The Cervelli dilemma (plus a podcast)

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SOUTH HILLS – So it turns out that despite being a season away from free agency, when he will potentially be the top the catcher available in a weaker market in an industry awash in cash, Francisco Cervelli is interested in a contract extension with the Pirates as we reported Wednesday. The Pirates have not yet indicated they are interested.

Normally a player being interested in a contract extension isn’t major news, but this is a little different given Cervelli’s potential position on the open market next offseason, and given the Pirates’ uncertain catching situation in 2017.

(Cervelli-related podcast here)

cervelli
Cervelli likes Pittsburgh, appreciates the chance to become an every day player here, and wants to stay (for the right price). Should the Pirates listen? (Oh, and everybody likes the guy including Burnett who gave Cervelli his All-Star game alternate jersery). Horner photo

A source with knowledge of the situation said a 3y/$39 million deal might keep Cervelli in Pittsburgh. While many fans think that is not much of a discount, if Cervelli repeats his 2015 it’s plausible he could get a four-year deal on the open market with a greater annual average value.

Some will point to his 7 home runs and 43 RBIs and injury history and think such demands are too rich for the Pirates to consider. But this is a player who was second in baseball among catchers in Wins Above Replacement last season – 3.8 WAR – trailing only Buster Posey and ahead of Russell Martin.

This is a player who was the best pitch-framer in baseball last season, a metric prized by the Pirates and becoming more and more prized by the rest of the industry. Cervelli is entering his Age 30 season, though with his time missed he has accumulated less wear-and-tear on his body.

What should the Pirates do?

There was an interesting temperature-taking done by TribLiveRadio’s Tim Benz. If interested, please vote and check out the results of his Twitter poll:

As of 1:30 p.m. Thursday, there  was nearly split vote – 51 in favor, 49 against – extending Cervelli.

Cervelli is interested in an extension but the Pirates, to date, have not shown any interest.

Should the Pirates pick up the phone and talk about a contract? Or should they let Cervelli walk after 2016, possibly pick up a free agent comp pick, and turn to internal options?

 

THE ARGUMENT FOR: Cervelli has always been an above-average hitter and pitch-framer when he’s been healthy. That’s a special package. Catcher is arguably the most important defensive position on the field, and not only is Cervelli an elite framer but this was the average slash line produced by MLB catchers last season: .238/.302/.371 as noted over at MLBTradeRumors.com.

Cervelli’s? .295/.370/.401.

For his career, Cervelli has a .284 average and .357 on-base. Couple that with his glove, and that’s a rare package at catcher.

You could argue he was the most valuable Pirates player in 2015 when combining his receiving and WAR totals, his performance was worth 6.5 wins above an average catcher.

THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: Many will start with the anti-Cervelli-extension argument with this point: 2015 was a breakout season for the Cervelli, who missed 199 games to injury the previous four seasons. The Pirates could be buying high on Cervelli with an extension.

THE ARGUMENT FOR: But Cervelli would argue, and has, that none of his injuries have been chronic (that’s true), many have been flukey in nature and impossible to avoid (also largely true). Cervelli ran into some tough luck, and is probably not going to miss 199 games to injury over the next four seasons – particularly in Pittsburgh where the training and strength staff have done an excellent job of keep players health and on the field. Maybe the Pirates have a competitive advantage in keeping players on the field. They like to believe they do.

THE ARGUMENT FOR: The Pirates are a frugal organization — some suggest cheap — and they have spent a modest amount of money this offseason despite coming off a 98-win campaign. Committing to a player like Cervelli, or Gregory Polanco, players they know well, with contract extensions, might go far in not only locking up a core player(s) but appeasing the fan base. This is a sport awash in revenue sharing, and digital and national TV dollars that are shared equally.

THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: 2016 marks the final season Gerrit Cole will be really cheap as a pre-arbitration eligible player. If Cole’s growth continues he’ll start becoming much more expensive in 2017 and 2018 and 2019. He could earn $20+m in arbitration, eventually. With health, Cole projects to set club records for arbitration earnings, and one-year contract earnings. Cole is the kind of asset the club wants to keep around as long as possible. Polanco is arbitration eligible in 2017 and is a piece the Pirates have expressed interest in extending in the past. If the Pirates don’t, or can’t, pay everyone, they might elect to go cheaper at catcher.

And the Pirates have cheaper options at catcher in the coming years. Reese McGuire (No. 4) and Elias Diaz (No. 6) are top 10 catching prospects, according to MLB.com. McGuire projects as a solid MLB starting catcher, according to scouts I’ve spoke with, while some see Diaz as a reserve. McGuire does have to answer questions about his bat, but the defensive skill-set could be special.

THE ARGUMENT FOR: While the Pirates have cheaper options nearing the majors, all prospects are suspects until they prove the ability to perform at the major league level.

Do the Pirates want to break in young catchers during the last two years they have Andrew McCutchen under control? If the club wants to maximize its window during the McCutchen-Cole-Jung Ho Kang-Starling Marte era, perhaps extending Cervelli makes sense.

The Pirates have recently paid out a contract identical to what Cervelli is asking.

The Pirates gave Francisco Liriano a three-year, $39 million deal prior to the last season. Liriano had produced 6.6 WAR in the three proceeding seasons. Cervelli? 5.9 WAR in the three proceeding seasons.

THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: There is a counter argument that suggests $30+ million could be spent elsewhere on the roster. Say Cervelli receives a three-year, $39-million deal from some team. While in a vacuum it might produce surplus value if he stays on the field — assuming one Win Above Replacement is truly $7-8 million — the Pirates don’t employ the same $/WAR valuations that some analysts use as a standard.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington  at the winter meetings:

“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.”

Moreover, the Pirates tend to spread risk and not concentrate it in one player and one contract.

THE ARGUMENT FOR: No team prizes the low strike like the Pirates. They have led MLB in groundball rate each of the last three years, and target the lower portion of the strike zone more than any other team.

What is the easiest pitch to frame? The low strike.

It’s in part why so many pitchers have had success in Pittsburgh recently: they’ve been working the bottom of the zone and throwing to excellent receivers in Cervelli, Martin and Chris Stewart. It’s in part why the lower part of the strike zone has been growing.

THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: Not only has the commissioner suggested shrinking the bottom of the strike zone (to create more offense), which would  erode some of the value from pitch framing, but umpires might be starting to become aware of which catchers are making them look bad. Over at Fangraphs.com a couple days ago, Jeff Sullivan wondered if we might be beginning to see the end of pitch framing.

Still, until computers call balls and strikes there will always be bias in officiating and an opportunity to frame pitches, but it’s possible that top framers begin to lose some value.

***

There are a bunch of different factors at play in the Cervelli decision. What is known is that he would like to stay, he’s valuable, and if Cervelli repeats his 2015 he’s going to get paid by someone. But there are risks involved, and the Pirates have internal options closer to the majors compared to when Martin left.

So should the Pirates reach out or stand pat?

-TS

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One year in, Manfred’s No. 1 focus is spot on (and some other matters)

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SOUTH HILLS – In a Q & A with Yahoo!  Sports on the anniversary of his first year in office, Rob Manfred said what he is most proud of is his “One Baseball” initiative, an effort  to grow youth and amateur participation in baseball.

Baseball is becoming not only an upper-middle class sport, in part due to coast, but a sport described as a pastoral game is being played less and less in rural areas. They don’t play baseball at Jordy Mercer’s high school any longer in Taloga, Okla.  Much has been written about its demographic problem within the sport in the States. We wrote about some of these negative trend lines for the sport this spring.

Not only must baseball improve its participation level to grow to expand its future MLB player pool, but kids that play the sport at a young age are more likely to be future fans of the sport – and paying customers.

manfred
Manfred’s first year on the job should be encouraging to baseball fans. (AP photo)

 

Manfred has identified the issue most important to the sport’s long-term health.

Related to that is  football’s CTE/concussion crisis, perhaps an opportunity for the baseball, though not a politically correct one to openly speak about as interviewer Jeff Passan notes in a relevant question  …

“(Passan): How does baseball respond to football’s concussion issues without looking like ambulance chasers? Because those are the sort of kids you want playing baseball, but nobody feels good profiting off a tragedy.

“(Manfred) I have a rule: I don’t talk about other sports. I don’t compare ourselves to other sports. But what I will say is that I think it’s very important in the youth space for us to be emphasizing the positives of our game. It’s a very safe game for the very best athletes that presents the very, very best economic opportunity in terms of dollars, guaranteed dollars, length of career. And that’s a big deal. For us, it’s about accentuating our positives.”

Regardless of the on goings of other sports, baseball has for too long neglected future generations and that is perhaps part of the reason football has surpassed it in popularity.

Much must be done.

There needs to be more done at youth and Division I college levels to increase participation. Games at the MLB level must be quicker (baseball is working on that). Stars like Andrew McCutchen should be marketed more effectively. Hey, maybe play a World Series game that ends before 12 a.m. est.

But at the very least Manfred has identified baseball’s No. 1 strategic issue.

***

Baseball is positioned relatively well in one important area that threatens other sports to a greater degree.

Cable TV cord cutting is a real problem for pro sports leagues that rely heavily upon cable advertising and subscription fees. ESPN, for instance, has lost millions of subscribers.  But baseball is relatively well positioned thanks to MLB Advanced Media (BAM) dollars and technology. Baseball has tremendous revenue streams pouring in thanks to its mobile app and MLB.TV. It’s technology is so good it powers HBO’s streaming service and the NHL has handed over its digital operations to baseball, at least for the short term.

Baseball is well situated in this big data and high tech age.

(Manfred) “Cord-cutting is a concern for us. The biggest concern with it is we don’t know exactly – nobody knows – how big and persistent this phenomenon is going to be. The cable model has served this industry really well. Anything that interrupts that model is something we have to worry about. Having said that, I do think our over-the-top capacity at BAM (MLB Advanced Media) and BAM Tech gives us downside protection that is a little more robust than other businesses.”

If the cable bubble bursts, baseball will be hurt but perhaps not so  much as other leagues.

***

Baseball has its own unique problems, too. There is the rapid decline of offense, the expansion of the strike zone, and trying to improve the pace of play. Some of these issues are at odds with each other.

For instance, there was progress made with pace of play in 2015, but Manfred suggested investigating the idea of shrinking the lower portion of the strike zone to increase offense, which is nonsensical since a smaller strike zone equals more pitches, more walks, and longer games. It is at odds with quickening play.

Manfred did pump the brakes on the DH coming to the NL. (I prefer the NL style of play, which also quickens games with the pitcher batting).

All in all, Manfred’s first year, was a successful one. Yes, his comments on restricting defensive positioning were met with hostility but that was a minor offense. The sport is breaking revenue records. There was parity in the postseason as the Royals and Mets met in the World Series. There are a tremendous number of young stars as the game trends younger out of the PED era, allowing smaller markets that draft and develop well a better chance at success.

There appears to be a commissioner who understands the big issues (including payroll imbalance) and opportunities. The game is much bigger than one man but it helps to have an effective steward.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Replacing Cervelli — the future at catcher

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SOUTH HILLS – There has been so much discussion, and rightfully so, about the window of opportunity that is the Pirates’ final three years of club control over Andrew McCutchen, and the difficulty in replacing him. But McCutchen is not the only unique talent that will be challenging to replace.

Another significant challenge will be in replacing Francisco Cervelli
- assuming he can stay on the field in 2016 like he did in 2015.

Just as a year ago with Russell Martin, if you combine Cervelli’s 3.8 Wins Above Replacement last season – which does not include pitch-framing runs saved – with his MLB-best framing runs saved runs saved he was arguably more valuable than McCutchen.

McGuire
McGuire projects to be an above-average defensive catcher at the MLB level and could challenge Austin Meadows as the most valuable position player the Pirates have drafted since McCutchen (Getty images)

Cervelli is a free agent after the season and could be the top free agent catcher on the market depending upon how Matt Wieters‘ 2016 goes. I suspect he will be the most valuable catcher on the market if he can replicate most of his 2015 value. He will be nearly impossible to sign to a contract extension. As we saw with Martin, the industry now prizes defensive skills at catcher.

Eventually the well of elite Yankees pitch-framing catchers that the Pirates went to three straight offseasons (See: Martin, Chris Stewart and Cervelli) will run dry.

The Pirates eventually need to develop their own defensive stalwart behind the plate.

The good news?

Reese McGuire ranks as MLB.com’s No. 4 catching  prospect.  And it’s a ranking based mostly on his precocious defensive ability. He projects to be an outstanding defensive catcher in every facet of the game.

“McGuire’s defense still ranks ahead of his offense at this point, but the 14th overall pick of 2013 he made strides with his approach during the regular season and finished with a strong showing at the plate in the Arizona Fall League. He has good bat-to-ball skills as well as a knack for using the entire field, and the gap power he’s shown thus far should improve as he becomes more selective. Even if the bat doesn’t develop, McGuire’s defensive chops alone could make him a big league regular behind the plate.”

What’s so impressive about McGuire? He’s been calling his own game since he was 10 years old. He’s said to be an outstanding receiver. If he frames pitches anywhere near as well as Cervelli or Stewart, you can make the argument he’s the No. 2 prospect in the organization behind Tyler Glasnow.

The bad news? McGuire’s might not be an option until 2018, though if he doesn’t require a full Triple-A season he could arrive in 2017.

The Pirates’ 2013 first round – which also includes Austin Meadows – has a chance to be special. And it needs to be for the Priates to create another special core, another window of opportunity.

THREE UP

>>One thing projection systems don’t take into account (The Fangraphs.com Steamer projection has the Pirates as an 83-win team in 2016, missing the playoffs by a game) is a player like Andrew McCutchen clearly having his performance affected by knee injury last April. During the winter meetings Neal Huntington said McCutchen was having a normal offseason, to his knowledge, and having a healthy McCutchen entering the spring should mean an extra win or two.

McCutchen produced a 5.8 WAR in 2015, his lowest since 2011. If he can get back to his 2014 level (6.9) or 2013 (8.4) that could be big.

The Pirates could have 1-3 hidden wins with just better health from its star. And the Pirates have placed a huge emphasis on injury prevention and improving player efficiency, which seems to have had a massive impact on each of the last two seasons.

>>Why would the Pirates prefer newly claimed and acquired A.J. Schugel over the bigger arm of Yoervis Medina, who was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot last week? Explains MLBTR’s Steve Adams in this post:

“Medina delivered strong results for the 2013-14 Mariners, pitching to a combined 2.81 ERA with 9.4 K/9, 4.9 BB/9 and a 53.5 percent ground-ball rate before taking a significant step backwards in 2015. This past season, he logged a 4.71 ERA with an unsightly 16-to-11 K/BB ratio in 21 innings for the Mariners and Cubs. Notably, his fastball velocity, which had averaged 94.8 mph in 2014, sat a full two miles per hour lower at 92.8 in 2015, and his ground-ball rate dipped to 36.8 percent. 

“Medina’s struggles weren’t confined to the Major Leagues, either. He also recorded 40 innings of Triple-A work between the two teams but limped to a 5.62 ERA with 8.8 K/9 against 5.0 BB/9.”

In a very limited sample with Arizona last season (9 innings), Schugel posted a 61 percent groundball rate and heavily relied upon a two-seam fastball.

>>Why extend a multi-year extension to Stewart? Framing ages well, he’s a student of the game, and catching depth is so important.

THREE DOWN

>> Pittsburgh ranks as the  nation’s No. 23 TV market, according to Nielsen, Kansas City is 33rd. The Royals had only 200,000 more in regular season attendance than the Pirates. While the Royals enjoyed a postseason revenue boost their local TV deal ranks among the least lucrative along with Pittsburgh.

Yet, a year after producing a $115 million payroll, the Royals have given out $70-million contracts to Ian Kennedy – last week – and Alex Gordon this offseason. The Royals also signed Joakim Soria to a three-year, $25 million contract this offseason. The Royals have proven a bottom-tier market can make significant free agent additions.

The Pirates? As we know, it’s been an offseason of value shopping. (Though value shopping is an area where the Pirates have excelled.)

It’s true it is easier to win in a smaller market. Baseball is nearly a $10 billion industry and its growing digital and national TV dollars are shared equally. Free agency has been de-vauled with the game trending younger out of the PED Era. It’s true the Pirates have squeezed so much value out of limited dollars. Still, no team can fill every need internally through draft and development.

And with where the Pirates are on the win curve, projected to finish just one game out of the playoffs by the Steamer (Fangraphs) projection, has the front office been given enough flexibility this offseason?

>>The loss of Tyrone Brooks to the commissioner’s office is another blow to the Pirates front office which also lost Jim Benedict and Marc DelPiano to the Marlins this offseason. It’s in part the price of success.  It’s a copy-cat business. Good organizations are able to develop talent on the field, and in the front office, to replace departures. Benedict, due to his success with Pirates pitchers, figures to be the most difficult to replace. But Brooks oversaw the Pirates pro and international scouting efforts and played an integral role in the Jung Ho Kang bid and signing.

>>The Pirates were reportedly interested in bringing back left-handed specialist Antonio Bastrado, who agreed to a two-year, $12 million deal. Robert Murray reported the Pirates offered a two-year, $8 million offer (which was Fangraphs.com contract prediction for Bastardo). Without Bastardo, the Pirates will struggle to set up platoon advantages out of the bullpen. Clint Hurdle doesn’t like to change relievers in mid inning – and, it’s worked pretty well the last three years – and employs top lefty Tony Watson strictly as an eight-inning man. Perhaps, the only situational lefty option at the moment is Kyle Lobstein.

 STAT OF THE WEEK: 14

Number of times in MLB history as a club made four straight postseason berths.

HE SAID IT

“That all barely fits on my business card,” said Brooks of his new position in the commissioner’s office: MLB’s front office and field staff diversity pipeline program.

-TS

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Can the Pirates beat their preseason forecast again … and again and again? (And a podcast)

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SOUTH HILLS –  So you might have seen the Fangraphs.com 2016 projection released this week that pegs the Pirates as an 83-team in 2016, finishing 12 games behind the Chicago Cubs. The projection has the Pirates a game out of making the playoffs, finishing one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the final NL wild card spot.

Tribune-Review colleague Rob Biertempfel broke down the projection in a blog post on Monday.

On one hand, we can understand why the Cubs have a 10-plus game edge over the Pirates after an offseason of impact acquisitions.

But should we trust the Pirates’ projection?

Meeting-or-exceeding-expectations
Pirates have checked the far right box in each of the last three years. Can they do it for a fourth?

After all, over the last three years the Pirates have exceeded Fangraphs.com’s preseason projections by a whopping 32 wins, or 11.6 wins per season.

That’s remarkable.

The following are the last three season’s of Fangraphs.com projections versus the Pirates actual final record.

YEAR//FANGRAPHS PROJ. WINS//ACTUAL WINS

  • 2013 – 80 – 94  (+14)
  • 2014 – 84 – 88  (+4)
  • 2015  – 84- 98  (+14)

If one instance can be written off as a fluke, if two can be indicative of a trend, three straight occurrences should certainly have our attention.

So what is going on here?

2015 was a poor year for projections in general.

Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system pegged the Royals as a 79-win team. The Royals went on to win the World Series. Some bright chaps over at fivethirtyeight.com  tried to understand why the projection systems are failing at a greater rate:

One reason:  “Teams may be better now at assessing themselves than public metrics are … They could be constructing their rosters in a way that would amplify team-level errors in the public forecasts — for example, loading up on publicly underrated players — even if the player-level accuracy of public projections hasn’t changed much.”

Another reason:  “Baseball is in the midst of a historic youth movement.  … For hitters ages 24 and younger, we found that absolute prediction errors in their rate statistics are on the rise since 2009, with an even more pronounced trend toward inaccuracy if outliers are given more weight. Since those players now contribute more to the game than at any other point in recent memory, they could be playing a role in driving the recent projection crisis.”

One more reason: “Then again, maybe it’s all just luck — we mean literally. By definition, the compression of team records across MLB means that random variance is playing a larger role in the standings than it used to.”

How does this perhaps relate to the Pirates?

*Some of it could be tied to luck and greater parity throughout the sport. Moreover, teams tend to be luckier in one-run games if they have a bullpen edge. Pirates have had an elite bullpen for most of the last three years with a remarkable winning percentage when leading after the seventh inning. Perhaps this is why the Pirates have paid such attention to their bullpen this offseason?

*While the Pirates have not been an extremely young team, young (or inexperienced) hitters like Starling Marte, Josh Harrison and Jung Ho Kang have out-produced their projections during at least one of the last three seasons.

*The Pirates have found undervalued players (Russ Martin, Francisco Liriano, AJ Burnett, Francisco Cervelli, etc, etc, etc).

But I think explaining the Pirates’ ability to beat their projections goes beyond the points outlined by 538.com.

The Pirates have benefited from strategies that projections don’t fully account for from defensive shifts, to increasing groundball rate, to the emphasis on pitch framing. Those strategies create value.

There is something else projection systems don’t account for: valued added from coaching staff.

Projection systems are, generally, very good at predicting player growth. But they are not perfect. The systems’ predictions are based upon the player’s age, past performance, and comparable historic examples of similar players and how they improved or declined. They do not account for  the player’s environment and support staff. The systems do not take into account for what a Ray Searage- inspired mechanical tweak might mean.

They do also not take into account that Andrew McCutchen was playing the first month of last season on one leg. That’s why MLB Network’s Shedder forecast has McCutchen dropping to their fourth-rated MLB center fielder to open 2016. I think most folks would only consider taking Mike Trout over McCutchen.

The projections also don’t account for a competitive advantage in keeping players healthy and effective, something the Pirates have enjoyed the last two seasons.

Are the Pirates headed back to the playoffs? It will be a more difficult challenge this year as the NL has improved.

But the Pirates are probably a good bet to again exceed their presason win projections.

PODCAST LINK!!!
http://files.triblive.com/podcasts/sportstalk/119PIR16.mp3

50 minutes of baseball chatter to help you through this frigid week …

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Melancon’s true value? Locke has more value? And much more …

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates agreed with five players to one-year deals to avoid arbitration on Friday, meaning unlike last offseason they will avoid taking any players through the process. That’s a good thing as it’s a process which typically builds little goodwill as teams pick apart a player’s flaws before a three-person arbitration panel.

By far the most lucrative deal was awarded to the player who figures to spend the least amount of time on the field in 2016.

Unless the Pirates trade Mark Melancon at some point in 2016 – which is plausible – the Pirates will tie up 10 percent of their payroll to a pitcher who projects to  throw about five percent of the club’s innings.

That seems like a losing transaction on the surface for the club — but that’s only true if all innings are created equal.

If all innings are created equal, then relievers are often overpaid. After all, Melancon was only worth 1.5 Wins Above Replacement in his record-setting saves season last year.

mark-melancon-mlb-cincinnati-reds-pittsburgh-pirates-850x560
Melancon, like any relief pitcher, is tricky to evaluate but he could produce value on a $10 million deal if viewing it through one particular lens (horner photo)

But what if applying WAR – an accumulative statistic that is tied to both production and volume of play – and judging deals for relievers based upon dollar-per-WAR is the wrong approach? Some believe it is.

As we’ve written about earlier this offseason, perhaps it is better to evaluate Melancon based upon another fancy stat: Win Probability Added (WPA).

WPA captures the change in win expectancy of each plate appearance a player is involved with and accumulates a wins-added (or subtracted) value over the course of the season. While it is still tied to volume, it’s different than WAR in that not all production is graded in a vacuum. WPA is tied to situations. Three outs in the ninth have a greater impact on win probability than three outs in the first inning.

While one Win Above Replacement is estimated to be worth $7-8 million plus on the open market, what if one WPA is also, say, worth $7-8 million plus?

As we’ve noted in this blog before, Melancon finished third in baseball in WPA in 2015 with 5.2 wins added. The two pitchers ahead of him? Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta.

Not bad company.

And it wasn’t a one-year fluke. Melancon also finished 19th in the NL in WPA in 2014, ahead of Zack Greinke at No. 20.

If one places the same unit-per-$ value on WPA compared to WAR than Melancon is significant value. If using WPA to evaluate, it could be said most relievers effective in high-leverage situations are undervalued. Perhaps that’s why the Pirates have placed a priority on the bullpen.

Of the Pirates’ projected $95 million Opening Day payroll (See details below), the Pirates will open with some $23.5 million committed to the bullpen, or a quarter of their resources.

That’s the greatest commitments in dollars to a bullpen the Pirates have made under Neal Huntington.

I asked Huntington about WAR vs. WPA at the winter meetings. His answer:

“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.”

Melancon earned by far the biggest contract in the bullpen, but through the lens of WPA, he could provide the biggest value of 2016.

Perhaps the big bet on Melancon, and, really, the bullpen, is the Pirates’ value play of 2016.

THREE UP

>>I spoke to one AL scout this offseason who believes Jeff Locke has another level we’ve yet to see over a full season. And while we’re familiar with Locke’s short comings, Locke is a lefty whose velocity jumped by a full mph last year from 90.5 mph in 2014 to 91.8 in 2015. That Ray Searage is remaking his mechanics seems like a worthwhile experiment to watch this spring. This might be Locke’s last chance with the Pirates as Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow are closing in.

>>Perhaps the Orioles were only bidding against themselves for Chris Davis, still it keeps Davis out of the NL Central. Many had had him as a potential fit in St. Louis earlier this offseason. The Cardinals have had more losses than additions this offseason.

>>Even though the majority of their roster appears set, the Pirates still figure to have some financial flexibility. This is a link to some reclamation projection pitchers remaining on the market. There could be an excellent deal or two in this group. The Pirates expressed some interest in Mat Latos early last month. FWIW, Cliff Lee and AJ Burnett share Arkansas roots and an agent.

 

THREE DOWN

>>Despite record PNC Park attendance  in 2015 and millions of new media dollars continuing to pour into the coffers of all MLB owners, the Pirates have shaped much of their Opening Day roster and are in line to increase payroll by 6 percent if they make no other additions. It would be the lowest percentage increase since the club decreased payroll entering 2010.

>>To be fair, the Pirates increased payroll by 20 percent last season and have increased payroll every year since 2010. But also consider that 21 teams entered last season with 25-man Opening Day payrolls of $100 million or greater. The Pirates appear likely to fall short of that mark, though their 40-man will likely cross the barrier by the end of the season.

Still, there’s plenty of time remaining — and plenty of value out there in the pitching reclamation ranks — for the Pirates to make another addition if they choose. Here is the current payroll situation for 2016:

GUARANTEED CONTRACTS

Francisco Liriano $13.7 million

Andrew McCutchen $13.2m

Jon Niese $9m

Michael Morse $5m

Josh Harrison $5m

John Jaso $4m

Neftali Feliz $3.9m

Starling Marte $3.3 m

Juan Nicasio $3m

Jung Ho Kang $2.5m

Sean Rodriguez $2.5m

Ryan Vogelsong $2m

12 players – $67.1 m

 

ARBITRATION-AVOIDNING 1-YEAR DEAL EARNINGS

Mark Melancon – $9.7m

Francisco Cervelli – $3.5m

Tony Watson – $3.4m

Jeff Locke – $3.1m

Jared Hughes – $2.8m

Jordy Mercer – $2.0m

6 players – $24.5m

CONTRACT EXTENSION

Chris Stewart – details not yet available
So that’s 18 players set to earn $89.6million in 2016. We don’t yet have the details of Stewart’s extension, figure it raises the guaranteed dollars owed to 19 players to around 92 million.

As of now six pre-arb players like Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco will add about another $2.5 million to the Opening Day 25-man payroll, which figures to come in around $95 million.

>>Francisco Cervelli was projected to earn $2.5 million by MLB Trade Rumors in arbitration and he topped that by $1 million with a one-year $3.5 million deal. Perhaps one reason why? Agents and arbitrators are becoming savvier with advanced analytics, which place a greater value on a master pitch framer like Cervelli. That’s bad news for teams in search of value.

 cervelli

Cervelli should be in good spirits after he beat his arbitration projection by 30 percent (Horner photo)

STAT OF THE WEEK: 10 of 14

Number of AFC title games over the last 14 years Peyton Manning or Tom Brady have participated in over the last 14 years. If you include Ben Roethlisberger, the three have combined to participate in 13 of 14.

NFL parity!

 

HE SAID IT

Ray Searage on the secret to his ability to connect to pitchers, from AJ Burnett to Charlie Morton to

“You take each one and work with them individually. You start to find out what they’re all about, what their personalities are, what their likes and dislikes are. Basically, it’s building a relationship with those guys.”

HE SAID IT II

Polanco on a potential contract extension

“I’m open to it. Whatever (offer) they bring, I’ll check it out. I never say never.”

If you believe in Polanco, now is the time to buy.

HE WROTE IT:

Peter Gammons writes on  scouts and analytics, in an environment getting tougher and tougher for scouts:

“Scouts, real scouts who do not sit in lunch rooms, but beat the bushes and know with whom to get the personal information on makeup, health, etc. that make and break careers, are finding it increasingly difficult to find jobs because of teams that do not care to spend the time dissecting analytical and real, trusted scouting eyes.

What would the Astros be today if they didn’t go by analytics and take Mark Appel instead ofKris Bryant; fortunately, Bobby Heck was still scouting director the previous year and insisted on Carlos Correa.

Two years ago, when they traded Enrique Hernandez and and Jarred Cosart to the Marlins for Colin Moran and Jake Marisnick, a young scout named Alex Jacobs pleaded with them to get a Gulf Coast League teenage pitcher named Francis Montes. They had no analytics on him, but they went with Alex’s call. Montes this week was listed as the second best prospect in the organization. That same scout pleaded for a 17-year old Phillies shortstop in the GCL named Jonathan Arauz. And some in the organization think Arauz could be a bigtime prospect.

Databases+Eyes work.

 

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

The Revenant. Not for the faint of heart, but a very good picture.

-TS

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Fangraphs looks at future and sees …

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The folks at Fangraphs gazed into their crystal balls and predicted the Pirates will finish the 2016 season in the middle of the pack in the NL Central.

It can be a magic number, but not when finishing third means missing the playoffs.
It can be a magic number, but not when finishing third in the division means missing the playoffs.

The website’s Steamer projections slot the Pirates third in the division with 83 wins (.514) — and expects them to sit out the postseason for the first time since 2012. The Cubs are the likely division champs, according to the site, with a projected 95-67 record. The Cardinals are second at 84-78 and will play the Giants (86-76) in the NL wild-card game.

Taking a closer look at some of the Steamer data …

Cole will carry the load for the starting rotation in 2016.
Cole will carry the load for the starting rotation in 2016.

Starting pitching: The Pirates have a predicted starting rotation WAR of 13.7 — which puts them in the middle of the 30 MLB teams, but also has them below clubs such as the Padres, White Sox, Red Sox and Mariners. The top three are the Dodgers (18.5), Mets (18.4) and Cubs (18.3).

It’s no surprise the Pirates’ top two starters are expected to be Gerrit Cole (4.3 WAR) and Francisco Liriano (3.7). The rest of the rotation is underwhelming: Jon Niese (1.6), Jeff Locke (1.6) and Ryan Vogelsong (0.6). Tyler Glasnow will pitch in the majors at some point this year; Fangraphs pegs him for 55 innings and a 0.7 WAR.

The only starter projected to top 200 innings pitched is Cole (206.0), although Liriano (185.0) is close to what he worked last year (186.2). Vogelsong is listed at 109.0 innings, which falls in line with an expected midseason arrival by either Glasnow or Jameson Taillon.

Bullpen: If the rotation falters, the relievers will pick up the slack, right? Um, well … Fangraphs gave the Pirates’ pen a 2.8 WAR, which ranks 18th in the majors. The site doesn’t think much of the Pirates’ offseason additions, either. Only Juan Nicasio (0.3) gets a postitive WAR. Neftali Feliz, Guido Knudson, Trey Haley and Yoervis Medina each has a 0.0 predicted WAR.

All in all, Fangraphs expects the pitching staff to take a step back this year — going from 3.68 runs allowed per game last season to 4.07  RA/G in 2016. The offense could be about the same (4.30 runs scored per game in 2015; 4.20 RS/G in 2016), but the Pirates’ expected run differential shrinks from plus-101 last year to just plus-21 this season.

John Jaso had a 2.6 WAR with 360 PA with the Mariners in 2012.
John Jaso produced a career-best 2.6 WAR in 2012, when he got 360 PA with the Mariners.

Offense:  Fangraphs expects John Jaso (402 plate appearances) to get the bulk of the playing time at first base ahead of Mike Morse (175 PA). Jaso gets a 1.1 predicted WAR, meaning first base (1.3 overall WAR) will remain the Pirates’ weakest position.

The situation is only slightly sunnier at shortstop (1.4 overall WAR), where Jordy Mercer gets a 1.1 WAR. Jung Ho Kang (2.7 WAR) is expected to recover quickly from leg surgery and get 560 plate apps at third base.

The highest projected WAR among Pirates batters belongs to, of course, Andrew McCutchen (5.8). Starling Marte (3.9) is second. Gregory Polanco (2.0) has some work to do.

 — RB

 

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Pirates eye former cricket star

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powellCricketBRADENTON, Fla. — When Kieran Powell, a former international cricket player, arrived at IMG Academy a bit more than a month ago, he recorded a video of his first baseball workout. Although Powell is a natural athlete who was a standout batsman for his native West Indies, his baseball skills were … well, pretty awful.

“If you saw that video compared to now, you’d be able to tell there’s a distinct difference,” Powell said with a laugh.

“He probably wanted to burn that video,” joked Dan Simonds, IMG’s director of baseball.

Powell said the adjustment from cricket to baseball wasn’t too difficult for him. “The hardest thing is trying to keep your bat (level),” Powell said. “Apart that from that, it’s getting used to using a big glove instead of your two hands.”

After a dispute with the West Indies cricket federation about an excused absence from competition in 2014, Powell walked away from the sport. His agent convinced him to come to America and give baseball a try. He has been workout out at IMG for about five weeks.

“Just getting him adjusted to the game was the biggest thing,” Simonds said. “This is very unusual for us to take a guy who’s never played baseball, especially at 25 years old. He’s raw, but he’s a very good athlete. He’s got a good skill set.”

Wednesday, the Pirates and 10 other teams — including the Giants, Reds, Yankees and Cubs — sent scouts to watch Powell in a private workout at IMG Academy in Bradenton. He also has had one-on-one tryouts with the Mets, Brewers and Dodgers.

Pirates director of player personnel Tyrone Brooks and director of Latin American scouting Rene Gayo attended the half-hour session on a chilly, overcast afternoon. Powell was clocked in a sprint, made throws from right field to third base and home plate, and took a couple dozen swings.

“A slow start, but it ended well,” Powell said. “It took me a while to warm up.”

Powell certainly is fast, as a couple of scouts nodded as they checked their stopwatches after his sprint. The rest of the workout didn’t go as well. Powell’s first throw overshot third base and scattered the folks standing near the dugout. He also had a bit of trouble scooping balls that were hit to him on the hop. None were hit to hit on the fly.

A left-handed batter, Powell made decent contact and sent a couple of balls over the outfield fence.

When it was over, the scouts left without showing any emotion, which is not unusual for a workout. Powell seemed optimistic he can get a minor league deal and reach the majors “in two or three years.” Simonds seemed upbeat: “I think he’s ready for the next step.”

Still, no professional cricket player has ever made the jump to MLB. Rinku Singh, one of the “Million-Dollar Arms” the Pirates signed out of India, played cricket recreationally and so far has not made it past Class A in the minors.

Powell smiled and changed the topic when I asked if he planned to return to cricket if baseball did not pan out.

– RB

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Does Jaso fill another void?

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SOUTH HILLS – On Tuesday I spoke with the man that correctly identified Francisco Cervelli as the top value pick of the last offseason, and I asked him if he liked any of the Pirates additions this offseason.

Former Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd offered a one-word response: “Jaso.”

Jaso, John Jaso.

O’Dowd admitted he wasn’t sure if Jaso could covert to first base where he has played all of five career innings, but unlike Pedro Alvaerz last winter, Jaso at least showed up to mini-camp in Bradenton, Fla. this week to work at the new position with a new look: flowing dreadlocks spilling from his cap.

If nothing else, attending minicamp gives the appearance of commitment to a position change.

Jaso

“I’ve always had the hair, but I just went to the (dreads) about five months ago,” Jaso said. (Horner photo)

This blog also endorsed the Jaso signing as our favorite offseason move by the Pirates (the Juan Nicasio signing being the runner-up).

O’Dowd loves the professional, competitive nature of Jaso’s at bats. As you probably know, Jaso has an excellent command of the strike zone.

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.

(Has OBP become undervalued on the market with the focus now swinging to defense, contact hitting and athleticism?)

We have noted how his left-handed bat is a welcomed addition to the Pirates’ right-handed heavy lineup and left-handed friendly(er) PNC Park.

So new hair and a new defensive home, and Jaso should perhaps give the Pirates something else new: a lead-off hitter.

Jaso’s most common batting order position last season lead-off. In 151 plate appearances there, he hit .323 with a .404 OBP and .523 slugging.

Not bad!

It’s also the most common batting order position for his career where he’s logged 517 plate appearances, slashing .296/.380/.467.

Why has a slow-footed catcher/DH hit lead-off so often?

In part because he’s played for analytically-leaning clubs that value OBP above all else in the A’s and Rays. Well,  the Pirates are another such club.

On a team without an ideal lead-off hitter profile, on a team that has searched so long for a lead-off hitter, it makes sense to hit Jaso there.

He will work counts.

He will get on base.

He will better set the table for Andrew McCutchen.

The A’s and Rays have signed up on the idea. Will Clint Hurdle and the Pirates?

-TS

 

 

 

 

 

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Fixing Feliz

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SOUTH HILLS – Everyone has always like Neftali Feliz’s arm.

When he was traded from the Atlanta Braves to the Texas Rangers in a package for Mark Teixeira last decade, he was one of the top young arms in the sport. Perhaps the Pirates can extract more value out of his arm than the Rangers and the Detroit Tigers were able draw in recent years.

The Pirates hope Feliz can help the club build a super pen, and at $3.9 million he’s their second-biggest offseason free agent signing.

There is work to be done with Feliz, and like Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong, he is a different type of reclamation project for the club. The Pirates preferred rebuild model (big velocity and swing and miss stuff – wayward control to fix) is not in supply this season.

Unlike, say, Francisco Liriano, AJ Burnett or even Arquimedes Caminero, Feliz, despite his big arm, is not a bat miser. He hasn’t been a strikeout pitcher.

Feliz blog

Fixing pitchers this season will not require some of the old formulate – and some new pathways – from the Pirates

 

Despite a 95 mph fastball, Feliz has not struck out better than a batter per nine innings, let alone 7.8 batters per nine innings, since 2010. His swinging strike rate (9.7 percent) has not been at 11 or better since 2011. That is not the profile of an end-game reliever.

Remember, a 95 mph fastball is typically not a strike out pitch. MLB batters are too good. But it sets up quality off-speed pitches to become strikeout pitches.

One challenge with Feliz might be to try and improve his swinging strike rate, through better breaking stuff. The off-speed pitches Feliz has employed since 2011 – slider (-2.6), curveball (0.5) changeup (-1.6) – have all been below average according to Fangrpahs.com’s run values of the pitches. The Pirates believe they saw improvements in his slider last season.

Also, unlike Liriano, Burnett and Edinson Volquez, Feliz has not shown a history of a groundball pitcher. He’s actually an extreme flyball pitcher. He has a 35.8 percent groundball rate for his career, and 37.5 percent last season.

He’s relied heavily on his four-seam fastball.

For his career, 68.8 percent of his pitches have been four-seam fastballs — another factor that explains his surprisingly pedestrian strikeout rate — and only 2.6 percent of his offerings have been 6.6 percent fastballs.

While he threw his four-seamer slightly less last season (56.6 pct.), and his two-seamer slightly more (6.6 pct.), that’s well out-of-line with the Pirates’ and their two-seam philosophy.

The Pirates led baseball with a 21.6 percent groundball rate last season.

The Pirates have led baseball in groundball rate in each of the last three seasons.

Here is where the big opportunity might be.

Expect the Pirates to try and have Feliz jump his two-seam rate like they have done with the vast majority of pitchjers who have entered the organization. A 94 mph two seamer, can be a dominant pitch. Expect Feliz to throw fewer four-seamers.

Signing Feliz, is not a reason to dispatch Mark Melancon, who is on a different level. Melancon is an elite, end-game reliever.

Even if Feliz cannot return to dominant form, perhaps he can be transformed into a groundball machine, he can become another Jared Hughes.

There’s nothing wrong with another Hughes – who will becoming more expensive through arbitration – in a bullpen.

THREE UP

>>While many are penciling in Michal Morse to be John Jaso’s platoon partner at first base, I’d put some money on Jason Rogers, who might be the better overall hitter at this point despite his lack of MLB experience. Rogers posted a .800 OPS in a small-sample with the Brewers and he has a real pop and a career .372 OBP in the minors. He deserves a long look at MLB level at a corner spot.

>>While not many are overly excited about the Ryan Vogelsong signing, he contains some upside as his expected walk rate was significantly lower than his 3.9 walks-per-nine mark last season. Expected walk rate is tied to the amount of first-pitch strikes a pitcher throws. Expect his walk rate to decline to the 2.9-3.0 range in 2016.

>> The good news about Josh Bell’s 2015 splits? He crushed right-handed pitching (1.072) in 100 plate appearances in Triple-A. In 300 Double-A at bats, he posted an .868 OPS against righties. The switch-hitter was effective as a left-handed hitter in 2014, too.

This is important because PNC Park is more favorable to left-handed hitters and the NL Central, and at least in the near term, is a right-handed pitcher heavy division.

THE DOWN

>>But last season Bell, posted a .643 OPS as a right-handed hitter in Double-A, and a .600 OPS as a right-handed hitter in Triple-A. He posted a .695 OPS against lefties in Double-A in 2014, though he was better at Advanced-A where he posted a .848 OPS against lefties.

It’s not a huge sample, but Bell does have to become more consistent against lefties. If he does, a switch-hitting first baseman would be a luxury for the Pirates which wouldn’t have to tie up two 25-man roster spots to form a first base platoon.

>>The first two first-round picks under Huntington, Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez, have both been jettisoned this offseason. That the Pirates have overcome such performances from twp top-four overall picks says much about how good the club has been in other areas, but the club has to become more efficient in the draft – and the club believes its process has improved and results will follow.

>>Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza are deserving Hall of Famers, but the class should have been much larger.

STAT(s) OF THE WEEK: $72

Millions of dollars the Royals committed to Alex Gordon last week. Small markets can still make significant financial commitments, and the Royals are proof.

HE SAID IT

Tony Sanchez: “I dug my own grave. When I started having throwing issues, I knew they lost trust in me. And if you can’t trust your catcher, you can’t play him.”

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

I visited Someone Else’s Bar in Castle Shannon for the first time on Thursday. Very cool spot, as my friend Tom said, it’s like you walked into the East Village in New York City.

-TS

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My 2016 Hall of Fame ballot

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I always liked the hat-backwards look on Junior.
I always liked the hat-backwards look on Junior.

Seven names on my ballot this year.

Ken Griffey Jr. – The first name I checked off. An easy choice.

Trevor Hoffman – Great walk-in song, even better stuff on the mound.

Mike Piazza – The last name I checked. A very difficult choice for me because of he’s admitted using Andro (which was legal and available over the counter at the time). I talked with a lot of other writers and current/past players about him, and was finally swayed to include him on my ballot.

Jeff Bagwell – He ranks sixth on career WAR among first basemen. Of those among the top eight, only Bagwell and Albert Pujols (who’s not yet HOF eligible, of course) are not on the Hall.

Lee Smith – Retired as the all-time saves leader. He held the title until Hoffman surpassed him in 2006, making Smith one of five relievers who have held the career saves crown longer than one year. A trendsetter in the ’80s and early ‘90s.

Curt Schilling – Averaged 4.383 strikeouts per walk, the second-best career mark in MLB history. Ranks 24th in career WAR, compared to pitchers currently in the Hall. An amazing playoffs pitcher – in five elimination games, he put up a 1.37 ERA and his team won all five games.

Alan Trammell – One of the faces of the game in the ‘80s. I was on the fence about him the past couple of years, though. Barry Larkin won me over last summer when he told the Detroit Free Press: “Let’s talk about Alan Trammell. He’s a Hall of Famer. He belongs in there. He should be there. You look at the numbers and it’s not just numbers. It’s how he did it, how long he did it.” I looked into the numbers and talked with those who covered Trammell and played with him.

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