All posts by Travis Sawchik

A bittersweet day: Nova returns, I depart

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SOUTH HILLS – So the Pirates gave everyone in  Western Pennsylvania an early Christmas gift by agreeing to a three-year, $26 million deal with Ivan Nova today.

This appears to be an excellent contract for the Pirates.

nOvaRain
If Nova is just Nova. It’s not a bad deal. If he’s Happ 2.0 it’s the steal of the offseason (Horner photo)

 

At $8.7 million per annum, the dollars are well less than what many predicted Nova would receive in a weak free agent market for pitching, where Nova was regarded as one of the better arms available.

MLB Trade Rumors predicted a four-year, $52 million deal for Nova earlier this offseason.

The FanGraphs crowd-sourced  prediction averaged three years, $43 million pact.

The Pirates’ deal with Nova, of course, comes in well below that.

With a Win Above Replacement thought to be valued somewhere around $8M on the open market, the Pirates are basically paying Nova to be what he’s been during his a career: a back-of-the rotation starter.

In his six full MLB seasons, Nova has averaged 1.4 WAR per season.

But as we saw in the second half last season, Nova, of course, has  upside. After coming over from the bandboxes of the AL East to pitcher-friendly PNC Park – Nova spent the first six-plus years of his MLB career with the Yankees – Nova was much more aggressive attacking the strike zone and credited the change to his new environment.

You can understand why he was more comfortable …

HR Park Factors last season

1. Yankee Stadium, 1.435

2. Coors Field, 1.321

3. Chase Field, 1.282

22. PNC Park, 0.837

After arriving in Pittsburgh, Nova’s rate of first-pitch strikes and pitches in the strike zone spiked. Nova’s rate of two-seam fastballs was also at a career high in 2016.

If Nova indeed Happed then the Pirates will have just agreed to a tremendous contract. And maybe a switch of environments was that important for Nova. It was pretty important for A.J. Burnett, Mark Melancon and Liriano (Liriano, at first, anyways).

Moreover, this makes the Francisco Liriano trade/salary dump look better as Daniel Hudson and Nova will nearly combine to earn what Liriano will be paid in 2017.

So that financial flexibility appears to have been put to use after all. And while I suspect Liriano to bounce back to a degree in the AL, I think most reasonable people would rather have Hudson and Nova for 2017.

So why did Nova accept what appears to be a club-friendly deal?

Perhaps he was being honest all along. He said he wanted to stay after starting the final game of the season. Maybe Nova just really wanted to pitch in Pittsburgh. His agent claimed to have a three-year, $36 million deal on the table. Or maybe the rest of the industry was skeptical, and remember Nova was essentially a giveaway at the deadline. There is reason to be skeptical. But there’s not a lot of obvious downside to this deal. The Pirates are paying Nova to perform like he’s a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, not like something more. And he could very well be something more.

Whatever the reason, he’s back. And the Pirates might not be done:

Now wouldn’t that be a rotation? Acquiring Quintana would require some sort of combination of at least two of these four names – Josh Bell, Austin Meadows, Mitch Keller and Tyler Glasnow – one would think.

Too rich?

AS FOR THE DAY’S OTHER TRANSACTION …

For me, personally, it is a bittersweet day as I announce I will soon log off here with the Trib.

I am departing next month to begin a full-time writing position with FanGraphs, which has been cited often and heavily here during my four seasons covering the Pirates.

While I am excited about this opportunity to cover all of Major League Baseball and join a team of writers and editors I hold immense respect and regard for, the departure is accompanied by some sadness and nostalgia.

The Trib was a good home.

The last 3 1/2 years – or four seasons of baseball coverage – were the most rewarding and educational period of my professional career. I had the good timing of arriving in the spring of 2013 just as the Pirates awoke from a 20-year competitive slumber. I had the good fortune of the Pirates beginning to do some smart and interesting things, and I was able to document some of them. I wrote as well and worked as hard as I could to inform readers, and reward the opportunity given to me by former Trib editors Frank Craig and Duke Maas, and sports editor Kevin Smith.

Working on Sunday enterprise stories with former Trib assistant sports editor Rob Amen and the design team was a blast. I will miss the daily camaraderie of the beat . My fellow scribes made the press box and road trips a lot of fun.

I will miss writing and reporting for the Trib audience and in particular the audience here, in this blog space. I tried to impart the things I learned along the way. And it was a learning experience, transitioning from covering Clemson athletics in South Carolina. Hopefully I made following the Pirates and MLB a little more fun to read about along the way.

Physically, I will not be leaving. I will still live in South Hills. I will still often be at PNC Park. (I will not be blogging from my unfinished  basement). And I will still be keeping a close eye on – and occasionally writing about – the Pirates.  But I will have a new online address.

Thanks so much for reading and to those that contributed to the blog conversation. Please continue to read and follow!

I plan on making several more posts before my final day, Jan. 2, but if I don’t post again beforehand have a safe and merry Christmas and holiday season.

Best,

TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Is Nova really in play?

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SOUTH HILLS – When the Pirates show interest (an unknown level of interest) in a reclamation project like Derek Holland and he signs elsewhere, when Andrew Cashner is guaranteed an eight-figure salary for 2017 after posting an ERA north of 5.00 last season, you wonder if the Pirates are going to struggle to find a match in this thin market for pitching. Many are skeptical the Pirates will produce anything with the financial flexibility created in the Francisco Liriano traded last summer.

But perhaps the Pirates’ top target all along has been Ivan Nova. He’s the only free agent we know of that the Pirates have extended a multi-year offer to. And Pirates officials continue to say they would like to add an experienced, quality arm.

nOvaRain
Nova pitched the final game of the 2016 season for the Pirates, a game that was called due to rain. Will it be his last game? (Horner photo)

Said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle at the winter meetings:

“We would like to add a so-called experienced starter to the rotation, a guy that’s shown, got a track record, resume of pitching innings, quality innings. 170 innings over five ERA, that’s not what we’re looking for. Somebody that’s done it and if somebody else can show up to help us out, we’ll explore that, as well.

“If there is not a move that we think betters the organization, we’ve got guys that we’re going to look towards internally to give them the ball and the opportunity to improve. We’re going to look at it from both those angles.”

At PirateFest the Pirates said they were still interested in Nova. And this report suggests the Pirates have been the only team to show significant interest to date.

Perhaps the quiet surrounding Nova is an encouraging indicator for the Pirates.

As one of the top starting pitching options on the market, Nova was expected to be priced out of the Pirates plans. But there has been little noise around Nova this offseason. Perhaps the rest of the industry is skeptical of Nova. Perhaps they believe he is more the back-end rotation arm he was with the Yankees than J.A. Happ The Second. Perhaps they believe much of the surge was tied to environment, namely PNC Park. The Pirates should know more than any club about Nova’s 2016 second-half surge.

So perhaps the quiet is to the Pirates advantage. Perhaps they believe more in Nova than the rest of the game. Perhaps after not willing to go the extra year or dollar with Happ a year ago, the club is willing to take a greater risk in Nova.

With Andrew McCutchen still around, he should theoretically make the Pirates a stronger club in 2017. Perhaps with McCutchen still around, the Pirates are more inclined to invest in Nova.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS …

*It’s still possible that McCutchen is traded, though unlikely with Washington as the top suitor – with perhaps the top assets available – no longer with a need.

If McCutchen is moved, it seems the Pirates want win-now or win-soon pieces …

*Looking for a reasonable and thoughtful take on the McCutchen from a non-Pittsburgh based media member? Read this post from Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs.com:

I think you can sense some kind of end is coming. McCutchen is getting older, and Austin Meadows is getting better, and the Pirates just don’t spend all that much money. It wouldn’t be like them to pay market price for McCutchen’s decline years, so one way or another, his days in Pittsburgh seem numbered. Realistically, there’s no escaping that.

It’s just not the end of the world. Rays fans got over Price. Brewers fans got over Lucroy. Rockies fans have gotten over Troy Tulowitzki. Players come and players go, and you hope to have positive experiences while certain ones are around. For now, for the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen is still around. And that playoff door is still cracked open.

*What did the Pirates see in Josh Lindblom? The right-handed pitcher posted a 10-12 record and 5.27 ERA with Lotte of the Korea Baseball Organization last season. Lindblom, 29, was a second-round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2008 draft. He has a 3.82 ERA in 136 career major league innings. He last pitched in the majors April 2, 2014, for Oakland.

It should be noted the KBO is an extreme offensive environment and Lindblom was much better there in 2015.

*It sounds as if the club likes Wade LeBlanc as a spot starter and multi-inning reliever, though his contract is not guaranteed. LeBlanc could give the the Pirates four left-handed relief arms for the bullpen. Perhaps it increases the chances an Antonio Bastardo or Tony Watson  is moved.

*Hurdle did not commit to any locks for the starting rotation beyond Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon but you have to think Chad Kuhl will get the first shot to slot in after them (and perhaps whatever free agent starter is added if any). Kuhl allowed three or fewer runs on 12 of his 14 starts. He needs to better keep the ball on the ground and improve his changeup to breakout into something more than a back-of-the-rotation arm in 2016.

*We don’t know Trevor Williams can pitch at the MLB level … but we do know he should keep the clubhouse loose

STAT OF THE WEEK: 4.20

Kuhl’s 2016 ERA, and Kuhl’s 2017 ERA as projected by Fangraphs.com

HE SAID IT:

Hurdle on replacing quantitative analyst Mike Fitzgerald, who now leads the analytics department in Arizona. With Arizona investing in analytics there are very few teams that are not heavily invested in this department.

“I don’t know if we’ll replace the personality. We believe that eventually we will get a guy in that will be able to do the things Mike was able to do the best of that man’s ability. We call it next man up. We have had it all across the board, I think, in the last two years. These numbers are going to be close. They might not be exact. We have had over 40 asks externally organizations for our personnel. That’s tangible evidence of an organization doing some things right, establishing a model in player development, in pitching, strength and conditioning. We broke it down the other day in the room, there have been general manager asks, there’s been managerial asks, pretty much every position that goes, an organizational structure model has been asked for by the guys we have.

“And Fitz was that fine line of a very smart man, very creative. Also, enough athleticism that the competition chip he carried with him was fun to watch and be a part of. We brought him into the clubhouse. He was in the coaching room. Our next man will have that same opportunity and it won’t be new for the players, it will be new for the next guy up. I look forward to going into that process. We’re talking to a couple of guys right now. We’re confident we will get a good man in there. Will he as good as Fitz right away? Probably not. Can he grow into it? We believe so.”

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Sights and sounds from a town hall meeting

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SOUTH HILLS – Perhaps the most interesting – and entertaining – event during the Pirates’ Fan Fest is the “Ask Pirates Management” Q & A. The occasion is one the few times during the year the public does not need a middle man (we the media). A chosen few can ask questions directly to Neal Huntington, Frank Coonelly and Clint Hurdle, who were seated perhaps a bit awkwardly and uncomfortably a few feet away from the audience on an elevated stage in the city’s convention center Saturday afternoon.

McCutchenFest
Well, that was awkward (Horner photo)

 

I was particularly interested in this year’s Q & A since Andrew McCutchen was signing autographs a few hours before the session, after having been discussed in trade talks. Had Adam Eaton not been traded to the Nationals, there’s a decent chance McCutchen is a Washington National today. I thought this figured to be an interesting session after the Pirates’ struggles in 2016, after a quiet offseason to date.

At the winter meetings, Huntington thought there was a portion of the fan base that understood what the Pirates were trying to do. He also thought there was a portion that was never going to be happy. Saturday offered a small sampling of public opinion from each perspective. What I took from the Q & A is there likely is a significant portion of fans that understand the limitations of the budget – though that doesn’t mean they like the budget – they understand the value of young talent, and they understand shopping McCutchen. While I suspect the majority of #BucNation has little patience for another bridge season, I do think fan bases across the game are more informed than ever. But, of course, there’s a lot of sentiment and nostalgia out there, too.

To begin the Q & A,  Ray from Ross Township stepped to the microphone stand, which was placed in an aisle in the middle of the audience.  He prefaced his question by saying he had been a fan of the club for 50 years and had seen many great players perform at a high level into their mid 30s. Then he began.

“Ready for this one, Mr. Huntington?” said Ray in a Pirate cap and jersey.

Ray asked – rather, implored – McCutchen be extended

“Sign ‘Cutch, please!” he said in conclusion.

Huntington noted in his response that few players spend their entire careers with one team. (There’s almost a 100 percent chance McCutchen is not extended for a variety of reasons. Sorry, Ray).

The next question was about why runners insist on sliding head first and why doesn’t Hurdle do something about it. (Odd choice for a fan’s one question.). Hurdle responded by noting he often tells his children to do something, though they do not comply. Then a fellow from Charleston, W. Va. wondered why teams are still employing these dastardly pitch counts.

In a moment of comedy, a young girl named Lydia asked Hurdle where  Starling Marte will play in 2017. Hurdle wondered if Lydia was handed question.

“No!” responded Lydia.

(Good question, Lydia)

About six or seven questions in, we arrived at the issues irritating the fan base. Nolan from Plum asked about the Francisco Liriano trade. Nolan was not agitated. He was tactful, noting he supports the general idea of building around young talent and understands the economics of the game. But he could not understand trading prospects to rid the club of a salary. Huntington explained it was a “parallel” trade. Yes, it was in part designed to clear Liriano’s remaining $18 million owed. Huntington said the Pirates felt the league had “figured out” Liriano, which we documented after the deadline. But Huntington also insisted the Pirates like Drew Hutchison. Huntington noted Hutchison was stuck behind a talented Toronto starting rotation. Toronto did lead the AL in starting pitcher ERA.

The public has its doubts.

Perhaps the most interesting response was elicited from one fan asking  about the competitive nature of each man on the stage. The fan noted he always thought THIS, THIS TIME RIGHT NOW, would mark the window of contention: McCutchen still under control with the club’s top pitching prospects joining him.

Coonelly offered the most interesting response:

“I’m so tired of the narrative. As these gentlemen can explain to you, there’s nobody more competitive than the three men on this stage. … We need in the media, and otherwise, to talk about a lot of things. But the narrative that we don’t care about winning is just flat wrong.”

I’m sure other fans would have liked to speak with Bob Nutting, to have heard his answer to that particular question, but he was not on the stage.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS …

>>It was logical for the Pirates to explore trading McCutchen, and it is also logical not to trade him just trade him. The Pirates are right to demand what they deem a fair return. Bill James’ forecast has McCutchen (.864 OPS) as the Pirates’ most productive hitter in 2017.

>>So now that Huntington said the club will likely “hold” McCutchen — a trade still possible but much less likely with the apparent the top suitor (Washington) having filled its need — what should the Pirates do?

Instead of selling assets should they look to add?

>>ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield writes that the Pirates are one team that has the assets to acquire White Sox borderline ace Jose Quintana.

Unable to deal Andrew McCutchen, maybe they flip the switch and decide to add a veteran. Even the Pirates can afford Quintana, and they have a highly regarded farm system. The White Sox would want right-hander Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows, ranked eighth and ninth on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects, and the Pirates have other interesting prospects, such as first baseman/outfielder Josh Bell and shortstop Kevin Newman.

For me, Tyler Glasnow would not be off-limits in a Quintana deal. Then it gets trickier. While Bell has his defensive issues, if I’m the Pirates I’d hate to deal him after witnessing that blend of plate discipline, bat-to-ball skills and power. Would you move Glasnow and Austin Meadows (or) Kevin Newman in a deal? It’s expensive but that’s what it would likely require.

>>Glasnow recounted a story to reporters Sunday how at a bowling event on the Pirates caravan tour a fan told him it would be nice if he could throw strikes – on a baseball field.

Tough crowd!

Glasnow is a major wild card in 2017. A breakout, or a continued inconsistency, could have a significant impact on how the Pirates perform. Glasnow seemed uncomfortable in dealings with media last season, and as others have suggested, perhaps this is an example of him becoming a little more comfortable in his own skin.

>>Newly married Gerrit Cole said he will begin his offseason throwing program this week. Perhaps one reason behind Cole’s 2016 struggles is he did not have a normal offseason program, sustaining a rib injury in January. Perhaps Cole was always playing catch up in regard to his throwing motion and he never caught up.

>>Tony Watson watched Andrew Miller‘s postseason deployment with great interest but told reporters Saturday he doesn’t think that sort of role is sustainable throughout an entire regular season. Perhaps the workload even caught up with Miller in Game 7. Or was it just one poor performance that now is allowing everyone to revert back to conventional wisdom?

>>Joey Cora said he believes the Pirates have the team speed to be an effective base-running club. It sounds like he will be aggressive, too. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but Rick Sofield made too many errant decisions.

>>John Jaso at third base? It’s going to get a look this spring. It’s a thing. I don’t doubt Jaso will work at it, I do doubt his feet and range for the position.

 ‘CUTCH SAID IT

A throng of reporters gathered around McCutchen on Saturday afternoon. Here’s some of what he had to say …

Is McCutchen motivated to prove the doubters wrong?

“Motivated? (For 2017). I don’t even know there’s quite a word to look for. Something a lot greater.”

‘CUTCH SAID IT II

Was McCutchen injured in 2016?

“I just didn’t have it. I had nagging injuries … There wasn’t anything that hindered me.”

McCutchen has had about 100 opportunities to exercise the injury-related excuse option and he has yet to go there other than saying his thumb was bothering him for a period last season.

‘CUTCH SAID IT III

“I’d be lying if I said none of this (trade talk) bothered me.”

Huntington and McCutchen had a talk before Pirate Fest. McCutchen said it went well. You can understand McCutchen being upset, but you can also understand the Pirates’ logic. I don’t suspect this will affect McCutchen’s 2017 in a negative way. McCutchen needs to play well to get a mega-contract after 2018. And the Pirates need McCutchen to play well to contend.

Each year the Pirates have made the playoffs, McCutchen (and Cole) have been pretty good. They will need to be good, if not great, again in 2017.

-TS

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So Andrew McCutchen is STAYING!?!

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – So remember that time when Andrew McCutchen reported for spring training in Bradenton, Fla. in February of 2017?

Remember when earlier in the week that seemed implausible?

Well, it seems like that’s happening.

It’s at least the most likely scenario as of 12:05 p.m. today.

As he departed the winter meetings Thursday, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said the probability McCutchen remains with the club has increased. He said the intent is to “hold” McCutchen.

While the idea of trading McCutchen was (and remains) a logical path for the Pirates to explore, the Pirates were never going to trade McCutchen just to trade him. They were seeking significant baseball value. This was not a salary dump. This was not Francisco Liriano 2.0.

So when the Washington Nationals and Chicago White Sox agreed on a trade that sent Adam Eaton to Washington on Wednesday evening, the deal effectively eliminated the most obvious team with the need and assets to acquire McCutchen.

Now, it’s a long offseason. There’s still a chance McCutchen is moved.

But Huntington said it was more likely McCutchen would be moved by this point in the offseason, at the end of the meetings, if he was to be traded.

“Our intent coming in here was to have Andrew McCutchen be in our lineup going forward,” Huntington said. “No one changed that. It’s unlikely someone changes that going forward. We’re not going to close the door but we’re not going to be making calls.”

While the Pirates engaged in trade talks with multiple teams regarding McCutchen, no team was willing to meet the Pirates’ price.

“The ask was significant,” Huntington said. “We took calls. We listened. We engaged. Not just with Andrew but with other players on one- and two-year deals. As we will always do, if we find the right move … We’ll move a player.”

At this point I suspect the Pirates’ most likely Opening Day OF is arranged like this: LF Gregory Polanco, CF Starling Marte, RF McCutchen,

McCutchen in right field you ask? Yes, the arm, runners going from first to third would be an issue. But consider this fascinating article from Mike Petreillo on how right field is where McCutchen can maximize his range.

Moreover, Huntington and Clint Hurdle said at the meetings the idea of moving McCutchen to a corner is being discussed. On Wednesday, Hurdle mentioned Torii Hunter’s move from center to right.

Yes, here is some fence mending to do.

Huntington said he did not communicate with McCutchen during trade talks but will reach out to him prior to Pirate Fest this weekend.

McCutchen communicated Wednesday night …

https://twitter.com/TheCUTCH22/status/806680976000774145

Now feelings are real. McCutchen’s pride/ego is likely bruised. But he’s a professional athlete, and the Pirates were simply acting rationally and logically – not emotionally.

If McCutchen indeed opens next season with the club I’m assuming both parties can agree on this common ground: they will want the best McCutchen has to give.

-TS

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Winter Meetings Day 2: Will the Sale trade hasten a McCutchen exit?

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – We are all waiting to see if the Washington Nationals missing out on Chris Sale hastens the departure of Andrew McCutchen. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo confirmed Tuesday he has talked to the Pirates about McCutchen, but added he’s talked to a lot of teams about a lot of players.

Stay tuned.  Some notes of interest from Day 2 ….

*Pirates GM Neal Huntington said John Jaso has asked about playing third base and Huntington said ‘We didn’t want to discourage it.’ Huntington added that Jaso will also likely play some right field

*Huntington said the plan with Josh Bell is to have him at first base. Bell played some right field with the Pirates, and Clint Hurdle had said at the end of the season there was a plan in place to have Bell work on his outfield throwing this offseason.

*Huntington would not confirm nor deny the club was continuing to speak with free agent Ivan Nova. The Pirates could really use a veteran arm in the rotation – the club allowed 162 more runs in 2016 than 2015 – but Huntington seems unwilling or unable to over-extend for one in this weak market.

“We’d be comfortable adding one, we’d be comfortable adding nobody if it’s just not there,” Huntington said.

*Huntington said Nick Kingham (Tommy John surgery last year) is a candidate to pitch in the majors by mid summer. He dubbed him a “forgotten” man.

*One big problem with the Pirates’ evaporating competitive advantage on identifying and signing reclamation project pitchers?  From 2014-16, the annual average value of a starting pitcher contract grew 105 percent, the Pirates’ payroll grew 39 percent.

The Pirates’ payroll is not keeping pace with pitching contracts. That’s a problem not only at the top and middle of the market, but at the bottom.

*Huntington acknowledged there was interest in resigning Sean Rodriguez and said it will be tough for one player to replace his defensive versatility. Adam Frazier is probably not that guy and might fit better as an everyday player who can focus on one defensive position. Huntington loves Frazier’s bat and approach.

*Word here is the Pirates’ asks are too great for McCutchen. While many may expect bounce-back from the 30-year-old, I don’t suspect many teams expect McCutchen to return to Peak McCutchen.

*The Pirates will continue to have a traveling quantitative analyst, though Huntington said Mike Fitzgerald will be hard to replace given his unique skill set and rare “intellectual capacity.” The Pirates lost a good one. Fitzgerald might be a unique FO talent similar to the way Jim Benedict was. Huntington the Pirates have received an “immense” amount of requests to interview staff.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty (Updated live from the winter meetings): A no man’s land

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – In the ballroom and lobby of the Gaylord National, everyone remains on #McCutchenWatch.

The Pirates’ outfielder is one of the most compelling players available on the trade market, though Ken Rosenthal reports the Washington Nationals are more interested in Chris Sale (which would make sense given Sale’s age, contract, and performance). The Texas Rangers also, reportedly, have cooled their interested. Jon Heyman reported a ‘mystery team’ is involved, but Neal Huntington scoffed, wanting to know very much who the mystery team was when meeting with reporters Monday afternoon.

If the Pirates were coming off a 90-win season, if McCutchen hadn’t dropped off so dramatically in 2016, if the Cubs hadn’t arrived in such spectacular fashion, we’re probably not hearing/having these conversations. If none of that happens in 2016, McCutchen is probably still on the trajectory we all anticipated a year ago: he’d walk after the 2018 season as a free agent.

(The Pirates were never going to commit significant dollars to a 32-year-old McCutchen in another contract extension, and McCutchen probably wasn’t going to consider another club-friendly deal).

McCutchenHands
McCutchen is waiting around like everyone else. An awkward position for a (former?) superstar. (Horner Photo)

The McCutchen situation underscores the difficult position the Pirates are in: they are in a really tough neighborhood in the NL Central, it’s not clear they can be true contenders in 2017, and if they want to get something of value back for McCutchen (or any significant asset) now might be the time to trade him and take the PR hit.

Now, the Pirates’ don’t have to trade McCutchen. They shouldn’t trade him just to trade him. This isn’t a Francisco Liraino salary-shedding situation. And I understand fans who are frustrated by the idea of a trade, who believed 2017 was supposed to be a prime year for the club to contend, who have a sentimental attachment to the star.  But conditions on the ground have changed. It is logical to trade McCutchen, given this environment, if a team is willing to offer what the Pirates perceive to be fair value.

In most years under Neal Huntington and Co., there has been a clear objective: the Pirates were either in rebuilding more and looking to the future – or they were more focused on winning now (2013-15).

The Pirates described 2016 as a bridge year, but 2017 might again be murky territory. That present-future balance is always tricky for Huntington. Now it seems like a real challenge.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Jung Ho Kang had two previous DUIs in South Korea (in 2009 and 2011), the Yonhap News Service reported Monday. Huntington said Monday the Pirates were not aware of them. (And the two prior instances were not reported there in the press, according to a South Korean contact). Huntington was unsure about what discipline Kang faces from MLB or the club. He noted an “assessment” must first be completed. The David Freese contract is making more and more sense.

>>If, IF, McCutchen stays around in Pittsburgh, it sounds like he’s aware the Pirates are considering moving him to a corner outfield spot. Said Huntington on Monday:

“We have had a lot of internal discussions (on a position move)… He’s not unaware of the entirety of the process …. We’ve not had the ultimate decision, discussion.”

>> Mark Melancon was one of the first big-name free agents to come off the board during the winter meetings Monday, reportedly signing a four-year, $62 million contract for a San Francisco Giants team that blew  32 saves last season. The Melancon trade was not a popular move last summer. But it was the correct move. Melancon would have pitched 20-25 more innings for the Pirates and would have had little effect on the club’s ability to reach or advance in the postseason.

In return for Melancon, the Pirates have Felipe Rivero who can’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season, and left-handed prospect Taylor Hearn. That’s a quality return.

Said Huntington on Monday: “We felt we got a substantial return for Mark this summer versus letting him walk via free agency.”

>>This Ringer article from the fall is worth revisiting. Did the Pirates bet too heavily on the magic of Ray Searage? Was their reclamation-project hubris? The problem is we might never really know as free agent pitching inflation will likely continue to out-pace the Pirates’ budget.

Still, Huntington was asked if the Pirates require more certainty in regard to their rotation.

“I’d ask you guys (the media) to revisit what you wrote about us going into ’13, what you wrote about us going int ’14, what you wrote about us going into ’15. I don’t know that any of you wrote that we have a quality major league established, fun back-of-the-baseball card rotation. That’s the reality. We’ve been able to help guys take huge steps in their careers. We’ve had young guys we’ve relied upon take huge steps. It didn’t work as well last year as it did the prior three years.”

But there is also now more competition for reclamation project type arms.

>>Wade LeBlanc is an interesting, low-risk signing given his encouraging work last season (7.5k/9, 1.9 bb/9 in 62 innings), but he’s a fly-ball pitcher, which again goes against the Pirates’ philosophy. Are the Pirates going to continue to drift away from the ground ball? Perhaps they continue to believe it’s become over-valued. And we know the bottom of the strike zone shrunk last year, which hurts the club’s ability to generate ground balls and steal strikes.

Huntington said LeBlanck will be used as a multi-inning reliever and spot starter.

>>Somewhat lost during #McCutchenWatch in Pittsburgh is that the players and owners agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement last week. While there were no major changes, the 15-day DL is now the 10-day DL, spending on younger international prospects is now capped and the luxury tax inched up – though modestly – as the threshold rose to $195 million.

>>What baffles me is that that union remains so focused on protecting its top earners while ignoring 99 percent if its membership. While owners have a luxury tax years– in part designed to create some measure of competitive balance and in part to protect owners from themselves – there is no payroll floor.

While there is a mechanism to slow spending at the top, there is nothing to promote spending on the bottom.

>>Most interesting new CBA development? The Oakland A’s being stripped of revenue sharing status due to their market size and apparent dragging of feet to find a new stadium. If the majority of owners become frustrated with the spending of owners this seems to set a precedent. The A’s can no longer be takers. Who is next?

>>There’s a some continued talk here that the Pirates are indeed trying to move Josh Harrison. Adam Frazier would presumably take over at second base.

>>The Pirates have suffered a few a few key front offices the last couple of years. Jim Benedict a year ago and now Mike Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, hired as a 23-year-old out of MIT in 2012, made an impact right away for the Pirates as he lead the table-pounding to sign Russell Martin in the 2012-13 offseason. He was also something of a revolutionary figure as he’s believed to be the first quantitative analyst to travel with the team on the road where he was meant to be a bridge between players/coaching staff and the front office. Fitzgerald wasn’t just a ‘stats guy’ he was a former high school football player, holding the receptions record at his high school. When the Pirates clinched their 2014 postseason berth in Atlanta, to show the acceptance and synergy between the traditional and non-traditional camps within the Pirates, Neil Walker soaked Fitzgerald with a beer in the corner of the clubhouse celebration.

The problem with success and innovation? Everyone, every team, wants to copy best practices. Can the Pirates continue to innovate?

Interesting stuff from Brian Cartwright on the Fitzgerald-Melancon discussions …

>>Bud Selig receives too much credit for the game’s revenue growth. That was inevitable with the rise of cable rights fees, new stadium construction, technology (MLBAM), etc., as revenues have grown in every other sport in similar ways. He receives too much credit for creating an expanded playoff as growing playoff fields are another sports-wide trend. He oversaw a work stoppage that wiped out a World Series and the game’s credibility was badly damaged by the steroid era, which he presided over. Little has been done to stem the financial divide between the Have and Have Notes in the game. Hall of Fame?

SHE SAID IT

HE SAID IT

ESPN’s Sam Miller to the Tribune-Review on the prospect of a McCutchen trade:

“‘Never sell low’ is way too simple and assumes a couple things we shouldn’t assume. “One assumption is that ‘low’ can’t get lower. … He’s still got a lot of perceived value. If he has another bad year, then it looks not like a blip but a new career state, and his value would drop much more. …

“It’s not like the other 29 teams are run by the one fantasy-league manager in every league who barely knows baseball and overreacts to every swing in performance.I think that’s probably particularly true with McCutchen, when so much of his perceived collapse last year is tied to his defensive performance in center field. Teams might have different, less catastrophic assessments of his defense.”

STAT OF THE WEEK 3y/$48

The Rich Hill contract. Crazy? No. He’s the only free agent arm that has the potential to profile as a No. 1.  Hill, who was pitching in indy ball two years ago, was emotional at his press conference here today. The Pirates made Hill a one-year, $6 million last winter. What could have been …

 

-TS

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Pirates shopping Harrison? McCutchen in RF? Why you didn’t like Jeff Locke

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SOUTH HILLS – Ken Rosenthal reported Monday night that the Pirates generally listen to teams which inquire about players under long-term control. Rosenthal reported  Josh Harrison is one player in particular the Pirates would consider moving….if they can find a buyer.

After his breakout, 5-win season in in 2014, the Pirates and Harrison agreed to a four-year contract that included two club options.

Since signing the contract, Harrison has produced back-to-back, 1.3 and 1.5-win seasons and is owed $7.5M in 2017, $10M in 2018. He has two club options totaling $6M in buyouts in 2019 and 2020.

JHay
Is Harrison another player who could have a new home in 2017? (horner photo)

 

It’s unclear what Harrison could fetch in a trade coming off two years where he slashed .285/.318/.389 with eight combined home runs and 29 steals. Harrison is not a poor player, overall, but he’s not an asset many teams are going to want to commit eight figures to.

Could the Pirates get something of value in return or would they have to package a prospect with Harrison if they want to move the contract?

Rosenthal reported the Pirates tried to sign Sean Rodriguez with the idea of then moving Harrison. If Harrison is traded Adam Frazier probably steps in as an everyday second baseman and the Pirates tab another internal option for the utility role. Frazier can perhaps provide similar overall value to Harrison in his first full MLB season but at a pre-arb salary.

Colleague Rob Biertempfel quoted a scout believing Tony Watson will be moved particularly after the contract Brett Cecil signed with St. Louis.

We all know there’s been much discussion and speculation centered around Andrew McCutchen.

With a thin free agent market, and the Pirates apparently willing to listen on anyone owed significant money, we could be in store for a major trade or two. The winter meetings begin Monday and the Pirates are in an interesting position in an interesting offseason market.

IF McCUTCHEN REMAINS IN PITTSBURGH …

… it will be interesting to see where he plays.

ESPN’s Buster Olney reported earlier this offseason that the Pirates have had discussions about moving Starling Marte to center, Gregory Polanco to left, and McCutchen to right.

That’s right, right field – not left.

On the surface that is head-scratching given McCutchen’s arm strength and accuracy issues. But MLB.com’s Mike Petriello had some fascinating findings in this article endorsing the idea of McCutchen moving to right field.

For starters, while Marte had the strongest throwing velocity on “competitive throws” among alls OFs – averaging 97 mph!!! – McCutchen’s throwing velocity of 85.8 mph was just under that of Polanco’s in 2016 (86.6), though that is likely in part tied to Polanco’s shoulder and knee ailments.

 

Polanco, if healthy, surely has a stronger arm that McCutchen. But maybe the gap is not so significant that it prevents McCutchen moving to right.

Perhaps more important is the ground McCutchen can cover.

It would be easier to hide McCutchen’s declining range in right field at PNC Park compared to left field. Right field, of course, has a smaller surface area. (EDIT: In the original version of this blog entry, I misunderstood Petriello’s chart explaining the strength and weaknesses of McCutchen’s range. McCutchen is stronger going to his right NOT his left. This would allow McCutchen to play nearer the line in right field. And the majority of batters are right-handed and should actually be shaded slightly away from their pull field. See: the Houston Astros outfield defense).

So the idea of playing McCutchen in right field at PNC Park makes some sense. It’s really not that crazy. (But on the road why not platoon Polanco and McCutchen based upon outfield dimensions?)

LOCKE DFA’D

Jeff Locke was never a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. Much of this had do to with his performance, some due to some curious things he had to say about fans.

Well, he’s officially gone … and a bit earlier than expected.

Locke was almost assuredly not going to be tendered a contract as he was becoming more expensive given his uneven performance but he was designated Tuesday night to make room on the 40-man roster for RHP Lisalverto Bonilla, signed as a free agent, who pitched in the minors for the Dodgers last season.

Locke was a 2013 All-Star. He also was demoted to the minors later that season. That pretty much summed up the Jeff Locke Experience. This is the same pitcher who finished 2016 with a 5.44 ERA but tossed a shutout in Miami.

He finishes with a 4.40 ERA career with the Pirates, actually better than his 4.31 FIP, ironic since Locke was against the advanced metrics that suggested he was out-performing his true talent level in the first half of 2013.  But he was out-performing it. And perhaps it was that first half of 2013 that created unrealistic expectations and resentment, from the public, in regard to Locke.

Locke had a fit as a cheap back-of-the rotation arm, but he never put his stuff, his three pitchers, together consistently enough to justify a larger deal.

But Locke will have a job somewhere in 2016. It just certainly won’t be in Pittsburgh.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The best hope for a pitching boost?

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SOUTH HILLS – I’m back from a Thanksgiving hiatus and I hope everyone reading had a nice, lengthy holiday weekend.

The entire baseball industry is supposed to be back at work next Monday as the winter meetings begin in D.C., presuming there’s some headway in the collective bargaining talks, and that there is no lock out or anything of that nature. The old agreement expires at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Assuming there is not a significant break from labor peace, Western Pennsylvania will be curious to see the plan the Pirates’ front office begins to put together during the coming weeks. The Pirates’ offseason really accelerated last year at the winter meetings with the trade of Neil Walker.

Kuhl
Looking for better success off the mound? That might start with a Chad Kuhl breakout (Horner photo)

What seems clear is that plan is not going to involve any high-profile free agent pitchers.

Perhaps the Pirates can improve off the mound via trade, but most improvement is likely to have to come from within.

The good news?

The Pirates are of course young and on the right side of the age/improvement curve in regard to their rotation options.

Gerrit Cole should be better. Want a reason to be encouraged about Cole’s chance for a rebound? These are the three most similar pitchers to Cole, in the modern era, through age 25 according to Baseball Reference:

Stephen Strasburg
David Price
Mike Mussina

Everyone is encouraged about the base Jameson Taillon will build off of next season. Taillon was the silver lining of 2016 for the Pirates.

If Tyler Glasnow leads the league in walks but also strikes out 200 and produces a sub-4.00, as the Bill James projections suggest, the Pirates will be happy and will have another rotation cog. Of course, Glasnow is loaded with uncertainty. Will his command improve? Can he control the running game to degree? Glasnow will be a big spring story.

The Pirates need a strong No. 3 starter and had strong No. 3 starting pitching production in each of their playoff seasons from 2013-15. The club might need Kuhl (or Glasnow) to be that guy. But perhaps the best bet to provide true mid-rotation value  is  Chad Kuhl.

It’s not as if Kuhl’s rookie season was anything other than a success. The ninth-round pick continued to rocket through the system, and the Delaware product allowed three or fewer runs in 12 of his 14 starts. In that way his 2016 had a Cole 2013 feel to it as he was rarely dominant but also rarely did not give the Pirates a chance to win.

One other reason to bet on Kuhl? It’s his makeup. That’s what allowed him to rise from ninth-round status to a major league rotation, it’s the focus of my reporting for the Kuhl profile I wrote back in August.

So how can Kuhl take that step from the back to the middle of a rotation?

Kuhl’s bread-and-butter pitch is his two-seamer but did he rely upon it too often?

Kuhl threw his sinker on 56.8 percent of offerings last season – 16th most in the majors – and he threw a four-seamer another 10 percent of the time, according to PITCHf/x data via Fangraphs. So nearly 70 percent of Kuhl’s pitchers were fastballs.

According to Brooks Baseball, the following is how opponents hit vs. Kuhl fastballs and sliders, his two primary pitches, last season …

vs. FASTBALLS

Month  –  Opp. Avg. – Whiff Rate  GB rate

July:       .100            1.85         22.2

August: .268             4.8           37.8

Sept:      .350             3.93        50.0

vs. SLIDERS

Month  –  Opp. Avg. – Whiff Rate – GB pct.

July:       .100          25.0        38.5

August: .214            17.6        60.0

Sept:      .111             15.5        66.7

 

The good news regarding his fastball is Kuhl located it more often down in the zone as the season went along, and he began to produce a ground-ball rate more in line with his minor league track record. But the fastball is not a swing-and-miss pitch, it is not for most pitchers, and even as he located more often down in the zone, opponents had more and more success versus the pitch. Opponents probably had a good idea of what was coming.

But Kuhl’s slider showed flashes of potential. It was dominant pitch in his start at the Dodgers.

The slider was not only his best swing-and-miss pitcher, better than his seldom used change-up, but it was also a better ground ball offering. As Kuhl has noted, the slider can also be a ground-ball offering. Check out his ground-ball rates by pitch …

Brooksbaseball-Chart(2)

Kuhl threw his slider on about a quarter of his offerings and one wonders whether increasing that pitch usage, and his change-up usage, might not only help him improve his pedestrian swinging strike rate (8.9 %) but also improve his ground-ball rate.

There’s a lot to work with here. There’s plus velocity. There’s makeup, work ethic and humility. If Kuhl stays healthy he’s a good bet to improve and solidify a rotation spot. And one way to improve beyond refining command and consistency of stuff might be simply to change his pitch mix.

The Pirates are most likely to improve off the mound in 2017 via internal growth and adjustments. And Kuhl might be the best bet to lead that improvement.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS …

>>Now that Sean Rodriguez is an Atlanta Brave, the Pirates will likely fill Rodriguez’s super utility/bench internally. That Rodriguez would depart and the Pirates would fill the void with Adam Frazier (.356 OBP as a rookie) and other internal candidates like Alen Hanson was always the most probably outcome.

>>In retrospect, the Pirates might have been better served by trying to extend Rodriguez instead of David Freese last summer. But it’s unclear if Rodriguez would have been open to an extension. I was told the Pirates did not approach Rodriguez in-season, and it seemed like Freese drove much of the extension process after having the experience of waiting until March to find work last spring. Freese is a fine role player at this point in his career but Rodriguez is more versatile. Of course, Freese’s bat has more of a track record.

>>If Rodriguez continues to hit like he has since the second half of 2015 the two-year, $11-million deal contract will be a bargain for the Braves. The Pirates should know more about the process to Rodriguez’s success than anyone else. So, we’ll see.

>>Perhaps the bigger concern than the void left by Rodriguez’s bat will be if anyone can fill the void left by his glove. Though you have to love the compact swing and strike zone control, Frazier struggled at times to move between positions as a rookie. The Pirates believe he will be better in 2017. After all, this was a college shortstop. Division I teams typically put their best athletes at shortstop. But Frazier has to prove he can man multiple positions competently.

>>The most interesting takeaway for me from Rob Biertempfel’s sit down with Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, other than Hurdle having not been approached about a contract extension and not knowing how long he’ll be in Pittsburgh, is there is some hinting about Hurdle’s eventual successor.

>>Over at Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan has an excellent piece on how the gap between the pitch framing Haves and Have Nots is shrinking. It’s more evidence of another Pirates’ competitive advantage (like the gorundball) eroding. All teams copy-cat each other, and adopt the best practices that are out there. Can the Pirates stay ahead of the curve? This is an on-going story to follow.

>>Interesting stuff here on the kings of Statcast in 2016. No Pirates made the All-Statcast team, though Marte might have the strongest arm of any left fielder baseball.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 1.9

Rodriguez’s WAR last season, which was fourth on the team.

HE SAID IT

“There will be a point in time when this organization will let me know if it no longer wants me here or if it wants to keep me here. I’m not going to knock on the door. I don’t talk about it. I believe my volume of work has put me in a place where, if my career ended tomorrow, I’d be good.”

-Hurdle to the Tribune-Review

 

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Is there a comp for a McCutchen trade?

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SOUTH HILLS – It’s no secret the Pirates are listening – if not actively shopping – Andrew McCutchen.

At the GM meetings, Neal Huntington said teams are calling.

Ken Rosenthal reported earlier this offseason the Pirates and Nationals talked about a deal back at the trade deadline.

Now, Jon Morosi reports the Mariners inquired…

There’s little doubt there will be teams interested in buying low on McCutchen. At what price would the Pirates sell?

Clint Hurdle told the Trib Trib he’s taking it “one day at time” with McCutchen, not exactly sounding confident McCutchen will be on his 2017 club.

“I think any general manager that’s in a market similar to the one we’re in has to explore the possibility of (trading) players who have one or two years left on their contract,” Hurdle said. “You have to see what value is there to keep or to move.”

Whether the Pirates are trying to create more of a market for McCutchen or are simply just revealing there is interest and they are open minded is unclear. But what is apparent is they are not opposed to moving the 2013 NL MVP after a down year.

McCutchen
What kind of return makes sense – and is realistic – for the 2013 NL MVP? (Horner photo)

 

What then becomes interesting are these questions: What is McCutchen’s value? And should the Pirates seek a return that focuses on improving their chances to win in 2017 or a package of younger talent that could help further down the road?

In/if moving McCutchen do the Pirates focus on the short term, long-term or hedge?

Complicating McCutchen’s trade market is how a player who performed as a superstar from his 25-28 seasons, slumped so dramatically at Age 29. According to ESPN’s Sweetspot blog, no such player has suffered a decline as dramatic as McCutchen’s at Age 29.

In recent times, Troy Tulowitzki is perhaps the closest comp.

Tulo was traded midway through his Age 30 season (McCutchen turned 30 last month), and the Rockies traded Tulowitzki when he was OPSing .818, about 100 points below his typical mark.

Now, the Tulo case is different because he was owed nearly $100 million more dollars and the Rockies agreed to take on Jose Reyes’ contract. In return for Tulo, the Rockies received one top 100 prospect, RHP Jeff Hoffman, rated between 69th-87th by the major scouting services, in addition to two other prospects.

So if you’re looking for prospects in return for McCutchen, perhaps the likely return is going to be a packaged headlined by a Hoffman-type prospect. Not a massive return, but a potential future contributor.

(Hoffman struggled in Triple-A and in his MLB debut in 2016 … So trading for a pitching prospect is hardly a sure thing, of course.)

If the Pirates are looking for a MLB talent in return, filling a rotation void with a veteran arm could work though the Neil Walker-for-Jon Niese trade showed the risk in taking on an arm with some mileage and limited ceiling.

Perhaps there is a post-hype prospect arm available. Perhaps if you’re selling low on McCutchen it makes sense to buy low on a high-upside arm.

This is going to be interesting to follow and the Pirates traded Walker last year at the winter meetings in early Dec., so stay tuned as things could move quickly.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS …

>>Andrew Cashner at $10 million? The reclamation market for pitching has become a exponentially more expensive over the last two offseasons. MLB Trade Rumors predicted the Pirates would sign Cashner to a one-year, $8 million deal. So perhaps Cashner’s deal suggests to take contract you are predicting and increased it by 25 percent.

>>Pure speculation, but with Toronto having two free agent right-handed sluggers in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, one wonders if McCutchen fits there. The Blue Jays, of course, also bought low on Francisco Liriano. Trading McCutchen to an AL club makes a lot of sense for the Pirates and for a club in the league with the DH.

>>One option regarding McCutchen that was always unlikely and now can perhaps be eliminated is the idea of an extension.

Said Hurdle:

“When you pay a player (when he’s) 37 or 38 years old, it’s hard. We did a bunch of research on contracts of four or more years, the risk versus the reward. There are not many that end up well. That’s history. Those are facts.”

>>Last season, I examined the history of contract extensions for players like McCutchen and what I found was similar to what the Pirates found: such contracts for the club typically don’t end well as you can read here. An excerpt from the story:

There have been 16 players beyond pre-arbitration status and a season or more from free agency who have signed $100-million extensions. These are essentially lifetime contracts in today’s game.

The average age at the time those players signed their extension was 28.5 years, their average time until reaching free agency was two years and the average WAR they produced per season during the three years leading up to signing their extensions was 5.7.

On average, each of those deals added 6.8 additional years of club control at $21.1 million per season.

>>Twelve of the 16 extensions are, or  look like, poor investments for clubs…

Extensions for David Wright, Joe Mauer, Ryan Howard, Ken Griffey Jr., Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and Matt Kemp — are cautionary tales for clubs. Another four contracts — for Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria — look like future liabilities. 

>>So while Pirates expressed some interest prior to the season in keeping McCutchen beyond his current deal, that was always unlikely if not a percentage chance near zero.

>>In other news, the Pirates added Clay Holmes to the 40-man to protect him from the upcoming Rule V draft. Holmes is a consensus top 20 prospect in the system so it was a logical move. Coming off TJ surgery, Holmes posted a 4.22 ERA in 26 Double-A starts. Most important is he’s healthy and is yet another hard-throwing right-hander in the Pirates’s system, hitting 96 mph this season. From this depth of quantity the Pirates hope eventually comes quality.

>>LHP reliever Brett Cecil and his 11 Ks/9 were signed by the St. Louis Cardinals to a four-year, $30 million deal. It indicates it’s going to be difficult to find value in the relief market. This deal makes it less likely the Pirates reunite with Neftali Feliz.

STAT OF THE WEEK: $17.2  million

Salary Neil Walker will make in 2017 after accepting the qualifying offer. Life after Pittsburgh has been OK for Walker.

HE SAID IT

“It was a hard day when I called Larry Walker in and told him we’d moved him. It worked out well for Walker. He got to go to the playoffs with the Cardinals. I don’t even remember the players we got from St. Louis, so I don’t think that worked out so good.”

-Hurdle on the Rockies trading Larry Walker.

As Biertempfel noted, St. Louis traded Jason Burch, Luis Martinez and Chris Narveson for Walker. None of those arms pitched an inning for the Rockies.

-TS

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Rich Hill, risk tolerance and payroll pie … Does a Sean Rodriguez reunion make sense?

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NEW YORK –  Some free agents are starting to come off the board, including free agent pitchers, with our old friend Charlie Morton signing with Houston for two years and $14 million yesterday. (More on that deal below).

We’ve discussed over and over the thinness of the free agent pitching market, but perhaps the top value play remains on the board in Rill Hill.

After touting him as one of the top five bargains available in the 2016 free agent class last winter — and the Pirates did make Hill a one-year, $6 million offer  — Dave Cameron at Fangraphs.com again declared Hill to be one of the top five free agent bargains in 2017 . Hill could be a bargain again even though he’s going to earn perhaps 10x more dollars in his next contract.

Explains Cameron:

The bust potential is so high that it will keep the price down, probably, especially since the age doesn’t allow for a long-term commitment to reduce the average salary. So that means the best starting pitcher on the market is expected to sign for a total commitment in the range of what Scott Kazmir got a year ago. For me, with this kind of upside, if I’m a team with resources to spend in a win-now situation, I’d probably push up towards $60 million. The benefit if he’s healthy are enormous, and if you miss, it doesn’t cripple your franchise forever. This is the kind of risk/reward proposition that should be pretty appealing to a team looking for an ace but not wanting to sign a pitcher to a six or seven year deal.

The crowd over at Fangraphs predicted Hill will sign a three-year, $47.6 million deal. The crowd has been reasonably accurate in predicting contracts in the past.

Would the Pirates front office be willing to pay such a deal?

While in Cleveland in the early 2000s, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington noted a study conducted that found no team had ever won a World Series when spending more than 17 percent of payroll on one player. We updated that study and wrote about the Pirates’ preference to spread risk with their modest budget back in 2014.

(Entering 2015) of the past 46 major league playoff teams, only nine spent more than 17 percent of their payroll on a single player, and only one — the 2010 Texas Rangers — spent more than 20 percent of payroll on one player (Michael Young). The majority of teams studied — 72 percent — spent between 12 percent and 16 percent of payroll on their more expensive player.

If the Pirates have a $100 million payroll in 2017, Hill at $17.6 million – or roughly the qualifying offer – would probably be around the max the Pirates would be willing to pay one player. So the Pirates could afford Hill. They really could. (Though there’s a chance Hill does better than that contract projection).

The question then becomes would the Pirates be willing to guarantee such a percentage of payroll in a high-risk investment. Hill at $17 million per is much more likely to land in a major market. But Huntington did indicated the club’s risk tolerance could change.

“Is that (risk tolerance) line moving? It has,” Huntington said. “Because every significant contract we sign is a risk. When you look at Francisco Liriano at $13 million, when he performed well it is an affordable contract. But it’s the equivalent of $30-$40 million (per year) for the Dodgers. Percent of payroll is real. It’s not an excuse. When a contract is 13 percent of your payroll versus 4 percent, the level of risk tolerance is so very different …. How far do you stretch? It is a case-by-case situation.”

Hill comes with extreme risk. But the upside is an ace-level pitcher on a shorter term, lower-dollar contract.

(And if the strike zone is growing at the top and shrinking at the bottom, then Hill’s fastball-curve skillset becomes even more attractive in 2017)

To return to the postseason, the Pirates might have to take some risks. Hill is the biggest risk-reward play out there.

As for Morton, he is going to be interesting arm follow. I believe he is another arm who has a chance to deliver value in 2017. He again dealt with injuries last year after the Pirates traded him to Philadelphia, but his fastball velocity was way up before injury and he still has the elite sinker.

Morton just needs health, and finding a way to get lefties out, to produce some value in 2017.

REUNION WITH SEAN ROD?

The Pirates are reportedly one of five teams interested in Sean Rodriguez. The Pirates resigned Rodriguez last year to a one-year deal.

Rodriguez is an interesting case because the Pirates have some other internal, cheaper options for utility roles like perhaps Alen Hanson.

But the Pirates do not have an internal option that is as versatile as Rodriguez. Adam Frazier struggled to move around the field, defensively, as a rookie. And if you believe Rodriguez’s 2016 offensive breakout is for real, then this is another player whose performance could exceed the value of his contract.

The Pirates have preferred to spread risk and Rodriguez won’t require $10M per year. Moreover, the Pirates’ bench was such a strength last year, and Rodriguez was the club’s top bench player. To keep that quality depth, it makes sense that the Pirate would be interested re-signing SeanRod again.

-TS

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