Winter meetings day 1: Let’s talk pitching

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By Rob Biertempfel

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — News, notes and flat-out speculation from the first day of the winter meetings:

UPDATE 3:40 pm – I was told the Nationals balked when Pirates asked for OF Victor Robles and RHP Lucas Giuolito in exchange for Andrew McCutchen. Deal-breaker? Not necessarily. As far as I can tell, though, the two sides remain in touch about a possible swap.

The Nats raised concerns about McCutchen’s declining physical skills — he appears to have lost a step, his offensive stats reached career blows, blah blah blah.

But here’s something new: the Nationals evaluators also wondered about McCutchen’s mood and presence in the clubhouse. McCutchen had a few outbursts about ball-strike calls, one of which led to his first career ejection. He had some out-of-chareacter moments — he slammed the bat down at the plate, interacted with some hecklers in the stands — that have been mentioned by manager Clint Hurdle.

No one actually believes McCutchen is a bad guy. He had a rough season, probably realized early on the Pirates were not going to extend him, and reacted out of frustration. Still, it’s not surprising the Nats would bring up those kind of questions during trade talks; it’s normal business procedure to seek any kind of advantage in negotiations.

>>> GM Neal Huntington is scheduled to meet with reporters at 4 pm today. Look for updates soon about what he says on McCutchen, Jung Ho Kang and other topics.

UPDATE 12:45 pm — Uh oh. John Heyman tweeted there is a “mystery team” in the McCutchen sweepstakes. Could it be the Giants? They have some dandy prospects to dangle, including RHP Tyler Beede and INF Christian Arroyo.

Beede, 23, was a first-round pick in 2014. He made 24 starts at Double-A this past season and went 8-7 with a 2.81 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. Fastball is 91-94 mph and touches 97 mph. Changeup (Pirates front office looooooves it some changeup) is his best secondary pitch, but is inconsistent. Beede also throws a 12-6 curve and a cutter.

Arroyo, 21, was a first-rounder in 2013. He was drafted as a shortstop, but likely will move to third base  due to his power bat and limited range. In 119 games at Double-A, he hit .274 with 29 walks and 72 strikeouts in 474 at-bats.

>>> Let’s talk pitching.

You don’t have to be Bill James to know that finding a veteran starting pitcher is the Pirates’ top priority this offseason. The rotation was their biggest disappointment last season.

It doesn’t have to be a No. 1 guy. It’s about time Gerrit Cole starts to live up to his hype and fills that role. When I talked with Gerrit a few days ago, he was still unwrapping wedding gifts and is getting ready to ramp up his offseason training routine. Cole was injured during the last offseason — no one from the Pirates ever said exactly how that happened — and needs to be smarter with his approach this year.

The Pirates need to be smarter, too. Manager Clint Hurdle wonders if the team didn’t rush Cole back into action last April.

“Cole played catch-up, pretty much it seemed from spring training on,” Hurdle said. “It was hard for him and it was hard for us. You want to honor the kid; he wanted to complete. Did we do the right thing? I think we all learned from it. If that situation arises again, there will probably have to be some harder conversations about making sure that we’re as good to go as we can be before we get back and compete.”

Jameson Taillon did as well as anyone could have expected last season — maybe even a bit better. There was a stretch in the second half when the rookie right-hander was the most reliable guy in the rotation.

Is Taillon ready to be a No. 2? That’s probably a bit much to ask of someone with only 18 big league starts on his resume. Yet, it also seems reasonable to expect Taillon to be ready for that job sooner than later.

Beyond Cole and Taillon, the Pirates have … questions.

Is Chad Kuhl for real? Will Tyler Glasnow tap his enormous potential and learn how to reduce the walks and control the running game? Do Steven Brault and Trevor Williams take paths to the rotation or the bullpen? And who and what, exactly, is Drew Hutchison?

That’s a lot of uncertainty — too much, actually — to cram into 60 percent of the starting rotation.

That’s why general manager Neal Huntington and his lieutenants arrived at the Garylord resort intent on uncovering at least a couple additions to the pitching mix.

There are free-agent options, such as Ivan Nova (who rebuffed the Pirates’ contract offers in late September), Doug Fister, Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa. The Pirates have had varying levels of interest in all of those guys in the past.

Huntington’s best route to finding a reliable pitcher with some measure of team control probably is to make a trade. For openers, he’ll place a call to the Rays, who are motivated to move a starter.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times offers a good breakdown of the Rays’ possible trade pieces. The most attractive candidate is RHP Chris Archer (signed through 2021 for $38.5 million). The most likely candidate is LHP Drew Smyly (third-year arb eligible, projected to make $7 million). The Pirates could split the difference and go hard after RHP Jake Odorizzi (first-year arb, $4 million).

The D’backs, who recently acquired Taijuan Walker, appear to have a surplus of young, controllable pitchers. And, of course, the Nationals could send a pitcher (or two) this way in a package for Andrew McCutchen.

Elsewhere …

>>> Eric Wood was named to the Arizona Fall League top prospects team. Wood played third base for Double-A Altoona, but is listed among the AFL outfielders. He led the AFL with 20 RBI and ranked second in hits, third in at-bats, fourth in total bases, sixth in batting (.330) and eighth in OPS (.876). In 23 AFL games, he hit five doubles and three home runs.

The Pirates did not place Wood on their 40-man roster, so he could be snatched up in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft. It’s a bit odd Wood, a sixth-round pick in 2012, wasn’t protected, as he has some of the best raw power in the Pirates’ farm system (although might be faint praise, considering there’s not a lot of thunder there, top to bottom). Last season at Altoona, Wood, 24, hit .249/.339/.443 with 16 homers in 118 games.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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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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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Holland a worthy target? Does he fit the model? The QO, and more on ‘Cutch

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SOUTH HILLS - Derek Holland wants to remain in Texas but he is very interested in becoming a Pirate, his agent tells told the Trib over the weekend.

“I’d say the Pirates are on our short list,” says Holland’s agent, Michael Martini. “We’d prefer a guaranteed spot, but Derek is not afraid to compete for a job … We’ll see how the market develops, but we would be open to a one-year deal.”

The Pirates have not yet touched base or expressed interest, but it’s early in the offseason.  We know all about the Pirates’ reputation as Pitcher Whisperers.  Players talk. Agents are aware of the Pirates’ ability to help reform pitchers. But should the Pirates be interested in Holland?

Holland’s strikeout rate was a career low 5.6 per nine innings last season.

The Dutch Oven saw his velocity fall to a career low (91.7 mph average fastball vs. 93.1 for his career). Once one of the hardest-throwing lefties in the game, Holland dealt with injuries in 2014 and 2015.

While he has never been a ground-ball pitcher (42.3 percent ground-ball rate), Holland’s ground-ball rate fell to a career-low 38 percent last season.

Holland
Does the rehab shoe fit? (YouTube pic)

 

Moreover, Holland has never had a swing-and-miss breaking ball – a middling 8.4 percent whiff rate for his career – and that fell to 7.9 last season.

So in summary, despite his past success and his left-handedness, this is a player who has not only lost stuff and dealt with injury, but he also doesn’t fit the Pirates’ ideal reclamation model. Even when healthy, this is not the Pirates’ ideal arm.

When you think about Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and Edinson Volquez these are pitchers who had plus velocity and who had a swing-and-miss pitch (Liriano’s slider and changuep, Burnett’s curveball and Volquez’s changeup). Each had also shown the history of above average ground-ball rates.

The common thread was their wayward command. As we know, the Jim Benedict-Ray Searage team did an excellent job of ameliorating those command issues.

The Pirates got away from their preferred model last year in signing some fly-ball pitchers. Jon Niese didn’t produce ground-balls like he had in the past and Niese, their greatest  financial commitment made to a pitcher acquired last offseason, didn’t have the velocity or swing-and-miss stuff of previous targets.

The Pirates would do well to try to get back to their preferred model. And Holland probably isn’t the preferred model. Neither is another popular pick, Andrew Cashner, who lacks swing-and-miss stuff.

Brett Anderson better fits the mold, but he has trouble staying on the mound. Ivan Nova better fits the mold but he’s probably going to get three or four years guaranteed.

We know the market is tough for free agent startng pitchers this winter, perhaps that buy-low target can be better found in a trade. We know the Pirates are going to mostly be a younger, homegrown staff next year but the club would still benefit from a veteran presence. And the Pirates would do well to acquire one, and get back to their model.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS ON THE QO AND ‘CUTCH …

>>Today marks the deadline for players to accept qualifying offers. FOXSports reporter extraordinaire Ken Rosenthal opines the qualifying offer – which is set at $17.2 million this year – should go. Rosenthal has some ideas how to fix the system.

Rosenthal argues the QO is unfair to teams, namely small-market ones as the QO takes up a much larger percentage of payroll. (The Pirates did not extend a QO to Burnett after the 2013 season out of fear he would accept it… the last player they extended it to was Russell Martin. The club probably wouldn’t have extended it to Mark Melancon, I suspect) It also hurts the market for players who are attached to draft-pick compensation in the form of the signing team losing a first- or second-round pick.  It will be interesting to see what happens with the on-going CBA talks.

FWIW, Melancon is not eligible to be tagged with the QO since he was traded mid-season and did not spend a full year with the Nationals.

>>Of course, as Rosenthal also notes, there are bigger fish to fry in the CBA talks: the luxury tax, revenue sharing and international draft. I’ve been arguing what the players should really fight for is a salary-spending floor for owners but that doesn’t appear to be on the radar.

>>Pirates GM Neal Huntington told the Associated Press at the GM meetings last week teams are calling on Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates are apparently listening:

“They recognize that we haven’t been averse to moving guys as their contract nears expiration. It’s a part of how we believe we need to do things to continue to be competitive and continue to give ourselves a shot to win.”

On the surface this seems to be a change in public position when Huntington suggested McCutchen was to be part of the club’s future back in the summer.

>>If there is a McCutchen trade, it could be nearer the summer’s trade deadline than this offseason. By waiting, the Pirates could perhaps better  maximize value. After all, McCutchen could get off to a better offensive start, and a change in  defensive positioning (i.e. playing deeper) could perhaps lessen his defensive liabilities.

Moreover, noted Huntington: “In other deals that we’ve done, we’ve ended up getting as much, if not more, around the trade deadline that we would have in the prior offseason because at the trade deadline there (are) few players available. There’s more angst about competing.”

 >>Now, the Pirates did trade Neil Walker at the winter meetings last December in Nashville. And if the Pirates want to trade McCutchen for, say, a mid-rotation piece then they might prefer to make a deal this winter. But  the Pirates can wait to trade McCutchen. Another benefit to waiting is the Pirates can gain a clearer picture in regard to making a decision on whether to ask for prospects or MLB-ready pieces in return.
>>The risk in trading McCutchen? He could be the club’s best hitter next season. This is a prideful athlete that is going to want to bounce back.
>>If McCutchen is traded this offseason it seems Josh Bell would likely shift to right, Starling Marte to center and Gregory Polanco to left. If McCutchen was traded in say June or July, scouts believe Austin Meadows will be ready and he can fit in left.

 

THEY SAID IT

Players react to the presidential election …

Don’t worry, this is a politics-free zone. But I would say many, if not the majority, of US-born players trend conservative as many are from warm-weather states, particularly across the Southeast. There would have been some interesting discussions in clubhouses had the election happened in midseason. Best for clubhouse unity that it did not.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 12.5 million

Dollars the 43-year-old Bartolo Colon will earn this year to pitch for the Atlanta Braves.

Yeah, it’s a good time to throw baseballs to make a living. But what are the Braves doing? Apparently trying to soak up some innings, but why pay eight figures for an innings eater? Colon is not the addition that’s going to sell tickets for the club’s new stadium.

-TS

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Report: Pirates explored trading McCutchen … And the risk of long-term commitment (to FA pitchers)

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SOUTH HILLS – According to Ken Rosenthal, the Pirates explored trading Andrew McCutchen to the Nationals at the non-waiver trade deadline.

The Pirates were willing to sell low on Francisco Liriano at the Aug. 1 deadline, and the club was also apparently willing to do the same with McCutchen.

(And if the Pirates were willing to trade McCutchen in July, why not this offseason when his value should be up after a solid offensive finish to the year? – Of course, McCutchen could very well again be the club’s best offensive performer.)

Reported Rosenthal: “The talks, while unlikely to revive because of differences in McCutchen’s perceived value, amount to the strongest indication yet that the Pirates are willing to move their five-time All-Star and franchise player…. The Nationals’ top outfield prospect, Victor Robles, 19, was one Pirates target, sources said. But the Pirates wanted more than just the Class A outfielder for McCutchen, and a number of other players would have been involved.

The Pirates figure to make relatively modest moves in free agency this offseason, but the trade market figures to be more active across the game due to the thinness of the market. And McCutchen is the one big piece the Pirates could consider moving. There are undoubtedly teams that will be curious in adding McCutchen.

The question is how the Pirates and other clubs value McCutchen … and whether the Pirates would focus on prospects or major league talent for The Face of the Franchise.

McCutchenStil
We could all be on McCutchen Watch this offseason (Horner photo)

In speaking with the Tribune-Review last month, GM Neal Huntington said the Pirates could trade from position player depth to address the rotation. And the Pirates have outfield depth.

 

Stay tuned….

 

 

PAUSE ON THAT DESIRE FOR A STARTING PITCHER

So you want to the Pirates to sign a proven, quality starting pitcher?

I get it.

There is plenty of unknown after Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon in the rotation. Maybe Chad Kuhl can build upon his 2016. Maybe Tyler Glasnow can better harness his stuff and control the run game. Maybe Steven Brault or Trevor Williams can stick in the back of the rotation. There’s a lot of maybes, ifs, and we’ll sees, but the good news is there internal, young options.

Still, I understand the desire to see a solid veteran option in the rotation.

After all, among the 2013-15 playoff teams’ rotations there were at least two quality veterans in each group: Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett in 2013, Edinson Volquez and Liriano in 2014, and Burnett, Liriano and J.A. Happ in 2015.

On one hand, Neal Huntington is correct when he says teams challenged with lesser payrolls have to develop their own arms. It’s true to sustain success the Pirates have to find cheap, quality options for the rotation.

But on the other hand, it’s difficult to fill all voids internally. This is where it helps to be in a large market and/or to have ownership willing to spend at a more competitive level.

But despite the success of J.A. Happ, despite the desire of some to want Ivan Nova to remain in Pittsburgh …

…  we should pause and consider the history of pitchers signed to multi-year contacts.

Consider this research from our free agency preview story Monday:

The Tribune-Review analyzed ESPN.com‘s database of all free agent pitchers who signed contracts of three-plus years from 2006-13. Of the 130 player seasons studied, pitchers totaled 239.4 wins above replacement, or 1.84 WAR per season (a star-level pitcher will produce 4-plus WAR).

Of the 130 seasons covered, only 33 times did a pitcher produce a season of 3-plus WAR.

Then consider how quickly a pitcher signed to a multiyear contract can decline. In the first year of those multiyear agreements, the 32 pitchers studied combined for 85.1 WAR, but that fell to 62.2 WAR in the second year and 53.1 WAR in the third.

And for such middling production, those 32 pitchers were guaranteed $1.86 billion.

For as good as Happ was in the first year of his contract, he could suffer significant regression going forward.

See: Liriano, Francisco.

As good as the first five years of the seven-year C.C. Sabathia contract were for the Yankees, more multi-year deals than not fail to produce surplus value (actual wages subtracted from performance value).

Consider the four-year, $47 million contract Jason Schmidt signed with the Dodgers in 2007. He went on to produce 0.4 WAR over the life of the contract. Jason Vargas signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Royals and produced 0.7 WAR. I guess this isn’t the right time to ask Theo Esptein about the four-year, $52 million deal he gave to Edwin Jackson back in 2013.

There are far more misses than hits in regard to lucrative, long-term contracts for pitchers.

The Pirate Way has of course been in part about avoiding multi-year contracts to pitchers. Only Liriano has received one of significance, and he was a pitcher the Pirates knew well. But in the second year of that deal, the Pirates so wanted to be rid of Liriano that they sold low on him and dumped his salary  at the trade deadline in the midst of the second year of his three-year, $39 million deal.

The Pirates will likely continue to seek bounce-back, reclamation projects on one-year deals. MLB Trade Rumors predicts of their top 50 free available free agents the Pirates will sign, one, Andrew Cashner to a one-year, $8 million deal.The problem is more and more teams are identifying the same reclamation pitchers to target. Still, there is the old adage that goes like this: there is no  such thing as a bad one-year contract.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Bargain shopping…. And some fun with 2017 projections

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SOUTH HILLS – Free agency opens at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday when free agents can begin signing with other teams, but you shouldn’t expect the Pirates to make a free agent splash.

Ivan Nova is considered one of the top starting pitchers available. Given the need for starting pitching across the game, and the historic thinness of this class, expect the Pirates to spend elsewhere and again spread their modest budget over multiple players, searching for value.

nOvaRain
Is Ivan Nova going to walk away? (Yeah, probably) Horner photo

 

So who should the Pirates target? Let’s focus on two need areas: right-handed relief arms and starting pitching.

Among the Pirates’ own free agents, Neftali Feliz is the only player I suspect that could be undervalued and also  fills a need. As I wrote last week, Feliz could be undervalued because his HR/FB rate was at a career high last season (19.6% compared to a 8.8% career rate)  and his infield pop-up rate was at a career low. This despite his fastball velocity picking back up to 96.1 mph.

It all means Feliz was probably better than his final line suggests, a bit unlucky, and his final line of 10.2 Ks per nine and a 3.52 ERA was solid.

Add in his injury at the end of the season, and Feliz’s value could be somewhat suppressed.

The Pirates could use a right-handed impact arm in the bullpen to go along with Juan Nicasio. But Kenley Jansen could earn $100 million in free agency and is out of the club’s price range. Mark Melancon is going to get paid but probably not by the Pirates. Feliz could be a relative bargain compared to the top of the relief market.

Other right-handed bullpen options? Even at 41 years old, Koji Uehara still struck out 12 per nine while walking just two last season. He will not receive a long-term contract. He is coming off a two-year, $18 million deal. The NL has little experience with him – but he could also perhaps retire. If the Pirates are looking for a multi-inning, right-handed reliever, a reunion with Joe Blanton makes some sense. Blanton has revitalized his career in a relief role and won’t break the bank. Greg Holland was an elite reliever as recently as 2015, but he’s coming off an injury and poor season. He is holding a showcase today

But the Pirates’ most glaring weakness in 2016 was, of course, their starting pitching.

We’ve discussed the thinness of the market. It’s ugly as you can see from the list here. It makes little sense for the Pirates – or any team – to overpay for these top-of-the market options, though if you’re going to overpay for one, Rich Hill gives you the best chance at top-of-the rotation numbers. He’s going to get Scott Kazmir money, and he’s an unlikely bet to pitch 180-plus inning.

Still, even if not competing for one of the best options in a weak market, the Pirates could use a veteran presence. The problem is the market for reclamation project types is becoming more competitive as teams have more analysts and more data to mine. More teams are thinking more and more the same way.

So where could the Pirates find value? The Pirates were interested in Trevor Cahill last offseason and he posted a sub-3.00 ERA and a 55 percent ground ball rate with the Chicago Cubs in a relief role. The Pirates lost some of their ground-ball edge last season. He could be an interesting rotation fit. Derek Holland has struggled the last two years in Texas, but he’s left-handed with plus fastball velocity from the left side. He’s had his option declined and some think he should be begging to pitch in Pittsburgh. Brett Anderson was hurt and awful in 11 innings in 2016. But he is a left-handed ground ball specialist (perfect fit for PNC Park and the Pirates). And he was extended a qualifying offer as recently as last fall. If he could stay healthy he could provide cheap production. He produced 60-plus percent ground ball rates in 2014 and 2015.

Who do you like as a potential rebound candidate?

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>This could be the first offseason in which the Pirates consider going forward without Andrew McCutchen. This has been a frequent talking point since the summer. The biggest issue with McCutchen, of course, is his defensive decline. He was rated as the worst defender in baseball according to Defensive Runs Saved (-28) . But McCutchen might not be as poor as the defensive metrics suggested because of the outfield positioning wrote MLB.com Mike Petriello at the end of the season.

“Is it possible that McCutchen’s poor defensive ratings are only partially about his own performance? It was well-reported early in the year that the Pirates intended to play their outfielders shallower, in part because the grounder-heavy Bucs staff allowed flies and liners to go only an average of 285 feet last year, tied for the second shortest in baseball, and allowed the second-highest average against (.482) on those balls. (A side benefit would also allow McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco shorter throws to prevent baserunners from advancing.) Indeed, McCutchen’s average of 306 feet from home plate is tied with Denard Span and Michael Taylor for the shallowest of the 88 center fielders who have been on the field for 1,000 pitches — after he played relatively deeply last year.

“…. That’s great for preventing bloop singles, but it does leave a fielder more vulnerable to balls that go over McCutchen’s head, and those are more likely to be damaging extra-base hits — it’s the exact reason that the Cubs pushed Dexter Fowler deeper. Fowler, in his eighth full Major League season, has his first positive DRS score.”

>>If McCutchen is in the Opening Day lineup, I suspect he’ll be playing deeper in the outfield. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said outfield alignment will be examined again this offseason. (Starling Marte’s performance stayed stable despite playing shallower in 2016. Gregory Polanco declined from 12 DRS in 2015 to 2 last season)

>>Still, McCutchen is in a four-year defensive decline, according to the numbers, and is a player in a four-year speed decline, according to just about every measure of speed.

>>It should be a quiet awards season for the Pirates but Marte is deserving of a second straight Gold Glove in left as he led NL outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved.

SOME FUN WITH PROJECTIONS FROM THE 2017 BILL JAMES HANDBOOK …

I’m a big fan of projections. They’re fun and can be useful tools. And some of the first projections for 2017 – those from the Bill James Handbook – are out. Let’s take a look at some Pirates-related forecasts …

>>The reason to keep McCutchen? His bat. It rebounded in the second half, and according to the James projections, McCutchen will hit 24 homers with an .857 OPS next season, a .285/.379/.478 slash line. According to the projections, he’ll be the club’s best hitter.

>>Kang is projected to hit 26 home runs with an .850 OPS. Marte? 14 homers, 40 steals, and an .801 OPS. Gregory Polanco? 16 homers and a .772 OPS.

>>Austin Meadows projects to post .801 OPS and seven homers in 174 plate appearances. That’s an impressive projection.

>>Josh Bell? An .818 OPS. .297 average and 14 homers. Bell is going to hit. Now about the glove …

>>Some good news in regarding to pitching: James projects Gerrit Cole to bounce back with a 3.36 ERA over 201 innings. Jameson Taillon? A 3.16 ERA over 174 innings. That would be a quality 1-2 punch.

>>According to the Bill James handbook, Tyler Glasnow projects to lead the NL in walks next season (105 in 169 innings … yikes). But James also projects Glasnow to strike out 202 and post a 3.51 ERA. The Pirates would sign up for that line despite its inherent frustrations and high pitch counts it would entail.

>>Ivan Nova? A 4.17 ERA over 179 innings.

>>Rich Hill? A 3.02 ERA over 120 innings.

>>Cahill? A 4.50 ERA over 60 innings as a reliever.

HE SAID IT

“What’s interesting is as we entered each season, from 2013 to 2015, the knock was we didn’t have enough starting pitching, we were lacking starting pitching. I’m anticipating that will be the knock of the 2017 club. … Rarely will a small-market, small-revenue team go out and sign a top-of-the market starting pitcher. The ones that are successful develop their own or trade for (younger pitching).”

-Pirates GM Neal Huntington

STAT OF THE WEEK: $10.2 million

The average annual value of contracts signed by free agent pitchers last season … and the market isn’t going to become any more favorable for teams, Huntington believes.

-TS

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Can the Pirates thwart a Cubs dynasty? … And the best bargain among Pirates free agents

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SOUTH HILLS – The Chicago Cubs ended their curse on Wednesday night, and unfortunately for the Pirates and the rest of the NL, the Cubs are going to open 2017 as favorites again to win the World Series. (And maybe in 2018 and 2019 …)

As Dave Cameron writes at Fangraphs, this is how dynasties begin.

And as Cameron reports, part of the reason the Cubs look like a dynasty is they rank first in MLB in plate appearances by 25-and-under players (gulp). That young position player core is as good as advertised. The Cubs led baseball in Wins Above Replacement produced by position players (38.7).

The Pirates’ position players were worth 18.6, not poor, but a 20-win gap.

The Pirates are living in the wrong neighborhood.

cubschamp
Can anyone stop these guys? (AP photo)

The Cubs were also the best fielding and pitching team in the NL this season. Their lineup and staff will remain largely intact, though some key players like Aroldis Chapman and Dexter Fowler are free agents.

(Free agents can begin signing with other teams on Tuesday).

There are  not a lot of weaknesses to dissect, here, though we discussed one in this space back in September:

The one area where the Pirates have to hope to have a home-grown talent advantage (over the Cubs) is in their rotation. (Jake) Arrieta is a free agent after 2017. (Jon) Lester is 32. The Cubs did not have a starting pitcher prospect ranked in Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list.

To close the gap with the Cubs, to have any shot at winning a division in future years, the Pirates are going to have to draft and develop pitching better than the Cubs.

And with Jameson Taillon‘s arrival, the potential of Tyler Glasnow, and Mitch Keller’s breakout, there is hope for the franchise that the Pirates can build a quality, homegrown staff. We saw the beginnings of the possibility this summer.

About the only area where the Cubs have struggled is finding and developing homegrown arms. Lester isn’t getting any younger, and Arrieta will be a free agent after next season. While the Cubs fielded the youngest position player team this season, but they ranked last in baseball in batters faced by pitchers 25 and younger. (And middle of the pack  – 14th – in batters faced by pitchers 26-30, according to Fangraphs.com).

The Cubs are going to have to fill many upcoming pitching voids externally it seems. That could be expensive, though they have the resources to accomplish it.

To contend with the Cubs, the Pirates are going to have to look a lot like the Cleveland Indians, which have a young and talented starting pitching staff. (If Cleveland starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were at full health, the Indians would likely World Series champs).

Of course it’s difficult to fill every pitching void through draft and development. And we all have heard about the weakness of the starting free agent class. So to fill voids, the Pirates might be best served by exploring the trade market. After all, that’s how Game 7 starters Corey Kluber and Kyle Hendricks were acquired, in addition to other Cubs and Indian stalwart arms  like Arrieta and Carrasco.

The Cubs are probably going to come back to the pack a bit in 2017. Regression is a natural thing. It’s difficult to win 100-plus games. But with mild regression, they could still be the best team in baseball.

To close the gap, the Pirates are going have to rise up to meet Chicago, of course, and that improvement must begin off the mound, largely with homegrown talent.

After all, the Cubs made their big bets in the draft on position players. The Pirates on arms. The Cubs’ philosophy could be the bedrock of a dynasty. That Pitch-22 philosophy has to pay off for the Pirates to remain competitive throughout the remainder of the decade, a decade that threatens to be that of the Cubs.

WHAT FREE AGENT DO YOU WANT TO SEE BACK?

Free agents can begin signing with other clubs next week and until then clubs have an exclusive negotiating period with their own free agents, though most free agents opt to test the open market.

We know the Pirates want Ivan Nova back, and have extended multi-year offers, but since he’s going to be one of the top options available in free agency he will be difficult to retain.

But he’s not the only free agent of note …

Sean Rodriguez

Rodriguez put up an .859 OPS and has really hit since the middle of 2015. Oh, he can also play seven defensive positions, and most of them well. I’m not sure if he would have been open to a David Freese-like extension, but he’s the more valuable, versatile player and finished fourth on the team in WAR (1.9). He’s going to be tough to retain and the Pirates might opt for cheaper, internal bench options. (Though you could argue Rodriguez has played well enough to be considered a starter somewhere … shortstop, second base … somewhere).

Matt Joyce

Joyce’s revamped swing, that includes more loft and power, is for real. He has a blend of patience and power that will probably make him a platoon partner for a team other than the Pirates. He’s probably going to be in search of more playing time and dollars than the Pirates are unwilling to pay. He produced 1.3 WAR in a part time role.

Neftali Feliz

Feliz was a quality buy-low sign by the Pirates. He struck out 10.3 batters per nine, and produced a 3.52 ERA. Not elite numbers, but he added value. While Nova, Rodriguez and Joyce may have over-performed, Feliz might have underperformed as his in-field pop-up rate (15.4 percent) was below the rates of his last four years when he was 19.6 percent or better.

He produced a career-worst 19.6 percent HR/FB rate. His career average is 8.8

The Pirates know Feliz’s injury better than anyone and given that uncertainty and his career-worst IFFB and HR/FB – and the return of his fastball velocity (96.1 mph) – he could be the best bargain among the Pirates’ eligible free agents.

Given that fact and the Pirates need a right-handed power arm to go along with Juan Nicasio, perhaps he is the best bet to return.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: To tender or not to tender

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SOUTH HILLS – MLB Trade Rumors published its popular, and typically reasonably accurate, arbitration projections today.

The decisions of whom to tender contracts, and whom to not, are often the first major decisions made by clubs entering the offseason. (The non-tender deadline is Dec. 2 and the winter meetings begin Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C.).

Last offseason, the Pirates elected to tender contacts to Mark Melancon and Neil Walker – who was subsequently traded – but declined to tender Pedro Alvarez, who was projected to earn $8 million in arbitration. (Alvarez signed a one-year, $5.8 million deal with Baltimore). Those were the major tender decisions.

This offseason, the Pirates have eight players eligible for arbitration. The following are the MLBTR projections:

  • Tony Watson (5.101) – $5.9M
  • Juan Nicasio (5.084) – $4.6M
  • Jared Hughes (4.162) – $2.5M
  • Jordy Mercer (4.095) – $4.0M
  • Jeff Locke (4.020) – $4.2M
  • Drew Hutchison (3.165) – $2.2M
  • Wade LeBlanc (3.131) – $1.6M
  • Gerrit Cole (3.111) – $4.2M

Cole is a lock to be tendered. And I suspect Watson, Nicasio and Mercer are as well, though Merer is beginning to become expensive for a shortstop the advanced metrics don’t love.

Nicasio2
Given his production as a reliever, and the Pirates’ need for right-handed arms in the bullpen, Nicasio seems like a slam-dunk to be tendered (AP photo)

 

Hutchison didn’t pitch like he’s a sure-fire tender, but he was the only piece the Pirates received in Francisco Liriano trade, and he at least offers rotation depth.

So that’s five players that seem likely to be tendered who will account for $20.9 million in salary in 2017, according to MLBTR projections.

As for the others?

LeBlanc seems like an unlikely tender candidate. Locke has always seemed like a likely non-tender, though the thinness of the free agent pitching market could perhaps change that assessment.

Perhaps the toughest decision is with Hughes, one of nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and until 2016, one of the better ground-ball pitchers you’ll find out of a bullpen. Will the Pirates be willing to pay Hughes $2.5 million or so based upon his struggles in 2015?

Who should be tendered? Who should go?

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Baseball and the players union believe they can keep labor peace and avoid a work stoppage. Joel Sherman of the NY Post it is possible the previous CBA rules could be rolled over for at least this offseason.”

This will be interesting to follow. That means the qualifying offer would remain in place. The qualifying offer is expected to jump from $15.8 million to $16.7 million this winter. Sherman reports both sides have discussed changes to the QO system, including shedding draft pick compensation.

The QO has suppressed the markets for a number of players that have had it attached to them.

>>Players (and large-market owners) would be wise to focus on the creation of a spending floor.

>>The Pirates coaching staff changes seem to be made with progress in mind. Joey Cora was regarded well for his work in Double-A, and is a former right-hand man of former White Sox manager Ozzie GuillenKimera Bartee, 44, is on the younger side for a major league coach and that injection of relative youth is a good thing, I suspect.

>>Connor Joe is hitting .192 in Arizona League play, but Edgar Santana has not allowed a run. Check out what some of the Pirates prospects are doing out in Arizona here.

>>Interesting discussion from Charlie Wilmoth on potential trade targets over at BucsDugout.com:

“I was talking to Tim Dierkes about this earlier this week, and he mentioned Tyson Ross, Drew Smyly and a few others as pitchers who could become available at reasonable prospect prices because of their increasing salaries. Ross, of course, spent most of the year on the DL and recently had surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome, so his health is obviously an enormous question mark. He made $9.6 million in 2016 and appears set to make a similar amount in 2017; perhaps that’s too much for a team that just dumped Francisco Liriano’s contract. I’ve been pointing to Ross for years, though, as the sort of pitcher the Pirates would probably love to have around. Someone like Smyly, who only made $3.8 million last season, might be a more realistic target.”

One other name that came up? That of Shelby Miller.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 25-1

You are probably aware that power spiked across the game in 2016.

In 2015, MLB-wide isolated slugging was .150, slugging percentage sat at .405 and HR/FB percentage to 11.2. percent.

In 2016, isolated slugging rose to .162, slugging percentage to .417 and HR/FB percentage to 12.8 percent.

And in the postseason, where there are typically fewer mistakes made due to superior pitching, maximizing mistakes is important.

The Pirates would do well to find a way to add more power in 2017. (Power is a case in favor of keeping Andrew McCutchen). Consider:

 STAT OF THE WEEK II: 15.3

The Indians-Cubs Game 5 pulled in a 15.3 rating, which was 32 percent better than the 11.6 rating for the Monday Nigh Football game, according to Sports Business Journal.

HE SAID IT

“All three of these moves will enhance the consistency and cohesiveness, top to bottom and bottom to top, and that was something that was very important to Clint as we went through this offseason …. All three of these guys, in a different way, bring an edge and a sense of urgency to the club.”

-Neal Huntington to hMLB.com on the Pirates coaching changes

HE SAID IT II

“I’m optimistic as well. he good thing is everyone understands and appreciates the issues.”

-Tony Clark, the MLBPA president to the NY Post on CBA talks.

– TS

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– Rob Biertempfel