Monday Mop-Up Duty: A $100 million payroll? Not so fast

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SOUTH HILLS – While many in Western Pa. are skeptical of the additions, the Pirates have addressed the majority of their needs – starting rotation, first base, utility player, bullpen – as we approach the New Year.

Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong are slated to round out the rotation – at least until the Super 2 cut off is reached.

John Jaso (BuccoBlog endorsed signing) will be the left-handed part of a first-base platoon.

Sean Rodriguez was re-signed to fill the utility role off the bench, not to be a defensive replacement at first base (that’s up to you, Jaso). … Juan Nicasio was ostensibly brought in replace Joe Blanton as a versatile relief pitcher and potential spot starter. …. The Pirates might need another left-handed bullpen arm (or is Kyle Lobstein the answer?). Perhaps they can upgrade another area of the 25-man roster, but it looks like much of their roster-building work this offseason in mostly complete.

But in an offseason coming a record attendance year, with increasing TV/digital revenues and revenue sharing, it appears the Pirates will fall short of reaching a $100 million, 25-man roster Opening Day payroll – barring a significant move.

 

JHay

Like Harrison as an everyday 2B or a Super U. If only he was left-handed …(Horner photo)

Twenty-two major league teams opened with a $100 million, 25-man payroll last season. The Pirates opened with a $90.1 million payroll.

While this space  does not advocate spending just to spend, and, hey, maybe the right fits have existed in trade and free agency according to the Pirates’ assessments to date this offseason , the club is  also in line for their lowest payroll increase since the club cut payroll entering the 2011 season.

The Pirates’ Opening Day 25-man payroll increased 25 percent from 2012 ($51.9 million) to 2013 ($66.8 million). It increased 7.4 percent from 2013 to 2014 ($71.9 million) and jumped 22.4 percent to last season ($90.1 million). Those numbers are all from Cot’s Baseball Contracts. The Pirates, at the moment, are in line for a 3.2 percent Opening Day increase – provided the arbitration projections from MLBTR below are reasonably accurate.

Opening Day payroll estimate:

GUARANTEED CONTRACTS

Francisco Liriano $13.7 million

McCutchen $13.2 m

Jon Niese $9m

Michael Morse $5m

Josh Harrison $5m

John Jaso $4m

Starling Marte $3.3 m

Juan Nicasio $3m

Jung Ho Kang $2.5m

Sean Rodriguez $2.5m

Ryan Vogelsong $2m

11 players – $63.2m

 

MLBTR ARBITRATION PROJECTIONS

Mark Melancon – $10.0m

Tony Watson – $4.6m

Jeff Locke – $3.5m

Francisco Cervelli – $2.5m

Jared Hughes – $2.2m

Jordy Mercer – $1.8m

Chris Stewart – $1.6m

7 players – $25.6m

 

So that’s 18 players projected to earn $88.8 million

As of now seven pre-arb players like Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco will add about another $4 million

So as we enter the New Year, with the Pirates addressing a majority of their needs, they are in line for approximately a $93 million Opening Day 25-man payroll.

Rob Biertempfel reported the Pirates had a max budget of $105 million, though that is likely for the 40-man roster.

There should be some payroll flexibility remaining but will the Pirates use it at some point in 2016? What is clear is the gap between the Pirates and Cubs has grown significantly entering the New Year.

 

THREE UP

>>Just because Pedro Alvarez failed to make the conversion to first base is not a reason to think John Jaso will have similar struggles. Recall, bat-first catchers used to often spend some of their off time at first base.

>>Neil Walker might not have been so undervalued by the Pirates. A couple offseasons ago, the Pirates offered Walker a three-year, $27 million extension that would have bought out his first year of free agency, according to Rob Biertempfel. Walker clone, Daniel Murphy, signed a three-year, $37 million pact in free agency last week. While the deal is worth $10 million more over a three-year period, it comes two years after the Walker proposal with two years of inflation tacked on – and Murphy was negotiating as a free agent.

>>The Pirates were probably wise not to extend Walker into his 30s. Wrote former Baseball Prospectus writer Nate Silver back back in 2005 on the aging curve aging curve for second baseman:

The typical second baseman has already achieved 95% of his peak value by age 23–versus just 84% for the league as a whole. These guys just don’t improve their games as much as players at other positions. And making matters worse, second basemen decline somewhat faster than normal in their thirties.

This point has been made before, but second base is something of a bastard position–it’s where you wind up if you aren’t athletic enough to play shortstop, but don’t have the bat (or the arm) for third. Almost no players are selected as second basemen in the amateur draft, and it’s rare to see a second baseman on a top prospect list. That is, second base is the one position where players are selected out for their lack of a skill, rather than their possession of one; it should be no surprise that they don’t tend to age well.

>>Moreover, in a vacuum, Josh Harrison might be an upgrade in 2015. According to the ZiPS Fangraphs.com projection Harrison will out-WAR Walker 2.3 to 2.2.

The problem?

Harrison is not left-handed ….

THREE DOWN

>>One can make the argument that the club should have placed a priority on keeping Walker over Pedro Alvarez and Mark Melancon among their pricy arbitration-eligible players. As I wrote last week, the Pirates play in a RHP-dominated division and had the most plate appearances against RHP in all of baseball last week. Moreover, no NL park suppresses right-handed power more than PNC Park.

The Pirates will have six right-handed regulars in their lineup vs. RHP – one more than last season with Harrison replacing Walker.

>>Was Elias Diaz too much to surrender for Mitch Moreland? Perhaps considering the club’s 2017 catching depth. The Pirates need a bridge solution to get to Reese McGuire at catcher.

>>Even if Jameson Taillon is ready to contribute at the MLB level this season, he figures to be on an innings limit after not throwing a full-season minor league inning since 2013.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 18th

Jaso’s MLB rank in walk rate (12.6 percent) since the start of the 2010 season. The Pirates got back to saber-metric offensive ways with the Jaso signing. We approve of it in this space.

HE SAID IT:

Walker at the Mets holiday party:

“Obviously, coming into this situation is really exciting. It’s a great opportunity to do the same thing they did last year and more. I’m just looking forward to helping this team, and hopefully Met nation has me as one of their own.”

-TS

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The Pirates’ right-handed dilemma, and their PNC Park problem

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SOUTH HILLS – We know the Pirates shed 30 percent of their 2015 home runs when they parted ways with Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez.

It’s been noted the pair also combined for 148 RBIs last season.

What has been discussed less is the Pirates also parted with two of their best options from the left side of the plate, two of their best options vs. right-handed pitching.

This is critical if one recalls how right-handed dominant pitching is in the NL Central, and it only became more RHP- dominant as the Cardinals have reportedly added Mike Leake with a five-year, $80-million deal. (A contract that perhaps eliminates the Pirates from the mid-tier FA starting pitching market … if they weren’t already out).

The Pirates ranked first in baseball last season in plate appearances against right-handed pitching (4,882). They ranked 26th in the sport in plate appearances against left-handed pitching (1,403).

So the Pirates were 3.5 times more likely to face a RHP than a LHP arm last season. There figures to be a similar imbalance in 2016.

AlvarezJays

The Pirates will not miss Alvarez’s defense or offensive inconsistency, but they will miss his bat against RHP (Horner photo)

 

At the moment, their projected starting lineup contains just one left-handed hitter in Gregory Polanco, and it figures to contain at most two if the Pirates find a left-handed option at first base (Hi, John Jaso).

Moreover, Walker and Alvarez were two of only seven Pirates to perform above average against RHP last season.

 Pirates wRC+ vs. RHP in 2015

  1. Andrew McCutchen – 147
  2. Jung Ho Kang – 136
  3. Starling Marte – 122
  4. Neil Walker – 119
  5. Pedro Alvarez – 116
  6. Francisco Cervelli – 113
  7. Gregory Polanco – 107
  8. Josh Harrison – 97
  9. Chris Stewart – 86
  10. Sean Rodriguez – 78

(min: 120 at bats vs. RHP. …. 100 is league average)

Then there’s the issue of being so right-handed heavy at PNC Park, which has the largest left field in baseball, one that suppresses right-handed power like no other NL park.

Consider Bill James ballpark factors from the last three seasons combined:

Home run factor for RHH (100 being league average)

  1. Citizens Bank Park – 140
  2. Wrigley Field – 124
  3. Miller Park – 123
  4. Coors Field – 121
  5. Great American – 117
  6. PETCO Park – 110
  7. Dodgers Stadium – 101
  8. Turner Field – 95
  9. Chase Field – 94
  10. Busch Stadium – 90
  11. Nationals Park – 88
  12. Citi Field – 82
  13. Marlins Park – 78
  14. AT&T Park – 76
  15. PNC Park – 73

 

What does this all mean?

The Pirates need Polanco to be really, really good (and his second half was encouraging.)

And the Pirates really need a quality left-handed bat.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Is Mark Melancon the big addition – by being saved from subtraction – this offseason?

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SOUTH HILLS – Today marks the first day of winter, a reminder there is plenty of offseason to play out.

Still, the question remains: what will the Pirates do with the dollars they have shed this offseason (ostensibly to create payroll space)?

Pedro Alvarez was of course non tendered, Charlie Morton was traded and essentially replaced by Ryan Vogelsong, who agreed to a one-year deal Friday that will generate between $2-5 million in savings in the difference between the contracts.

“We see (Vogelsong) in the rotation and project similar production but at a lower commitment,” Huntington said, “that allows us to redistribute dollars elsewhere on the club with the intent to deepen our roster.”

The question is where will the Pirates “redistribute” dollars?

vogel

Check out this vintage Vogelsong photo! The Pirates hope he pitches like vintage 2011 Vogelsong. Silver lining in a 0.0 WAR season in 2015? His velocity was best since 2011. Now what will the Pirates do with the cash savings? (Horner photo)

The Pirates’ words and actions thus far this season suggest they will not be players for impact, $10M+ per year free agents. Rather, they will choose quantity over quality. They continue to turn over stones to try and find value.
However, the financial shedding makes it more likely there will be a third $10M+ player on the roster Opening Day, joining Andrew McCutchen and Francisco Liriano …. that being Mark Melancon.
While paying 10-plus percent of payroll to a closer is often not ideal, Melancon might be an exception if he continues to replicate his three-year production.

As we’ve noted before in this space, Melancon finished third in Win Probably Added in the NL last year, trailing only Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke, you know, the 1-2 finishers in Cy Young voting.

Melancon finished 19th in the NL in WPA in 2014, ahead of Greinke at No. 20.

The Pirates value WPA –  which captures the change in win expectancy of each plate appearance a player is involved with -  maybe they value it greatly.

In reading Huntington’s comments about Melancon, how the Pirates  would need a significant return to move him, maybe he is more likely to stay at this point.

One can make this argument: why erode the team’s greatest strength- its back-end bullpen? An elite bullpen is a unit that can help a team out-perform its expected record, which is based upon runs scored and allowed. An elite bullpen can help a team win a greater share of one-run games and extra-innings games.

Moreover, Melancon at one year and $10 million projected through arbitration, is probably a better value than just about anything out there in the free agent pitching market.

It also seems true is the Pirates cannot afford to create more areas of weakness.

Niese and Vogelsong combined for 0.9 WAR last year and they are replacing AJ Burnett, JA Happ and Charlie Morton, who combined to fill two rotation spots with 5.9 WAR. On paper, that’s a five-win drop in a division where the Cubs have improved by perhaps 8-10 games on paper.

The Alvarez non-tender and Neil Walker trades strip the team of infield depth and 30 percent of the club’s home runs.

So maybe this time it does make sense to commit 10 percent of payroll to a pitcher who will throw five percent of innings in Melancon.

Maybe this time it makes sense not to try and rebuild a bullpen, but build around it.

 

THREE UP

>>One good bit of news in the crazy good NL Central? Jason Heyward doesn’t think much of the St. Louis Cardinals’ staying power.

“You have Yadier (Molina) who is going to be done in two years maybe,” Heyward told Chicago reporters. “You have Matt Holliday who is probably going to be done soon.

“There were already moves made with Jon Jay gone and then Tony Cruz and Wainwright is probably going to be done in three or four years. … Guys like that are what really introduced me to the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization. I felt like if I was to look up and in three years see a completely different team, that would be difficult.”

It’s hard to disagree with Heyward’s position that the Cubs have the most attractive outlook in the Central. And players like Molina, Wainwright and Holliday will be difficult to replace. But it would also be folly to ignore the Cardinals’ remarkable capacity to develop talent.

>>Jason Rogers has sneaky value as a depth piece at the corner positions. A career minor league OBP of .372 deserves an extended chance at the major league level. He’s played a lot of third base in the minors so he is perhaps  insurance in case Jung Ho Kang isn’t ready to begin the season. As a starting first baseman? That is a stretch on a contender.

>>The Pirates have hinted about Jameson Taillon being ready to compete in the majors this season.  If Taillon can get back on track where he was two years ago, obviously, that would be a major boost. Two springs ago some evaluators were debating about if they’d rather have Gerrit Cole or Taillon while watching the Pirates in Grapefruit League play.

THREE DOWN

>>Pedro Alvarez‘s value.

Surprised he couldn’t draw a return in a trade?  He’s apparently not drawing much interest in free agency though the Brewers and Orioles could be fits.

>>Sean Rodriguez has a place on the bench as a versatile defender but his 79 wRC+ market last season – 87 for his career  (100 is league average) – suggests the Pirates should be careful about allowing him too many plate appearances. This will be an important spring for Alen Hanson, as the Pirates need more depth options to emerge.

>> The Pirates added another low-velocity potential starter pitcher Kyle Lobstein on Monday. After years of hunting velocity the Pirates have added three starting pitchers this offseason in Lobstein (who could also open the year in the bullpen or the Triple-A rotation), Jon Niese and Vogelsong, who all are below average in velocity.

I asked Huntington at the winter meetings about deviating from the model that had led the Pirates to Edison Volquez, AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano and others.

“I’d love to sit here and tell you we have one model and we got to it and acquire players to fit model, but we don’t. There are traits that we like. …. As we joked before, we like pitchers that can get hitters out. There are different ways to do that. Jonathan might be of a different style than pitchers we acquired in the past but we believe he has quality and ability to get major league hitters out. We believe there are some things we can do to help him.

“You always want to have a plan and a foundation but if you only stick to it, especially at the MLB level, especially given how the market has evolved, you are really going to limit your options.”

While there are different ways to get hitters out, there’s less margin for error with every mph drop in velocity.

HE SAID IT

Mike Matheny responding to Heyward’s belief the Cardinals are aging and about to fall apart:

“I see where he’s coming from. I mean, look at what Chicago’s done. It’s very unique in this game — to have that many impact players at that young age. And he’s a young player. But I can’t say I’m in any kind of agreement with that (Chicago) core being better than any kind of core that we have.

“That veteran group (that the Cardinals have) also helps drive what the younger group turns into.”

STAT OF THE WEEK: .237

Left-handed hitters career batting average against Lobstein, a potential left-handed reliever?

***

To close, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Thanks for reading and contributing to the blog in 2015. I hope this holiday season finds you well.

-TS

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Who’s on first? And what about OBP?

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SOUTH HILLS – The first base market was  thin to begin with entering free agency, and a number of mid-tier and low-end options came off the board this week.

Daniel Nava, a left-hand hitting high-OBP, low-power first baseman signed with the Angels. It’s unclear if the Pirates had any interest.

Mike Napoli, whom the Pirates had at least some interest in, signed with fellow small-market Cleveland to a one-year, $7 million deal. The price, the contract length, and the fact that Napoli could have been a bounce-back option made him a sensible target for the Pirates … though his age and health made him a better fit to DH in the AL.

Baltimore signed a KBO import in Hyung-Soo Kim to a two-year deal, a lefty who could have been a platoon option at first.

I exchanged emails with Justin Morneau on Thursday. The former Pirate said the Pirates had not yet reached out to him.

John+Jaso+iMVNHRh0QCrm

Does the French God of walks make sense for the Pirates?

 

So what candidates are left to fill the Pirates most glaring offensive void? (The newly acquired Jason Rogers is probably more likely a depth piece and insurance for Jung Ho Kang at third).

>>The Pirates are speculated to have at least kicked the tires on another KBO import in Dae-Ho Lee.

>>They’ve spoken with Texas about Mitch Moreland, but it appears the price would have to come down.

>>I still like Steve Pearce as a fit, but it’s unclear if the Pirates like him. One issue is he and Michael Morse are both right-handed.

>>Matt Joyce was once a quality platoon first baseman/outfielder for Joe Maddon in Tampa, but the left-handed hitter is coming off back-to-back poor seasons.

>> Adam LaRoche could be had, but he’s in decline and how much salary would the White Sox take back?

In sum: it’s pretty ugly out there.

However, Eno Sarris mentioned one intriguing low-budget name the other day in John Jaso, a name that has hardly drawn any interest.

Jaso is not perfect, which is why he’s available.

He has a history of concussions at catcher. He has limited experience at first base. But he does something better than every free agent bat on the market: he gets on base.

He has a .361 OBP mark for his career, and posted a .380 mark last season.

He has an elite 12.6 walk rate for his career, 13 percent last season.

He will play next season at 32, but remember the Pirates are just looking for a one year stop-gap who can pass the torch to Josh Bell.

And the Pirates could use a walk and OBP bump, offensively.

What’s interesting about the Pirates is they fell to 19th in the sport in walk rate last season (7.3 percent).  They had ranked sixth in baseball in 2014 with a 8.4 percent walk rate.

They have discarded some high walk rate players, and have increasingly turned their focus to athleticism and run prevention. They have turned over second base to a player with a 3.6 percent career walk rate.

It doesn’t seem like a very sabermetric course for the analytically-inclined Pirates, as drawing walks and OBP are, of course, two of the most desirable offensive abilities for the sabermetric-leaning crowd.

Perhaps it’s time the Pirates return to valuing some sabermetric principles at first base.

Of course, market inefficiencies can of course reside anywhere – defense, pitching, power, etc – so the Pirates turned to run prevention in part because it was undervalued. On-base percentage has not been undervalued since the Moneyball A’s exploited it.

But if there were a position to return to in prizing walk skills and on-base percentage it would be at first base, and it would be with a player like Jaso.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: After shedding what should Pirates buy? Quantity or quality?

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SOUTH HILLS – Thus far this offseason the Pirates have been doing more shedding than adding, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

As we wrote in this space entering the offseason, the Pirates’ opening day payroll projection exceeded their opening day projected budget, which has been expected to be in the low $100s. Rob Biertempfel reports the budget is $105 million. Trading Charlie Morton, non-tendering Pedro Alvarez, were necessary to create payroll space given spending constraints put in place by ownership.

But the Pirates are eventually going to have to add more than Juan Nicasio if they want to have any hope of keeping up with the Chicago Cubs, or perhaps even to remain relevant in the wild card picture.

The Pirates, at the moment, have $80.3 million committed to 15 players based upon guaranteed contracts and arbitration projections.

After considering the pre-arbitration salaried players, the Pirates’ front office should have at least $20 million to spend on external help in 2016.

So long as the Pirates have assets like Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole under control a club probably doesn’t want to be taking a step back as organization, those are rare building blocks a GM might never enjoy again during his tenure. Every year should be an opportunity during the McCutchen-Cole era.

So how would you spend Bob Nutting’s money? The $20 million or so he’s perhaps granting the front office? It likely comes down to a quality vs. quantity debate.

Here are the commitments:

GUARANTEED CONTRACTS

Francisco Liriano $13.7 million

McCutchen $13.2 m

Jon Niese $9 m

Michael Morse $5 m

Josh Harrison $5 m

Starling Marte $3.3 m

Juan Nicasio $3m

Jung Ho Kang $2.5m

8 players – $54.7m

 

MLBTR ARBITRATION PROJECTIONS

Francisco Cervelli – $2.5million

Mark Melancon – $10.0m

Chris Stewart – $1.6m

Tony Watson – $4.6m

Jared Hughes – $2.2m

Jordy Mercer – $1.8m

Jeff Locke – $3.5m

7 players – $25.6m

 

The Pirates can likely afford one significant addition via free agency or trade, or multiple or mid-range/bounce back options. I suppose the Pirates are more likely to purse the later path than the former, as you might remember how Neal Huntington was influenced by a Cleveland Indians study that found World Series champ over a 20-year period from the 1980s to 2000s had never committed more than 17 percent of payroll to one player.

There is, however, an argument to be made that the Pirates need proven impact to remain relevant in the NL. (See what the Cubs have been up to?)

We first reported early last week that the Pirates had initial interest in Scott Kazmir – a player who would make a lot of sense as a top target – and he could be that significant addition and still come in under 17 percent of payroll.

Kazmir could be combined with a lower-budget addition like Steve Pearce or Mitch Moreland to upgrade the right side of the infield, which is the other glaring need area.

As major needs, the Pirates need a quality No. 3 starter and at least one quality bat on the right. Two major needs means a quality over quantity approach might have more impact.

If the team can’t land Kazmir, Mat Latos is perhaps the most attractive buy-low option,  Cliff Lee is an interesting case, too.

Latos

Would you rather have one Kazmir or two Latoses?

 

What’s clear is the Pirates have shed now whether through quality or quantity they must add.

What’s on your wish list for $20 million USD?

 

THREE UP

>>The trade of  Charlie Morton makes the addition of Jon Niese more valuable. While I don’t love the Niese trade for Pirates for 2016, Niese can now replace Morton and a back-end rotation arm for perhaps 2017 and 2018 and  at what could be reasonable salaries. Morton could improve in 2016, but more often than not he’s been inconsistent through his career. The Pirates are probably right to believe they can spend $8M more efficiently elsewhere.

>>The  Juan Nicasio addition could have sneaky value. He fits the typical Pirates reclamation project model: big arm (95.1 mph), can miss bats (10Ks per nine last year), and he has some control issues where perhaps can be fixed. Moreover, he underperformed his FIP last season and has spent most of his career in Colorado.

He can essentially be a Joe Blanton with better stuff.

He adds depth to the bullpen. With the amount of payroll the Pirates have shed, there is now no reason to deal Mark Melancon unless there is a great return available — or the Pirates were in play for a significant external addition and need more payroll space. Win Probably Added is a fascinating way to measure value, and the stat suggests only Zack Greinke and Jake Arrieta added more value among NL pitchers. Melancon is also less of a luxury with Walker, Alvarez and Morton off the payroll.

>>It sounds like Jung Ho Kang should be ready at some in April for the Pirates. The Pirates need him to be as their infield has precious few impact bats at the moment.

 

THREE DOWN

>>Yes, the game are not played on paper – or through cpu projections, but I think the Cubs are probably 10 games better than the Pirates. There’s a lot of ground to make up.

>>I think Neil Walker’s efforts to come off as a compassionate figure fall short in Biertempfel’s Q & A with Walker over the weekend.

Walker and the Pirates could not agree on a contract extension. Neither side is to be blamed. The Pirates have made it clear they will only pay for where they believe there is value. Walker is soon to be a post-peak second baseman. Walker wasn’t going to sign a hometown discount. To each his own.

Still, Walker is not pleased that the Pirates would never budge from their original position regarding an extension. Walker apparently turned down a chance to stay with three-year, $27 million extension.

“I just felt there some kind of justice due me,” Walker said. “I don’t want to come off as (having) any kind of huge ego here, but to play 12 years in the same organization, grind out six-plus years (in the majors) and go through arbitration three times … I really didn’t think what I was asking for was very unreasonable.”

It was complicated for Walker. He was also the player rep for Pirates in  so that made it further unlikely he could accept a home-town discount. At the end of the day he expected something, a personal consideration, along with more dollars. The Pirates continue to operate on a merit-based and pure business sense model. Because of that, there is no happy ending.

>>As for his replacement, Josh Harrison has value but I like him best as a Super U type. To me, second base is an offense-first position along with the outfielder corners and first base. Can Harrison really replicate his 2014? More likely, he’s a league-average offensive player, one who adds a competitive advantage as a utility player. One other reason to like Pearce as a fit for the Pirates? He can play second base.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK

How important is defense in today’s game? Here’s an example:

HE SAID IT

If you missed it from earlier this week, interesting thoughts from Huntington on how the Pirates value players on the open market.

“We are not big believers that if a player is a 2-WAR player that means he’s worth X. There are times where that is in a vacuum and you put together enough players that give you enough WAR to win 100 games it’s a payroll way above and beyond where anyone could potentially go – even a certain club. … hen there’s the subjective information that’s also very important. What do our scouts see? What does our staff see? How can we make this player better? How can we make him more valuable than what his projections are going forward? Because of people like Ray Searage and Clint Hurdle, and our strength and conditioning staff and our trainers and coaches we’ve been able to get more out of players than the projection said we would have.”

-TS

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Niese is a new model for Pirates: high floor, low ceiling

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – What many expected, including Neil Walker, came to fruition this evening as the Pirates and Mets officially announced the Walker-Jonathan Niese trade after exchanging medicals.

The Pirates gave the Mets a near clone of Daniel Murphy to replace Murphy. Walker is one of the better offensive second baseman in the game. He’s led NL second baseman in homers the last two seasons. He’s been a 2-3 WAR player the last three years, and that should continue in 2016 as the Mets have a one-year bridge to Dilson Herrera at second base.

The trade makes a ton of sense for the Mets, the third time they’ve hooked up as trading partners with the Pirates since Sept. of 2013.

Niese

Niese is a native Ohioan, so I like him. But how much magic does he have?

Niese will likely fill the Pirates’ No. 3 starter role, and has two club options in 2017 and 2018. He’s left-handed, which is a good thing at PNC Park, which suppresses right-handed power more than any other NL ballpark. He posted a 54.5% percent groundball rate last season, he has a 50 percent groundball for his career. From 2011-14, he’s been a 2-3 WAR pitcher, before falling off to 0.9 WAR last season.

The trade fills a need for both clubs and each club dealt from strength as the Pirates have other options at second. Josh Harrison will start at second, Neal Huntington said.

But the Mets appear to have received the better value, at least for 2016, and the Pirates might have taken a significant step back in the middle of their rotation, deviating from their typical search for high-ceiling pitchers.

This is the problem for the Pirates:

A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ combined to go 16-9 with a 2.81 ERA over 227 innings last season (5 WAR) for PIT. They were two higher-ceiling, higher-velocity, rebuild projects sharing a rotation spot in 2015.

Niese? 9-10,4.13 ERA (0.9 WAR)

The obvious disclaimer is this: Burnett and Happ were working with Ray Searage and Jim Benedict and Co., Neise was not. Niese will also benefit from a more aggressive defensive alignment plan in Pittsburgh. He could easily return to status as a 2-win pitcher. But can he be a 4-win pitcher?

Niese is not a reclamation project.

He does not fit the model of pitchers the Pirates typically extract value from.

The Pirates have had a lot of success with pitchers that have velocity and stuff but lack command. You know the list: Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, Arquimedes Caminero. Etc. Etc.

The Pirates have typically had pitchers that didn’t rely on a two-seam fastball before entering Pittsburgh rely on the two-seamer.

You know the equation: Velocity + two-seamers + shifts = goodness.

But it’s going to be harder to extract value from Niese.

Niese is not a big velocity guy. His average fastball was 89.5 mph last season. He already throws a two-seam fastball more than 20-percent of the time, part of his five-pitch mix. He does not have command issues. And his ability to miss bats fell to a career-low 5.4 percent last season.

He has a higher floor, but perhaps a lower ceiling than recent Pirates starting pitching acquisitions.

Said Huntington:

“I’d love to sit here and tell you we have one model and we got to it and acquire players to fit model, but we don’t. There are traits that we like. …. As we joked before, we like pitchers that can get hitters out. There are different ways to do that. Jonathan might be of a different style than pitchers we acquired in the past but we believe he has quality and ability to get major league hitters out. We believe there are some things we can do to help him. You always want to have a plan and a foundation but if you only stick to it, especially at the MLB level, especially given how the market has evolved, you are really going to limit your options.”

Niese has a high floor, perhaps, but the Cubs and Cardinals can only be caught by possessing high ceilings.

-TS

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The interesting thing Huntington said about fancy stats, WAR vs. WPA, their limits, and value

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NASHVILLE – There’s a fascinating element to the Neil Walker vs. Mark Melancon dilemma if the Pirates are only able to keep one this offseason.

Walker and Melancon are both projected to earn about the same in arbitration: around $10 million.

But both are of course much different players.

Walker will likely produce the greater Wins Above Replacement mark because he is a position player who logs more playing time. WAR is  a cumulative statistic tied to runs created and saved. Many analysts grade players’ value and projected contracts using WAR. It’s estimated this offseason that one WAR of production is worth $8 million on the open market.

Walker

Walker’s WAR or Melancon’s WPA? What’s more valuable?

 

By contrast, Melancon is a low-volume, high-impact player.

According to Win Probability Added — which captures the change in win expectancy of each plate appearance a player is involved with — only Zack Greinke (6.7) and Jake Arrieta (5.4) were better among NL pitchers than Melancon (5.2) last season.

What is more valuable WAR or WPA?

Accumulative value or high-leverage value?

How do the Pirates value the two players?

Huntington’s answer in full:

“The best answer I can give is we try to factor in as many elements as many variables to our decision-making process as we can. The game is real on the field. Numbers allow us to identify what people have done. We are not big believers that if a player is a 2-WAR player that means he’s worth X. There are times where that is in a vacuum and you put together enough players that give you enough WAR to win 100 games it’s a payroll way above and beyond where anyone could potentially go – even a certain club.

“Win probability added is part of the equation. How difficult is it to go get three outs in the ninth inning with one run? It’s very different than three outs with a three-run lead. We understand not everyone can pitch in the ninth inning, that not everyone can hit in the middle of a lineup. Not everyone can be an impact player on a club. So as we attempt to put evaluation on a player there is certainly objective information on what a player has done in the past. There’s the objective information that helps us project what a player is going to do in the future. If we were only ever to go off their projections we wouldn’t go play 162 games.

“Then there’s the subjective information that’s also very important. What do our scouts see? What does our staff see? How can we make this player better? How can we make him more valuable than what his projections are going forward? Because of people like Ray Searage and CLitn Hurdle, and our strength and conditioning staff and our trainers and coaches we’ve been able to get more out of players than the projection said we would have.”

Interesting to know the Pirates aren’t necessarily looking at all the WAR/$-based contract projections.

They are looking where they can add value, create value.

Now, sometimes they will have to pay for quality projection performance like in the case of Francisco Liriano last year.  But most often they are going to search not for value but where they create it.

-TS

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Winter Meetings: Day 2

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This slide ended Jung Ho Kang's season. (Photo by Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review)
This slide ended Jung Ho Kang’s season. (Photo by Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review)

NASHVILLE — After Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang and Mets SS Ruben Tejada sustained broken legs in collisions last season, MLB will examine takeout slides at second base and might institute rules changes.

“The thing that really gets your attention is the fact that you carry guys off the field,” said MLB’s chief baseball officer Joe Torre, who oversees on-field operations, discipline and umpiring.

Kang was injured Sept. 17 in a collision with Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan and needed season-ending surgery to repair a fracture to his tibial plateau. A few weeks later, Tejada was taken out by Chase Utley in a similar play in Game 2 of the NLDS. In both instances, the baserunner appeared to slide directly at the infielder instead of the bag.

“We’ll take a look at it,” Torre said. “I go back to my instructions to players (as a former manger): Break up the double play. But there is a way, I believe, you can do it without going out of your way to target the fielder and not consider touching the base. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have collisions and guys landing on their rears at second base, but I’d like to see us try to see keep guys on the field.”

A rule requiring runners to slide directly at second base, regardless of the  infielder’s positioning, has been tried the past two seasons in the Arizona Fall League. “We’re gathering information,” Torre said.

Torre admitted he did not think even a few years ago that MLB would ever revamp its rules about home plate collisions. But Rule 7.13 was implemented during the 2014 season and has taken root, despite some initial grumbling by some players and club officials.

Torre said MLB “probably will make adjustments and tweaks” to its replay review process as the technology continues to improve. “The super slo-mo gives us a better picture and we can see more things,” he said. “The fact that we overturned 50 percent (of calls), instead of 47 or 48 (percent) means the managers are getting more comfortable with it.”

The process of September callups might be revamped under the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Among the suggestions is one that would maintain 25-man active rosters and allow “healthy scratches” that could change from game to game in the final month of the season. Any changes must be approved by the Players’ Association.

“We are continuing to talk there,” Torre said. “My personal feelings are that I think it’s too important a time of year, especially with the extra wild card, when you have 28 guys and the other team has 35, it’s not a level playing field. It’s something that everybody’s aware of ; it’s just trying to find a path to get there.”

Torre said MLB was not aware of the possible criminal situation involving reliever Aroldis Chapman until late Monday night and has since launched an investigation under its new domestic abuse policy. Chapman was in the process of being traded from the Reds to the Dodgers when news broke about an Oct. 30 incident in which Chapman fired eight gunshots in his garage and allegedly choked his girlfriend.

“We’re in the process of getting all information that’s necessary,” Torre said, adding that the pace of the investigation would not be any different during the season.  — RB

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Patience is — might be? — a virtue for Pirates (And a podcast)

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Pirates acted quickly last offseason.

In a 40-day period, from mid November to late December, the Pirates saved their season before it began with four critical moves.

In that 40-day period, the Pirates signed free agent pitchers A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. They won the bid for Jung Ho Kang, and they traded for Francisco Cervelli.

Why were they able to act so quickly?

In part because of financial flexibility, which perhaps has been lessened early this offseason and might be influencing what the Pirates are able to do before the New Year.

Nashville

Will the biosphere — errr Opryland Hotel  — be the site of a flurry of Pirates’ transactions? Stay tuned.

I have heard from some readers about ‘financial flexibility’ being a sort of fallacy, noting owners have no spending cap and are likely make tens of millions of profit per season. The Pirates could spend more. That might all be (is likely) true. I’m not arguing for or against more MLB ownership spending. (I have argued players should argue for that back in the spring) What is true – whether it is fair or unfair, just or unjust – is that Neal Huntington and his staff are working with budget constraints. That’s what I have been reporting on: I’ve been asking the question what can the Pirates realistically accomplish within those parameters?

Even after non-tendering Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates’ projected Opening Day payroll ($92.1 million according to Fangraphs.com), exceeds last year’s Opening Day payroll ($90.1 million). The Pirates might exceed $100 million in Opening Day payroll for the first time as a franchise but even if they do most expectations are that it will not be by a significant amount. What it might mean is the Pirates enter the winter meetings needing to shed Neil Walker or Mark Melanon to begin making significant moves.

This is what club president Frank Coonelly told the Trib of the 2016 club entering the winter meetings: “(it) may include players who are available to us in part because we have made other moves.”

The Pirates might not be able to strike as quickly as this offseason, and they have similar voids to fill.

However, patience could be a virtue

In speaking with an agent over the weekend, he suspected values on second-tier pitchers tied to draft-pick compensation like Yovani Gallardo and Ian Kennedy could come down as the winter drags on, just has been the case the last few offseasons with players tied to draft-pick compensation. Those pitchers might not be able to land Jeff Samardzija-type deals, they might have to seek a J.A. Happ-type deal. That means if the Pirates are willing to part with their first-round draft pick, if they are able to clear salary, they could potential be a match for a mid-tier starting pitcher – arguable their biggest need enter Nashville – later this winter.

And since Happ and Burnett combined to fill one rotation spot with 16-9 record and a 2.81 ERA over 227 innings last season, I have to think  starting pitching is at the top of the priority list here in Nashville.

The Pirates might have to wait longer this offseason, but it could be worth it.

THREE UP

>>I’ve had a couple readers independently ask me if Texas Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland might be a fit, at least as a left-handed platoon partner at first base. The Rangers would like to add Mike Napoli – who might also be a fit for the Pirates – but they can’t add him unless they move Moreland or the sizeable contract of Prince Fielder.

The Dallas Morning News’ Evan Grant speculates that if any team is to make a trade off for more “it’s likely to be the Pittsburgh Pirates.”

Wrote Grant: “The Pirates have long had an affinity for Moreland based partly on his relationship with Clint Hurdle.”

Moreland is expected to earn $5 million in 2016 in his final year of arbitration. Moreland hit 23 home runs last season and posted an .812 OPS. He can play a competent first base and is that Adam Lind-tier of player.

>>The Mets have reportedly had Ben Zobrist in for a visit. If the Mets did sign Zobrist that might eliminate one potential suitor for Walker. The Mets might also soon be ready to hand over second baseman to former Pirates prospect Dilson Herrera, who is a quality prospect and a reminder of the danger of trading young talent for rental players.

>>Jung Ho Kang appears ahead of schedule. That’s a very good thing for the Pirates.

https://www.instagram.com/p/-zov37jgOt/?taken-by=sdew0405

 

THREE DOWN

If you missed it, Neal Huntington suggested to Trib colleague Rob Biertempfel in this story story that his mistake with Alvarez was rushing him, that perhaps his career might have been different with the Pirates had the club been more patient.

“My mistake was bringing him to the big leagues before he was ready. That was my mistake. In hindsight, giving him additional time in the minors probably would have been very beneficial. Things might have been different.”

Perhaps,  but I think, ultimately, unlikely.

Alvarez performed well at the minor league level and ultimately he was going to have to make adjustments at the major league level. Development does not stop at the majors. Every successful hitter must adapt and improve. Alvarez developed into an above-average hitter, not an elite one, and it seems unlikely he will. His defense, well, we know that story.

>>Samaradzija’s five-year, $90 million contract is another example of how much teams are willing to pay for mid-tier starting pitching, though Samardzija should bounce back some in San Francisco. The first- and second-tier starters are flying off the board. Scott Kazmir would be a great fit in the Pirates rotation but he’s likely out of the club’s price range.

>>The good news? Alroldis Chapman has reportedly been traded out of the division. The bad news? A fellow NL playoff contender – the Dodgers – now have  ridiculous end-of-game bullpen.

A PODCAST FROM THE WINTER MEETINGS

HE SAID IT

Coonelly: “We expect that the major league payroll will increase again We have flexibility to add by free agency and/or trades but the opportunity that is in front of us is ‘How do we build the club that puts us in the best position to win a championship in 2016?’”

STAT OF THE WEEK: $9,500,000,000

Revenue that Maury Brown projects MLB to produce in 2016. While the Pirates’ local TV deal puts them at a competitive disadvantage, there is still a ton of money flowing into the game.

For instance, the Cardinals’ shiny new $1 billion local TV deal is one reason the club made a play for David Price.

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

I went to the Sharp Edge downtown on Saturday. Delighted to find a number of Belgian beers – including the Duchess sour – on tap. Check it out.

-TS

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Winter Meetings liveblog

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MeetingsLogo.jpegNASHVILLE – Good morning from the sparkly Gaylord Opryland Hotel, which is almost large enough to consider applying for statehood. Here are some updates, which I’ll refresh as often as possible the next few days:

The Pirates have work to do at these Winter Meetings: find a starting pitcher (two would be better), restock the bullpen, dig up a first baseman, upgrade the bench. Any of that could involve trading Neil Walker (the Mets and Orioles have at least lukewarm interest, which could heat up after Ben Zobrist chooses a team and signs) and Mark Melancon (the Astros are sniffing about, but might be wary of that $10 million expected price tag).

Sipping coffee in the lobby a little while ago, I spotted former Pirates pitching guru Jim Benedict. He’s settling into his new gig as the Miami Marlins’ vice president of pitching development. Benedict said it was tough leaving the Pirates, but it was the right time to make a move and the Marlins’ offer was too good to pass up. Benedict will continue to live in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., which is near Bradenton, and commute across the state for work. “This way, when I’m home, I’m off,” Benedict said. “Before, even when I was home, I was still working because it was so close to Pirate City. I’ve got two high school-age kids now, and I don’t want to miss out on all that.” — RB 

UPDATE 12:05 pm ET: The Pirates signed six minor league free agents to deals that include non-roster invites to spring training:  RHP Wilfredo Boscan, INF Cole Figueroa, RHP Deolis Guerra, OF Danny Ortiz, RHP Curtis Partch and LHP Robert Zarate.

Boscan: I'm back!
Boscan: I’m back!

You may remember Boscan’s name, but probably not his face. He was called up from Triple-A Indy to Pittsburgh three times this past season, but never appeared in a game. Guerra went 2-0 with a 6.48 ERA in 10 relief outings with the Pirates.

Figueroa hit .292 with Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. He’s played in 25 total games over the past two years with the Rays and Yankees. A fourth-round pick Iin 2008, Ortiz this year batted .248 with 17 homers for Triple-A Rochester.

Partch had one save, 81 strikeouts and a 3.53 ERA in 47 relief appearances for Triple-A Sacramento. He made 20 outings for the Reds in 2013-14 and went 1-1 with a 4.75 ERA. Zarate was in spring camp this year with the Rays and wound up making 18 appearances (five starts) for Single-A Charlotte and Triple-A Durham. — RB

UPDATE 1:05 pm ET: A source confirmed the Pirates and Rangers are slated to meet and discuss a possible trade involving Texas first baseman Mitch Moreland. The meeting was first reported by Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.

Mitch Moreland: Career .761 OPS
Mitch Moreland: Career .761 OPS

This past season, Moreland, 30, hit .278 with 23 home runs and an .812 OPS.  He is in his final year of arbitration eligibility after making $2.95 milion this year.

A left-handed batter, Moreland might form a platoon righty Michael Morse, who already is under contract for 2016. Moreland’s career stats against lefty pitchers – a .233 average and a .650 OPS — aren’t awful, which could tempt the Pirates to try to move Morse.

A 17th-round pick in 2007, Moreland made his big league debut in 2010. His rookie season also was Pirates manager Clint Hurdle’s lone year as the Rangers’ hitting coach.

In his report, Grant speculated that RHP Charlie Morton could be involved in the swap. While the Pirates probably regret the three-year, $21 million extension they gave Morton in December 2013, I’m not sure they have enough pitching depth to deal him at this point (unless they’re ready to give Tyler Glasnow a long, hard look this spring). Even with Morton in the fold, the Pirates must add at least one starter — and options are dwindling. Trevor Cahill, whom the Pirates looked into as a rotation option, just signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal with the Cubs. – RB

 

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