes a little warmer Wednesday when the second significant offseason deadline arrives. Dec. 2 is the deadline for teams to tender contracts to players on the 40-man roster not under guaranteed contracts.

Of particular interest are players eligible for arbitration that clubs might not want to pay, players the clubs might not believe they can unload in a trade before the season.

The Pirates figure to be tendering contracts to eight of their nine players eligible for arbitration: Chris Stewart, Neil Walker, Mark Melancon, Francisco Cervelli, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Jordy Mercer and, yes, Jeff Locke, whom even at a projected $3-3.5M could be a bargain. All eight are either integral to the Pirates’ 2016 plans and/or have some trade value.

AlvarezJays

Would you tender Alvarez? (Horner photo)

The Pirates have been open to moving Alvarez since last offseason, shopping him to AL teams in need of a DH, and it seems Alvarez would welcome a trade according to a Jon Heyman report from last week.

But in speaking with former MLB GM Jim Duquette, he’s under the impression MLB teams are skeptical the Pirates will tender Alvarez. He believes clubs will test the Pirates and see if they will tender Alvarez a contract before making a deal. If he isn’t tendered, Alvarez becomes a free agent. The Pirates, by that logic, would have a better chance to trade Alvarez after the tender deadline. And if they can trade Jose Tabata, they can probably trade just about anyone.

But should they risk getting stuck with Alvarez and his $8.1M projected salary (MLBT projection) on Opening Day?

There are convincing arguments in not tendering Alvarez:

*He’s produced 0.0 WAR in 2014 and 0.2 WAR in 2015 for the Pirates, largely because of woeful defense. He’s perhaps establishing a level of performance as a replacement-level player you could fish out of Triple-A. A club doesn’t want to pay $8M for that type of production.

But there are convincing arguments in favor of either keeping Alvarez, or why he should have some value to an AL team:

*He’s capable of hitting 35-plus home runs and the Pirates fell to 23rd in baseball in home runs last season. Power is expensive on the open market. He’s made some growth in reducing strikeouts and he’s a slightly-above average offensive performer in a run-depressed era. His defense cannot be that awful again at first, can it?

Of course, we don’t know to the degree that the Alvarez-Pirates relationship has soured. And this decision isn’t being made in a vacuum.

The Pirates likely need to clear payroll space to sign a significant free agent. And if they cannot move Alvarez, they might not only get stuck with an expensive replacement-level player, but it might also restrict what they can do in the free agent and trade markets.  Alvarez isn’t likely to fetch much in a trade, and the risk is committing 8 percent of the 2016 budget to a platoon player who is often replaced in the seventh inning for a defensive replacement.

The risk of getting stuck with Alvarez might out weigh the benefits of whatever modest return the Pirates could potentially received after the tender deadline.

THREE UP

>>The Pirates are probably wise in not matching Toronto’s three-year, $36-million deal with J.A. Happ. After all, Happ had pretty much established a track-record of being a No. 4, 5 starter until two ace-caliber months with the Pirates. But the deal is good for the Pirates in this regard: it’s another example of the financial rewards a pitcher falling on hard times can have after working with Ray Searage. It’s good advertising.

>>Speaking of reclamation projects, the Pirates are one of several teams interested in Trevor Cahill, Buster Olney reported yesterday. Cahill is seeking a one-year deal to rebuild his value.

Cahill is a logical target for the Pirates. He’s a groundball machine (61.1 percent last season – 55 percent for his career). His sinker velocity was up one mph over his career average last season (91.5 mph) … and his FIP and xFIP suggests he underperformed his true talent. Cahill probably has a better chance of out-performing a short term deal than, say, Doug Fister.

>>It’s a tough market for bats, but I still really  like Steve Pearce as a fit.

THREE DOWN

>>Even if the Pirates wanted to match the Toronto offer for Happ – would they have even been granted the payroll flexibility by ownership?

The Pirates have a significant projected payroll increase, and I wonder if they have much flexibility until they clear a Melancon and/or Walker and Alvarez from their payroll sheet.

>>The biggest problem facing the Pirates this offseason is both Happ and A.J. Burnett are not coming back in 2016, and the pair produced 5 WAR in essentially a combined rotation spot last season. The Pirates have either one or two rotation voids depending on if Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke both open the year in the rotation. The No. 1 challenge is to add one starting pitcher who can solidify the middle of the rotation this offseason. And then hope Tyler Glasnow can impact in the second half.

>>There’s been some thought in the blogosphere about potentially dangling Tony Watson instead of Melancon in trade talks, with the idea Watson has more trade value given his cost and extra year of control. If the Pirates are blown away with an offer, sure, they should consider it.  But Watson, eighth in the NL in Win Probability Added, has a better chance to produce value over his contract in 2016, so I have to think the Pirates hold on to him.

STAT OF THE WEEK: $110 million

Total dollars in Jordan Zimmermann‘s five-year deal. These contracts – and this one wasn’t even that outrageous – underlie how important it s for the Pirates to continue to find value on the market for free agent pitching.

STAT OF THE WEEK II:

From Ken Rosenthal …

The Cardinals’ new 15-year deal with FOX Sports Midwest reportedly will boost heir annual local TV revenue by at least $20 million starting in 2018. The first-year number of $50 million will grow to about $86 million by the end of the deal, and the team also will gain a 30 percent equity stake in FSM, according to Forbes.

HE SAID IT

Huntington to MLB.com on why hMax Moroff was added to the -40 man roster.

“We felt that he was one of those guys that, if selected [in the Rule 5 Draft], could do enough things to help a Major League team win that he might end up staying with another organization. We like his versatility. We like his offensive ability and felt like it was a good protect for us.”

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK

If you’re a Philly resident, or going to be in Philly, I recommend trying out the Soup Kitchen in north Philly. (Full disclosure: my brother-in-a-law is the chef there. But I think even a true objective diner will find it is excellent).

-TS

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Bargain shopping begins?

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SOUTH HILLS – Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Thanks for your readership and contributions to this blog over the last  year. This space  is of course designed to generate two-way conversation, not just be a platform for your Trib baseball scribes.

A day before the holiday, two days before folks nationwide go crazy looking for deals, the Pirates went looking for value in trading for right-handed pitcher Allen Webster.

Webster

What happens when Ray Searage sprinkles magic dust on Webster?

If you’re looking for a bargain reliever, and I think many of us expect the Pirates to be rebuilding their bullpen this offseason, then Eno Sarris wrote earlier this month than you want to consider Webster. Wrote Sarris:

If you’re interested in stuff and stuff and then stuff some more, you want Allen Webster. Even despite enduring a horrid year, he has three pitches that are above-average in whiff rates, and the changeup would rank in the top 20 (minimum 100 thrown) if he got more chances to throw it. The problem is that he has no command, and his velocity has fallen to the point that it’s average for a righty.

The velocity was once above average (94.4 mph) when Webster was ranked as the 71st prospect in baseball back in 2013 for the Red Sox. His fastball averaged 91.5 mph. He’s never had command, walking 3.8 per nine for his career and 5.8 per in limited MLB innings last year.

But he throws a two-seamer, the Pirates’ bread-and-butter pitch, and if there’s one thing the Pirates can fix it’s command. Neal Huntington also likes to buy low on former top 100 prospects and early-round picks.

Now Webster isn’t likely to be a back-of-the-bullpen dynamo, but he could be another value find who could fit somewhere in the pen if everyone breaks right. With the Pirates’ track record and pitching program, he’s a worth-while lottery ticket.

Enjoy the holiday everyone.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The importance of the 2011 class

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SOUTH HILLS – As a reminder of how inefficient the draft is, Barrett Barnes and Clay Holmes were not among the players the Pirates added to  their 40-man roster prior to Friday’s deadline to protect players from the Rule V draft. While they are still intriguing prospects, they have not developed into must-keep assets.

Barnes and Holmes were seven-figure bonus selections (Holmes signed for $1.2 million in 2011 and Barnes $1 million in 2012) during the Pirates’ MLB record $51.4 million spending spree on draft bonuses from 2008-12.

The draft allows teams their best chance to find star talent for relatively cheap costs, but there are many more misses than hits.

On Friday, however, the Pirates also added two players from their 2011 class to the 40-man roster in Tyler Glasnow (5th round pick) and Josh Bell (2nd round pick and $5 million signing bonus signee). Glasnow ranks first in what is what is regarded as a likely top-10 farm system, and Bell third, according to Baseball America. Glasnow and Bell have developed into must-keep assets.

The 2011 draft could be a special class for the Pirates.

The Pirates need it to be special.

The Pirates need Glasnow and Bell to live up to expectations and join Gerrit Cole from that class as impact players. The Pirates need a special draft class – or two –  if they are going to remain relevant in the NL Central throughout the decade, and catch the Cardinals and hold off the Cubs. (Also, the Pirates aren’t likely to be drafting first overall in some time like they did in 2011, and the new system makes it difficult to sign a prospect for over-slot dollars like they did with Bell in 2011).

Consider what the Cardinals have done in the 2008-12 drafts compared to the Pirates.

CARDINALS 2008-12 drafts

Year – Picks to reach majors – WAR from class  – (Key names)

2008 – 10 – 15.3 WAR (Lance Lynn)

2009 – 8 – 36.3 WAR (Shelby Miller, Matt Carpenter, T. Rosenthal)

2010 – 5 – 0.4 WAR

2011 – 2 – 5.8 WAR (Kolten Wong, Seth Maness)

2012 – 4 – 7.9 WAR (Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty, Cooney)

5 drafts – 29– 65.6 WAR

 PIRATES 2008-2012 drafts

Year –  Picks to reach majors – WAR from class

2008 – 9 – 14.0 WAR (Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson)

2009 – 6 – 7.9 WAR  (Brock Holt, Matt den Dekker, Jake Lamb*)

2010 – 2- (0.1 WAR)

2011 – 3 7.8 WAR (Cole)

2012 – -0 – 0

5 drafts – 20 players – 29.6 WAR

*-did not sign

 

The Pirates’ 2008 and 2009 classes have produced a quiet amount of value though not all of it has come with the Pirates. (Holt produced 4.5 WAR for the Red Sox the last seasons). The first six players drafted during the Huntington Era in 2008 have all reached the big leagues. It’s just that Pirates reside in a neighborhood with the Cardinals. The bar is set high.

For the Pirates, sustainable success is tied to consistently drafting/signing IFA prospects and developing them into major league contributors. It’s a a straight forward formula. Short cuts are tough to come by. No organization has done this better than the Cardinals, which explains not only their track record of success but how they overcame an overwhelming amount of injury last season.

No one expects the Pirates or any team – even the Cardinals – to match the productivity of the Cardinals’ 2008-12 drafts, but what is clear with payroll rising and arbitration-eligible players becoming more expensive, is the Pirates have to become a more homegrown team.

 

BellJosh

Can Josh Bell make the 2011 draft one to remember for the Pirates? (Chris Horner photo)

THREE UP

>>Trib columnist Rob Rossi wrote MLB should retire No. 21 during the Pirates trip in May to Puerto Rico when they will play the Marlins. Sign me up. As Rossi notes, seeing retired numbers like No. 42 at MLB parks provokes conversation and educates future generations about past contributions and sacrifice. Not only was Clemente a HoF talent and one of the game’s great humanitarians, but he’s also an important figure in Latin American baseball history.

>>The early reports on Jung Ho Kang’s rehab have been encouraging. The Pirates strength and conditioning staff has done excellent work the last two seasons, and if they can get Kang back to 100 percent and on the field before May they will have earned their salary for the season. I’d bet on Kang and the medical and training staff beating initial timetables.

Looks like Kang is feeling better …

>>Austin Meadows might not stick in center field, but I’m continuing to hear glowing reports on Meadows trickle in from the AFL and those that watched him in the Florida State League. Meadows is perhaps the LF of the future at PNC Park with Starling Marte perhaps shifting to center beginning in 2019. Of course, Meadows will likely be ready before 2019 so the question becomes what to do with the OF log-jam beginning perhaps in 2017, a log jam that will likely include Harold Ramirez.

THREE DOWN

>>The Milwaukee Brewers aren’t a threat in the NL Central in 2016, but Baseball America editor John Manuel raved about their farm system when I spoke to him recently. It might not just be the Cubs and Cardinals the Pirates have to worry about this decade as the NL Central might be able to sustain status as the best division in baseball.

>>Few Pirates prospects have disappointed in recent memory as much as Luis Heredia, who was also not protected on the 40-man roster and at this point looks like a bust with much to prove. Heredia struggled again this season with his performance and he’s struggled with his conditioning since signing for a Pirates international free agent record $2.6 million bonus.

>>The Cardinals are reportedly interested in Chris Davis, according to FoxSports.com, who would be an upgrade over incumbent Matt Adams who was injured for much of last season. Davis is the top raw power bat on the market and could help improve one of the Cardinals’ few weaknesses from last season: power. The Cardinals ranked 25th in baseball with 135 home runs.

HE SAID IT:

Mark Melancon via the Boston Globe:

I love the Pirates. I love our group of guys and would love to stay here, but I also understand the business of it.  Every organization has a different business plan, and if the Pirates feel they need to deal me, then I understand that. Our people haven’t said a word to me about the possibility, so until that changes, I’m assuming I’m starting the year with the Pirates.”

STAT OF THE WEEK: 3rd

Where Melancon ranked among all NL pitchers in Win Probability Added, trailing only Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke. It’s a remarkable ranking for a reliever, and that along with the belief the Pirates will be playing a lot of close games is perhaps the most convincing reason to keep Melancon.

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

I’m not sure how many Ohio State fans are among the blog’s audience – but if you are, or are going to Columbus for a future Penn State-Ohio State game – I recommend taking in the pre-game band session at St. John’s arena, which takes place 2 hours before the game and usually involves the visiting band.  It’s great fun, and it’s free. (BTW, I was on campus for the first time in 12 years for an Ohio State game on Saturday …. I suppose I’m not welcomed back for another 12).

-TS

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Waiting game

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SOUTH HILLS – Pirates GM Neal Huntington went on 93.7 FM today and addressed a range of issues.

Many of the topics had touched on before but he named Pedro Alvarez’s performance as the season’s biggest disappoint. As he noted before, Alvarez’s defensive challenges at first were greater than the club anticipated.

He expressed confidence Tony Watson can close games. Clint Hurdle expressed a similar confidence earlier this year, calling Watson a “future closer.” It’s another reason to believe the club is highly motivated to move Mark Melancon (though that market could be slow to develop as there are a number of closers available on the trade market. Francisco Rodriguez was traded today and yielded a modest return in Javier Betancourt who fits as the No. 20 prospect in the Brewers system).

The team would still like to sign J.A. Happ, which Huntington noted before, and Neil Walker‘s future is not tied to the health of Jung Ho Kang.

You can read all that or listen to it here.

But there was perhaps  something new and revealing.

HuHurdl2

Decisions continue to loom for Huntington and Hurdle this offseason (Horner photo)

 

After an eventful early offseason in 2014-15, expect the Pirates to wait on the sidelines for awhile this offseason.

For starters, the Pirates might need to move some of their nine player eligible for arbitration to clear up salary room.

But Huntington also believes patience to be a virtue in the free agent market:

“In baseball, from the club’s perspective, the early deals tend to be the worst deals. From the player’s perspective, they tend to be the best deals. You get clubs that are hungry, and they get out aggressively after players, and by nature of the game, any time you sign a free agent, you’ve overspent. You’ve overspent everybody else in the industry. Ninety-five percent of the time, the highest bidder gets the player, and by definition, that club outspent everyone else, and may or may not have made a good financial decision.”

The Priates worked relatively quickly last season.

In a 40-day period from from Nov. 12-Dec. 22 last offseason, the Pirate traded for Francisco Cervelli, signed A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano and won the rights to Kang.

It was a 40-day stretch that saved their season and all those moves were completed before Christmas.

The Pirates need another productive offseason but this winter there might be a longer wait to find value as free agents are just beginning to trickle off the board including one lefty who some thought might fit the Pirates, Rich Hill, who reportedly is signing a one-year, $6 million deal with Oakland.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The answers reside within … And keeping up with the Joneses (i.e. Cubs)

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SOUTH HILLS – Baseball America released its top 10 Pirates prospect list over the weekend, and the full scouting reports and analysis will appear in the next issue of BA, I believe. The top 10 chat is here.

That outfielder Willy Garcia – who  one scout I spoke with sees as a future first-division regular – and RHP Yuedy Garcia and  LHP Stephen Tarpley did not make the top 10 speaks to the depth and quality of talent within the system.

Yes, the Pirates might not have the elite young talent of the Cubs (Bryant-Russell-Schwarber) or Dodgers (Seager-Pederson-Urias),but I’ve heard much  praise from scouts regarding the talent, athleticism and power potential in the Pirates’ farm system.

Part of the reason the Pirates were not serious bidders for Byung-ho Park was the club’s belief in their No. 3 prospect Josh Bell.

No. 2 prospect Austin Meadows was opening eyes in the Arizona Fall League  with plus bat-speed and athletic gifts, before he left due to personal issues. He has star potential and five-tool upside. Could he be the heir to CF? In two years, he could make for some interesting discussions about who the Pirates should build around in the outfield (Harold Ramirez is another intriguing OF).

MEADOWS

A future .800 OPS, 20-20 performer in CF?

There is without a doubt one elite piece, No. 1 prospect Tyler Glasnow. One scout over the weekend put  a plus-plus grade on his fastball and a plus grade on his curve …. right now.

Remember, Glasnow has been a more dominant pitcher than Gerrit Cole was as a minor league pitcher. When Glasnow arrives in June he   might be more valuable than anything the Pirates add this offseason. He could be the Pirates’ Noah Syndergaard. There’s no better impact-per-dollar option available on the free agent market this offseason. Glasnow just needs to stay healthy and improve his command a grade.

It’s going to be a challenging offseason for the Pirates. With their payroll obligations it’s unclear if they will be able to make another significant free agent commitment like they did with Francisco Liriano last offseason. Moreover, it’s difficult to expect Neal Huntington and Co. to spin gold like they have the last three offseasons.

Keep in mind on last year’s roster only Cole, Pedro Alvarez and Jordy Mercer were drafted and developed under the current leadership. The Pirates have to become a more home-grown team to remain relevant in the Central. And it appears like they will soon become one, and that the system appears on the cusp of providing impact talent is more important than anything that will happen this offseason.

THREE UP

>>Good read here on some lessons from the first year of Statcast in this article by Mike Petriello.

What is applicable to the Pirates? The note on spin rate. Low spin rate on fastballs leads to groundball rate.

“There is a good correlation between high-spin fastballs getting strikeouts and fly balls, and low-spin fastballs getting grounders.

That’s how Young, for example, turned his low-speed fastball into a riddle hitters couldn’t solve, and how Marco Estrada did the same thing. If you look at the five highest- and lowest-spin fastball pitchers, you’ll see a pretty clear pattern. Ground-ball king Brett Anderson didn’t miss many bats with his low-spin four-seamer; Jake Peavy, despite throwing slower than Anderson, got far more whiffs, thanks in part to high spin.”

>>Know a pitcher with a low spin rate on their fastball? The Pirates are probably interested. Brett Anderson might have fit if he hadn’t been tagged with the QO. Doug Fister? He’s not a typical Pirates reclamation project with his low velocity but perhaps he could fit.

>>In speaking to Clint Hurdle recently, he’s confident the Pirates strength and medical staff is going to help Jung Ho Kang return to 100 percent health (and I got the sense beat timetable expectations). The Pirates have to hope.

THREE DOWN

>>Just when you didn’t think the NL Central could get anymore difficult, there was a report last week the that Chicago Cubs would like to launch their own TV network by 2020 (Think YES Network). In the summer, the Cardinals signed their own $1 billion local TV deal.

Despite the Pirates excellent TV ratings in 2015, a franchise local cable record 8.33 average rating, the Pirates are are of course locked into their deal until the end of 2018.

>>There could be big labor trouble ahead. Said Scott Boras last week at the GM meetings:

The players’ share has fallen well below 50-50. Players share of revenues have been declining because players are trending younger in the post-PED era, and as careers shorten more than 100 players have signed cost-controlled, team-friendly deals. Ironically, players could benefit today from a cap-and-floor system.

As I wrote back in May, if baseball had an NBA-style soft cap, 19 teams would be blow the cap floor.

>>Despite Starling Marte‘s deserving Gold Glove award, the Pirates defense has been in a three-year decline. The easy big fix is at first base. Second base and CF are trickier.

STAT OF THE WEEK: $45 million

NL high projected amount of arbitration obligations the Pirates owe today, according to MLBTraderumors.com. It’s a challenging number and it’s a reason why CBSSports.com reported last week Huntington is shopping all Pirates eligible for arbitration.

HE SAID IT

NON BASEBALL-RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK

Watching and writing about sports this weekend seems rather trivial after the tragic events in France. If you want to learn more about approaches to Syria/Middle East there are some interesting, and differing, viewpoints in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine. (I’m not a subscriber …. but it’s at your local Barnes and Noble magazine stand)

-TS

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Shark bait … And another Korean import?

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SOUTH HILLS – Mark Melancon is on the trade block, according to Jon Heyman, and assuming that’s true it would hardly be a surprise.

Not only have the Pirates sold closers in the past (See: Joel Hanrahan and Jason Grilli), not only is Melancon entering his final season of club control and beginning to show signs he is entering a gentle decline phase, not only is he going to be expensive in arbitration, but also, according to MLBTradeRumors.com’s projection,  the Pirates are in line to pay an NL-high $45 million in arbitration costs.

It’s extremely unlikely all nine players on the roster eligible for arbitration are with the club next year. Melancon and Neil Walker project to be the most expensive, of course, in line to earn around $10 million each. In fact, Heyman reports the Pirates are listening on all players in their final year of control. Melancon should have some trade value. Continue reading Shark bait … And another Korean import?

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Park is out … so now what?

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SOUTH HILLS – The first matter of offseason business is complete: Byung-ho Park is off the board, but it’s not to the Pirates. The Twins have reportedly won the $12.85 million bid for Park.

(I know what you’re thinking, those dastardly Twins! First Miguel Sano now Park!)

You can understand why many clubs, including the Pirates, would have reservations in bidding to aggressively on Park. There’s only been one KBO hitter to make the jump to the majors, Jung Ho Kang. And unlike Kang, there’s more questions about Park’s hit tool. And if Park can’t play first base, unlike Kang, he does not offer any position versatility. At least in the AL there is the DH, so an AL team should have been considered favorites from the beginning.

But fear in a market creates opportunity. One can also make a strong argument that the winning $12.85 posting fee and contract (Major League Trade Rumors predicts a 5y/$40 million deal) could turn out to be a bargain. You can certainly make the argument that Park – predicted to be a 30-HR, .770-.840 OPS MLB hitter according to statistical translations – was the only potential impact bat the Pirates could afford this offseason. Chris Davis, Jason Hewyard and Yoenis Cespedes are all expected to earn $140 million-plus. The Pirates have had a ton of success rebuilding arms, but rebuilding bats – and finding power – is harder to accomplish. The Pirates are also in a three-year power decline.

(Sorry, but there will be no batflips such as this instance above headed to Pittsburgh).

But while the Pirates have a real incentive to upgrade their power and finally figure out first base, you can argue convincingly that their greatest need even before Park was starting pitcher – just as it was an offseason ago when they found tremendous value to fill two rotation voids with A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano.

Now Burnett and his 2.7 WAR  in 2015 is retiring, and J.A. Happ and the 2.1 WAR he accumulated with the Pirates last season is testing free agency.

The Pirates will need to replace some of that value to contend in the NL Central.

Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants

Does Fister fit?

The good news is this is a very deep starting pitching class, the bad news the Pirates are likely unable and/or unwilling to bid for the top arms.

Still, there is a class of arms below the elite – the Scott Kazmirs, Ian Kennedys and J.A. Happs – of the world the Pirates could be interested in. The Pirates made a three-year, $39 million commitment to Francisco Liriano last season. One of the big questions going into the offseason is if the club is willing to make another such commitment. It might need to to keep pace in the NL Central (More on that below).

Or will the Pirates try to go cheaper, go another tier down, and try to rehab an arm like Doug Fister? (More on Fister below).

It will also be interesting to see if the Pirates believe they have one or two stating pitching voids entering the season. Charlie Morton is entering the final year of his contract and Jeff Locke is predicted to earn $3.5M in arbitration. Will both be in the opening rotation?

The Pirates might very well have concerns about Park …

Or they might continue to not place a ton of value on the first base position …

https://twitter.com/whygavs/status/663734972386275328

Whatever the case, the focus now likely turns to starting pitching. And that’s probably where the Pirates’ focus was to begin with regardless whether they made a serious bid or not for Park.

THREE UP

>>Speaking of potential future impact MLB hitters …

Since being selected ninth overall in the 2013 draft as a compensation for the Pirates being unable to sign Mark Appel, Austin Meadows has only hit 18 home runs as a professional player. But as Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper suggested over the weekend, Meadows performance in the AFL All-Star game is one suggestive this is a player who could quickly tap into his power and be a 20-homer threat in the not too distance future.

Meadows is an outstanding athlete, was projected at one point as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2013 draft class, and has really quick hands that suggest there is a lot more power potential down the road. (Click on the link to see said batspeed)

While the Pirates have had some misses in the first round, the 2013 first round – including Reese McGuire – has the potential to be excellent.

If you ranked Meadows as the No. 2 prospect in the system, I wouldn’t argue.

Meadows and McGuire represented upside picks, and I believe that is the right approach for most teams to take in the first round.

>>Jon Heyman published his annual top 50 free agent predictions and has the Pirates re-signing Happ to a two-year, $25-million deal. It’s plausible, and the Pirates re-signed another free agent lefty last season in Liriano, which worked out well. The Pirates like Happ. We’ll find out how much they like him.

>>If Daniel Murphy is in line to make 4y/$64M, he of a .288/.331/.424 career slash like, then Neil Walker at one year and, say, $10M, with a career .272/.337/.431 slash line seems like a very good deal. Both will be 30 on Opening Day .

THREE DOWN

>>Dave Cameron came out with his predictions for the top 50 free agents last week.

Cameron’s biggest Pirates signing? Fister.

If you’re a pitcher looking to rediscover yourself after a down season, make your way to Pittsburgh. That’s exactly what Doug Fister should do, putting his faith in Ray Searage to help him rebuild his value. I think there will be enough interest in Fister that he won’t come super cheap, signing for $13 million on a one year deal, but it’s the kind of risk/reward play that makes sense for the Pirates.

At one point, Fister was an ideal Pirates pitcher. He generated groundballs and walked few batters. But the Pirates have generally targeted pitchers who have better than average velocity and try to rebuild their command. Fister’s velocity has been in a three-year decline (88.8 mph, 87.9, 86.2) as has his groundball rate.

While the Fister of 2013 would have looked great with the Pirates, the Fister of 2016 does not seem like their typical reclamation project.

>>The Cubs have been connected to a number of high-profile free agent arms from David Price to Johnny Cueto. Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said the club is seeking to add two starting pitchers. Because the Cubs’ position players are generally cheap, talented and under club control for awhile they can afford another nine-figure starting pitcher. The Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates might not combine for 295 wins again in 2016, but the Central is not going to get any easier.

>>A number of analysts are also predicting Jason Heyward will remain in St. Louis with a contract that could near $200 million. If it does happen, it’s another reminder of resource disadvantage the Pirates are up against – even after a record attendance season. (The Pirates attendance ranked fourth in the NL Central in attendance).

HE SAID IT

Is that the 2007-09 Reynolds, who was an .850 OPS hitter with elite power or the Reynolds has declined into becoming a platoon player? I have to think Park will have a better hit tool than Reynolds.

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

Not a recommendation but a question this week. Has anyone been to the Salt and Bread Bakery in Bloomfield? I’ve heard good things.

– TS

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Modest proposals for an offseason agenda

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates are facing perhaps their most challenging offseason of the Neal Huntington Era – rivaled only by the 2012-13 offseason when jobs might have been at stake.

There are eight Pirates players entering free agency, a high under Huntington. There are three (maybe four) key arbitration-eligible players whom the club must make decisions on, and these decisions  come while living in a neighborhood that includes the rising, already arrived Cubs and the New England Patriots of baseball.

Godspeed.

Pirates officials huddled in Bradenton, Fla. and Pittsburgh offices several times in October to discuss their options going forward,  and ostensibly to lay out a plan for 2016. They have better information than we, they have smarter baseball minds, etc. (Hard to believe, right?). But we can still take a guess at their thought process, and consider what they ought to do this offseason in a choose-your-own-offseason-agenda thought exercise.

Jose Abreu

Jose Abreu is proof the second big bat out of a new market can still be a bargain. The Pirates would have done well to bid on Abreu, the good news is Park should be cheaper than Abreu’s 6y$68M contract.

So where to begin? …

AGENDA ITEM NO. 1: INTERNATIONAL FREE AGENTS (THE BYUNG-HO PARK DECISION)

This is the first order of business is in Korea as Byung-Ho Park was posted Monday by the Nexen Heroes. Teams have until Friday to make a blind bid on Park. The winning team will be revealed Monday.

The Pirates have scouted Park – as have 20 other teams – and he has to be tempting. The Pirates have had a first base void for years. Park has more power than Kang, having posted back-to-back, 50-homer seasons. Former MLB scout and KBO analyst Daniel Kim told me he’s the best hitter in KBO history. Even though Kang’s success will drive his price up, he’ll still likely be undervalued if he succeeds. And if a team does win the bid, it has all the leverage. It will be negotiating against no other team with Park’s only option to sign a contract or remain in Korea. And he’s not getting any younger at 29.

Moreover, he’s the only potential impact bat that would likely be within the Pirates’ budget this offseason.

The problem?

Kim says Nexen is expecting at least a $10 million posting free. Jim Duquette told me he could see bidding go to $20 million. There is no $20 million posting limit like in Japan. (Also to consider is that PNC Park saps right-handed power more than any other NL ballpark, according to the 2016 Bill James handbook).

What to do? It might come down to what projections a club believes in:

The deadly-accurate Davenport Translations called for Kang’s 2014 KBO line to translate to an .856 MLB OPS. Kang posted a .816 mark as a rookie. Davenport Translations call for Park to most a .770 MLB OPS and 24 HRs in 470 at bats. If Park is a .730 OPS first baseman, he’s going to be a negative value player.

Brian Cartwright’s system – he has worked with some MLB teams on the Korean market – was less optimist on Kang ( 340 wOBA 255/331/460, 30 doubles, 22 homer, 55 walks, 158 K’s per 600 PA) but is more optimist regarding Park:

We know Park’s raw power is real.

The projections average out to suggest Park will be a 30-homer, .800 OPS first baseman in the majors over 600 at bats. What should the Pirates do? They should probably have a long talk with Kang who thinks Park will succeed in the majors.

Modest Proposal: BID AGGRESSIVELY (Say, $12-15 million posting fee)

Power is really hard to find in today’s game – unless you believe in the sport’s late-season power surge – and the Pirates lack power. The club ranked 23rd in home runs last year, part of a three-year decline. If you read Sunday’s story, we noted power often equates to wins in the postseason.

Some will point to the Royals and note you don’t have to have power to be an elite team. True. But the Royals also have an elite bullpen and defense – and the Pirates are far from being a contact team like the Royals.

Consider from Sunday’s story:

“The Royals posted the lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 15.9 percent (the Pirates ranked 20th at 21.0 percent), the Royals ranked first in making contact with pitches in the strike zone at 90.7 percent (the Pirates ranked 21st at 86.4 percent), and the Royals posted the fourth-lowest swinging strike rate at 8.1 percent (the Pirates ranked 19th at 10.2 percent). “….

While Park’s price will be up, the KBO is still a new market and has uncertainty priced into it. Park has real power and he is also a smart hitter like Jung Ho Kang. He could be the cleanup hitter the Pirates have been looking for and there’s a good chance he will still be a bargain.

Keep this in mind: He’s the only potential impact bat on the market the Pirates can afford this offseason.

(Another KBO star, an Nori Aoki clone, Ah-Seop Son, will also be posted and will be cheaper thank Park,  but it depends on Pirates’ interest in adding a fourth outfielder that includes posting free.)

 

AGENDA ITEM NO. 2: ARBITRATION PLAYERS

MLB Trade Rumors’  arbitration projections on the nine eligible Pirates:

Name – Service time – Projected salary for 2016

  • Neil Walker (5.166) – $10.7MM
  • Francisco Cervelli (5.146) – $2.5MM
  • Mark Melancon (5.098) – $10.0MM
  • Chris Stewart (5.091) – $1.6MM
  • Pedro Alvarez (5.085) – $8.1MM
  • Tony Watson (4.101) – $4.6MM
  • Jared Hughes (3.162) – $2.2MM
  • Jordy Mercer (3.095) – $1.8MM
  • Jeff Locke (3.020) – $3.5MM

The nine players are in line to make significantly more than they did in 2015 as some jump from pre-arb years, and others are in line for substantial raises.

The Pirates are expected to tender contracts to Cervelli, Stewart, Watson, Hughes and Mercer. Locke is a trickier case, but I suspect he will be tendered as well. Starting pitching, even poor starting pitching, is expensive.

We have known the key decisions are really Walker, Melancon and Alvarez, who are projected to earn $28.8 million in arbitration.

Who do the Pirates keep, who do they attempt to trade? They each present a difficult decision in their own way. Let’s take a look at them individually.

MELANCON

>>Yes, Melancon has been great for three years culminating with a club record saves total last season. The bullpen has been a strength. The Pirates ranked first in bullpen ERA last season. The Pirates could again be playing a lot of close games. But you know what? Arbitrators like traditional stats. Melancon is going to be very expensive, and he’s also quietly lost a little velocity, a little bit of his ability to miss bats, and his FIP and ERAs have increased slightly over the last three seasons. He could soak up a 10th of payroll and throw just 70 innings.

Modest Proposal: TRADE

The Pirates can use 10 percent of payroll earmarked for Melancon elsewhere

This is what Huntington told 93.7 The Fan last month:

“It’s something you have to think about when you have one as good as Melancon. We can afford (the arbitration) players the challenge is how do we afford a championship caliber club.”

ALVAREZ

>>With Alvarez we know the game: he is a liability defensively, but has the most raw power on the club. The Pirates’ power has been in decline and Alvarez has hit 111 home runs over the last four seasons, 17.7 percent of the club’s home run total. He’s likely the only one of the arbitration trio that will earn less than $10 million in 2016. So he has a chance to provide value in 2016 if, IF, his historically bad defense becomes merely bad. Alvarez has quietly cut his strikeout rate and his 32.5 HR/FB rate was elite last season.

Modest Proposal: TRADE (Or consider non-tender)

He gains more value in the AL as his glove becomes a non factor so a trade makes sense. In the NL, he became a platoon player that often only played six innings when he did start last season.

WALKER

NuttingSpring2015One of the first offseason decision points? What to do with Neil Walker (Chris Horner photo)

For a while I thought Walker was playing his last season in Pittsburgh. I think Walker might have thought so, too, as he lingered before his locker after the wild-card loss seemingly aware he might have played his last game for his home-town team.

He’s projected to earn $10.7 million in arbitration. The Pirates don’t often venture to eight-figures with players.

However, he’s averaged 2.8 WAR the last two seasons and is projected to be a 2.5 WAR player in 2016, which would be worth $15+ million on the open market. While he will play next season at 30, he stayed on the field last season putting some injury to questions to rest.

Modest Proposal: KEEP

Walker has best chance of the three to provide surplus value in 2016, which is what the Pirates prize. Moreover, Kang’s injury should incentive the Pirates to create infield depth, and the Pirates have been in a three-year power decline. Walker has led NL second baseman in HRs the last two seasons (39). Also consider Daniel Murphy is in line to receive a four-year, $48 million deal according to Fangraphs.com. Walker has a similar skill set and would be a relative bargain on a one-year deal.

 

AGENDA ITEM NO. 3: FREE AGENT PRIORITIES

For your enjoyment and perusal here are Fangraphs.com’s top 82 free agent crowd-sourced contract predictions. They have been fairly accurate in the past, and we will use them as a guide here ….

Free agent priority No 1. Spurge on a second-tier starting pitcher ….With a preference list that looks something like this: Scott Kazmir (3y/$42M) , Ian Kennedy (3y, $36M), J.A. Happ (3y, $33 million) and Brett Anderson (3y/$33 million).

It’s a rich free agent pitching class. While the Pirates will not be in play for elite arms, the second and third tiers are interesting and fairly deep. If both are in line for three-year deals, I’d put Kazmir at the top of the starting pitcher preference list and over Happ for several reasons. Since rebuilding his delivery three years ago, Kazmir has produced 8.3 WAR over the last three seasons. Happ? 5.3 Kazmir simply has a longer track record of pitching in the middle to top of the rotation. The projected contract different between them $3 million per year and Kazmir’s projected production advantage (2.7 WAR vs. 1.6 for Happ) suggests Kazmir is one of the better starting pitching bargains this offseason ….

For most of his career Happ has performed like a back-of-the-rotation arm.  I’d be leery of extending him a three-year deal. Maybe Happ is the new Cliff Lee, and consolidates the gains he made last season: the increased fastball usage, better command, and less reliance on soft stuff with the Pirates (you know more Ray Searage magic). Or maybe, the league adjusts to his new pitch mix. He has less ability to miss bats (8.1% last season) compared to Kazmir (10.3 %). He’s 1.5 years older than Kazmir. What I like about both is that they are left-handed….

Why is Mike Leake not on the list? He’s expected to get four years. I don’t see Pirates going beyond three. Anderson you ask? He had an insane 66% groundball rate last season, which fits with the Pirates shifts. Doug Fister is another interesting name, but he had a troubling velocity dip last season.

With A.J. Burnett and Happ both free agents, the Pirates need to sign at least one quality free agent arm.

kazmir2

We’ve liked Kazmir for a while in this space and suggested signing him over Volquez, two offseasons ago

2. Rebuild the  bullpen relatively cheaply (with familiar free agents)

While I think many would be hesitant to commit 10 percent of team payroll to a closer (See: Melancon) for 65-70 cents on the dollars you can sign Joakim Soria to an affording deal (2y, $14M), according to Fangraphs.com. That seems like a decent value for an eight-inning man or closer. Soria has a long track record and his velocity was up last season …. Antonio Bastardo at 2y/$8M seems like a bargain (career 10.1 K rate) despite his occasional hiccips, ditto for Joe Blanton at 1y/$4M. The Pirates led baseball in bullpen ERA last season. Yes, bullpen performance fluctuates, but a group comprising Tony Watson, Arquimedes Caminero, Rob Scahill, Soria, Bastardo and Blanton should be solid ….

The Pirates have of course become masters of the reclamation project and have shown little interest in buying expensive relief pitchers. I’m sure the Pirates will also look at external lottery tickets and there might not be a better one that Neftali Feliz, who was finally healthy last year and is unlikely to be tendered a $3.3 million offer from the Tigers. Once regarded as one of the top young arms in the game, Feliz was sidetracked by injury an inconsistency. But last season his velocity, which the Pirates prize, was back, as he averaged 94.6 mph with his fastball. And his FIP (4.05) was much better than his ERA (6.38). A key metric, or something similar to it, that guides the Pirates in decision making.

3. Sign IB/2B/3B/OF Steve Pearce

Don’t worry, McCutchen’s offseason workout buddy is a different player than when he was with the Pirates.

Pearce’s new loft-generating swing has made him an extreme fly-ball hitter coupled with an above-average HR/FB ratios.  After his breakout 2014 (.556 SLG, .930 OPS), injury and inconsistency in 2015 lowers his price tag. But his peripheral skills remain intact (0.72 GB/FB, 14.3 HR/FB pct in 2015). Pearce started to look more like his 2014 self in the second half when he posted a .215 isolated power. There aren’t a lot of great comps for Pearce, but Fangraphs.com has Pearce in line for a 2y, $12 million deal. Even if PNC Park eats some of his RHH power, it could still be a bargain. The plus? Pearce is versatile. He’d be a 1B upgrade over Alvarez and a bench upgrade if the Pirates somehow signed Park.

While the Pirates have starting pitching and bullpen voids to fill, they also need to upgrade their power and overall run-scoring capabilities. I like rolling the dice on Pearce, if Park is unavailable.

AGENDA ITEM No. 4: EXTENSIONS

While Gregory Polanco rejected the club’s seven-year deal back in 2014 before he arrived, if you still believe in his talent, now would be the time to make a similar offer when some doubt might have creeped in after a sluggish start to his career … Francisco Cervelli is just one year from free agency so he might be hard to lock up, but a three-year deal, a bridge to Reese McGuire, makes a lot of sense for the club. Cervelli’s pitching framing and competitive at bats are rare at the catcher position.

As always let the Warren Buffett mantra guide your financial decisions: Be fearful when people are greedy, and greedy when people are fearful.

What is your offseason Pirates agenda?

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: What the Pirates should copy (and should not) from Royals’ roadmap

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SOUTH HILLS – Baseball, like any other industry, is a copy-cat business and after the Kansas City Royals’ remarkable run to a World Series title on Sunday night many will cite the Royals as the model in how to win in this scoring-depressed era.

The Royals have an elite bullpen (second in bullpen ERA, fifth in bullpen WAR), an elite defense (second in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved with 56), and were one of the best contact-hitting teams in the sport this season, ignoring the sabermetric ideals of patience and power for early-count hacking and contact.

It was a successful formula in the postseason, and led the Royals to a 95-win regular season.

So can the Pirates — in need of a strong offseason to remain in the NL Central mix — use the Royals as a model?

Yes and no.

Let’s take a look ….

APTOPIX World Series Royals Mets Baseball

What can the Pirates borrow from these guys? (AP photo)

THREE UP (What the Pirates can take from the Royals’ success)

>>Upgrade the defense.

In 2013, the Pirates made a dramatic defensive improvement – in part through a dramatic increase in employing defensive shifts – to rank third in baseball with 68 DRS. They fell to sixth in baseball (36 DRS) last season, and to 12th in baseball (7 DRS) this season. According to Mark Simon at ESPN, the Pirates’ saved 8 DRS through shifts. So their actual defensive talent was league average or slightly below.

While the Pirates increased their shift usage each year since 2012, Andrew McCutchen’s defensive play has declined in center field, Neil Walker‘s glove has declined at second base, and Pedro Alvarez has been historically bad at two positions – third and first base – each of the last two seasons.

Alignment, shifts, can only take a team so far and what the Pirates can learn from the Royals is they could use athletic improvements in the field. In the long term, the good news is the Pirates have focused on athletes at premium positions in the last three drafts: players like Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker. The Pirates’ defense should improve in future seasons.

In the short term?

One dramatic way to improve the defense would of course be to replace Alvarez at first with a capable defender. It would have a significant impact. Consider Alvarez was worth a whopping -14 negative runs saved last season (and -28 for his career in the field). McCutchen will remain in center fielder and Walker may or may not remain at second in 2016.

>>Keep winning the end game.

The Pirates (2.67) and Royals (2.70) finished 1-2 in baseball in bullpen ERA, and the Royals finished fifth (5.0) and Pirates seventh in (4.8) in bullpen WAR.

They both had excellent bullpens, which were a key for their success. Why were the Royals able to have so many comebacks (eight) in the postseason? Their bullpen didn’t allow runs. They out-scored the Mets 15-1 after the seventh inning in the series. The Mets actually led for 24 innings of the World Series, compared to the Royals’ 13.

But the Pirates face a challenge to keep their bullpen.

Joakim Soira, Joe Blanton and Antonio Bastardo are all free agents. Mark Melancon could take up 10 percent of payroll  in arbitration if he is kept as the team’s closer.

The Pirates typically do not like to spend on bullpens and Neal Huntington has often cited their year-to-year volatility. But should this be a time where the Pirates deviate from their philosophy spend and start by keeping Melancon? It’s a tough call that I will examine later in the week.

>>Bottle up the Royals’ luck.

The Pirates haven’t had much luck in the postseason (See: Jake Arrieta and Madison Bumgarner). The Royals didn’t have to face any of the top-three record teams in baseball en route to a title.

The Pirates were more aggressive on the base-paths this season, which had little overall affect on their overall runs produced from base-running. Some over-zealousness cost the Pirates. It could have cost the Royals last night, too. Instead, Eric Hosmer was celebrated on advancing from third to home in the ninth inning, but an accurate throw and he’s out by five feet.

*If you can get Wade Davis thrown in as a B chip of an ill-advised trade (once elite prospect Wil Myers for two years of James Shields) by all means.

*Oh, and Edinson Volquez should start meaningful postseason games after all :)

THREE DOWN (What the Pirates should not borrow from the Royals)

>>The Royals’ offensive model.

While the Royals received a ton of praise for their offensive approach – lavished from the FOX broadcast crew – the fact is this is a league-average offense. The Royals produced a 99 wRC+ that adjusts for league and ballpark during the regular season (100 wRC+ is average). They produced a collective -5.4 runs above average, according to Fangraphs.com.

They finished last in baseball in walk rate (6.3 percent), and hit two fewer home runs (139) than the homer-starved Pirates (141).

For as much praise as the Royals received for their all-fields approach, the fact is most groundballs are pulled, regardless of who hits them, and the Royals 2015 BABIP (.301) was only two points above league average (.299).

Royals postseason BABIP ? .334. …  Again, bottle up that luck.

I wrote about the Pirates power decline on Sunday, and some immediately began pointing toward the Royals and how power is overrated in today’s game. Here’s the problem with that argument: the Pirates have nowhere near the Royals’ contact ability, which is the one area where the Royals excel. From Sunday’s story:

The Royals posted the lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 15.9 percent (the Pirates ranked 20th at 21.0 percent), the Royals ranked first in making contact with pitches in the strike zone at 90.7 percent (the Pirates ranked 21st at 86.4 percent), and the Royals posted the fourth-lowest swinging strike rate at 8.1 percent (the Pirates ranked 19th at 10.2 percent).

The Pirates are unlikely to change their batted-ball skills in one year. They have a better chance of adding power, and hope to have some regression back to last year’s power when the Pirate were sixth in baseball in homers. Most teams succeeded in the postseason through home runs and extra-base hits. The Royals were an outlier and not one that should necessarily be attempted to be followed – at least in trying to make a one-year improvement.

>>Trading prospects for short-term pitching.

(EDIT: I changed up talking points here).

Two offseasons ago, the Royals traded away a consensus top 10 overall prospect in Wil Myers for two years of James Shields. Myers went on to win rookie of the year honors, but has since struggled. Shields was good but not great for two years. The Royals were fortunate that Davis  become an ace closer after arriving in Kansas City. … The Royals also appeared to have over-paid for two months of Johnny Cueto in sending three promising left-handed pitchers to the Reds. These are the kinds of trades that can erode the depth and talent of a system, and the value of such returns is often overstated.

>>Something else to not follow regarding the Royals? Their draft record.

Since Dayton Moore became the Royals GM in 2006, the Royals have had some brutal early first-round picks. Luke Hochevar, Christian Colon (drafted over Matt Harvey!) and Bubba Starling (drafted over Francisco Lindor and Jose Fernandez) were all top five overall picks.

Mike Moustakas was the No. 1 overall pick, and was a bust heading into this season when he produced his second above-average season, though hardly a No. 1 pick performance. Eric Hosmer is a good player, but to date, has not lived up to being the No. 3 overall pick.

The Pirates have had similar misses and the Royals are proof you can overcome missing in the top 5 of a draft and be OK if you trade well, have success in the international market, and find value in free agency.

The Pirates have done all those things well. You don’t have to draft like the Cubs to win the World Series … but drafting more efficiently is a good way to ensure consistent competitiveness. The Royals and Pirates no longer have the advantage of drafting in the top 5.

(By the way, the Cubs are favored to win the 2016 series according to Bovada with 11-1 odds. The Pirates? 14-1)

STAT OF THE WEEK

HE SAID IT

Huntington on 93.7 The Fan regarding the arbitration cases:

“It’s something you have to think about when you have one as good as Melancon. We can afford players the challenge is how do we afford a championship caliber club.”

-TS

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